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Deal talk out of Ward's mind

Stoke defender know clubs will feel financial pinch

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MORE IMPORTANT THINGS: The virus has had an impact on the economic situation of Stephen Ward’s family. Photo: SPORTSFILE

MORE IMPORTANT THINGS: The virus has had an impact on the economic situation of Stephen Ward’s family. Photo: SPORTSFILE

MORE IMPORTANT THINGS: The virus has had an impact on the economic situation of Stephen Ward’s family. Photo: SPORTSFILE

For a professional footballer who can count down to the end of his contract in terms of weeks and not months, March is a nervous time of the year.

Even more nervous when you'll hit 35 at your next birthday and time is no longer a luxury.

Former Ireland defender Stephen Ward's contract with Stoke City runs out at the end of this season, technically late May but in a world torn apart by Covid-19, contracts have little meaning any more.

Championship rivals like Leeds United and Birmingham City have already floated the idea of pay cuts, or at least a deferral of wages, for players and other staff.

That conversation hasn't happened at Stoke yet, though Ward expects that action will need to be taken for clubs to survive.

But he says thoughts and talks about deals have to be parked.

Contracts

"I am up at the end of the season so I am anxious about what will happen but clubs don't know what the position is with the transfer window, with contracts," Ward says.

"The most important thing for me, and other players, is keeping our families safe, there are people out there in world in more need of attention than professional footballers.

"We can't do much about our own positions at the moment. Depending on how long this goes on, I will have to think about my future but at the minute I am focused on staying fit and seeing what happens.

"The club haven't had a conversation with us about wages and contracts, but I am sure that will happen the longer this goes on.

"As players, we are guided by the club, they are guided by the EFL, so it's a case of sitting tight. But it's inevitable that something will have to happen as we don't want clubs to get into financial bother.

"Clubs are so important and hopefully something can be worked out, whether that's from the British government or from the players but something has to be done as clubs will be in serious trouble."

The players have been impacted at career level as matches are off, group training banned.

But Ward, who retired from international football last year, says that players do understand how serious the crisis is.

"We're all aware of how hard this is," he admits.

"My missus has a shop which has had to close. She is out of pocket, trying to keep paying her bills and pay the people who had been working for her.

"She had sublet rooms to other people who can't afford to pay for them now.

"It's impacted on her and my family back home. My dad's work has suffered, I have other family members out of work, people who are just trying to keep going.

"People talk about footballers living in a world of their own, but this crisis has had an effect on everyone. It's a lot closer to home than we had ever imagined.

"And the most worrying part is that no one seems to know when it will end. You go from day to day hoping for good news. People in Ireland seemed to get the hang of it pretty quickly and reacted well.

"The Irish Government seemed to get a good handle on it from early on."

The crisis crept up on his club pretty quickly.

"It was a strange situation," Ward recalls. "We had a game on the Friday against Reading and then the news broke that football was off for the foreseeable future so we just trained that day and went home.

"We were told we were back in on the Monday, that was changed to Wednesday and then the country was in lockdown, so we weren't even allowed into the training ground."

So that meant working solo, even if the only ball work a player could do was a kickabout in the back garden with one of their children.

"We have a great group of sports science staff and physios. They sent us out a GPS unit and that, with an app on your phone, gives you sessions three times a week - and they are tough sessions," Ward says.

"The amount of running we do now on our own is similar to what we'd do at training, but it's all done on your own. There's no question of meeting up with other lads to train, even if you did that you'd have to keep your distance.

"We are trying to get work in and stay fit, you do what you can, but the most difficult part is not working with the group.

"It feels like the off-season when you do top-up runs so you are ready for pre-season, even then when you go back for pre-season you start off trying to find your feet as you've not been working with the ball. You can't replicate that away from the training ground.

"I've spoken to the lads who have younger kids, you have professional players trying to kick a ball in their back garden with the kids but you can't replicate the work from the training ground.

"All we can do now is stay generally fit and healthy, but it will take a week, once we do get back in, to get back to our usual levels.

"And the thing is, no one knows when we will be back in.

Sharpness

"We hope that football can get back and we, as players, can regain that sharpness, but the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to get your sharpness back. 

"We do all we can, we do the work the club sends us so we can stay fit but we have no idea when we'll be back to normality and that's the frightening part of it.

"As much as everyone wants to get back training and playing, there is a bigger picture here and we can see that."

Ward hadn't featured for Stoke in the two months before the Covid-19 interruption, as a calf injury and then a back problem forced him out, and once he was fit again the side's form had picked up and he was unable to get back into the team.

Even before coronavirus hit, a lot was up in the air at Stoke. The future of manager Michael O'Neill is shrouded in doubt due to his commitment to Northern Ireland while Stoke's Championship status is also uncertain, City clear of the relegation zone on the back of decent form lately but they were still not safe.

And Ward was also unsure of his future, though despite that imminent 35th birthday he has no plans to hang up the boots.

"I want to play for as long as I can, whatever level that is at. I feel fit and well and I don't want to finish just yet," he says.


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