Cotterill basks in gut feeling over youngster

Joel Ward has been a big hit since moving into midfield
Joel Ward has been a big hit since moving into midfield
Pompey midfielder Carl Baker Picture: Joe Pepler

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For Steve Cotterill, it was nothing more than a gut feeling, a manager’s intuition.

Yet his decision to play Joel Ward in midfield has proven inspired.

Now the converted defender is an essential part of his side and a red-hot contender for Pompey’s player-of-the-season title.

Quite a metamorphosis.

Still, Ward’s transformation may have surprised many, but certainly not Cotterill.

The Pompey boss likes to regard the positional switch as one rubber-stamped by judgement rather than luck.

The result has been Ward making 11 of his past 12 appearances in the heart of midfield.

In recent weeks, his role has become even more advanced, lining up a little further afield than Hayden Mullins and Jonathan Hogg.

Ward now faces the challenge of fit-again Liam Lawrence for Saturday’s trip to Leicester.

For Cotterill, though, his hunch over the 21-year-old’s midfield credentials continues to impress.

He said: ‘I don’t want to elaborate too much but I suppose you get a feeling a bit on certain things.

‘I had a feeling Greg Halford would do a good job at centre-half, and he has.

‘Whoever turned Kevin Phillips from a right-back at Baldock into one of Europe’s best goalscorers must have had a feeling one day.

‘I’m not saying it’s where Joel will end up, but he’s done well there – very well.

‘At the beginning of the season he was a real nice boy who took the nice boy on to the football pitch.

‘He would get pushed and shoved off the ball, would get kicked and not kick back and lost headers.

‘People won’t remember that, but we will. We would, for instance, watch a match and compare it to now. He’s a different kid, completely different.

‘He shakes your hand stronger than he did six months ago. He has that look where he will use his body weight when he has a tackle.

‘I thought we needed him to be that bit more aggressive. Even the top players in the world are aggressive.

‘Joel needed that and when he comes off the pitch he can go back to being the lovely boy he is.

‘He was miles away at the beginning of the season, though.’

There is little chance of matters easing off for Ward as his maiden first-team campaign draws to a close.

Cotterill is eager to beef him up ahead of next season, focusing on power and strength.

That will involve sending him to a training camp in America for a month.

It will also eat into any time off Ward had been allocated this summer.

This time last year, the youngster was concerned about his Pompey future.

Since then he has penned two new contracts and emerged as one of Cotterill’s key Championship performers.

The transformation continues.

Cotterill added: ‘Joel has just signed a new contract.

‘He wasn’t earning a lot of money and his agent all of a sudden wanted him to earn a lot of money.

‘So that ebbed and flowed. I told Joel he needs to come away from it.

‘I told him he needs to earn what I think he needs to earn to keep him hungry.

‘In the meantime, we’ll pay for something which will be of benefit to his career.

‘So we’ll be sending him to America for a month to make him a bit stronger.

‘Joel or his agent will not need to come knocking on the door to get him a new contract in the future.

‘We’ll do that for him from now on.’