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Ward on dedication, drive and the Crystal Palace culture

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Joel Ward knows exactly how a club media day works. You turn up, you get changed, you stand in front of a green screen – maybe pulling a pose or two, practising a celebration – and you’re done. Three kits, more posing and then home. Except this year, things are quite different.

There is one extra bit of kit laid out for Ward to don in front of the cameras. The captain’s armband sit atop the red and blue, ready to adorn the bicep of Palace’s new permanent skipper.

This interview originally appeared in the Crystal Palace v Arsenal matchday programme. You can shop for programmes by clicking HERE.

Although football is a global sport, the sport itself can feel quite insular. When so many seem out to get you – be they opposition, media, agents or more – trust is paramount. If there is one thing Joel Ward has inspired in a succession of managers in a 12-year stint at Crystal Palace, it is trust.

It’s why Roy Hodgson has chosen him to lead the dressing room. A modern captain does more than corral the troops in the tunnel and sort out tickets for families on matchday. A captain has to be a conduit between dugout and dressing room, a passage for players to get their concerns across to staff and for coaches to gauge the collective mood.

Ward has missed just one game since Hodgson’s return, and the pair seem to trust one another implicitly. “Roy coming back in gave us that lift and gave us the opportunity to get out of that cycle that was difficult to break,” he says. “We went on a great end to the season which any team in the Premier League would have been happy with.”

Hodgson – and Ray Lewington, who Ward also praises – inspire a drive for the highest standards that seasoned professionals and young up-and-comers alike can buy into, an impressive feat after 50-years in management and having turned 76-years-old recently.

“Football in many ways is a drug,” Ward says thoughtfully. “It’s an addiction. It’s something that gives people that high. You have to have that passion to do what they have done, to go through it. They have set the standard for people coming through. They have seen so much over the years. They are an example to anyone in management or in football.

“It is contagious, their enthusiasm and their dedication. It is something that you feed off and you see that in the way they are, and it rubs off on the players.

“It brings continuity and gives us that foundation, which allows us as a group to continue to work together, to continue to move forwards. [The manager] will keep on pushing us. He wants to bring out the best in us, which is a key attribute in everything that he does.

“His experience within the game enables him to have a different outlook at times in dealing with certain things. He knows characters inside and out, and he knows how to bring out the best in people. He did that with so many of us in his first period and now again in his second period in charge. We’re looking forward to it and we can’t wait for this season.”

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There’s a good feel around the place. It’s a good buzz, a good excitement.

Joel Ward

To listen to Ward discuss pre-season is to see that Hodgson effect in full view: there is positivity, but an appreciation for work still to be done. “There’s a good feel around the place. It’s a good buzz, a good excitement. We obviously want to emulate the form we produced at the back end of last season. If we do that, we’ve got a real chance.

“It was a good pre-season. I enjoy the grind; I like to feel the pain. I love pushing the body and getting ready for the game.

“Within the club we have [set targets]. We just want to make sure we continue to better ourselves. Attacking that top 10 is where we see ourselves. I think we have the quality and that we possess the talent to do so, but the Premier League is such a tough league. Nothing is a given, so we have to go out there and earn it.”

If Palace are to earn a top-half finish, even having made a bright start to the season, they will need more than Ward’s experience. A vibrant, young attacking unit will be crucial to their ambitions. “Talent is one thing, but they have got the work and dedication to go on and achieve,” Ward says. He picks out Ebere Eze, in particular.

“To achieve anything, you have to be willing to ride the ups and downs. It is never easy, it is always going to be hard. His character is such that he has overcome adversity and done that from a young age. He has done that in the last couple of years, when he picked up a nasty injury and got himself back.

“You can see that in him every day, where he wants to be. He wants to improve, he wants to get better and he wants to continue to raise the bar. I’m excited to see what he is building. He’s an example for so many players and young players, kids who are aspiring to be where he is.

“People should be excited. Ebs has got the full package. At times, even in training, he sets it alight and you’re just blown away by what he does. The way he moves, the way he manipulates the ball. It’s a joy to watch, but not a joy to be on the end of!

“He’s an example to everyone. Sometimes it doesn’t always go a way you want it to go. There are challenges and adversity. You put your head down, you work hard and the rest will take care of itself.”

As a captain should do, Ward extols the virtues of his teammates while keeping his own trumpet unblown. Nonetheless, he too is an example to young players everywhere. It’s a responsibility he is aware of – particularly this season, after new PGMOL guidance surrounding the respect of the match officials.

“The discipline side of things is rightly so, the way in which players conduct themselves on the pitch to officials. We are here to be examples, to set an example for the younger generation coming through. I get that side of it.” The other rule change – penalising time-wasting with added time often running into the double figures – he finds more troubling.

“It’s difficult to see at times, because when you are in a game you are in the heat of the moment and people can get carried away with celebrations, and a bit more time can go. We are going to see some teething issues like we did with VAR. I guess for the top teams, with the fixture schedule already very condensed, adding on another 15 or 20 minutes to every game could be an issue.

“Hopefully it’s not going to get to that. I think there are clear guidelines with which we can work with officials to minimise any sort of time-wasting. I don’t think there is any advantage to playing 15 or 16 minutes of added. I don’t think anyone wants to see that. I don’t think rulemakers want to see that, certainly as players and clubs we don’t want to see that.

“It’s about working together to make sure we can minimise time-wasting but still keep the game we know and love.”

With the new season underway with three wins from five games, there is just time for Ward to make his predictions for what is sure to be another rollercoaster rest of the campaign. “The top scorer this season I think will be Ebs. Most assists… I think it is going to be tight, but I think Michael Olise will probably top the list.

“Obviously our new signing Matheus França will be the breakthrough star.” And Goal of the Season winner? No surprise. “I’d put that down to Ebs.”

Ward has confidence in the personality of the squad he now leads to stand up to the challenge. “We have been building on the last couple of years with additions, and with people coming in. We have seen some big characters over the last couple of years.

“It has kept that unity, that culture within the club. That is integral to our success.” If one man knows the culture of Crystal Palace, it is the man who now proudly adjusts the captain’s armband on his sleeve.

After 12 years of impeccable service, more than a decade of consistency week in, week out, he can look at a vibrant, young dressing room packed with talent, and be proud of the culture that he helped to create.