But he doesn’t choose his professional debut against Cardiff City, top flight promotion against Watford or the FA Cup final against Manchester United.
Instead he chooses an FA Youth Cup clash against, well, someone. “Someone like Huddersfield,” to be more precise.
“We got beaten,” he elaborates. “We shouldn’t really have got beaten. I got home and got a bit of a grilling, to be honest with you, from the old man, my brother and a family friend.
“It was essentially a message to be like: ‘Well, where do you see yourself getting? What are you going to change to give yourself the best chance? How are you going to put that into practice?’ Essentially, ‘pull your finger out because you only get one opportunity and one chance’… I remember that very clearly.”
Ward was a teenager in Portsmouth’s youth system, playing under future Palace boss Paul Hart. He wasn’t far from making his senior debut on loan with AFC Bournemouth aged just 18, but to this day he credits the “grilling” inspired by an Academy defeat with setting him on the path to professional football.
“[I thought]: ‘right, okay, this is serious business. If I want to make a go of this and make it my livelihood and have a career, the career that I’ve dreamed of, I need to make sure I take this on board. Harness the defeat and the defeats, use that to channel the dedication, the hard work and use it for good rather than dwelling too much.’
“Football was always my dream and that was always my main focus, although I loved participating in other sports. I tried to put my hand to anything I can, but I had the blinkers on for football and there wasn’t anything that was going to sway me from that.”
Thankfully for Palace, Ward’s blinkers remained ‘on for football’ and the right-back has today notched over 350 professional games. Thankfully for Ward, he had the support behind him to succeed.
“I’ve always stated in any interview I’ve done, my family have been a massive part of who I am and my career and for now, you look back on that and you are so appreciative of the people you had around you.
“It doesn’t go unnoticed and it’s undervalued, having the support network of people that want to push you, want to give you good advice, want to challenge you and bring the best out of you.”
A professional debut, play-off triumph and FA Cup final? Joel Ward may never have reached them without a Youth Cup defeat against “someone like Huddersfield.”