By Andrew McSteen
Last season, Palace defender Joel Ward started all 38 games of the Premier League season as he helped the Selhurst Park side avoid relegation.
After their survival was confirmed, Sam Allardyce departed and was eventually replaced by Frank de Boer with Ward appearing in all four league games of the Dutchman’s short-lived tenure in SE25.
Under new manager Roy Hodgson, Ward appeared in all but one of the league matches – he was an unused substitute in the 5-0 away loss at Manchester City – before he picked up a groin injury at West Bromwich Albion in the 0-0 draw on December 2nd.
Since then, Ward has been a regular in the treatment room, but earlier this week was declared fully fit and was an unused substitute in the 1-1 draw with West Ham United on Tuesday night.
“Every player will say the same thing: it’s never the same when you’re sat on the bench,” said Ward to the South London Press on Tuesday. “You wouldn’t be in the game if you didn’t want to be out on the pitch. For me, there’s that burning desire to be out there. That’s all I can think about and that’s all I want to do – last season I started every game and I want to get back to that.”
With Hodgson facing an injury crisis not only in defence, but attack too, Ward was well-aware how important it was to come back and be available for selection, but the path to full fitness is not always a smooth one.
“I had my groin injury from the West Bromwich Albion game, but on the way back to recovery I just picked up a couple of niggles, which was frustrating,” said the 28-year-old former Portsmouth player.
“I was just trying to get back as quick as I could and probably I tried to get back a bit too soon and then it happened again, so it was extremely frustrating but that’s the risk you take when you try and get back as quick as possible.
“When you’re out injured you want to be back as quick playing as possible – sometimes things happen [on the road to recovery] but it’s neither here nor there. I’ve just got to now make sure I stay fit as I’m now back training fully and feeling good so ready when called upon.”
With the Eagles out of the FA Cup, they had 10 days between their last match – the 4-1 away loss at Arsenal – to the West Ham game and that extra break helped Ward to get back to 100%.
“Definitely, the break helps,” said Ward, who was signed by Palace in May 2012. “When you’re looking after yourself you can do a little bit over those few extra days to just keep ticking over and with me being out you want to come back as fit and as sharp as you possibly can for when your chance comes.
“Our medical team are the experts, they try and get you back as quick as you can and as safe as possible, and with Sakho back and Cabaye playing as well, it’s good to have all the lads fighting for contention and it will only better us as a team when you’ve got that competition.
“We’re all itching to get back on the pitch – me especially and I know Mamadou as well, that’s a healthy thing to have. We’re ready when called upon – you just have to take that opportunity when the chance presents itself.”
Despite some players returning from injury, longer-term injuries to Jason Puncheon, Scott Dann, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Conor Wickham and now possibly Bakary Sako, Palace have made moves in the transfer market to strengthen a depleted squad, including the additions earlier this month of Jaroslaw Jach and Erdal Rakip.
“They’ve come in and are settling in nicely,” said Ward. “It’s good to see them out training on the pitch. It’s always difficult when you come over [from another country to England] and try to adjust but they’ve done that really quickly so far in training.
“It’s great when you get the news additions, it lifts the squad and heightens the competition but as a team and squad we’ve got to take the point (against West Ham) and push on and go into Sunday’s game with the momentum and confidence to know that we can get all three points.”