Position: Central defender
From: Youth team
Record: Played: 64(4) Scored: 3
To: Millwall - £350,000 (plus increments) - September 2001
Career stats: Soccerbase
He was: Big and tall
17 September 1994. Watford v Luton Town. Faced with another injury crisis, Glenn Roeder fields youth team defender Gary Fitzgerald in the hope that he might fill his boots, preferably with something other than brown stuff. The Hornets are 3-1 down at half-time - not all one player's fault, granted - and Fitzgerald is substituted, never to be seen in first team action again.
20 April 1996. Luton Town v Watford. Faced with another injury crisis, Graham Taylor fields youth team defender Darren Ward and the packed away end holds its breath, fearing that history might be about to repeat itself. But, assisted by some generous finishing and an outstanding Steve Palmer performance, the lanky Ward helps to keep a clean sheet, even if the goalless draw effectively relegates both sides. Bizarrely, his next outing is also at Kenilworth Road and ends with the same result.
In a way, though, that was it. While a brief run of appearances in that second season under Kenny Jackett revealed much promise, Ward's progress was abruptly halted when he sustained a broken leg in a reserve match. It was a tackle for which he was booked, if I recall correctly. Referees, eh?
He returned, eventually, to find that Watford Football Club had changed radically in his absence. Graham Taylor had taken charge of the team again, the defence had been entirely restructured, eyes were looking upward. There was little chance for a young defender to establish himself. He made one substitute appearance in the Second Division Championship season (and that was in the Auto Windscreen Shield, so nobody was looking) and improved on that total only marginally during the next campaign, starting one league game. Really, it was time to move on.
From Graham Taylor downwards, the customary response to Ward's return from an extended loan at QPR was something along the lines of "F***ing hell! What's happened to him?". Somehow, Rangers had turned Ward from a tall, thin youngster into a broad, towering huge bloke. Naturally, we saw the results, thanked them for their hard work and refused their request for a permanent transfer. Darren Ward was back.
Along with Tommy Smith, his regular inclusion in the latter part of the doomed Premiership season was merciful cause for optimism. After a false start at Coventry, he returned from exile at Goodison Park. He was up against Mark Hughes. In the running battle that developed, thrillingly, Hughes came off second best. Although he'd yet to adjust to the pace and precision of top flight strikers, that hardly marked him out as unique and he was included for the rest of the season.
Back in Division One, he had his chance. It began well. At Wimbledon, he hurled himself into a fifty-fifty with John Hartson...and, to a great cheer from the away fans, Hartson bottled it. But the gradual disintegration of the team affected Ward more than anyone. Playing in a defence that was conceding absurd goals at an absurd rate, he was rarely the worst offender...but he shrunk noticeably, losing much of that immense physical presence as his confidence began to suffer. He never did fulfil that promise.
Personally, then, I don't regard his sale to Millwall as some kind of betrayal of basic principles. Darren Ward is inexperienced for his age, and he needs the chance of first team football. Rightly or wrongly, he falls some way down the pecking order at Vicarage Road - bearing in mind that Lloyd Doyley is currently occupying one of the defensive positions, it can hardly be said that Vialli is replacing homegrown talent with expensive imports. And, while it could be argued that Darren Ward would do no worse than the present lot, few of us can honestly have believed that the defence didn't require reconstruction after last season and even fewer can have been so naive as to imagine that there wouldn't be some casualties.
That said, it's sad that Darren Ward has been one of those casualties. Potentially a very fine, if slightly old-fashioned, defender. The list of clubs to keep an eye on continues to increase....
"He's big, he's tall, the w*nkers sold him to Millwall, Darren Ward, Darren Ward."
I first saw a very young Darren Ward towering above the rest of his team-mates in a youth team match in 1995. He was a first year YTS, and was absolute class. He looked composed on the ball, and read the game well. But it was his strength in the air that seemed to win most applause on that day.
As the injuries mounted in Watford's fateful relegation season of 1995-96, Darren and Mark Rooney were hastily and surprisingly called up from youth team action for the April derby match away in darkest Bedfordshire. Rooney remained on the bench, but Darren Ward made a successful debut alongside Steve Palmer in the 0-0 draw.
The next day, I remember making an appearance on Sky Soccer Extra in the days when they had fans on the show. I mentioned how Ward's debut would prove one of the most crucial events of the next few years. In a season when Roeder had tormented supporters by bringing the older legs of Penrice, Dixon and Wilkinson into the fold, Graham Taylor had reverted back to youth in adversity. The following seasons saw us field up to eight home-grown players at a time, with success after success achieved by not following the worrying English trend of flooding a team and a squad with high profile foreigners, with even higher wages and bigger egos.
As a bit part player in the successive promotion seasons, Ward appeared to be on his way out of Watford when a combination of a broken leg and the superb Page-Palmer partnership limited his first team opportunities. QPR seemed interested, and in a loan spell that was to revitalise the young defender's career, Wardy quickly became a Loftus Road hero. Speaking to him at the time, he seemed adamant that he wanted to stay at Watford, prove he was worth his place, and continue to serve the team that he had been with from the start. The Vic was where his heart was.
When given his chance, Wardy rarely let the team down. Having played forty League games in 2000/01, he seemed the one defender who did not give goals away on a regular basis. He even chipped in with the odd goal, scoring all three of his goals away from home; and as the new season beckoned, he was hopeful that he could learn from the more experienced players that seemed to be flooding the Vicarage Road squad. Darren always knew that there were things to learn, but was always keen to show what he already knew.
But he never got his chance. A token inclusion against Plymouth in the Worthington Cup was the last sight of a player who, for me, should not have left Watford Football Club. Watford have signed high profile expensive defenders who have shown that their value in the team is no more or less than Wardy's. The purge on true Watford players continues unabated. Whether there is a more clandestine set of reasons behind Darren leaving for Millwall - the share price dropped 20% on the news of Darren's departure - we will find out in due course. But from the outside, the transfer looks like yet another dumping of a player deemed surplus to requirements. Who is next? Panayi or Cox or Gifton? Is this the City demanding revenue in, or Vialli demanding the remnants of the Taylor era out?
Frankly, the echoes of the Bassett era are ringing all around. The difference is that this time it is costing £100K a week to make the same mistakes.
I look forward to giving Darren Ward a decent level of applause away at the New Den later this month. He should be aware that the vast majority of Watford fans see his departure as nothing other than a bad piece of business for Watford Leisure PLC, and will be sorely missed.