Wednesday, 23rd April 2014

Town job bringing career full circle for nomadic goalkeeper

GAVIN Ward has now seen his nomadic career go full circle.

More than 20 years after spending a season as a youngster at Gay Meadow trying to earn a breakthrough in football, the 41-year-old finds himself back at Shrewsbury Town as the club’s goalkeeping coach.

What happened to Ward in between his two spells with Town is quite a story as he enjoyed a playing career which, including loan spells, took in no fewer than 18 clubs, over 450 games and stints in the Premier League with Leicester and Bolton.

The well-being of Town’s goalkeepers is clearly in safe hands and, having joined Graham Turner’s coaching staff at the start of the season to replace ex-Everton custodian Paul Gerrard, Ward has quickly become a popular figure around the club.

Married to a Shrewsbury girl, Tracy, Ward has been based in North Shropshire for the last eight years so. when a vacancy arose at the Greenhous Meadow, it was an ideal opportunity for him to come on board with Town.

He said: “I met Tracy when I first came to Shrewsbury all those years ago. We lived in Bolton before, but we were always going to come back at some point.

“I have been in Shropshire just over eight years now and I love living round here. It’s fantastic. I love the county, everything about it, it’s a smashing place.

“Players never think about what they are going to do in the future but, when the time came, going into coaching was just a natural progression for me.

“The gaffer at Shrewsbury’s been there and done it with over 1,000 games as a manager and it’s funny really, because he was my first manager when I signed for Aston Villa as an apprentice. He was there for about six weeks, so it’s crazy how these things work out.”

Ward has discovered Shrewsbury to be a much different club to the one he linked up with as a teenager, back in 1988.

He recalled: “I had just left Villa and was thinking what as I going to do now.

“I remember writing lots of letters and sending them to many clubs in the hope of getting a few trials.

“Walsall and Shrewsbury both offered me trials and, while Walsall would have been easier for me to get to as I am from Tamworth, I came to Shrewsbury first.

“We trained on a pitch at the back of Gay Meadow for a week and Ian McNeill, the manager at the time, took me on as a first year pro.

“Steve Perks was first team goalkeeper and Ken Hughes was No 2. I knew I wouldn’t really get a look in at Shrewsbury, but it was good experience.”

And so began Ward’s travels and, during a short spell at West Brom, he made his first team debut for the Baggies in a League Cup tie.

He went on to represent a host of clubs including Cardiff, Leicester, Bradford  Bolton Wanderers, Stoke, Walsall, Coventry, Tranmere and Wrexham.

Then came his first role behind the scenes at Gainsborough Trinity where he was player-coach under Brian Little, his former boss at Leicester.

Ward said: “I’ve been lucky. Most players in their careers have a lot of ups and  downs. People don’t see that but you do.

“I’ve had a lot of highlights. I’ve got a great affinity with Cardiff and the people there, the fans, and happy memories.

“We got promoted a couple of times and it was great to grow up with a good bunch of experienced players like Kevin Ratcliffe and Robbie James, God rest his soul.

“I then went to Leicester and we got promoted in my first season there to the Premier League.  It was the second season of the Premier and it was just taking off, a fantastic time.

“The first game we played was at home to Newcastle with people like Beardsley and Cole, live on the TV, and they beat us 3-1.

“We then went to Blackburn on the Wednesday night, the season they won the league, and Shearer scored twice and Sutton once so I thought welcome to the Premier League!

“I also played in the Premier at Bolton. I joined at the back end of a season in which we were relegated.

“But we then walked the Championship under Colin Todd, getting 106 points with John McGinlay up front, so that put us back in the Premier League.

“I was also lucky to play twice and win twice at the old Wembley, for Leicester and Stoke in play-off finals.”

Now Ward is happy to be helping develop the careers of Ben Smith and Chris Neal at Shrewsbury, while he also enjoys working with the club’s newly-capped England under-16 international Callum Burton.

Ward said: “Ben and Chris always want to work hard.

“Goalkeeping is a specialist position and, as a coach, you have to be that person they can bounce off.”