Top-flight footballers in England are routinely surrounded by gangsters who pose a threat to their reputations and tempt many towards criminality, according to a former Premier League player just released from prison after serving four years of an eight-year term for his involvement in a drugs ring.
In a week when Roman Bednar was suspended by West Bromwich Albion after allegations that he bought drugs outside his home in Sutton Coldfield, Mark Ward – once of Everton, West Ham and Manchester City – has claimed that players have never been more at risk from "criminal elements" than they are today.
Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Ward, who is still in touch with the football community and remains friendly with the families of high-profile players including Steven Gerrard and Joey Barton, said: "It's obvious to me that the more money that comes into football the more of a buzz it will give the gangsters to be involved. To my knowledge there are current Premier League players who are friends with gangsters. There are certain individuals that will be getting looked after – by that I mean if players are in any trouble they know the right people to go to.
"It will be a rare day that a Premier League player can go from morning to night and not be introduced to or speak to somebody who's involved in the drugs trade or some other form of criminality. That was true for me, especially growing up in Huyton [on Merseyside], where you socialise daily with people involved in crime.
"But it's true for every footballer at every big club in every major city. People within football know that's true, even if the public aren't aware of it. Football has been attractive to criminal elements for a long time.
"It was true when I was still playing in the Premier League in the 1990s, and as the game's got richer and richer, it's even more the case these days. Players have to be careful. They are now targets whenever they step out anywhere. It's paramount to be squeaky clean, and that's not always going to be easy."
Ward, 46, was arrested and sentenced in 2005 after 3kg of cocaine was found at a house in Merseyside he had rented on behalf of an acquaintance.