Built on Saints
JAMES WARD-PROWSE: THE MAN, THE PLAYER, THE CAPTAIN
James Ward-Prowse’s journey through the ranks from football-mad eight-year-old with big dreams to Southampton captain and England international has seen him become a shining example for Saints’ next generation of talent.
Hailing from Portsmouth, father John, a barrister, would drive his son along the M27 and stay for every training session, while mother Jackie would compromise meal times around James’s busy schedule and ensure he never fell behind on his school work.
As a footballer, two things stood out in Ward-Prowse’s game from a young age: his tireless work rate, determination and refusal to give up; and his unique ball-striking ability that allowed him to deliver free-kicks and crosses with unerring accuracy.
He would spend hours in the back garden trying to replicate his hero, David Beckham, inspired by the stoppage-time free-kick he scored against Greece to send England to the 2002 World Cup.
Today he finds himself chasing down Beckham’s Premier League free-kick record. Ward-Prowse currently trails 18-10, but eight of those have come in the last three seasons.
Rising through the age groups alongside Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers, who have also earned England recognition, Ward-Prowse was the first to make his Saints debut, a week shy of his 17th birthday, as a starter in a League Cup tie at Crystal Palace.
Three months later he scored his first goal, helping Nigel Adkins’s side overcome a half-time deficit with a 2-1 win at Coventry in the FA Cup.
With Saints promoted to the Premier League that season, opportunities were hard to come by for the teenager, but Mauricio Pochettino soon took a shine to the fair-haired starlet.
“I remember not only starting games, but coming on in important games,” Ward-Prowse recalls. “We were 1-0 up at Anfield in the last 15 minutes, which was quite daunting for me to come on and play quite a big part in helping us win.
“He (Pochettino) impressed me so much as a young player. You could see the level of detail he was operating at, and he wanted to give young players a chance. He trusted me.”
This trust in Ward-Prowse from elite coaches was maintained by Pochettino’s successor, Ronald Koeman, and it speaks volumes about the midfielder’s temperament that his first ever Premier League goal was a penalty.
Saints were being held by Hull in the second half at St Mary’s when Shane Long was sent tumbling in the box, prompting Sadio Mané, an established first-team star, to place the ball on the spot.
But Koeman had other ideas, insisting Ward-Prowse should take the responsibility. Captain José Fonte relayed the message from the manager and the 20-year-old duly dispatched it, high to the goalkeeper’s left, like a seasoned spot-kick veteran.
“At the time it was given, I thought ‘it’s not me,’” Ward-Prowse laughs. “But he (Koeman) obviously trusted me. I’d never really practised penalties before and didn’t have a stock penalty that I knew I wanted to take. The pressure was on at 0-0, but to get an important goal was a special moment.”
When Frenchman Claude Puel arrived in 2016 and led Southampton to the EFL Cup final, Ward-Prowse was picked to start the second leg of the semi-final, at Anfield, and played the full 90 minutes at Wembley, playing his part in both Saints goals in an agonising 3-2 defeat to Manchester United.
Puel picked him against Inter Milan, too, on a famous night at St Mary’s, enhancing his reputation as a player you can count on when it matters, but Ward-Prowse was still on the bench for a number of the Premier League games, and his productivity reduced further with the appointments of Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes, as Saints battled against relegation.
His ascent was not as steep as some of the Academy stars of yesteryear, like Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Shaw, and when Ralph Hasenhüttl arrived midway through the 2018/19 campaign, Ward-Prowse was having serious doubts for the first time as to whether he had a future with the club that raised him.
His personal low point came at Christmas. Hasenhüttl was just beginning to put his own stamp on the team, but Ward-Prowse was an unused substitute for his first home game in charge, a thrilling 3-2 win over Arsenal, and left out completely the following weekend when Saints hit three again, this time at Huddersfield.
“That was the moment for me,” Ward-Prowse reflects. “To sit in the stands and watch the lads do well hurt me a lot. The new manager had come in and we were playing an exciting style of football with passion and energy – everything that I’m about too. Not to be part of that was really frustrating.”
Helped by the birth of his first child, Oscar, his perspective shifted, inspired by a heart to heart with Hasenhüttl, who explained what Ward-Prowse was lacking, and what was required to play in his team.
“It was the first time I’ve ever had a manager who’s come in and had individual meetings with every player,” he says.
“In my meeting, he showed me exactly what he needed from me in terms of being a central midfield player – being more aggressive and winning more tackles.
“That conversation brought out a side in me that I thought, ‘I respect this manager, I like the way he plays, I like the way he comes across and I want to play for him.’”
One of Ward-Prowse’s most admirable traits is his humble nature, treating every member of staff the same from cleaners to Board members.
His faultless discipline, dedication and warm demeanour have made him a symbol for the Academy, but it was this first chat with his current boss that flicked a switch in his head.
“Sometimes you talk to people and they’ll always refer to you as ‘the Academy boy’ and the example of the pathway to the first team,” he breathes a deep sigh.
“That’s all great to a certain degree. I’m James Ward-Prowse, I’ve gone through that and I am where I am, but I don’t necessarily want to be known as that anymore.
“I think the way the manager spoke to me about it and mentioned that, it’s got into my head that maybe I do need to get away from it if I want to kick on to the next level.”
Ward-Prowse hasn’t looked back since. Cue a more combative, all-action approach, with his ball-winning and intensity “against the ball”, to coin a Hasenhüttl phrase, fast becoming as synonymous with his game as his deadly right foot.
Quickly establishing himself as a certain starter, the goals began to flow as he scored seven times in the second half of the season to help Saints survive, driving forward from his preferred central midfield position to take his performances to the next level.
The final away game of that season, at West Ham, when Hasenhüttl experimented with his team after Saints had guaranteed their safety, is still the last time he missed a minute of Premier League action. Two ever-present seasons have followed – the first midfielder in the competition’s history to achieve that feat.
In 2020, he fulfilled a long-term ambition in being named Southampton captain, committing to a five-year contract in the process.
The news would have come as no surprise to Director of Football Operations Matt Crocker, who spotted a potential skipper in the making when he first came across Ward-Prowse in the Under-11s.
“Biggest quality? Leadership,” Crocker declares, even at that early age. “He drove standards. He had really high standards in himself – always first to training, always boots cleaned, always black boots, always last off the pitch, always the first one to talk, to ask questions of the coach and challenge the coach when he saw things we could be doing better.
matt crockerHe just had a tremendous inner drive to personally get better, but also wanting the group to be as good as they could be. It's amazing for a child at that age to have so many of those skills.
on his first impressions of a young james ward-prowse
Last season, 2020/21, was the most productive of his career, registering 15 combined goals and assists in the Premier League, also scoring his first goal for England as he took his tally of senior international caps to eight, having previously excelled as captain at youth level.
Whilst missing out on Euro 2020 was a significant setback, Ward-Prowse’s strength of character dictates he will bounce back with renewed desire.
He’s as proud of his Academy roots as the club is of his ongoing progress, and nowadays the skipper is conscious of leading the way for future graduates to follow in his footsteps.
“In a lot of periods throughout the club’s history, you’ve always had an Academy player in the first team,” he says. “That gives that vision to the younger players coming through.
“When I was coming through to the first team I had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of me. I could see his pathway and his development, and he was my target to emulate. We’ve all had somebody in the first team to look up to and copy.
“It’s something the club holds very close to its heart; it wants to produce good young players and see them flourish on the world’s biggest stage.”