IF you presented Noel Ward’s soccer career in script form to a Holywood producer, they would probably laugh you out of their office.
The Dunamanagh native was plucked from obscurity to play for Derry City before moving to Portadown, then on to Aberdeen and then Wigan Athletic where he seemed destined for the top.
He played at Molineux, scored on his international debut, rearranged his wedding to play against Kenny Daglish and was part of the first ever Wigan team to play in the Football League, all before injury ended his career at the age of just 26.
Ward comes from a sporting family. His dad was a good footballer, he had uncles who played cricket and he played gaelic football at county level, winning the All Ireland Vocational Schools’ Championship with Tyrone. But it was on the soccer pitch that he made his name, although he would say older brother Brian, who also played for Derry City, was the pick of the siblings, who included the youngest, Peter, who played for Coleraine and Lisburn Distillery.
Noel’s soccer journey really began after he left school. He had dabbled a little while at St Colman’s High School in Strabane and he appeared in several ‘all summer cups’, like the Buncrana Cup, alongside big brother Brian.
However, it was while working as an apprentice fitter at DuPont that he caught the eye of a Derry City scout who invited the sprightly young forward for a trial after he was impressed by Ward’s performance during an inter-departmental tournament.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” beamed 68-year-old Noel from his home in Wigan.
“I had nothing to lose, so I had some trials, played a few games in the Saturday Morning League and I suppose one thing just led to another.”
Ward started off as a right half for Derry City’s second string until then first team manager, Jimmy Hill – not the famously chinned former Match of the Day pundit – told him he was going to play centre-forward.
That move proved fruitful, with the 17-year-old plundering a hat-trick during a 5-3 victory and it was followed by an amateur contract with the Candystripes, who were still an Irish League side at that point.
The Tyrone man didn’t have long to wait until he was brought into City’s first team squad and he helped them to the 1970-71 Irish Cup final by scoring twice in their quarter-final victory over Queen’s at Coleraine before they ousted Linfield 1-0 at the same venue in the last four.
Unfortunately he could do little to help them in the decider as they went down 3-0 to a Martin O’Neill inspired Distillery but Ward needed to pinch himself at not only the speed of his progress but also the opportunities that came with it.
“The whole thing was ridiculous, it all just took off in the space of a few months!,” he exclaimed. “We played Linfield in the semi-final and then we were in the Texaco Cup.
“They had already played Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Brandywell, so I got a trip to Molineux, which was absolutely unbelievable. To get from the Prehen playing fields to Molineux in the space of about six
months was just unbelievable.
“Big Derek Dougan, who was a hero of ours at the time, played for Wolves, but he didn’t play against us that night. He did come into the changing room before the match and had a chat with everyone, which was just mad.
“It was hard to take it in at the time, there was just so much going on. It was a crazy time for me going from hardly playing football to playing an Irish Cup semi-final, an Irish Cup final, playing against Wolves, it was just mad.”
FULL STORY IN LAST THURSDAY’S STRABANE CHRONICLE