Daniel Hunt asked if he could write a blog to analyse Swindon Town’s centre-back pairings to find out which one has led to one of the best defences in the Football League, but as you’ll read, it quickly turned into a Darren Ward appreciation article.
It has almost gone unnoticed that, with the experienced defender in the starting line-up, Town have accrued over two points per league game – promotion form no doubt. Compare this to results when Darren Ward is not in the side and you can really appreciate the true value of the free transfer from Millwall.
Swindon Town are blessed with options at centre-back, a tribute to the size and depth of squad that Di Canio has put together at the County Ground. Pre-season indications were that club captain Alan McCormack and summer signing Troy Archibald-Henville were the preferred central pairing, but such are the comings and goings of a League One side – particularly one under Di Canio – that McCormack now finds himself filing in at left-back and Archibald-Henville is sat firmly on the treatment table after a prolonged season warming the bench.
But for a recent training ground injury to Joe Devera, which offered Aden Flint a way back into the side against Shrewsbury, Ward and Devera had formed a formidable partnership in their ten games together. Their record as a pairing conceded only four goals and helped Wes Foderingham keep no fewer than six clean sheets. This is remarkable when you consider that Joe Devera looked set for a season competing for the right-back berth with Nathan Thompson and Darren Ward was living out a personal ‘nightmare’ in Millwall’s reserve side before coming to SN1.
The former Watford and Millwall defender had a less than auspicious start to life on loan with Swindon Town. I was the unfortunate soul responsible for writing the match report as Ward debuted and Town crashed to an embarrassing 0-1 defeat to rivals Oxford United on September 5th (Oxford United 1-0 Swindon Town, Match Report). Ward’s performance that horrible night lead to these quotes:
“A promising first half performance faded into the Oxfordshire night as a collision between new team mates, Ward and Flint, allowed Alfie Potter to snatch a barely deserved win for our neighbours up the A420”
“Bessone was comfortably the most impressive debutant on show, Giles Coke was steady and the less said about Darren Ward the better – for now!”
“The only downside had been Ward in central defence. The Millwall centre-half is known to me and many other Town fans through his commanding performances against us in the recent past. He had come on the promise of being a footballing defender, just like Di Canio demands, but Ward’s distribution looked very one-dimensional (i.e. long) all night. I’m sure there is better to come from the ‘Peckham Beckham’ but his circumstances are not too dis-similar from the last defender Millwall loaned us, Andy Frampton, and we all know how that turned out…”
It makes me cringe when reading those comments back, knowing how instrumental Ward has been since reaching full fitness and becoming comfortable with his new team-mates and surroundings. I have very happily eaten humble pie, let me assure you! How could I compare him to Andy Frampton? The only characteristics they share are age and experience, in every other department Ward is light years ahead of his former Millwall team-mate.
A few months on you come to appreciate that Ward keeps it nice and simple on the ball, which has led to very few mistakes. He’s also dominant in the air and clearly loves a scrap with an opposition striker, a proper supporter’s centre-half in the Shaun Taylor/Gordon Greer mould. You can bet your life that the second-half conditions at Dean Court recently didn’t faze Ward or his partner in crime Joe Devera. They were met with a relish that the Bournemouth centre-backs couldn’t muster as the Cherries’ entire 90 minutes was riddled with mis-kicks and slips – eventually allowing Andy Williams to grab a well deserved equaliser.
Much of Ward’s longevity owes to his commitment to a self-professed ‘caveman’ lifestyle. Di Canio’s train hard, play hard philosophy seems to have fitted hand in hand with Ward’s own 100% approach to life and football. In other circumstances, Ward could well have found himself as captain of Swindon and it wouldn’t surprise me if the captain’s armband dons Darren’s arm in future. He has brought a calming influence to a back line that was ‘almost’ there in terms of solidity. The introduction of his experience was the final piece of the jigsaw and the 12 wins and 11 clean sheets in 20 league games since he’s joined pays testament to that.
Hopefully Darren Ward can follow in the footsteps of some esteemed recent Swindon Town defensive company and carry on being successful well into his thirties. My money is on the caveman…
Follow Daniel Hunt on Twitter – @dphunt88