Wardy’ is back!

MARK WARD, former West Ham hero, stared hard at the hotel bar table and pictured the dark times he spent in Walton Prison, writes DAVE EVANS. From Right Wing to B Wing is the title of the book he has written about his rollercoaster life, and though the pu

MARK WARD, former West Ham hero, stared hard at the hotel bar table and pictured the dark times he spent in Walton Prison, writes DAVE EVANS.

From Right Wing to B Wing is the title of the book he has written about his rollercoaster life, and though the pun works well, the scale of that fall from grace seems to weigh heavy on his mind for a moment.

"There was death in those walls," he said succinctly. "It was documented that there were three suicides in 17 days, but it wasn't just the deaths, there were people who survived after self-harming, people I knew, and that was just horrendous."

The 46-year-old looks fit, almost chiselled in appearance. The endless hours in various prison gyms have obviously had a considerable effect on his fitness.

But there is still a slightly apologetic tone in his voice, the need to justify himself and also like the martyr, to take the stream of criticism he knows is coming, on the chin.

Ward was released from open prison at the beginning of last month after serving four years of an eight-year stretch for a drug-related crime.

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An appearance on BBC Radio quickly gave him a taste of some of the public outrage over his crime.

"It was a very sobering experience," he admitted. "I just thought it was going to be an interview, but after 10 minutes they asked would I mind if we read out some texts.

"The comments were a bit upsetting because when they ring up and say their children have died because of drugs, it does kick you in the teeth. I've just got to be positive, take those comments on board.

"I'm not a drug dealer, read the book and read the case, I was done for renting out a property where drugs were found."

Between 1985 and 1989, Ward was an integral part in one of West Ham's greatest teams. He played over 200 games in claret and blue, was an ever-present in the team that finished third in Division One in 1986 and was talked of in England terms.

Ward was no journeyman footballer, and that is what makes the scouser's fall all the more alarming.

"There was loads of gossip about going to Mexico for the World Cup in 1986," he said. "I couldn't have started my career at West Ham any better. I played in every game and I think it was my consistency really when I look back."

It is 20 years since Ward played for West Ham, but the friends he made during his time at Upton Park seem to have been the longest lasting. When he was released, his former team-mates staged a special night for him down at the Hammers pub in East Ham.

So why has he got such an incredible bond with the West Ham boys?

"I think what we had in that 85-86 season and in consequent seasons was an unbelievable team spirit, which you don't get these days," he said.

"We bonded together, we all went out and drank together and for me, that counts for a lot.

"The game has changed so much now, but it shows just how tight a bond we had because we still get together after all these years. I don't think there are many clubs in the league who do that."

Of course at East Ham he was among friends. But for every mate and supporter he has, there will be another 10 people who think he should have been dealt with more severely, and those who say he should never have written a book to cash in on his notoriety.

"I got involved in a crime from January 2005 to May 2005, I rented a house out and that's it. So if people want to stop me going out and earning a living because of that I think I've got a good argument," he said.

"The rest of the time I'd never been in trouble, so what do you do? Just curl up and die? Go back to crime because you can't earn any dough? That's one thing I'm not going to do.

"There are a lot of messages in my book, things to be learned. It was such easy money, and a quick fix, but I regret it," he explained.

"This book could stop people doing that in the future. If I had looked at what would have happened if it all went pear-shaped, do you think I would have done it? I was just skint and stupid."

Unlike many sports autobiographies, Ward has physically sat down and written 10,000 words for this book himself. He has the blister on his finger and four dog-eared prison diaries to prove it! "I didn't instigate writing this book," he insisted. "Everyone wanted to know the reasons why I got involved with drug dealers, but I think it is quite a story, even without the added drama."

Ward is considering the after-dinner speaking circuit, something that could be lucrative as he has played in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London, but, of course, his first love is football.

"Football is my life and always has been and even though I've been inside for four years, I've still got that desire. I know I can coach because I did it successfully at Birmingham," he insisted.

"I'm ready to work and I know that I've got to start again at the bottom, but the experience in prison has only enhanced that."

'Wardy' is still in there fighting, and though he may have lost some of his natural happy-go-lucky scouse attitude, all he wants from society is another chance.

"My life has been a rollercoaster, but I'm definitely a better person now and I've just got to be positive," he said optimistically.

"I think I've learned my lesson, without a doubt, because the pain of what I've put my family through.

"I couldn't give my daughter away at her wedding, or see my grandchildren. I missed out on all that through selfishness and mistakes and hopefully I can put that right."

'Wardy' walked out of the dimly-lit Palms Hotel in Hornchurch and out into the sunshine of the car park. There was a little smile on his face as he talked to an old West Ham mate.

That is what being free is all about.