After the birth of her first child earlier this year, Wales’ all-time leading scorer Helen Ward is building up to a return to playing, aiming to add some more noteworthy feats for her teammates to sing about in her honour.
Counting Arsenal and Chelsea Ladies amongst the reputable clubs she has hit the target for, Helen made a move to link up with a former teammate when she signed for Reading last December. That was the indisputably accomplished ex-Arsenal and Wales midfielder Jayne Ludlow, who has since gone from managing the Royals to leading her country from the touchline.
Due to being pregnant with daughter Emily (born in September), Helen had to step back from the majority of the action in Reading’s 2014 season, but she appears part of her one-time colleague’s plans for the Welsh national team. She was called up to the squad’s training camp last month, and with domestic competition in off-season, she has been steadily adapting once again to the demands of a footballer.
Once captain of Watford, her 32 goals for Wales put her out in front as the nation’s leading scorer (male or female) at international level and such achievements are not lost on those she plays alongside. Welsh captain and Seattle Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock revealed on here in March how she helped to put together a tribute to Helen’s career by changing the words to the popular song ‘Hymns and Arias’.
This was a dedication to Helen on her special day and she recalls the polished effort put forth by the skipper and another of her counterparts.
“Jess and Gwen Harries sent me a voice note on the morning of my wedding. I remember smiling and laughing but I also really loved that they had taken the time to do it for me.
“It made reference to me always being a Lander rather than the Ward I was about to become, and of course their voices were spot on!”
As much as goals, games and silverware help define the careers of footballers, music has its own way of marking various moments. It unifies players, particularly when kick-off is drawing ever closer, and ensures that certain songs are forever attached to significant memories.
Helen, who won the FA Women’s Premier League with Arsenal on two occasions, has a look at the players in her career who have taken the lead with dressing room playlists.
“There’s been a few really. I think Gemma Davison had a fair bit of control at Arsenal, with Chelsea, the likes of Carly Telford, Dan Buet and a couple of others had their iPods on the go, and with Wales, Jess Fishlock tries to get in there but no one really lets her, so I think it is Tash Harding who usually wins on that one.
“They all play a similar type of stuff; upbeat songs that are popular at the time and likely to get everyone going and ready to play. After the games with Wales, we love a bit of Tom Jones or Whitney Houston to blast out in our best singing voices.
“Either that or recreating the songs from Pitch Perfect, the Wales team movie of choice! As far as Reading goes, I’ve not been in the changing room often enough to know who is in charge but I reckon Lois Roche has a bit of say in what goes on the playlist.”
In 2009, Helen was an FA Women’s Cup winner with Arsenal as she came on in the second half for Ciara Grant in the Gunners’ 2-1 victory over Sunderland. That success was Arsenal’s fourth FA Cup in a row and in front of a crowd of over 23,000 at Derby County’s Pride Park, with their goals coming from Katie Chapman and Kim Little.
Before she ever got the opportunity to demonstrate her ability in front of thousands however, Helen was a young kid with her first music, and any chance for some 90s nostalgia is encouraged on here.
“The first tape I remember listening to was given to me one Christmas. I must have been about six and I played it over and over on my new Walkman – it was Tasmin Archer ‘Sleeping Satellite’!
“The first one I bought was ‘Back for Good’ by Take That, which would have been when I was about nine. I have a pretty broad taste in music to be honest.
“I wouldn’t say I’m as up-to-date with all the youngsters I play with but I keep an eye on what’s new. I do like the oldies as well and one minute I’ll have KISS FM on, the next it will be Heart or Magic.
“There’s probably at least one song in more or less every genre that I like, so to be honest, I’m not fussy!”
Joining Chelsea in 2010, Helen played in the 2012 FA Cup final after watching from the bench two years earlier as Arsenal were beaten 3-2 at the end of extra-time by Natasha Dowie’s goal for Everton. As a Blue this time, she scored the opening goal of the game for Matt Beard’s team, 70 minutes into the Ashton Gate clash with Birmingham City.
The game went all the way to penalties after Rachel Williams’ equaliser for Birmingham in stoppage time and a further goal for each side in extra-time. Helen had departed the action on 76 minutes, making way for Kate Longhurst, and she had to watch on as Chelsea were beaten 3-2 in the shootout by a Birmingham team led by the likes of captain Laura Bassett, Karen Carney and Jodie Taylor.
Prior to Helen’s switch to Reading twelve months ago, her three years at Chelsea gave her plenty of memories, including the solitary singing task of her career to date.
“The only club I have had to do an initiation for was Chelsea and I had to sing at the front of the bus before a game. I managed to swing it and do a duet with Gemma Bonner and for some reason we chose ‘Sex Bomb’ by Tom Jones (with Mousse T)!
“I have no idea why, but it’s fair to say it probably wasn’t my finest performance! My hen night in Cardiff with the Welsh girls, however, was immense; the karaoke we produced was out of this world, honestly!”
The standard of singing that night may have apparently been high, but even a shot-sure forward like Helen can miss the mark sometimes. The 54-cap international explains how she leans on her aforementioned fellow Welsh forward for some lyrical support.
“I love having Gwen Harries stand next to me for the Welsh national anthem as she sings it with all her heart and with more passion than anyone I know. I love her for that, and also for the fact it drowns me out when I inevitably stumble over the tricky Welsh words!”
Briefly appearing as a substitute for England Under-23s against Finland in the 2007 Nordic Cup, Helen made the decision to represent the nation of her grandfather (on her mother’s side of the family). Her debut for Wales was in the 6-1 win over Luxembourg in September 2008, and in typical fashion, she got herself on the scoresheet.
That was the first goal en route to becoming a record-breaker and there were numerous players who shared in those moments along the way. A former Watford and Wales colleague, who is now a cardiac physiologist, was Helen’s pick when asked which of her career teammates she would record a cover of a song with.
“That’s a tough one. A few car journeys to Wales with Sally Wade have resulted in a game of ‘best singing voice’ and so I reckon, as we’ve had a bit of practice, we could belt out a Whitney classic to not so good effect!”
In the inaugural season of the FA Women’s Super League’s two-tier competition, Reading finished 3rd in WSL 2. Helen’s on-field participation was fleeting, although she did score in her solitary appearance, coming off the bench for Melissa Fletcher to net in the fourth round of the FA Cup as Blackburn were beaten 2-0 in March.
Together with husband Matt, she welcomed daughter Emily in September, so how has adapting to parenthood been and how has Helen found the early stages of the return to football?
“Everything has been going great, thank you. Emily is a pretty good little girl and Matt and I are very happy to have become parents and to take on the next stage of our lives.
“It isn’t always easy as we’ve always been pretty independent people in that he has his golf and fishing and I have my football…and shopping! In that sense, we have had times where we have had to compromise but it hasn’t been a problem at all.
“I think having a baby can test any relationship, but in our case, we feel it has made us stronger as a couple. It really helps that we both have incredible support from our parents and we are so grateful for that.
“They are all very supportive in my ambition to be back playing football and so I know that Emily is in good hands when I go off to training. Mum comes to all my games up and down the country so she will bring Emily along to them as well.
“It’s more so the international camps where I have to be away for a few days and nights, which is a bit more difficult to sort out at this stage. Jayne Ludlow, the Wales manager, is very supportive and understanding of my situation and we don’t have any competitive fixtures this year so it isn’t so bad.
“I’m hoping that when Emily is a bit older, we may be able to accommodate her on trips so it will make life a bit easier and we can have a little team mascot to cheer us on! In terms of my own progress, I’m taking it slow and steady.
“The physios, doctors and coaches have all been great with managing my load and not expecting too much from me too soon.”
Last September, Helen’s 50th cap for Wales was recognised as she was given a guard of honour and a bouquet of flowers before the World Cup qualifier with Belarus. Naturally, the country’s most productive international finisher had to make a telling contribution on such an occasion, and she did, grabbing the only strike as Belarus were seen off by a goal to nil.
The prolific form in front of goal, as well as her undoubted leadership, has served her well in her career up to now, and at just 28, there is every reason to believe there will be much more to this story. Jarmo Matikainen’s notable tenure as Wales manager may be over but Jayne Ludlow has already included Helen in her plans, with the training camp inclusion, as mentioned earlier.
Besides aiming to help push the Welsh side to a first official major tournament (following 3rd place in their 2015 World Cup qualifying group), there is the challenge of a promotion push with Reading next season. Let’s pause for a minute for her to look back on what she believes her time spent devoted to the game has taught her, as well as the advice she would give to the Helen Ward who was just starting out in football.
“I have had many ups and a few downs throughout my career and I would say the best thing is to realise that nothing will last forever, good or bad. Enjoy the successes but keep working hard and maintaining the high levels and standards that got you there in the first place as you will need to pull on those qualities when things get tough.
“I think football has taught me a lot. It has taught me how to win and lose gracefully and how to work hard not only for yourself but for those around you.
“I don’t think I would say these things to myself too young, though. The reason being that I loved the way I played with no fear when I was young.
“In my Watford days, I believed that no team would stop me scoring past them, no matter who they were. I don’t have that so much now and I think that fear factor may come with experience, so to my younger self, I would probably say enjoy the game and believe in yourself.”
Up until her move to Arsenal in 2009, Helen had been with Watford since childhood and she is a fervent supporter of the men’s team. Numerous ex-Hornets players have featured on this site, as well as current captain and striker Troy Deeney.
Helen gives some insight into the significance of the club throughout her life and describes the more recent experience of following the team and the influx of overseas talent in the squad since the Pozzo family’s 2012 takeover.
“My love for Watford goes back about 20 years. I have had a season ticket from the age of 8 or 9 and I absolutely love it.
“Match day at Vicarage Road is one of the highlights of my week! I have seen a lot of tough times during those 20 years but I can’t keep myself away.
“I have a few favourite players from the many different teams I have watched. Players such as Alec Chamberlain in goal, Tommy Mooney and Tommy Smith; proper Watford players.
“Seeing Ashley Young come up through the ranks and achieve what he has is also incredible for a little club like ours. From the current squad, which is the best I’ve seen in terms of depth and quality, there are probably four or five who I really think are great players in the Championship.
“The midfield three of Daniel Tozser, Gianni Munari and Almen Abdi are just a joy to watch, and them feeding the likes of Troy Deeney up top, you really feel like we can score for fun. The club means a lot to me.
“As I said, I’ve watched the men play for all those years but I also played for Watford Ladies from the age of eight to 22 and I captained the club to promotion into the National Division (of the FA Women’s Premier League) for the first time in their history.
“I made a lot of really good friends in my time there who I still count as very close friends.”
As usual, there is only one way to wrap up the interview and that is for Helen to temporarily switch to fantasy 5-a-side player-manager. Selecting from all those she has been on a team with in her career up to now, it is up to Wales’ most clinical international footballer to choose four to join her.
The emphasis with this question is on naming just a small sample from the many teammates they could pick, rather than narrowing it down to a definitive ‘best four’. Here is Helen’s line-up to take to the 5-a-side arena, with numerous others in her mind of course.
“That’s another really, really tough question, but here goes. Goalkeeper: Marie Hourihan – Margie – one of the hardest working and most honest players I’ve ever worked with and a good friend.
“It is a really tough choice between her and Nicky Davies though – my roomie with Wales – as there’s nothing in it when it comes to their ability. In defence, I think Sally Wade, a girl I played with for Watford and Wales.
“Again, she’s a great friend of mine and a top, top girl who is the life and soul of any dressing room. But apart from that, she was a solid, no-nonsense defensive player, but she could also play great football.
“Her best position was arguably defensive midfield but in 5 a-side I think she could be very effective as a ball-playing defender. In midfield, I’d like someone like Jess Fishlock; a player who can open up the opposition and put chances on a plate for the forwards.
“Her or Kim Little would be great in there; they both work extremely hard off the ball and so would help Sally defensively when necessary. I really can’t choose between the two ability-wise but as Jess is a fellow Welshie I will go with her!
“Finally, my strike partner would be Tash Harding. Again, a hard-working Welshie who has talent in abundance, but also a workhorse-type attitude and selfless playing style.
“She will run all day for her team and create as many goals as she scores. Another one who livens up a changing room and who I have loved playing alongside.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence that the players I have chosen have been those who have been in the teams I had the most success with and also the times I’ve enjoyed my football the most. There are plenty of other players who would be so close to making the team – the likes of Nicky (Davies), Kim (Little), Fran Kirby, Gwen Harries etc.
“Certainly a few who would get in it before I would, but that’s my 5-a-side team and I think we’d have a good chance!”
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See the music/football interviews Helen’s Wales teammates gave on here: