Helen Ward blog
A month is a long time in football, and this last month has been no different. On a personal level, things are going great, I’m really feeling fit now and starting to gain more confidence from every session and game I’m involved in. In terms of Reading, it has been a little less straight forward…
The first three games couldn’t have gone any better. We had a 100% record, scoring 14 goals and conceding just 2. We were feeling great. In the space of a week, however, that all changed. We came up against a very organised and disciplined Yeovil side – one that we had beaten 4-2 on the opening day – and we succumbed to the same score line. They came to our place and beat us with a combination of hard work, tactical discipline and, of course, talent. We were aware of the threats they had, having already played them this season, and I know it wasn’t a case of complacency – I just don’t think that’s our style – but for whatever reason, we just weren’t at the races that day. Something was missing, but credit where credit is due, Yeovil came with a game plan, executed it well and took away the three points they deserved.
Back to the training ground. We had some discussions and a few changes were made but again, in the following game, we came unstuck. This time it was Oxford. A team many would expect us to beat going by last seasons form, but like all of the other teams in this division, they have strengthened and have proved they will compete in every game they play. We came away with a 2-2 draw having had to come back from a goal down on two occasions. They punished us with a set piece and a good finish from the edge of the area, but were with goals we could, and probably should have avoided. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though, and as I explained to the players after the game, these are the sorts of teams and performances we will have to expect this season. We are one of the teams everyone wants to beat. it’s how we deal with that pressure that counts. I was pleased with the way we fought in the Oxford game and on another night it could have been 4 or 5 that we scored. As it happened they had a goal keeper who was in inspired form and some of our finishing left a little to be desired.
I feel players like myself and the other more experienced players have to step up. Not necessarily on the pitch as such, but as a voice in the dressing room and in training to keep everyone focussed and ready to go for the next game. We have a very young squad. At 29 I am the oldest player in the team, and bar one or two others, the rest are a good few years behind. I feel a responsibility to help the younger players deal with the pressure of being in the team to beat. We have an abundance of talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we are one of the fittest teams in the country – let a lone the league – we just have to use it. I want the team to enjoy being up there and enjoy playing football. I don’t want the girls to fear going into each game and worry that the result may go against us. It is up to us to prove why we are one of the tips for promotion and go out there and achieve it.
I feel that becoming a mum and having the time away from football for a year has made me appreciate this even more. I don’t see the point in working so hard to return, to then settle for average. I haven’t gone out on my own to the park in the rain to be mediocre. None of the players have. We all have training programmes to complete alongside our club sessions and believe me, they are hard work. On an average week we probably train in one form or another 5 or 6 days out of a week, depending on the schedule in terms of games – resting at the right times is as important as training, otherwise your body has no time to recover and therefore you will never be at your peak.
Moving on from domestic football, I am sure most of you will be aware that the draw for the Euro 2017 qualifying campaign was made in April. With two teams qualifying from each group, I am sure I am right in saying that all of the home nations will feel like there is a real opportunity to book their place in the finals in Holland. I appreciate that it is a bit of a cliche but it is well known that there is not gong to be an easy draw. For teams like ourselves, every international game is going to be a test, but we feel that we can compete with any team we are up against. With this in mind, we were quietly pleased with the draw which sees us face Norway, Austria, Israel and Kazakhstan. Norway have the pedigree, of course they do, but if we keep progressing in the way that we are, come September, we will be ready for them and hopeful of springing a surprise. I have faced Austria before and to be honest I don’t think there’s much in it between the two of us. Again, it is going to be a tough test but we will certainly be looking to put points on the board against them. Israel and Kazakhstan offer totally different tests, especially in the away ties. We actually came up against Israel in the last European campaign and managed to win both games so we know we can do it. Kazakhstan is a bit more of an unknown entity for us. The trick with these teams is to make the travel and the hotel arrangements as simple as possible. It is also key to have a good spirit in the camp because in places like that it can be easy to get bored or lose focus. With Wales, I have no worries in that sense as we genuinely have a great atmosphere amongst players and staff and it is always enjoyable being away with the group, wherever it takes us. I think we have proved that in recent years by winning games in places like Israel, Belarus, Montenegro and Turkey. We have certainly learnt lessons from the less fruitful Azerbaijan trip 6 or 7 years ago. But I’m not going to talk about that!
As you can imagine, being a semi professional footballer, as most of the Welsh squad are, it is tough when it comes to having time to play for your country. Whether it is finding time to put in the extra training required or your work allowing you to have the time off work. I have found that having a child is not much easier! I am sure I am not the only one in the squad who has to rely on a hugely supportive family to enable me to play the sport I love at the highest level I can. It is a huge wrench for me to leave Emily at home when I am away but it is made so much easier by knowing that she is in the best hands. My husband, Matt, is a very hands on dad and I think he looks forward to the time he gets to spend with her on his own. He works pretty long hours and so the time he has with her is special. Having said that, when I am away he still has to work and so it is amazing to know that my mum and dad, Matt’s mum and dad as well as my older sister, all rally round to help when I am away. My sister is self employed and so was able to give up some of her work to help us out, it is support like that which has allowed me to return to international football and I will be forever grateful.
The support I have had doesn’t end there. I also have my little fan club at most of our Reading games. It really is special to walk out onto the pitch and seeing Matt, Emily and my mum cheering me on. I know Emily is too little to understand and will be for sometime but I would really love to make her proud. My mum has been my biggest fan from day one and of course Matt has always been there to support me but this season just feels different. It’s like I’ve got a whole new incentive to do well and that’s another reason why I won’t settle for second best. I don’t want to be the player that just did ok after having a baby. I want to be successful after having a baby and give hope to any other female players or athletes who plan to have children that you can return to top level sport. Just as others have before me. The likes of Katie Chapman at Chelsea, Katie Sherwood who has recently retired and Lynsey Cunningham at Doncaster Belles have all inspired me to comeback fitter and stronger and I just want to do the same for others. I don’t want me having had a baby to be an excuse for me to be any less of a player than I was before. At the start of my return, of course, I had to be careful and training had to be tailored to suit me so that I didn’t do any lasting damage to myself. But now I am back to what I would consider something near my fittest, that can’t be an excuse anymore and I don’t want to allow my coaches or managers to use it as an excuse.
I want to be playing because I deserve to be, or not playing because I haven’t been good enough – but not because I have had a baby. It is up to me now to prove that it is irrelevant. It has been hard to get to this point, where I feel fit enough to compete properly, but it is definitely worth it now I am there. But there’s still more to come from me, I know it.