Sam Ward wears a face mask when competing
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Eighteen months ago Sam Ward was simply hoping his career was not over.
A fierce shot from team-mate Harry Martin, which hit him flush in the face during Great Britain’s playoff win over Malaysia on Nov 3, 2019, had left the 30 year-old forward with a crushed retina as well as fractures to his cheek and eye socket.
There were genuine fears he might never play again.
It was a grisly business. The skin on Ward’s face had to be peeled back from behind the ear – FaceOff style – so that the surgeon could repair his fractures without leaving a visible scar. But even so, Ward was left with four metal plates in his cheek and 31 metal screws to match the 31 staples across the top of his scalp.
What with the black eye, the pictures from his hospital bed made him look a little like Frankenstein’s monster. More seriously, Ward’s vision was left permanently impaired with his left retina, in his own words, “mangled”.
On Thursday, Ward was named in Great Britain’s Olympic squad for the Tokyo Games this summer.
It is an extraordinary comeback by a player who still has a “dead spot”, or blind spot, in his left eye; an inspiring tale of triumph over adversity, of learning how to manage with partial vision, of getting used to playing in a face mask, of forcing himself once again to put his head in where others fear to put their sticks.
Ward admits he “cried his eyes out” on the phone to his parents after he learnt the news of his call-up.
It is also fitting reward for the boundless positivity and energy with which Ward faced his setback.
The Old Georgians player never allowed himself to wallow in self-pity. On the contrary, having befriended a young cancer patient just prior to the Malaysia game, a 12-year-old named Alfie who was actually Ward’s guest at the game in question, he used the boy’s illness to keep his own troubles in perspective.
The two have kept in touch. “He’s doing pretty well I’m glad to say,” Ward tells Telegraph Sport. “I still speak to Alfie’s parents and stuff. And I spoke to him over Christmas. Hopefully, fingers crossed, in a year’s time or so the bell will be rung and he will be all clear. That’s the kind of thing you want to be hearing. And yeah, they’re the real heroes out there.”
Ward is not doing too badly in the hero stakes himself. Having gradually worked his way back to full fitness, he was named in the England squad for this month’s EuroHockey championships. He scored a hat-trick against in a match against Spain and another in an agonising 3-2 defeat by world champions Germany. Ward’s tally now stands at 76 goals in 134 internationals. No wonder GB wanted him back so badly.
Sam Ward celebrates his hat-trick against Spain
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Ward admits there were times when his spirit flagged last year. “I broke my hand in October,” he recalls. “That injury nearly tipped me to retire, to be honest. You know when you just think your time is up? I was almost certain that was that. That was how it felt.
“Even now I’m now kind of playing with it pinned as the bone hasn’t really healed. But yeah, I’m glad I carried on…”
He might not have done were it not for the 12-month delay in the Games last summer. Or without the support of sports psychologist Katie Warriner, whom Ward credits with keeping his mental health in check.
But clearly, it is mostly down to his own will and fierce determination. “I’m lucky that my right eye is good,” he says modestly. “I’ve done all sorts of neural training, eye-tracking and so on, to try to retrain the brain to ‘see around’ the blind spot. But it is what it is.
“Time is a healer. The more I go about day-to-day life, like anything, you just kind of learn to live with it. You’ve got to crack on haven’t you?
Ward’s team-mates have clearly enjoyed having his bubbly personality back in the camp. He says the banter “is probably even worse now”, joking that they were a bit upset when he swapped his protective goggles for a mask.
“They had taken to calling me Gordon, after the character on Dodgeball,” he explains. “There was a lot of chat about that. But now they don’t really have anything. If you’re going to call me anything now, what with the mask, it’s kind of ‘super hero’ and they wouldn’t want to say that!”
Others might. If Ward scores the winner in the final in Tokyo, he really would be Superman. “That would be something,” he grins. “I do think there’s a great unity and togetherness in the squad and I can’t wait.
“I’m a big believer in you have to go through tough times to earn the good times. I’m thankful for the support of everyone, Old Georgians, my team-mates who backed me 100 per cent, GB Hockey… I’ll carry on with the programme as long as the gaffer [Danny Kerry] wants me really. I love it.
“We all saw what happened with Christian Eriksen at the Euros. Things like that put your troubles in perspective. It reminds you to live every day now as if it could be your last. That’s how I try to take to the field at the moment. I give it everything I can because it could be my last.”