As far as women’s football is concerned, HELEN WARD is a player who is highly regarded within the game due to her goal scoring exploits. Currently plying her trade at Reading Women – a side who compete in the Women’s Super League 2 – the striker has her eyes set firmly on future success. I managed to catch up with the Welsh international to ask about her career in the sport, as well as her future ambitions…
First of all, how did you get into playing football? You joined Watford at the age of eight – was it always your ambition to have a career in the game?
My brother and I used to kick a ball around in the garden from a young age and I would go and watch him play his games at the weekend. He is three years older than me and when he went to secondary school he came home with a flyer from Watford Ladies and that was that. I went along to my first session and never looked back.
In terms of a career, in those days it was never an option. I knew nothing about women’s football and there were no pro teams or anything even close, I just played because I loved it.
After progressing through the youth ranks with the Hornets, you went on to become a pivotal player and you captained the side – how much of an honour was that for you?
That was a huge honour. We reached the Premier League national division which, at the time, was the top flight of women’s football and it was somewhere that Watford had never been before as a club. To do that with my home team was special and to be captain was a massive honour. I think I got it by default as I had been there so long but it is something that means a lot to me still to this day.
Your progression at Watford earned you international recognition, but after representing England at Under-23 level, you elected to play for Wales. How difficult was that decision?
It could have been very difficult. But if I’m honest, the times I had with England u23’s weren’t particularly enjoyable. I think the management felt they had to pick me off the back of two seasons where I’d scored 40 goals in each rather than wanting to pick me, if that makes sense. When the opportunity came up to play for Wales at senior level, it was one I jumped at and it just seemed a natural fit for me.
You made your senior international debut versus Luxembourg in September 2008, scoring in a 6-1 win. I’m sure that it is a day you look back on with great fondness?
Of course. It is a pivotal moment in my career and I remember after I had scored, Jayne Ludlow, who was such an iconic player at the time both for Wales and Arsenal, came up to me and said; “Finally, we’ve got someone who can score goals”, and for me, that was huge. It was such a boost to my confidence that someone like her believed in me and it set me up for what has turned out to be a pretty prolific international career.
In 2009, you were handed the opportunity to join Arsenal – how tough was it for you to leave Watford having been there for such a long period of time?
It was really, really difficult. In fact it came just before Christmas and I’d been approached by both Leeds and Chelsea and turned them down. Then Arsenal came along. At the time they were the best team by a distance in the country and in my head I knew I had to go. But my heart was torn. I loved it at Watford, it was my club and I was scoring goals and we were doing well. But I knew if I said no I would always regret it.
Having the chance to play alongside the likes of Kim Little, Luds, Rachel Yankey and Katie Chapman was amazing. I learnt a lot in my 18 months there and although I don’t think I ever produced my very best, it is a part of my career that I’m very proud of. I’d earned a move to the biggest team in the country.
During your stint with the Gunners, you enjoyed success, winning two league titles and an FA Women’s Cup. Just how good was that team?
It was brilliant. As I mentioned before; Yanks, Chapman, Luds, Emma Byrne…these girls were at their peak. Then you had Kim Little who was unlike any player I’ve seen before or since coming up at the age of 19/20, Gemma Davison and Gilly Flaherty coming through and making waves as well. It was a great side and one that I was honoured to be a part of.
With the Women’s Super League founding in 2011, you opted to seek a fresh challenge as you joined Chelsea Women. In 2012 you scored in an FA Cup Final versus Birmingham, but you lost the game on penalties – a day of mixed emotions for you?
Yeah massively mixed. We rode a storm a bit in the first half but still had a couple of chances. I hit the post and I think we could have had a penalty as well. Then in the second half it was a lot tighter. My goal came out of nowhere to be honest and I think if I tried to pluck the ball out of the air as I did again, 99 times out of a hundred it would bounce off me and disappear to a Birmingham player, but I managed to bring it down and nutmeg their defender before taking a touch and hitting it past their keeper.
It’s one of my favourite ever goals but it’s ruined by the fact it counted for nothing. We were so close to winning it 1-0 and in the dying seconds they nicked an equaliser. A goal each in extra time took it to penalties and that was that. I had to sit and watch it all as I had been subbed and to this day I still can’t get over how we didn’t win!
WSL2 side Reading proved to be your next destination as you put pen to paper in 2014. You didn’t make your debut until the 2015 season, but you had a very good reason for that didn’t you?
Yeah I had my daughter, Emily, in September 2014 so I missed the entire season bar two early FA cup games (technically Emily has already scored an FA Cup goal haha), but it was worth it and now I have my very own super fan who supports me whatever happens.
You starred last season as yourself and Reading won promotion to WSL1, where does that achievement rank in your career?
It was a good season and one that was hard fought but very enjoyable both from a team perspective and as an individual. Coming back from giving birth was tougher than I’d expected and the first third or so of the season I was still trying to find my form and fitness. Once I’d got that first goal though, it all seemed to fall into place and I was delighted to have scored a few of the goals that ultimately led to us gaining promotion and winning the title. It is one of my favourite achievements as I had proved to myself that returning to football was the right decision.
As expected, the 2016 season has proved to be challenging so far, but do you believe the squad have what it takes to establish Reading’s status in the top flight of Women’s football?
Well we have done that by staying up with a couple of games to spare this season, but there is a lot that needs to be worked on if the club are to stick around for years to come. We haven’t been far off in a lot of games and not once have we been outclassed and beaten by four or five goals so there is a lot to take from that.
Managing games and maintaining concentration comes with experience and that is something to take into next season, everyone will be a season wiser if you like. And of course we would have liked to have scored more goals and subsequently won more games, but safety was the aim and that’s what we’ve done so we have to be pleased.
At the time of writing, you have played on 71 occasions for Wales, scoring 41 goals. Still only 30 years of age, do you see yourself reaching the 100-cap mark?
Haha I don’t know! 100 still seems a long way away but who knows? As long as I am fit and considered good enough for selection I will always be available. I would never retire from international football and carry on for a club. It means too much to me. To get to 100 caps would be unbelievable, but it would mean 100 times more to qualify for a major tournament so if we could do that, I would end my career a very happy girl.
As well as playing football, you are currently working towards a Sports Journalism and Broadcasting degree at Staffordshire University – how are you finding that?
It’s great. It’s always good to have something to do in the little spare time I have and it’s something to focus on post-football. I do find it hard at times when I have to juggle it with football and my daughter but I always say; if you have the desire and determination to do something, you can always find the time.
Once you hang up your boots, we may well see your face on our TV screens then?
Who knows… Maybe I’ve got more of a face for radio! I don’t know. It’s a tough industry to get into, I would love to do it but I know there is a lot of hard work ahead. But if there’s anyone out there reading this who wants to hook me up, you know where to find me!
You can follow Helen on Twitter – @HelenWardie10