The toughest job in football?
Something unique happened to Stockport County manager Peter Ward last Saturday afternoon - he watched his team win.
Later in the evening, towards the end of the BBC's Football League Show, Ward watched the brief highlights of his team defeating local rivals Bury 2-1 at Edgeley Park with great satisfaction.
I spoke to Ward, who took over as temporary boss on 5 January, in the days before Saturday's match. It is difficult to exactly gauge the mood of someone you have never met before but I sensed the 46-year-old was in something of a dark place. He told me he was driven on by fear and was desperate to taste victory; to end the losing habit, to restore confidence, to give some self-belief, both to himself and his struggling team.
It is easy to understand his anxiety. The Hatters are in a desperate battle against relegation from the Football League. The Cheshire club have been dogged by financial problems over recent years and were relegated from League One last season after managing only five wins.
Ward is determined to keep smiling through these stressful times. Photo: Stockport County FC
Stockport have managed six wins in 31 league fixtures so far this season and have a goal difference of minus 36, far worse than any other team fighting the drop. Ward has been desperately trying to bolster his defence but everything looked to be going against him for a while. He brought in defender Aaron Brown on loan from Leyton Orient only for the 27-year-old to score an own goal only 12 minutes into his debut.
Gary Ablett was in charge of Stockport last season, his first managerial role. The Hatters were in administration throughout that period, leaving the former Liverpool and Everton defender to cope with a crippling transfer embargo and the loss of key playing assets, sold off as the team finished the League One campaign 25 points adrift of safety.
A new consortium took over in the summer and Ablett was briskly despatched. The club came out of adminstration and Ward, a fans favourite who had served the club both as a player and assistant manager during happier times, was brought in to take the squad through pre-season training. In July, Paul Simpson was unveiled as manager but Ward stayed on as his assistant.
Simpson, formerly of Carlisle, Preston and Shrewsbury, was sacked on 4 January after less than six months in charge. At the time, Stockport were 21st in the League Two table.
Ward was at home when the call came telling him Simpson had left. When Ward went in the next day to take temporary charge, Simpson had already cleared his desk and the two men have not spoken since. No hard feelings, just business.
"It came as a big surprise," Ward told me. "But I really haven't had time to think about it."
He has been getting into work at 0730 GMT and often does not finish until midnight. In addition to planning the forthcoming week, taking training and dealing with paperwork, he has spent hour after hour driving to matches, checking out potential new faces.
It is Ward's first spell as a manager. Previously, he had been Jim Gannon's assistant at Stockport and Motherwell as well as working under Simpson. Gannon and Ward took over at the Hatters late in 2005 with the club 10 points adrift of safety in League Two. They secured survival on the last day of the campaign and won promotion at the end of the 2007/08 season. What happened then gives Ward hope now but he knows the current situation is different. Last time, homegrown youngsters such as Liam Dickinson and Anthony Elding played an important role. But there is no such talent coming through now, picked off by other clubs as Stockport tried to address their financial problems.
Ward had no assistant manager for his first month in charge, although development manager Alan Lord helped out whenever he could. The experienced Ray Mathias joined on 4 February as technical manager. A former assistant to Paul Ince at Macclesfield, MK Dons and Blackburn as well as manager of Wigan, Tranmere and Chester, Mathias's vast contacts book could help Ward acquire some fresh blood on loan.
The first time I called Ward he was halfway through his dinner. It was four in the afternoon but he did not have very long to chat as he was heading out to take in another match. I had called on a Thursday. He had already been to one match on Monday, another on Tuesday and two on Wednesday. He had another planned for Friday.
"This job is 24/7," said the 46-year-old. "Sometimes it is the fear that drives you on, it does worry me, it is a big responsibility."
The Hatters slipped to rock bottom during Ward's first month in charge. A loss to Torquay left them one point from safety, at first glance a very bridgeable gap. However, most of the teams around them had games in hand. In the case of fellow strugglers Burton, a staggering eight.
Furthermore, Ward has not been told by the board exactly how long he will remain at the helm. It is clearly bothering him.
"I have asked the board to quantify how long I will be in charge," he said. "It is time for someone to make a decision. Either I am the man for the job or I'm not."
Ward was signed as a player by Stockport in 1991 by Uruguayan Danny Bergara. A tough tackler, he won promotion in his first season and made four Wembley appearances for the Hatters. Even after he was sold to Wrexham by Dave Jones in 1995, he maintained his links with the club by training youth teams as part of the requirements of his coaching badges.
Bergara lived on the same road as Edgeley Park. Ward himself still lives in Stockport and has many friends in the town. When he looks into the stands from the dugout on matchday, he recognises many faces.
"This club means a lot to me and my family," he said. "A lot of fans here are personal friends, which makes it doubly hard for me, yet every week when results are not going well they still stick behind the club.
Stockport are desperate to play League football at Edgeley Park next season. Photo: Getty Images
"We owe it to them to try to save ourselves but we all know it is a big, big ask."
Ward is trying to clear his mind of all peripheral distractions but in the background there are rumours about changes at the club. New York businessman Mike Newton failed with a takeover bid at Port Vale last year but has now been linked with Stockport. The suggestion is that if he is successful he will bring in current Vale assistant boss Geoff Horsfield as the new permanent manager.
At least Ward has now chalked up his first win as a Football League manager. It came at the eighth attempt after two draws and six defeats. Ward could sense the relief around Edgeley Park at the final whistle on Saturday.
This weekend, the Hatters will attempt to win back-to-back games for the first time in 99 fixtures, a record that stretches back to February 2009. Given that Ward reckons his team need to win nine of their remaining 15 League Two fixtures if they are to avoid relegation, the winning habit needs to continue against Macclesfield.
A recent BBC Late Kick Off feature followed Stockport supporters as they travelled to watch the team at Rotherham. The Hatters were stuffed 4-0 and it was obvious many fans had already given up the ghost.
But there is a glimmer of hope after last week's win, a sliver of sunlight through dense, dark cloud. And then there is Peter Ward, a man with a massive challenge thrust upon him. He might not have asked for it but he sure isn't ducking it.