The Wales Under-21 international has shored up the Dons’ backline and helped launch a genuine title race again, explains Alasdair Mackenzie...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: June 22, 1993
- Place of birth: Wrexham, Wales
- Height: 6ft 4in
- Position: Goalkeeper
- Club: Aberdeen, on loan from Liverpool (9 apps)
- International: Wales Under-21s (7 apps)
Since Rangers tumbled down the divisions in unceremonious fashion three years ago, the outcome of the Scottish Premiership title race has become an even more predictable affair than usual. There was, however, a period last season in which Aberdeen suggested they could revisit the glory years of the mid-1980s and once again challenge the Old Firm’s stranglehold on silverware.
The Dons got a lot right last time out – they went on the longest winning and unbeaten runs of the season (eight and 11 matches respectively), while Adam Rooney finished as the division’s top scorer - yet they still finished a hefty 17 points behind champions Celtic. There was one simple factor that explained why – Aberdeen conceded almost twice as many goals as the champions.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the arrival of 22-year-old Liverpool goalkeeper Danny Ward on loan in the summer has corresponded with a spectacular start to the season in which the Dons have won eight of their first nine fixtures and conceded only five times.
Despite representing Wales at almost every youth level, the youngster has struggled to make the breakthrough into Liverpool’s senior side since joining from Wrexham in January 2012 for a reported fee of £100,000. A successful loan stint with Morecambe was enough to convince Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes to take a gamble on Ward as Aberdeen seek to go one better than last year’s runners-up spot.
Why you need to know him
Although Ward’s senior appearances had been few and far between, Liverpool underlined their faith in the young custodian’s ability by handing him a new five-year contract in June.
It was a real show of faith by the Premier League side’s hierarchy and, judging by his performances for Aberdeen so far, they made a shrewd decision: after a season in which McInnes juggled Jamie Langfield and Scott Brown in the No.1 spot, Ward has made the position his own. Greatly improved defensive displays have proven to be the hallmark of the Dons’ incredible start, with Ward decisive on several occasions. A fantastic display in the 2-0 win over Partick Thistle was topped only by his showing in the 2-1 defeat of Celtic, with Ward’s shot-stopping ability making him a vital cog in the Aberdeen machine.
Despite his tender years, he has shown that he knows how to use his frame to his advantage, exuding an air confidence when collecting crosses that belies his inexperience in senior football
Ward’s sizeable stature ensures he cuts an imposing figure as the last line of defence. Despite his tender years, he has shown that he knows how to use his frame to his advantage, exuding an air of confidence when collecting crosses that belies his inexperience. Throw into the mix a strong reading of the game and sharp reflexes and you potentially have the makings of a rival for Simon Mignolet at Anfield.
Expectations of a big season in the north-east have steadily grown, with the top-of-the-table clash with Celtic at Pittodrie earlier this month Ward’s first high-pressure match for the Dons. The 22-year-old coped admirably, denying Tom Rogic early on in a strong performance as McInnes’ team came from a goal down to win 2-1. His ability to keep a calm head when the pressure is on will stand him in good stead.
The cauldron of a Merseyside derby or a Liverpool vs Manchester United tie could prove to be too much too soon
For young goalkeepers, the most difficult thing is to nail down a No.1 spot at their club. Ward has managed to do this almost effortlessly at Aberdeen, but questions remain as to whether a strong season in the Scottish Premiership would be enough for him to make inroads at Liverpool.
His lack of experience means that his composure is still relatively untested and, although he coped well with the aforementioned Celtic clash, the cauldron of a Merseyside derby or a Liverpool vs Manchester United tie could prove to be too much too soon.
Ward’s big frame also means he isn’t the most agile of goalkeepers, with his shot-stopping ability coming from a good positional sense rather than from flying saves across the length of the goal.
Journeyman midfielder Willo Flood was quick to heap praise on Ward after he pulled off a point-blank save from Dundee United’s Mario Bilate on the opening day of the league season. “For me, he’s the best I’ve played with. When I was at Manchester City there was David James and Nicky Weaver, who were top goalkeepers. But Wardy, for his age, his stature, everything about him - he’s up there with the best. He has all the makings of a Premier League player in England. We’re just happy we have him for the season.”
Did you know?
At this stage last season, the Dons had conceded 12 times and won five out of nine matches; with Ward in between the posts this term, they’ve shipped only five goals and have a four-point lead at the summit.
What happens next?
Ward will have the opportunity to return to Anfield with a bolstered CV in the hope of challenging Mignolet and Adam Bogdan for the first-team jersey
Ward is set to become an integral part of what is being billed as one of Aberdeen’s strongest sides since the Alex Ferguson era. Although most expect Celtic’s strength in depth to eventually shine through, the goalkeeper will be doing everything he can to ensure the Dons are not left in their wake in the same way they were last season. With five more years on Liverpool’s books now locked down, Ward will have the opportunity to return to Anfield with a bolstered CV in the hope of challenging Mignolet and Adam Bogdan for the first-team jersey. However, it would take a mightily impressive season for the 22-year-old to be entrusted with such a responsibility so soon, making further loan spells beyond this campaign likely.