Premier League Career: Norwich City (1994-1995), Derby County (1996-1997), Barnsley (1997-1998), Blackburn Rovers (1998-1999), Bradford City (2000-2001)
Ashley Ward played for five different Premier League clubs and was often brought into sides by teams struggling to avoid the drop. This means he has the unfortunate distinction of being relegated no fewer than four times. Out of the clubs he represented in the top-flight, his best days were most probably at Derby County and Barnsley.
Born in Greater Manchester, he was the son of a coal mining engineer and despite making it into football; it was rugby and lacrosse which he often played more of during his school days due to the selection made by the Grammar School he attended. Although he had a spell in Manchester United’s Junior B team, it was Manchester City where he signed apprentice forms in 1989, choosing them ahead of Blackburn Rovers.
He made his name as a 22-year-old at Crewe Alexandra and scored 25 goals in 61 appearances for Alexandra, becoming one of the leading marksmen in the English lower leagues. Norwich City boss John Deehan was impressed and in December 1994, he made a move for Ward who made the sudden leap straight into the Premier League, signing for the Canaries. He was seen as the long-term replacement for Chris Sutton who had joined Blackburn Rovers five months earlier.
Ward had a marvellous debut, scoring twice in Norwich’s convincing 3-0 home victory over Chelsea but the Norfolk club’s form collapsed in the second half of the season, slipping from seventh place at the turn of the year to relegation by the conclusion of the 1994-1995 season.
After 18 goals in 53 appearances for the Canaries, Ward moved to Derby County in March 1996, helping the Rams win promotion to the top-flight. He contributed to their impressive debut season, scoring a late winner against Chelsea and ultimately, the decisive goal in Derby’s brilliant 3-2 away victory at Old Trafford in April against Manchester United. Ward’s place in Derby history was sealed by scoring their last-ever goals at The Baseball Ground in May 1997, although it came in a 3-1 loss to Arsenal.
He finished with nine goals in that campaign and having finished things off from a Derby perspective at The Baseball Ground, he made a great start at their new stadium of Pride Park. He technically scored the first goal at their new home against Wimbledon. However, it didn’t count in the record books because a floodlight failure caused the game to be abandoned after 56 minutes with Derby winning the match 2-1 at the time. By the time the fixture was rearranged, Ward had departed.
Jim Smith sold him to newly-promoted Barnsley in September 1997. The Tykes had just been promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history and Ward enjoyed his time in Yorkshire. He scored memorable away winners against both Liverpool FC and Aston Villa. However, despite his best efforts, Barnsley were relegated at the end of the season. He initially stayed with them after relegation and in November 1998 in a First Division match against Sunderland, he scored a goal, missed a penalty and got sent off in the space of five crazy minutes! It was one of his final games for the club.
Brian Kidd made him one of his first signings as Blackburn Rovers manager, joining Rovers in December 1998. However, he didn’t rediscover his solid goalscoring form he’d shown at both Derby and Barnsley and Blackburn were relegated, just four seasons after being crowned Premier League champions. He joined Bradford City for their second Premier League season in the summer of 2000 but experienced a fourth relegation in 2000-2001 and after another four seasons in the Football League with the Bantams and Sheffield United, he retired in the summer of 2005.
By that point, Ashley was already planning his future and that was in the world of business. He runs a luxury property development company called Bilton Ward and is a director of the interior design company Arista Design. Ward has also featured on the ITV reality series The Real Housewives of Cheshire as his wife, Dawn, is one of the central characters.