Danny Ward's heroics for Huddersfield leave Liverpool with decision to make
Danny Ward played a significant role in Huddersfield Town's promotion to the Premier League, performing heroics in back-to-back penalty shootouts in the Championship playoffs.
The displays of the on-loan Liverpool goalkeeper this season have Huddersfield boss David Wagner hoping he can extend Ward's stay in Yorkshire.
Despite Wagner's extremely close relationship to Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager is adamant that Ward, 23, will return to Liverpool for preseason and compete with Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius for the No. 1 spot.
"Wardy is at Huddersfield, playing a brilliant season, he is our player, so we will bring him back next year and then there is [more] competition." Klopp said in April.
On Monday, Ward, a three-time capped Wales international, saved a spot kick from Reading's Jordan Obita to allow Christopher Schindler to net the winning penalty and put Huddersfield back into the top flight for the first time since 1972. "It's unbelievable," Ward, who also stopped two penalties in the semifinal against Sheffield Wednesday, said afterwards.
The feat in front of 76,682 spectators at Wembley is a far cry from his upbringing at non-league Wrexham AFC's youth set-up.
Wrexham-born Ward joined his hometown club at age of 14 and began to emerge as an extremely promising goalkeeper.
Former Liverpool European Cup-winning defender, Joey Jones, a youth coach at Wrexham, took Ward under his wing, often thrashing bags containing numerous footballs towards him in training in an effort to toughen him up into a physical shot-stopper.
"Clubs do things different and it depends on what facilities you've got," Jones told ESPN FC. "We didn't do anything different with Danny that we didn't do with other goalkeepers we've got."
While coaching Ward, Jones found him to have similar characteristics to a former successful teammate of his. Ward possessed the same traits and position-specific exuberance as ex-Everton and Wales keeper Neville Southall, according to Jones.
"He's a smashing lad," Jones added. "He does remind me a lot of Neville Southall. He's a bit of a loose cannon at times -- and I think I told him that when he was with us.
"Neville is one of them that could play, make great saves and had great feet. That's the way [Danny] is, he had decent feet as well. He probably could have played outfield. When he played outfield in the small-sided games, he didn't look out of place.
"We used to have shots at Neville for Wales and he says: 'Go on have a shot at me and I won't use my hands'. Danny is a bit like that, and I think there's always a place in the game for people like Danny.
"They say goalkeepers are a bit mad and I think he is. [Danny] got a good character. I think he likes a laugh and a joke at the right time, but he can be serious and takes his football seriously. I have no doubt he'll go on to have a great career in football."
Indeed, Wrexham lost Ward to Liverpool in January 2012, with the Kenny Dalglish-led Merseyside club signing him at 18 years old for a nominal fee.
"The unfortunate thing for Wrexham was that he never played for our first team because Liverpool bought him," Jones admits. "I wasn't surprised Liverpool came calling. I had no doubt that he would go on and play.
"At Wrexham, we're very proud of what he's achieved. We have played a small part along the way but it's, ultimately, down to Danny."
It would take more than four years for Ward to break through to the Liverpool first-team. His second loan spell away from Anfield, at Aberdeen in Scotland, was cut short in January 2016 as Klopp brought him back to be No. 2, ousting Adam Bogdan. Ward then impressed in his first-team debut away at Bournemouth in April that same year, making a number of important saves in a 2-1 win.
And his success would continue right into the summer, where he was part of Wales' incredible run to the semifinals of Euro 2016, starting in the opening group game win against Slovakia.
Fully aware of his rise and potential, Liverpool then moved quickly to tie Ward down to a new five-year contract, before immediately sending him out on loan to Huddersfield for the 2016-17 campaign, with no option of a recall.
The Welshman's impressive 46 appearances for the Championship side this term now leave Liverpool and Klopp with a decision to make -- should he serve as understudy to first-choice Mignolet in the hope of displacing the Belgian at some stage, or continue his development elsewhere?
"He needs to be playing first-team football," Jones concludes. "That's all I could advise him on. If he could do it at Liverpool then brilliant, but if not then I'm sure there will be plenty of clubs out there who would take him."
"I will call Jurgen," Wagner said after his team's victory on Monday.
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.