Midfielder keen to showcase his dark side after new boss demands more aggression in his game.
A stone’s throw from the car park behind the Chapel Stand at St Mary’s lies an industrial estate in stark contrast to the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League.
One of the units actually belongs to Saints. It’s used for extra storage, particularly by the grounds team, who need ample space to keep some of their larger, lesser-used equipment.
On arrival, the area is not much wider than an average car, but take a few steps inside and it opens out into a huge warehouse with stone walls and echoing ceilings. It’s only missing a couple of mechanics and a vehicle on one of those lifts elevated eight feet in the air.
In a long list of places you might expect to find an England international footballer, this wouldn’t feature.
But something has changed inside James Ward-Prowse in the last month or so, and when approached for his annual SAINTS photoshoot, the midfielder suggests “something gritty”. Something people wouldn’t associate with him.
For so long Ward-Prowse has been the poster boy for everything Southampton Football Club is proud of.
A successful graduate of the Staplewood Academy, the 24-year-old has amassed more than 200 appearances for the first team and represents all the values Saints are keen to promote.
Impeccably disciplined, his dedication to his profession is second to none. Off the pitch, he knows the name of every staff member, greets them all with a smile and a handshake every morning and treats them as equals.
He’s just a nice guy – there’s no getting away from it. But the man himself is determined to showcase another side to his character, as he gets stuck into some red and white smoke grenades after the warehouse alarm is temporarily silenced.
You don’t beat off competition from hundreds of Academy hopefuls through the age groups or survive at sport’s elite level this long without having a bit of fire in your belly.
Ward-Prowse reveals the one conversation with new boss Ralph Hasenhüttl that flicked a switch in his head.
“It was the first time I’ve ever had a manager who’s come in and had individual meetings with every player,” he opens up.
“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, which is what I’ve tried to do.
“It’s obviously helped that I’m playing in my natural position, but that conversation kick-started things and I immediately gained respect for him, because he came in and told me truthfully what he thought of me as a player and as a person, and what he needed from me.
“I wouldn’t say I want to change my image, because that’s who I am as a person and that’s what’s got me to where I am today.
“But I think since the new manager has come in, he’s made me aware of a few things I needed to change in order to kick on to the next level and fulfil what I believe I can achieve.”
When Hasenhüttl speaks, you listen. Ward-Prowse is not alone in seeing his game hit new heights in the two months since the Austrian’s appointment. The individual examples within Saints’ squad are obvious.
To transform the performances of the club’s longest-serving player in such a short space of time is an impressive feat, but it hasn’t always been a match made in heaven.
“A good footballing player, a nice guy, but now he’s shown he can also be aggressive. That’s what I missed from him most when I was coming here,” the manager was quoted recently. “It was very clear. I was very honest to him and I think that’s helped him a lot.”
Ward-Prowse was on the bench for Hasenhüttl’s first game in charge, against today’s opponents Cardiff, and did not even make the squad for the trip to Huddersfield a fortnight later.
Saints won 3-1, registering back-to-back Premier League victories for the first time since April 2017.
“That was the moment for me,” Ward-Prowse reflects, as if it was a lifetime ago.
“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.”
james ward-prowsei wouldn't say i want to change my image, because that's who i am as a person and that's what's got me where i am today.
He was down but not out – helped in part by the arrival of son Oscar last summer, who, blissfully unaware, helped steer his father clear of negative thoughts.
“It’s weird because the first six months of his life were probably my worst in terms of productivity on the pitch,” he says.
“At the back end of last season I didn’t play too much and at the start of this season I didn’t play too much, so I was very lucky that I had him to keep me going.
“It was also the best six months off the pitch, being the start of his life. The energy he gives me in the morning, seeing his smile and seeing the things he does when I get home takes the pressure off.
“Before, I was going into a game thinking ‘I need to play well today and we need to win’, and if we didn’t, I’d go home and sulk.
“Now I know that if I don’t play well or we don’t win, I’ve got something far greater at home in my son. That releases the shackles for me to go out and make him proud.”
Grateful for the distraction of life-changing events at home, Ward-Prowse was given a choice by his new boss at work: stay nice and play the odd game here and there, or get nasty and make yourself impossible to leave out.
“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 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.
“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.’”
Ward-Prowse’s response has been typically immaculate. Never did he consider Hasenhüttl might be wrong; the idea of a man who has hardly seen you play knowing you better than you know yourself would be a turn-off for other players.
Instead Ward-Prowse got his chance eight days after his Huddersfield setback when the boss opted to stiffen up his midfield for the visit of Manchester City to St Mary’s.
By the time Pierre-Emile Højbjerg was sent off late on, Ward-Prowse had done enough to suggest he could be an able deputy during the Dane’s four-match ban.
“I remember Longy (Shane Long) saying to me as soon as Pierre got sent off, ‘get ready for Chelsea.’ It was then that I thought, ‘I could get a good run of games here,’” he said.
“The Man City game was good for me and I felt like I asserted myself well. Then for the Chelsea away game we were playing with two holding midfielders (Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu) so we knew it was going to be tough, but I felt I stepped up to the plate, did well and the team got a good result.
“He (Hasenhüttl) said to me before the game, ‘you’ve got a chance to show me why you should play in my team.’
“I knew it was an audition for him but I just wanted to go out and enjoy myself. Playing alongside Oriol, who typifies that aggressive side of the game, definitely helped.
“From there on, I wanted to make it difficult for the manager to drop me.”
james ward-prowsethat 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.'
After showing his combative side in the clean sheet at Stamford Bridge, Ward-Prowse was rewarded with the captaincy in the FA Cup third round tie at Derby – further evidence he was beginning to earn Hasenhüttl’s trust.
He then scored his first goal in 11 months, from the penalty spot, as Saints dug deep again – this time with ten men – to win at Leicester.
By the time Højbjerg returned from suspension, Ward-Prowse had passed the test and made himself undroppable.
Instead Hasenhüttl reinstated the Dane alongside him, changing the shape of the team to do so, and Ward-Prowse scored again in another victory – a 25-yard bullet against Everton.
“That goal showed the way the manager wants us to play,” he explained. “He wants us to win the ball high up the pitch and attack quickly, rather than keeping the ball.
“Last year, maybe I would’ve passed that sideways or waited for another opportunity, but with the way I felt in the game, the confidence the manager’s given me and the feel-good factor I have about myself at the minute, I wanted to take it on.”
Ward-Prowse may not have expressed it publicly at the time, but he was under no illusions about the importance of capitalising on Højbjerg’s absence.
“It was probably the biggest moment of my career – that period of time – because I’ve been talking about playing in central midfield, doing this and doing that,” he said.
“Pierre was a big loss to the team because he’s done a great job for us this season, but I knew it was a chance for me to step up into that role and fill that void.
“I finally had the chance, and I feel like I’ve taken the opportunity well.
“To stay in the team with him (Højbjerg) was great for me, because I’d obviously shown him (Hasenhüttl) enough. That was a big couple of weeks for me, and has probably turned my career around here.”
The renaissance story continued in Saints’ next match. Having scored in back-to-back Premier League games for the first time in his career, Ward-Prowse completed an unlikely hat-trick with a crucial equaliser against Crystal Palace last time out at St Mary’s.
But perhaps what followed was even more symbolic of his recent transformation.
Ward-Prowse was involved in a disagreement with former international teammate Wilfried Zaha, caught on camera playfully toying with his frustrated adversary.
Zaha lashed out at the referee, resulting in a red card for the Palace talisman.
“That probably typifies the change,” Ward-Prowse admits. “For me normally, I might’ve just kept my mouth quiet and cracked on with the game, but you have to play the game also.
“In that moment, it happened and he got sent off. It was quite a strange moment – maybe one where the Academy, The Southampton Way, the pathway and the manifesto doesn’t marry up to that.
“That’s all well and good in getting you to a certain stage, but if you want to be a Premier League footballer you can’t be all nicey nicey and think everything’s fine and dandy.
“You need to get stuck in, you need to be clever and you need to look after yourself. It was a nice moment to show I was standing up for myself and being who I am.”
Now with a boy of his own, Ward-Prowse has turned into a man. But rather than run before he can walk, the former England Under-21 captain is keen to play down a potential return to the international stage.
His sole cap to date, a late cameo against Germany in Dortmund on the same night Nathan Redmond made his England bow, is approaching its two-year anniversary.
“I don’t think about that at the minute, because I know I was quite a way away from it. My main priority and goal was to get into the Southampton team,” he reaffirms.
“It’s alright doing it for the last seven or eight games, but the next call-up isn’t until March, so there is still a lot of football to be played between now and then.
“There’s a lot of competition and the England team is very successful at the minute, so I have to make sure I do it on a consistent basis.
“Hopefully Gareth Southgate will be at one of the games when I score or do well.”
Maybe Ward-Prowse is still unaware Southgate was actually in attendance to see his coming of age against Palace, witnessing the three new G’s to his game: grit, goals and even a hint of gamesmanship.
The continued presence of his Under-21 boss in the dugout can only boost his Three Lions credentials.
“Having worked with him before, that definitely helps, but he’s not going to pick me on that. He’s proven that with his previous selections,” he reasons.
“You don’t want to be remembered as ‘the player who only played one game for England’.
“It was Lukas Podolski’s last appearance for Germany, so half the time I was on the pitch I was applauding him off anyway!
“The talking is done on the pitch, but hopefully if I can continue my form, the call will come again.”
Should Ward-Prowse’s evolution catapult himself back into the England reckoning, he could be a very different player to the one Southgate thought he knew so well already.