Crystal Palace defender, Joel Ward: “Becoming a professional footballer was never a certainty”

From growing up on the south-coast, to becoming a Premier League footballer. We spoke to Crystal Palace defender, Joel Ward and discovered his journey to the professional game and why he gives all the thanks to God for where he is today.

As a youngster, did you have a footballing hero who you looked up to? 

I think growing up as a kid, that fluctuates quite a lot. When I was out on the field playing football with my brother, we would always pick players to be and if I was out with friends we’d always try and be someone and do their skills and tricks, shouting out their name as you’re having a shot on goal. For me, I always loved watching the top leagues with the best players across Europe and I loved watching the likes of Zidane. The way he played and graced the football pitch was incredible, he made it look so effortless and easy. Over in the U.K growing up as a kid, we were fortunate enough to have so many amazing role models to look up to. The likes of the Manchester United boys: Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and then you had John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. I was so blessed to watch and learn from so many incredible professionals.

One player in particular who was very close to me during my time at Portsmouth, was Linvoy Primus. He was a great influence through my early stages of my career. I really looked up to Linvoy and learnt so much from him both on and off the field in all aspects of life.

From having a kick around on the field with your friends, you made the move to Portsmouth at a young age. Can you describe the emotions of signing for a such a big club? 

I was very young at the time, I think I was 8 going on 9 years of age when I signed for them, so the actual emotions I felt, I may not be totally accurate on but I know I was over the moon and just generally so excited by the prospect of it. To be playing for your local club is always going to be something very special so I think being asked to represent my club was amazing. My family always encouraged me as a young boy to follow my dreams and they supported me through everything. Equally, they also made it a reality and made it very clear that becoming a professional footballer was never a certainty, so I just made sure that I enjoyed myself and embraced it.

A huge part of the modern game that is being utilised by a lot of clubs is the loan system. How integral was your time out on loan to help you develop as a player? 

It was massive, I think for any young player there is nothing quite like going out on loan and playing football and getting games to help develop your career. For me going out on loan at Bournemouth was vital, I gained so much experience from that loan spell and I think it really took me from being a boy to a man. You take a huge step into a brand new environment in which you’ve never seen football before and you’re fighting to get into the team, fighting to keep your place and fighting to remain in the league. It’s a huge part of the world of football now and one that I really believe in.

You’ve been able to play with some terrific players in your career so far Joel, but who has stood out for you?

Oh wow! For me, I’ve been very blessed to have played with some very talented players in my career already, both during my time with Portsmouth and now at Crystal Palace. You had the likes of Nwankwo Kanu along with the lads down at Portsmouth in that Champions League era. You also look at some of the boys we’ve got now at Palace, I mean Wilfried Zaha has unbelievable feet and he is a menace when he takes players on! Then there’s guys like Yannick Bolasie obviously who was awesome when he was here, Scott Dann too – so it’s hard for me to say one specific player as I’ve played with so many who have really made an impact on the team at that time and on me personally.

You’ve also got to remember that you’re meeting some of these players at different stages of their career and that can have an effect too. For me, I just relish the journey and I have to pinch myself because I’m playing with some real stars both on my team and against me.

Ok, let’s see if you can hand pick one striker that is every Premier League defenders nightmare, from the pool of players you’ve played against?

Again, it’s a very difficult question. I think for me, when you come up against clubs who have embraced world class players week in week out it’s always very tough. The two that spring to mind are definitely Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez, they were guys who you just thought “wow” these are huge talents here. Then there’s players like Gerrard and Lampard who were not just huge figures in English football but world class players too, but once again it’s hard to narrow it down to one. If I had to pick, Suarez would be the one that stands out for me; to grace the same pitch as him was a real honour for me.

Joel, you’ve made that journey from being a boy who dreamt of one day becoming a footballer, to signing for Portsmouth, spending time out on loan with Bournemouth and now you’re an established Premier League defender with Crystal Palace. How much does this journey mean to you?

I mentioned it earlier, sometimes I have to pinch myself because I am lucky enough to be playing in this league. By the grace of God I have been given the opportunity to do that. For me, it’s just a real honour and privilege to be able to play in the Premier League which is the most exciting and probably the best league in the entire world. It was always a dream of mine to play in the Premier League and because of the grace of God I am able to play and use this platform to glorify His name.

You’ve just mentioned that you are where you are today because of God’s grace. Where did that journey with God start for you? 

If I’m honest with you, it’s all I’ve ever known. I grew up in church from a very young age, I went to a church on the South-coast called New Life Christian Church and now I am part of Hillsong church, in London. It’s always been something that’s been a part of my walk and career so far, I’ve always been very open about my faith. Naturally, you go through periods of your life where you experience the ups and the downs but for me, I have always been involved in or around the church in some way. It’s something that now, when I take a step back, God’s hand has always been upon me and my journey with Him throughout the years. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for my faith or for my church who have supported me throughout the years.

Joel, how do you balance the identity of being football star who is worshipped by thousands of fans week in week out, but also as a man who lives to worship Jesus? 

I mean sometimes you sit and think, “wow, it’s only me” a boy from the south-coast and sometimes it’s a bit surreal because you’re playing in-front of thousands of fans every week and it’s a huge blessing to do so. In terms of everything else, it’s God who has given me a platform to go out in a way that allows me to glorify His name and give Him the honour that He deserves.

For me, I look at that verse in Jeremiah (29:11), God’s got a plan for our lives and this is my moment, my season in the world of football, I need to keep trusting in Him and put all of my hope, trust and faith in Him. I’m just really enjoying it, I love playing football and do what I’m doing and I will never take that for granted. Equally, I know it’s by the grace of God that I am where I am right now.

Tell us about your tattoo and the story behind it. 

It’s pretty simple, it’s one of my favourite verses from the Bible: 1 Corinthians 2:9 it says “What no eye has seen, no ear has heard and what no human mind could ever know, the things God has prepared for those who love him.” It just stuck out to me. In life, we never know what’s just around the corner and we need to know and trust that God has got that plan for us. He wants us to live life to the fullest.

Do you have a network of other Christians in the world of football who you hang out with and enjoy some fellowship with as well?

Yes, I mentioned earlier on about Linvoy Primus, I still stay in regular contact with him. There are others out there and obviously we set things up to get regular meetings with other sports people too through the church. It’s awesome to see other Christians in sport working in their platform and windows, living out their faith. It’s always good to meet up with these guys, pray together and have some fellowship.

How hard is it to integrate church into your job? With games on at weekends, training all through mid-week, is it ever possible to get to services?

Well it’s fair to say now that church isn’t just about Sunday mornings. I remember when I was a kid on the books at Portsmouth and I only played once a month throughout my school years up until I was sixteen years old when it moved to Saturday’s because of my family’s commitments with the church, so I missed out on a lot of football growing up. But now, we are so lucky to have multiple church services throughout the day, groups that meet up midweek so it’s always been about fellowship and being around people who will inspire me and help me to press in closer with my faith. I can still get to church after training and sometimes after games, so it is still possible to be in that environment which is amazing.

Do you think that football can be seen as a form of worship?

Absolutely, I think anything you do professionally on a day to day basis is your work to glorify God. Whether you’ve been given a stage or an image, you can glorify God in every walk of life and if you honour Him then He will honour you. I love the idea that football is my form of worship and I can glorify His name through that.

Finally, what do you think God has been teaching you in this season of your life?

Obviously, you always go through many seasons that include big ups and downs. Right now, it’s a season of trusting in God. Throughout everything we do, we need to put out trust in Him. It’s very easy to fall off track when things are going well and the same goes for when things get tough. It’s important for me to remember that God deserves all of my praise through the good and the bad and it’s sometimes the most important time to lean on Him when things are going well as we can easily rely on our own understanding.

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