Mark Ward, the former Premier League star more recently known as prisoner NM6982, is under "no illusions" his dream of getting back into football in some capacity will not be simple, if it proves possible at all. "It's going to take a big, strong man to give me another chance," the ebullient Scouser, 46, says. "But what I've done, and what I've put my family through, all make me more determined than ever to get my life back on track. I'm hungrier than ever because of the four years I've spent behind bars."
Until 8.45am last Monday morning, when Ward walked out of Kirkham prison in Lancashire, the one-time top-flight winger had spent four years at Her Majesty's pleasure for drugs offences. His crime was renting a property in which cocaine with a street value of £645,000 was found during a police raid in May 2005.
Ward has never denied his involvement. Broke and with no permanent home at the time, he had accepted £400 a week from an acquaintance to rent a house for an unspecified "stash". He knew it would be illegal but did not ask for details. He found out too late it was cocaine. He was sent down for eight years after declining to name names for a lighter sentence. He has always acknowledged his "stupid, terrible mistake".
Talking on a sunny afternoon on the terrace bar of a small hotel outside Liverpool, Ward looks fit, toned and tanned. This is down to manual work he was allowed to do on a Liverpool building site on day release towards the end of his sentence. He was helping to renovate a Victorian building in Bootle that will become a drug rehab centre. The minimum-wage cash he earned will now help sustain him during his early weeks out of prison. Ward's physical robustness is in marked contrast to the last time The Independent interviewed him, in late 2005, not long after his sentencing. At that time he was in Walton jail, one of Britain's grimmest prisons, and was, by his own admission, "prison grey from lack of sunlight, and finding it hard".
Walton certainly represented a massive comedown for a footballer who was once spoken of as England material. In his pomp, Ward was ever-present in the best league season West Ham ever had (1985-86), and a top-flight player with Manchester City and Everton. In the first ever week of the Premier League in 1992, he helped Everton win 3-0 at Old Trafford. Later he was player-coach at Birmingham in a promotion season that saw silverware at Wembley.
He had a beautiful wife, now former wife, Jane, with whom he remains on good terms. They had married and had a daughter, Melissa, when they were barely out of their teens themselves.
Melissa, now 26, is mum to Ward's grandchildren. She told them that "granddad has been away working" these past four years. Where? "We said he's been in India." says Melissa. "It's far away, so they can understand why he hasn't been able to get back."
Ward jokes that his ex-wife Jane was "the original WAG", and part of "the good life of a footballer" which included a big house, flash car, nice clothes, foreign holidays, and a £2,000-a-week contract, for a while, which in the early 1990s still seemed a lot of money in the Premier League.
But the playing days ended, and a desperate fight to stay in the game – at lower-league clubs, then in Hong Kong and Iceland among other places – eventually had to be given up. A non-league management career at Altrincham lasted a year before finances helped lead to the sack. The decline led to crime, and prison.
Walton jail is notoriously rough, full of drugs, and depressing by any standards. In summer 2005, just after Ward was sent there, there were three suicides within 17 days. (Those three were among 78 suicides in British prisons that year).
Ward was relocated to one of the suicide victim's cell hours after he died. He'd known the person in question but says each suicide is chilling.
"It doesn't matter whether you knew them or not. The whole place goes quiet. The police get involved, everyone's banged up while they investigate, get rid of the body. It brings it home to you: there's death in the walls. That's the hardest part [of incarceration] in some ways, knowing you're around people who can't cope. You hear their screams in the night, and their crying. Grown men crying."
Ward occupied himself by writing his life story, more than 100,000 words, by hand, on prison paper. He sent it out, bit by bit, to a publisher – an old friend from his West Ham days – who needed only to tidy up bits and pieces of grammar, no more.
He says: "I'm proud of my book. It's just an honest account of my life, no bullshit." But he anticipates criticism from some quarters, from people saying he had fallen into obscurity but could become a public figure again now partly because of his prison time and book.
He counters: "When you've scored a goal in the [Merseyside] derby against the red shite [Liverpool], you're famous for life in the place that matters. That's not being big-headed or arrogant. I still get bought drinks on the strength of a derby goal. I know I'm well regarded in London too, a well-known figure inside football before my crime.
"But I can see where [critics] are coming from. But what was I supposed to do? Sit on my arse and sulk and be negative and lazy in prison, which would have been the easy option? Or do something positive? It's all about looking forward now."
Ward is outspoken about current players who have achieved notoriety for the wrong reasons, including West Bromwich's Roman Bednar, who was alleged to have been filmed by a newspaper buying drugs. "I know this is going to sound hypocritical, even ridiculous, coming for a bloke who's just come out of prison after doing time for drugs charges, but I just cannot understand why Roman Bednar would put himself in a position where he could be accused of buying drugs. I can't fathom why a current player with access to the most unbelievable highs of playing top-level football at places like Anfield and Old Trafford would risk that by going anywhere near drugs."
Ward's book, From Right-Wing to B-Wing: Premier League to Prison, is certainly candid, from his broken home in Huyton via Everton rejection as a youth and the non-league back to the big time. There are escapades and run-ins with numerous well-known names, inside and outside football. The book also highlights how much attention players now get; and how easily they used to be able to dodge press attention.
In one astonishing chapter, "Shooting the Pope", Ward reveals how, at a 1992 fancy dress Christmas party at Everton, he shot team-mate Barry Horne, dressed as the Pope, at close range, in the chest, with a real gun.
Ward had pinched the weapon from a John Wayne look-a-like, thinking it was a cap gun. "The noise was staggering, unbelievable," Ward writes. "We were all stunned to see a massive flash of fire shoot from the barrel and Barry, who took a direct hit, was flung backwards. There'd been a bullet in the chamber. The saving mercy was that the bullet was a blank, designed to crumple and ignite on impact rather than explode. Still, Barry was knocked back, and he was on fire."
Horne was duly extinguished, and while bruised and shocked, fine. That incident was never made public, nor were many others, from his run-in with a notorious gangster, aka The Blackmailer, to umpteen episodes of high jinx, on and off the field.
What prison taught me: Mark Ward on...
... football's gambling culture
"Gambling is known within the game as a footballer's disease. I've written in my book how it was always part of my life. As a kid I would run to the bookies with my dad's bets. When I was a player, lots of lads gambled, managers too. One afternoon, when I was rooming with Niall Quinn, we almost lost £3,000 on TV races before a winner got us out of trouble. One time at Cheltenham I took £5,000, several weeks' pay, from our savings account, to bet in a day. If anything, gambling is even more rife in the game now, accessible at the click of a button to provide that buzz."
. .. surviving in jail
"Going to prison is a shock to almost anyone's system but the first jail in my term, Walton, was a particularly barbaric and hostile place, full of junkies, gang violence, suicides. Nothing can prepare you for what goes on. But maybe in a strange way, having had the life of a professional footballer, that stood me in better stead than some. The all-male, institutionalised environment is the same, with banter and cruelty common to both. You also need to stand up for yourself, have fire in your belly to get through. My temperament helped me survive in prison."
... Joey Barton
"I've got some sympathy for Joey Barton. He's a talented footballer and I think he's doing his level best to stop his demons and his aggression. But he's just got that edge to him, which a lot of people from Huyton have to them. There's this saying, 'In a fight or a fuss, you'll always find us.' I think I could relate to him to help get the best from him, if I were a manager. We're both from Huyton. We've both been in prison. I'd like to think I know how to man-manage problems, like Joey being very easily provoked, on or off the pitch."
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