Forgotten man Ward could be club and country saviour

Players Wales National Team

A feature on Liverpool and Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward.

Danny Ward, Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson all started for Liverpool U23’s on Sunday afternoon in a low-key victory over Derby County, but as the restless Welsh trio struggle to make an impression on Jurgen Klopp’s senior side, their immediate future could make a significant difference to Ryan Giggs’ early impact as the new manager of Wales.

All three have played competitive senior internationals. Goalkeeper Ward, 24, started in the opening match of UEFA EURO 2016 as Chris Coleman’s side defeated Slovakia 2-1 in Bordeaux, Woodburn, 18, scored a memorable winner against Austria on his international debut in Cardiff during the last qualifying campaign, and Wilson, 20, remains Wales’ youngest-ever player.

Out of the three, Woodburn remains the only teenager, and Ward and Wilson especially must surely now start playing regular senior football in order to be considered as part of Giggs’ squad ahead of the China Cup in March. The emergence of players like Woodburn, Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks were rare international positives during the last campaign, and how they progress over the course of the coming year will be of great interest.

Ampadu is now regularly involved in the senior squad at Chelsea, while Brooks has been linked with a number of Premier League clubs in the current transfer window, but a summer switch now appears likely. Woodburn will struggle to make an impact at Liverpool at the present time, and a loan move to the Championship could offer him the best opportunity to play regular senior football.

Giggs will be keen to see his prodigious talents playing regularly, but while Woodburn and Wilson have more time on their side, Ward is at a crucial point in his career, and has already shown that he is more than capable of playing at higher level. Wales haven’t had a top class goalkeeper since Neville Southall, and while Wayne Hennessey has established himself as number one, there is a need for competition.

Ward benefited greatly from his loan move to Huddersfield last season, and Aberdeen before that, and there is no doubt that his career has stalled this season following his return to Liverpool. A key part of Huddersfield’s promotion to the Premier League, Ward rounded off an incredible season with his penalty shoot-out heroics in the play-off final, and the only disappointment was having to return to Anfield.

Even the close friendship between respective managers Klopp and David Wagner failed to engineer another season with the Terriers, and now Ward has slipped behind the well-criticised duo of Simon Mingolet and Loris Karius in the Liverpool pecking order. Neither impress, and while the club invest heavily on outfield players, the lack of a top-class goalkeeper continues to prove counter-productive to their ambitions.

That is not to say that Danny Ward should be considered the world-class solution to Liverpool’s defensive problems, but he deserves more of an opportunity than he has been offered to date. In fact, not only does his international future depend on it, but there is every reason to believe that if he can elevate himself into Klopp’s thoughts then he could become the natural first choice for both teams.

On present form, Ward would certainly not do any worse than Mingolet or Karius, and the Anfield faithful would welcome a change. In addition, Ward has been with the club since 2012, and having joined from Wrexham as a teenager he would be offered more time to impress than another outsider. There is no doubt that Ward will be feeling frustrated right now after his experiences with Huddersfield last season.

Wayne Hennessey became Chris Coleman’s clear first choice goalkeeper for Wales once he returned from a long-term injury in 2013, and while he missed the opening match of EURO 2016 through injury, his recovery brought his immediate return for the second game despite Ward playing in the victory over Slovakia. It was a mark of his seniority within the group after being ever-present in the qualifying campaign.

Now 31, Hennessey has shared goalkeeping duties with Julian Speroni this season as Crystal Palace look to move away from the bottom of the Premier League table under former England manager Roy Hodgson. His sporadic playing time will be a concern for Giggs, and while it is not an unusual situation for Hennessey having been in a similar position prior to the EURO finals, he is not getting any younger.

With Chris Maxwell, 27, and Adam Davies, 25, playing regularly for Preston North End and Barnsley respectively in the Championship, there is increasing competition for a position where options have been traditionally limited in recent years. There are other keepers coming through the pathway system, but it is Ward that appears to have the most potential to realistically challenge Hennessey at the present time.

But to do this he needs games, and it may be that Giggs himself will need to discuss the matter with Klopp directly as builds the necessary club and country bridges that will ultimately make his job that much easier. Coleman entered into a public argument with Klopp last year over his decision to select Woodburn for international duty, and while the decision was vindicated, it will not have been forgotten.

There is some irony in Giggs, the Manchester United legend, having to turn to Liverpool for cooperation. But that is the job that he has signed up for, and he knows better than anyone the value of trust between a club manager and the national team. Now very much on the other side of the fence, Giggs’ will see just how difficult things can be when star players become unavailable.

The China Cup will offer the first indication of what we can expect from Giggs’ Wales, and he will be keen to select a squad of players with sufficient game time under their belts when the tournament comes around in March. Hennessey is likely to retain his place, but there is no doubt that Ward is one for the near future, and his international status will ultimately depend on where his club career takes him.