Winger opens up on year of highs and lows, from a loan move cut short to a timely return to Premier League action.
By his own admission, it would have been easy for Josh Sims to write off 2018/19 as a season to forget.
What started out as an exciting new adventure in the Championship, where he could rack up the regular game time he had been missing, did not go to plan.
A senior career that began so explosively, with an assist in the very first minute of his Saints debut back in 2016, was enhanced by a major contribution to perhaps the club’s most iconic goal of the decade – that 70-yard run at Anfield to set up Shane Long’s winner in the League Cup semi-final.
Since that memorable night, the departure of three managers and a serious knee injury have stunted Sims’s progress.
He spent nine months on the sidelines after a collision in training. So innocuous was the incident, Sims finished the session before discovery its severity.
Having worked his way back into the fold under Mauricio Pellegrino, the winger played only 17 minutes of first-team football after the appointment of Mark Hughes last March.
Come the summer, his mind was made up: Sims needed to play football. A mutual decision, he says, between Saint and Saints, settled on nearby Reading as the right club to enhance his obvious talent.
“I thought at the time it was a good chance for me,” he began. “I’ve been in and around the first team here for a couple of seasons, but I got my knee injury and that held me back a bit.
“I thought it was the right time to go out on loan and play more football. The club thought it was a good opportunity as well, so it was a decision we made together.
“Unfortunately, the football didn’t go how I wanted, but off the pitch I learned a lot and it was an eye-opener to see how other clubs work.”
Sims hints at feeling a little spoilt by his upbringing through the ranks at Staplewood.
“Coming through the Academy here, it’s a brilliant club who do so much for you, which is nice, but not every club is like that,” he realised.
“We’re fortunate here to have brilliant pitches and all the facilities, but it’s not like that everywhere else.
“I said this when I came back here: when you see other clubs, it makes you even more determined to cement your place here, really knuckle down and stay in the team. It made me focus and work harder here, one hundred per cent.”
Exposure to a new environment will have done the 22-year-old no harm. What did not help his cause was the unpredictability of life at the Madejski Stadium
“It was quite unstable at Reading at the time – I had three managers and I wasn’t even there for six months,” he reveals. “Quite unstable” appears an understatement.
“When I first went there, I was coming off the bench – I didn’t expect to go straight into the starting eleven – and then I worked my way into the first team.
“I played a few games under Paul Clement, but he got sacked and that set me back a bit.
“The new manager (Scott Marshall) stepped up from the Under-23s. He changed things around, then I got myself back in the team, but then he went back down and they brought in another new manager (José Gomes, in December).
“All three managers were very different, with different formations of how they wanted to play and set up the team.
“When you think you’re doing well off the bench and up for starting the next game, and then you don’t, it’s difficult to keep going.
“There was so much change that it was hard for me to cement my place in the team. I learned a lot, but I’m happy now to be back here and playing.”
After 18 appearances, five starts, three managers, two assists and no goals, Sims was back on familiar turf.
Recalled in January as his season-long loan was cut in half, he returned richer for the experience, even without the desired numbers to show for it.
“It was a mutual thing between Reading and Southampton – myself included,” he added.
“It wasn’t right, I wasn’t playing and Southampton wouldn’t want me to be there but not progressing.”
By this point, Sims had been watching from afar and seeing a host of his contemporaries from the Academy getting their chance under new boss Ralph Hasenhüttl.
Within a month of the manager’s arrival, he handed debuts to Tyreke Johnson, Kayne Ramsay, Callum Slattery and Marcus Barnes, while Yan Valery was becoming a regular starter and Michael Obafemi scored his first Premier League goal.
“I was always following the team and how they were getting on,” Sims continued. “I was speaking to the boys and trying to keep up with things here.
“When the new manager came in, everyone was very excited straightaway and seemed a lot more confident – not just the players on the pitch, but off it as well.
“Everyone has bought into the way he’s come in and uplifted the whole club. It was a massive change and I felt it straightaway when I came back.
josh simsi don't know how many players he's given debuts to, but it just shows everyone that if you do well, you're going to get noticed.
on ralph hasenhüttl
“A lot of the lads were getting debuts when I was out on loan. I was thinking, ‘who’s going to get their chance now?’ It’s brilliant for the club that when the manager came in, straightaway he gave the young ones a chance.
“For him, it’s not easy. He doesn’t know all the players, so it would be easy for him to just pick the names that he knows.
“It just shows his philosophy and brings back the Southampton everyone knows, where the Academy always gets a chance.
“The manager says it as well: ‘if you’re doing well in training, you will get your chance.’ Everyone here knows that.
“I don’t know how many players he’s given debuts to, but it just shows everyone that if you do well, you’re going to get noticed.”
Luckily for Sims, he was no exception, at a time when it would have been easy to assume all those Reading managers were right not to use him more.
But, as a pacey and direct wide man, the youngster felt he might still have a part to play – however unlikely it appeared at the time.
“Coming back in January, I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits.
“I knew about the manager and the philosophy he implemented when he came in and how he sets up the team, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to show what I can do in training. I thought I would fit the way he wants to play as a fast, attacking player.
“Kelvin (Davis), Flem (Craig Fleming) and all the staff all said I had a really good opportunity when I first came back.
“It’s all well and good saying, ‘he likes this kind of player,’ but obviously you’ve got to show that in training, so that’s what I tried to do.”
It was a process that did not happen overnight. It would take Sims three months to earn his first start under Hasenhüttl – instantly repaying him with a trademark sprint down the right, crossing for Nathan Redmond to open the scoring against Wolves inside two minutes.
Sims had been an unused substitute once in January and once in February, and not even in the 18 for the rest of Saints’ matches in that time.
“The manager didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who he was – it takes a bit of time to learn and know what each other are about,” he reasoned.
“Just as much as he needs to learn about me, I need to learn about the way he wants the team set up.
“It was never going to happen straightaway, but it was just a matter of showing him what I can do in training and keep improving. Eventually that chance would come, and it did.”
His opportunity arrived earlier than expected. Back on the bench against Tottenham Hotspur, Saints trailed 1-0 at half time when Sims was summoned, along with Shane Long, before the restart – a typically bold, proactive move from Hasenhüttl.
“I had a meeting with the manager and Danny (Röhl) before that game – I think it was the day before,” Sims recalled.
“We went through a few clips and he just said, ‘you’ve been training really well this week and if you get the opportunity at the weekend, just do what you’ve been doing. Don’t think about the occasion and everything else that comes with it.’
“I didn’t expect to come on at half time. I was warming up outside when I got the shout that I was coming on. That probably helped in a way, because you don’t think about it as much and you’re straight in.
“Coming on with Shane as well, we’re similar players in terms of our speed and direct play, so I think that helped because we completely switched up the game in the second half, which took Tottenham by surprise.
“To get the three points made it even sweeter. To win it in the way we did, with Yan (Valery) scoring and then the free-kick (from James Ward-Prowse), it was a great occasion.
“It was a good feeling, getting that opportunity from the manager. It shows that what I’ve been doing in the couple of months since I came back has made him think, ‘I want to give him a chance.’”
Had Saints gone on to lose, perhaps Sims would not have earned that start against Wolves three games later.
“That just sums football up,” he smiles. “It can change so fast, for anyone.
“When that one opportunity comes, you’ve got to grab it with both hands. For me, I could’ve written it off after coming back and not playing at Reading.
“I could’ve just thought, ‘forget about this season, I’ll start again in pre-season.’ I think it just shows what this manager gives you – he gave me the confidence that I didn’t need to write it off.
“He made me think I could still get an opportunity here, so that’s credit to everyone here.”
Since that second-half cameo against Spurs, Sims has featured either from the start or as a substitute in every match, helping Saints propel themselves to Premier League survival.
With 40 points still up for grabs, Sims is determined to help the team hit that milestone.
“We looked at these final games and thought we could win all of them – that shows how far we’ve come,” he said.
“There’s been a massive change in the way we play now and it causes teams trouble. I think it’s really exciting for the future of the club.”