In joining Everton in the summer of 1991, Mark Ward resurrected a dream that had seemingly died a decade earlier. The Huyton born midfielder, a fan who had once served as a Goodison ball boy, had worked his way through Everton’s youth ranks, but was released by the club for being too small without making an appearance. He resurrected his career in non-league football, before getting his chance at Joe Royle’s Oldham. He broke into the First Division with West Ham in 1985, before Howard Kendall twice paid more than a million pounds for him at the end of the decade: while Manchester City manager in December 1989 and again for Everton eighteen months later.
A feisty right sided midfielder, who belied his diminutive frame with snarling aggression and a relentless will to win, Ward added tenacity and bite to the Everton midfield. Not for nothing was he dubbed ‘Mark the nark’ and Stuart Pearce described him his ‘toughest opponent.’ He was comfortable in possession and running with the ball, though was never particularly pacy, nor a possessor of the dazzling dribbling skills that came naturally to a player like Pat Nevin. He had a fierce shot and scored some spectacular long range goals. On his home debut against league champions Arsenal, Ward scored twice in an effervescent display as Everton won 3-1. It was, he recalled, ‘the best game of my career.’
But after such a fine start, what followed was tinged with disappointment. Everton underachieved and Ward, who was in his late-20s, looked as if he had already peaked elsewhere. There were a few memorable moments, notably a fierce drive that opened the scoring in the September 1993 derby match, but these were few and far between. With the arrival of Mike Walker as manager in January 1994, chances became sparse and Ward joined Birmingham City for £500,000 two months later.
After two years at St Andrews, Ward struggled to find a meaningful role within the game. He managed non-league Altrincham for a period but was sacked. After spells of unemployment and illness, he fell into crime and in October 2004 was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to supply and sentenced to eight years imprisonment. It was a shocking outcome for a man who had played at the top for so long.
‘I've never been in trouble before and have never dealt in drugs,’ he told the Observer, shortly after his conviction. ‘Adapting to life after football was too much for me at times. When today's Premiership stars retire they'll be set up for life. But the biggest contract I ever had was £2,000 a week and, when my playing career ended, I soon wound up with nothing. When the money, fame and glamour disappear it's hard to adjust.’
Ward, Mark, Hammered, John Blake, 2010