Mark Ward: From No 7 to prisoner number NM6982

Exclusive: 20 years ago, he was a high-profile footballer. Last month he was jailed for eight years for drug dealing. In his first interview since going to prison, Mark Ward spoke to Nick Harris about how it all went so badly wrong, life inside and hopes for the future

Wednesday 16 November 2005 01:00 GMT

The 35 tables in the main visiting room at Liverpool jail are evenly spaced, secured to the floor, and each equipped with four seats. Three are bolted on to one side, for guests, and one on to the other, for guests of Her Majesty.

The prisoners are all settled before anyone is allowed entry, and they must not move until visiting time is over. They wear regulation dark jeans, checked shirts, and cotton bibs with their numbers on the back. Every time a guard unlocks the corner door and ushers somebody in, heads turn. Beseeching eyes fix upon every visitor, hoping for recognition.

It was here, last week, that Mark Ward, prisoner NM6982, recalled the highs and lows of a life that has gone horribly wrong. For those who cannot or are too young to remember him, Ward was a substantial figure in English football from the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties. An ebullient Scouser, he was a small, skilful winger in the classic British mode - Stuart Pearce described him as the trickiest opponent he ever faced - as well as a popular figure at his three top-flight clubs, West Ham, Manchester City and Everton. Many felt he was unlucky never to win an England cap: after one particularly good game against Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough said: "Take Ward to the World Cup."

Somehow, his achievements as a footballer make his current surroundings all the more shocking. He turned 43 last month and under the circumstances, looks well: stockier now than when he was a player, but not overly so. And a little careworn in the face, until he laughs or smiles, when the twinkle returns to his eye.

But he is not smiling as he recalls the day, six months ago, when his life went into meltdown. A few months earlier, he had put his name to a lease on a property in Prescot, a quiet residential area 10 miles outside Liverpool. He never lived at this property and rarely went there. He did, however, suspect it might be used for drugs, and he knew signing the lease was a stupid thing to do. But Ward desperately needed money and thought that signing a short-term lease offered a way out. He also knew it could all go wrong. He just did not realise how wrong.

"The 12th of May is a day I'll never forget," he says. "I got a call on my mobile from the estate agent to say that the alarm was going off at the address and the police were outside. Could I go to sort out the alarm? I drove straight there. As I drove on to the estate I saw them. It wasn't just one or two coppers. It seemed like half of Merseyside police in the road. I shit myself. I just couldn't think. I turned round and drove off."

He did not get far and when he realised there was no escape Ward stopped his car and walked away. "When the copper put the cuffs on me, the surprise on his face was something that I'll never forget as long as I live. He'd probably seen me play for Everton, and now he was nicking me. People use the phrase, 'Your world has turned upside down.' That's what I feel. That was it, right then."

Mark Ward was born in Huyton, a tough area of Liverpool. He came from a working-class family, one of seven children. Their father, Billy, a labourer, got divorced from their mother, Irene, when Ward was 16, around the same time that Ward was attracting attention from major clubs. He joined Everton as a trainee but in 1981, aged 18, he was released by Gordon Lee.

"It was the worst moment of my career," he says. "I was told I wasn't good enough to become a top player, that I was too small, and not strong or quick enough. I was devastated. I knew I had the ability to make it."

He joined non-league Northwich Victoria. Though he was only 5ft 6in, he started to fill out. In 1983 he played his first game at Wembley, in the FA Trophy final against Telford. Northwich lost 2-1. Ward, his side's youngest player, refused to collect his loser's medal and went straight to the dressing-room. "I was a terrible loser. I just got in the bath."

Enter Joe Royle, then the manager of Oldham. He had seen Ward play, and arranged a meeting in a pub. "I told him I'd be his best player," Ward says. "I asked him to believe in me. He did. I didn't miss a single match for him for two years. The money was crap but it wasn't what motivated me. Northwich had helped find me a job in a local bakery. I was counting trays for £70 a week and getting £130 playing part-time football. Oldham were offering £130 a week but I just wanted my chance to be a professional so took it. I never looked back."

In the summer of 1985, West Ham's John Lyall paid £250,000 to take Ward to Upton Park. West Ham's team the following season has entered Upton Park legend as one of the greatest the club has ever produced. It included Tony Gale, Alvin Martin, Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie (later to be acquitted on a major drugs charge of his own). The wingers were Alan Devonshire and Mark Ward. West Ham pushed Liverpool and Everton all the way and eventually finished third, the highest in their history. Ward was still only 23, but he was married, and he and his wife, Jane, already had a baby daughter, Melissa. Jane struggled to settle in the South, but they had some spare money for the first time in their lives, so spent a bit to compensate. Ward bought Jane a horse.

Three years later, West Ham were relegated but Ward remained in what was then the First Division by moving to Howard Kendall's Manchester City for £1m. In the 1990-91 season, under Peter Reid, they finished fifth, their highest place since 1978, and not bettered since. In August 1991, Kendall, this time as Everton manager, signed Ward again for £1.1m. Ward was reunited with Cottee, and had Martin Keown and Peter Beardsley as team-mates. It was during that time he had the most lucrative contract of his career, worth £2,000 a week, for a take-home income of £62,000 a year, plus bonuses.

"My home debut for Everton was the best moment of my career," Ward says now. Talking about the good times, his eyes dance. "It was the second match of that season, against Arsenal, the champions. It had taken me 10 years to get back to Everton, but I'd made it. That was it for me, the night I felt I'd proved myself. I walked out as proud as I've ever been in my life. And I scored twice - a 25-yard screamer past David Seaman and a free-kick. We won 3-1."

Ward's Premiership career lasted another two and a half years when, at the age of 31 and with an eye on a future management career, he moved to Birmingham, then in the second tier, as a player-coach under Barry Fry. Birmingham were relegated on goal difference on the final day but bounced straight back, coupling promotion with an Auto Windscreens Trophy triumph at Wembley. Ward was man of the match.

In retrospect, Ward feels his steady decline had already begun. As a footballer his best moments were behind him, and the end of his playing days loomed. His wages were going down, not up. With a new regime imminent at Birmingham, there was no future there, and nothing in the pipeline. And, on the personal front, he and Jane divorced, after 14 years together.

All the same, Ward did everything he could to keep playing. In 1996, aged 33, he had short stints with Huddersfield and Wigan, until he badly injured his hand in a game. Still, he would not give it up. He was unable to play for Wigan, because they knew he had metal wiring in his hand to help it heal. But Dundee, unaware of the injury, wanted a midfielder for one game.

"I should've got this wire removed by the doctor," he said. "But I just cut the ends off with some pliers, covered it up, and drove to Scotland. I trained on the Thursday, played on the Saturday. We lost 1-0 to St Mirren. By the Saturday evening I felt this infection in my arm and before I knew it, it was up to my elbow. I was in hospital for six days."

By the end of 1996, he was an ex-player with little to show for 11 years of playing mainly at the highest level. "Jane got the house, which was absolutely the right thing," he says. He'd lost some money buying property in a boom and selling in a trough, and had saved little.

"I had a pension, but to be honest I didn't put as much into it as I perhaps should have," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I had a good life, a comfortable life while I was playing. The house, the car, the social life. I didn't worry too much about spending what I earned. But I didn't really think there'd be a time when I'd have no job at all. I suppose I thought I'd always I'd be able to make a living from football. But when you don't get that job you want, it's not like that. There was no significant income to speak of. I don't want anyone's sympathy, it's just the reality."

It is a not uncommon story: a former footballer, with few useful qualifications, and half a working life ahead of him. And still Ward craved a life in football.

He visited Australia in 1997, looking for work. came back, did a bit of radio punditry, and played in Masters events. In 2000 he was appointed the player-manager of Altrincham but was sacked 15 months later partly because he spoke his mind when "unfortunately it is not always possible to do so", but mainly, the then chairman said, because the club wanted someone to work on a smaller budget than Ward had accepted.

For Ward this was a huge blow. "My sacking at Altrincham damaged my whole existence in the game," he says now. He was soon on the dole.

Last year he travelled to Australia again - his mother paid for his ticket, a brother lent him £2,000 for living expenses - but plans to open a soccer school came to nothing when he failed to get a visa, and after three and a half months he returned to Liverpool.

In November last year he awoke with a fierce pain in his head. "Like someone had smashed me with a baseball bat." He was admitted to hospital with suspected viral meningitis. He had two lumbar punctures and other tests that were inconclusive. "The doctor asked me if I'd been suffering from stress."

He was living with a girlfriend, and then friends and family. Christmas was approaching and he was broke, again. An acquaintance, someone he knew casually and who knew Ward as a former Everton player on his uppers, lent him £500. The man approached him late last year and said he had a proposition that would sort out the debt. He wanted Ward to rent a semi-detached house in Prescot, on behalf of someone else. "I declined. But then in early January my financial situation had become so dire that I agreed. I knew the house was going to be used for a 'stash'. It could've been anything: drugs, cigarettes, money, and to be honest, I didn't care. All I had to do was rent it and provide access. I never even lived there."

Ward assumed the role of caretaker. He kept the place tidy, and kept a few belongings there to make it seem lived in. "I went round one day to check on the place and couldn't believe the mess it was in. There was powder, bowls, plastic bags, all kinds of drugs paraphernalia. I just thought, 'What the hell have I got involved in?'

"I spoke to the guy and said 'That's it, I want out'. I knew I

was in big trouble if it all came out. I tried in vain to escape from the situation but was told to shut up and let the tenancy agreement run its course until July. I knew I'd just have to sit tight. I was paid between £400 and £500 a week to rent the property. I was still hoping to return to Australia. I was at the lowest I've ever been in my life. I got into something that I should never have gone near. I made a terrible, terrible mistake. And there just wasn't any way to get out of it."

In May police raided the house. They found the equivalent of 3kg of pure cocaine, with an estimated street value of £645,000, along with paraphernalia including bowls, mixing agents, a vacuum seal and a hydraulic press. "A drugs factory," says Detective Inspector Chris Green of the Merseyside force. Green says that the police had no prior knowledge of Ward's involvement, but they found paperwork naming Ward as the sole tenant.

Initially Ward faced three charges, including possession of crack cocaine, and intent to supply it. Those two were dropped because the forensic evidence did not stack up. But at a hearing at Liverpool Crown Court last month, he was sentenced to eight years for possession of cocaine with intent to supply.

At his hearing Ward was described in court as a "foot soldier". The prosecution argued that his involvement was greater. Their evidence comprised a trace of cocaine in the boot of his car, his wash bag in the house, and one telephone message from someone saying they were "pissed" and needed "a line".

It did not ultimately matter. Ward had already admitted he was the lessee of the property, and was thus legally responsible for its contents. Ward is the only person, to date, arrested in connection with the haul but the police acknowledge in all likelihood there were other, bigger fish, involved. Ward could probably have secured a lesser sentence by naming names. He did not, and never will. "Because of the chance of repercussions," he says.

DI Green acknowledges Ward could have endangered himself or his family by turning informer. Grasses tend not to have great lives, or long ones. DI Green said: "Class A drugs cause misery across the community, not just to the users."

Ward knows that all too well. "I feel gutted at what I've done. I feel ashamed that I got involved, and embarrassed at the stigma of receiving an eight-year sentence. I did something that was against all my principles. It's a part of my life that's unimaginable. I will always regret it. Being taken away from your loved ones is the worst feeling. My daughter's 22 now, and I've got three grandchildren, one born since I've been inside. What have I done to my daughter with all this? Your dad's supposed to be your hero. I've shattered that."

His status truly hit home on a recent recent to hospital, cuffed to prison two officers, for more tests relating to last year's illness. "What must anyone who saw me think I've done?" he says. "I was beyond embarrassed. I could've been a terrorist, I could've been a serial killer. That's what I've come to."

The future: 'It will take a brave man to employ me'

Ward knows he is "always going to be targeted as the ex-Premiership footballer turned drug dealer." He may seek a new life abroad. "It will take a brave man to employ me in any capacity after this horrendous experience. But I'm staying positive, and hope by the time I'm released I can look forward to the rest of my days."

For now, he is quietly doing his time, "keeping myself to myself". A transfer is possible at some stage, and, then he hopes, release, on a tag, at the end of 2008. In the mean time, he has started writing about his life, as catharsis, and amusement. "I could write a book. It's not like I've got much else on."

One blot on the horizon is a "proceeds of crime" hearing, due for January. It is routine for an investigation to be conducted into a convict's finances, to establish whether they have any assets. Ward's legal representative, Len Font, from the Liverpool law firm Hogan Brown Solicitors, says that Ward "has nothing. Apart from what he was arrested with, he's got nothing."

A judge could theoretically disagree, and hand Ward a bill for ill-gotten gains, even if there is no tangible proof of crime assets. Failure to pay such a bill, if it materialised, would lead to an increased sentence.

At the end of visiting time, I ask Ward: "What about the others who were involved? Didn't you effectively take a fall for them? Don't they owe you? And isn't that a danger in itself, a source of fresh trouble?"

"It doesn't work like that," he says instantly. "When I get out, it's not like I'm totally free. I'll be on licence for four years. If I so much as cough in the wrong direction, that could be me finished for good. No way."

At no stage did Mark Ward request or receive any payment for this story.

Football's verdict A former team-mate and two managers offer their insights

* TONY COTTEE (team-mate at West Ham and Everton and now a Sky Sports analyst) "The first time I came across Wardy was in summer 1985. I was on holiday and read that West Ham had signed two players, Frank McAvennie, who I'd never heard of, and Mark Ward, who I'd never heard of. But as soon as I met them, the three of us hit it off, the mad Jock, the Cockney and the Scouser. There was an immediate bond, maybe because we were all smaller players. Wardy was so important in that incredible season, providing all those balls for goals for me and Frank.

"What stuck out for me about Wardy was that in an environment where there's a lot of piss taking, he was as willing to take the piss out of himself as he was out of anyone else.

"The Boys of '86 [events featuring West Ham players from that season's side] has been very important to us. We created a company to stage golf days, other events, to raise a bit of money for some of the lads who'd fallen on hard times. We're talking about a few hundred pounds here and there.

"I was aware Wardy was struggling, of the financial problems. I was unaware as anyone else about the trouble he was getting into.

"What I've said to him in letters is he needs to get his head down, do a computer course or something if he can, write his memoirs, sort his education. Most footballers, me included, don't pay attention to it during your playing days. It's important Wardy learns from his mistake.

"You can see how financial problems arise. Players from a whole era of the game, the 60s, 70s 80s, even the early 90s, we didn't retire with so much money we didn't need to work again. If Wardy was playing now, he'd be earning £25,000 or £30,000 a week."

* JOE ROYLE (bought Ward from Northwich to Oldham for £7,500 and sold him two years later for £250,000. Currently the manager of Ipswich Town)

"Mark was a talented player who I went to see playing for Northwich in the non-League. He'd been released by Everton for supposedly being too small to make it. That match I saw, I left at half-time. People who were there thought I mustn't have been interested but it was the opposite. I'd seen enough in 45 minutes and didn't want anyone to realise how keen I was. In a period when a lot more players came through non-League than today, he was the best non-League player I'd seen.

"I arranged to meet him in a pub. He impressed me so much with his enthusiasm, his energy, his confidence. He had this part-time job in a bakery and was playing part-time football. He was earning more from that than we were offering but he wanted another chance at professional football so much he came to us.

"From the first moment he was terrific, so good, not an ounce of trouble, a bright personality. He was a great kid. I'm sure at his peak he must've been considered for an England cap.

"I feel for him. It goes without saying, we all abhor the drugs trade. But in my experience of Mark, he must've been pretty desperate. I was astounded. It's sad. He's lost everything as quick as he gained it. It's a terrible shame. I only hope things work out for him."

* BARRY FRY (managed Ward at Birmingham. The two often did not see eye to eye, but won promotion and Wembley silverware together in 1995. Fry is now owner of Peterborough)

"I had a row with Mark because he liked a drink, and he liked a bet and I fined him for something that will stay between me and him. [Ward says this was probably an occasion when he went out drinking and got involved in a nightclub fracas]. But a footballer having a drink and a bet is not new, is it? No player likes it when you fine him.

"But when people ask me who was the best player I had at Birmingham, was it Liam Daish, who I bought for £50,000 and sold for £150,000, or Jose Dominguez, who I bought for £180,000 and sold for £1.4m, or this player or that player who I made big money on? No, I'll tell you. The best player I ever had was Mark Ward.

"As a player, as an influence on the team on the pitch, he was different class. Did I think he had the potential to be a manager? Yes. He had an opinion. He was strong, mentally and physically. I think I even recommended him later when he was looking for a management job in the non-League.

"I'm not surprised that he's taken the stance to own up to whatever he's done wrong. To be fair to him, that was his attitude as a player. If he fucked up, he put his hands up and admitted it."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in