Mention the name Peter Ward to any Brighton and Hove Albion supporter, and expect to hear memories of one of the greatest players ever to wear the blue shirt of the south coast England club.
The striker, now 64, still retains Brighton’s goalscoring record when he netted 36 goals during the 1976-77 season, winning him the club’s golden boot. If you ever make a trip to Brighton’s American Express Community Stadium, expect to hear the supporters singing a song about Ward with the words “We all live in a Wardy Wonderland” echoing throughout the stadium.
After playing for Brighton, Ward went on a journeyman’s career, wearing the shirt of a long list of clubs including Nottingham Forest, Seattle Sounders (1982/83), Vancouver Whitecaps (1984), Cleveland Force (1984-87), Tacoma Stars (1987-89), Tampa Bay Rowdies (1979 and 1991), Wichita Wings (1989-90), Baltimore Blast (1990) and Tampa Bay Terror (1996-97).
With a career that spanned more than eight years in North America, it’s not surprising that Ward decided to call the United States his home. Now living in Florida, Ward is a global ambassador for Brighton and Hove Albion, and recently spoke to World Soccer Talk.
With Ward’s experience playing during what is considered by many as the “the dark years” of soccer in the United States after NASL had collapsed and the only professional soccer being played in the country was the indoor game, he’s seen how the fandom and accessibility of soccer on television have grown by leaps and bounds in four decades of living in this country.
Fast forward to the most recent Premier League Fan Fest organized by NBC Sports, which was held in Miami Beach and featured more than 8,000 Americans from all walks of life celebrating their passion for their favorite English football club, Ward compared it to the experience of watching games on TV in the 1980s in America.
“I never ever dreamed of anything quite like this [Fan Fest] because when [English soccer] was played then (in the 1980s), we had to go find some place where we could watch one game on a Saturday,” said Ward. “Kids were playing [soccer at that time], but after 16 or 17, they just didn’t. But now it’s the most played sport by kids. And if you asked people their favorite sports personality, it was always an American football player. And now, ages 16 to 25, it’s Ronaldo or Messi.
“The Premier League have done a magnificent job. This [Fan Fest] was fantastic. There were thousands of people who turned up.”
After playing for ten different clubs in his career, Brighton is the club that Ward has the closest affinity to. But English football in the 1970s was quite different than today’s time.
“Footballers used to have a rapport with the fans back then,” remembered Ward. “It’s not like now. They’re millionaires now. I remember Sir Alex Ferguson said to me in the canteen at Old Trafford, he said ‘Look at all of those players over there, they’re all millionaires.’ It’s great but I was just born too early, I suppose. I have no complaints.”
Ward, who earned his one England cap in 1980 when he played against Australia, was a joy to watch when he graced the pitch. Whether it was scoring an audacious volley against Manchester United or seeing his technical abilities to keep the ball close to him as he dribbled around players, it’s no wonder that Ward continues to be a legendary Brighton footballer all these years later.
Asked about what makes Brighton different and unique compared to other Premier League clubs, the former Brighton striker described the rivalry with a certain south east England club.
“The most unique thing is that their main rival, Crystal Palace, is quite a distance away. You go to the Midlands or Manchester where there’s a load of teams within 20 or 30 miles. And you go to Brighton, and you have Portsmouth down the road and Southampton nearby. And then, that’s it. And then you have Crystal Palace. It’s unique because there are no other teams really close.”
Brighton may not have a mighty fanbase of supporters around the world, but the club has continued to punch above their weight for many years despite the detractors.
“I remember being interviewed with Mark Lawrenson years ago,” Ward said. “And he was asked whether Brighton would ever be in the Premier League. And Mark Lawrenson said, ‘Not in my lifetime.’ And I said, ‘you never know.’ And look, you never know. Third [successive] year [in the Premier League], and hopefully to continue.”
Yes, long may that continue. We all live in a Wardy Wonderland.