“It’s sort of like a perfect circle,” reflects Watford captain Helen Ward as she prepares to play the final game of an impressive career. “I started at Watford winning trophies as a kid and won a few as a senior player the first time around as well. But to potentially finish it on the biggest high, it’s pretty cool.”
As endings go, one perhaps could not have written a better potential script than the way the final few weeks of Ward’s football journey is playing out. After a career that has spanned 22 seasons, the 37-year-old Welsh centurion will hang up her boots on the biggest stage – the FAWNL Play-off Final at Stadium MK on Saturday afternoon.
As winners of the Southern Premier, Watford will face Nottingham Forest (champions of the Northern Premier) for the ultimate prize – the trophy and the sole promotion place to the Barclays Championship. It has been an unpredictable, scintillating season in both divisions with both incredibly winning their respective leagues on goal difference – an indication of the growing strength of the FAWNL. Watford themselves switched places with Oxford United and Ipswich Town multiple times in the final weeks until taking the top spot on the last day of the season.
To achieve promotion would feel especially sweet for the Golden Girls, representing an immediate bounce back from the devastation of their dramatic relegation in the 2021/2022 campaign. There was heartbreak as Coventry United’s Mollie Green scored that infamous 97th minute winner on the last day to send Watford down. Ward puts this recovery down to the fact that the club regrouped and recruited strongly over the summer, bringing in both experience and character. “We’ve created a really strong group of people who happen to be pretty good at football, which has helped,” she says. “But the biggest thing for me is the group that we’ve got, both on the pitch and in the staff, is really together. It’s one of the best environments I’ve been involved in and I’m not just saying that.”
“Each setback we’ve had, we’ve come on really strong in the next game and then the next run of games. That has obviously helped us not just in terms of bringing up points and goals, but it’s helped us build momentum again, and build confidence and resilience as well.”
Key to this also is the blend of experience and youth that the club have been able to call on. Players like Ward, Gemma Davison and Bianca Baptiste have years of knowledge to draw on from WSL level down while younger players, such as Annie Rossiter and Poppy Wilson, have stepped up and “taken the responsibility on their shoulders”. A strong relationship with clubs like Arsenal as well has seen them able to bring in players from their academy, a symbiotic relationship between both clubs and the player. For example, 17-year-old Araya Dennis joined on a dual registration to gain first team minutes, scoring the all-important winner against Oxford last month that set them on the way to the title. “Araya’s come on in a game with massive stakes for us at Oxford and scored a goal like that to win the game which at the end has been massive for us,” Ward says. “She’s got that experience for life now of knowing that she can do it on a big occasion in a big stadium with a reasonable crowd as well.”
Forest are far from an unfamiliar opponent for Ward and her team who are well aware of the obstacle they present. The Nottingham-based team gained a edge on them last month in an enthralling transitional FAWNL League Cup Final encounter that was won 3-2 in extra time. “It was very open,” Ward remembers. “I think both teams had chances to win it and to lose it…We’ll take lessons in the way that they play their bigger threats, and they’ll do the same with us. But I don’t expect too much to change in terms of style.”
“Hopefully, it’s going to be another really good advert for these leagues. It’s a shame that one team is not going to go up. Fingers crossed it’s a successful day as a whole for the National League and whichever team does end up winning will fully deserve it. I’m confident in our team. I believe we’ve got the ability and the game plan to do it. It’s just about whether we can execute that on the day.”
Ward, a Watford fan to her core, has a message for the Golden Girls’ supporters: “I’m one of them. I’m obviously a big Watford fan but just a big thank you for everything – the support for the team and for me personally. Come along to one more game this weekend. Be there loud and proud. Get your flags out; get the shirts on; make it a sea of yellow. Hopefully that’ll get us over the line.”
Walking out one last time with her team on Saturday will be a special moment for Ward despite being focused on the task ahead. A victory will allow her to say goodbye in the sweetest way possible and bring the curtains down on what has been a remarkable career.