Football: Ward stirs Bootham renaissance: The man once under Graham Taylor's wing is now dedicated to York City. Derek Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
THE Minster Men, to give them their quaint Edwardian nickname, are having a season that might be termed divinely inspired. York City have never been out of the top two places in the Third Division, they have lost just three of 22 matches, doubled their scoring rate and improved home attendances by 40 per cent.

The man who took the blame last season, when they dropped from 13th to 18th, is their manager John Ward, 41, who first, unwillingly perhaps, took the cheers, then had also to put up with jeers on Saturday after the 0-0 draw with Darlington. That was evidence of a mid-campaign stutter by his team. which continued last night when they could only draw 2-2 at home to Carlisle United despite having twice been ahead. Yet he says: 'This remains the best season in the club's history and I'm only a part of it.'

The Yorkshire Post suggested, wryly, that York fans had been spoiled by success. Ward's list of credits go back a long way, first to his dad, who took him from their Lincoln home to Nottingham to see the veteran Nat Lofthouse and fired the boy's love for football and, specifically, scorers.

Then there was Denis Law, the idol of his boyhood: 'Dad loved Bobby Charlton. I loved Denis because he was so explosive inside the box; and Jimmy Greaves. Scoring goals is the most difficult, and beautiful, job in the game.'

So Ward became a scorer himself but took a long, roundabout route to Bootham Crescent. As a 19-year-old sales rep, with a car, he was offered a three-month contract by Lincoln City after setting a scoring record in local football. He was aching to play professional football but decided not to give up a good job for 12 weeks.

When they offered a year he signed and found himself with a dressing-room peg next to Graham Taylor's. Taylor was obviously taken by the young striker's attitude and aptitude. He eventually took him to Watford as cover for his first-choice strikers, later engaged him as a coach at Vicarage Road and Aston Villa and has also used him with the England Under-21 squads.

Ward said: 'Oh, I often get 'Graham's looked after you, hasn't he?' which is true, and I've been grateful for the opportunity. But he also once gave me the sack.

'We were settled in at Watford, I had four more tiles to place to complete the kitchen, went to the ground and found I'd got a free transfer. I was off to play with Grimsby for a year and that kitchen never got finished.'

He also lost his job at Villa, when Taylor moved to Lancaster Gate, but for a man who rarely goes a day without watching football (83 live matches this season, every match on the box) he was able to find enough freelance coaching, training and teaching to get by until he was invited to replace John Bird 14 months ago.

'I was lucky because John had already built the nucleus of a good side here. I was again lucky when the board backed me in bringing in three experienced players, a big investment for a club of our size. I was lucky in having a club captain in Paul Stancliffe, solid as a rock, 100 per cent professional. Every manager would want a player like Paul in the dressing-room.'

The practised Stancliffe, a central defender with an impeccable record from Rotherham and Sheffield United, spent most of last season injured. His return, three newcomers and some adjustments in playing positions and style and, heavens above, there's a winning team.

Ward said: 'I moved the two central strikers, Ian Blackstone and Jon McCarthy out wide and brought in two of the newcomers, John Borthwick and Paul Barnes. Wayne Hall, who had been outside-left, went to left-back and Gary Swann, the third newcomer, came into midfield. The only fee we have paid is for Paul Barnes.

'Paul cost pounds 50,000, the club's record fee, from Stoke. We tracked him a long time. He's scored eight goals, been an influential player and lifted the side so I'm very pleased with the investment.'

Ward is by nature an attacker. York play with two wide forwards and go for goal: they lost 4-3 at Northampton, were 3-0 down at Scarborough and pulled back to 2-4, were 3-0 down at Cardiff and drew 3-3: 'The way we play we are bound to give away a few goals but we will certainly try to carry on scoring. I want our supporters to know we'll always try to give them some entertainment.'

He admires the crowd's patience: 'They're not the loudest but when things do go wrong they're not the first to jump on you either. They give the lads a chance.'

They were not so merciful with the manager last Saturday: 'A load of rubbish,' one shouted as Ward walked off. He shrugged: 'People's perceptions are shaped by results. If we had fluked a goal in the last minute they would presumably have gone home happy.'

(Photograph omitted)