Southampton's longest-serving player discusses highs, lows, Christmas and the expectation that comes with every Saints free-kick...
Christmas in the Ward-Prowse household is a very different challenge these days – much like facing up to Saints’ all-action midfield star on a Saturday afternoon.
Life has changed, quite dramatically, for JWP over the last 18 months. The birth of his first child coincided with the toughest period of his football career, but he’s come out the other side with flying colours, maturing into a talisman for his team who produces his best in the biggest moments.
Another trademark free-kick late on against Watford was a recent example. Saints were struggling, still without a home win all season, but Ward-Prowse is a talented footballer with an exceptional temperament, and duly answered the wave of anticipation inside St Mary’s to secure his status as the talk of the city when Saints fans returned to their offices and classrooms on Monday morning.
Such moments are repeating themselves often enough that the hope surrounding any Ward-Prowse set-piece has given way to tangible expectation.
Four days later, he delivered a free-kick for Danny Ings to score, and a corner, flicked on by Shane Long, to be dispatched by Ryan Bertrand at the far post.
But there’s more to Ward-Prowse than perfecting the art of the dead ball. Last season’s transformation under Ralph Hasenhüttl resulted in a purple patch of seven goals in 15 Premier League appearances – one penalty, two free-kicks and four from open play.
He was nominated for the Premier League Player of the Month award twice in that period, and ended a two-year exile from the England squad by earning his second cap – playing his own small part in the Three Lions’ qualification for Euro 2020, for which he hasn’t given up on being selected.
But before 2019 is out, there are still three pivotal games for Saints and one hectic Christmas for Ward-Prowse to negotiate.
“The dynamics have changed,” he says of his home life, raising a smile. “Whereas before we would all be around mum and dad’s, now it’s just the three of us (James, partner Olivia and son Oscar) and everyone is going to be doing the rounds on Christmas Day.
“We’ve got my niece’s first Christmas, and my other niece and my little one’s second Christmas, so it’s exciting times.
“My mum and dad are quite lucky they’ve had three grandchildren in the last two years. There have been a lot of new additions, a lot of exciting times and hopefully there are many more to come.”
The same could be true of life on the pitch. Things are looking up for Saints, who ended the long wait for three points at St Mary’s with two home wins in a week, and now sit within striking distance of a clutch of clubs just above them.
But the recent revival was preceded by a low ebb. Before the November international break – a key period behind the scenes – Saints had taken only one point from seven Premier League matches, including a humbling home defeat by Leicester City, which damaged the confidence of the team.
Still a one-club man, Ward-Prowse has been with Saints since joining the Academy at the age of eight. Now 25, he feels it more than most when times are tough, and is uncharacteristically blunt when addressing the Leicester game, unprompted, as a watershed moment.
“It was a total embarrassment for everybody and not good enough right across the board,” he said, sternly.
“You do go home, analyse yourself and analyse how you could’ve done more, and there are things I wish I could go back and do differently. I don’t think it would be normal if you didn’t go home and think about it. It’s a good thing in a way – it shows that you care.
“We had a team meeting and an honest discussion with each other, where we highlighted what we needed to do and certain things that we really need to change.
“That was a big wake-up call for us, definitely, and a realisation of where we are as a team. I don’t wish it happened, but losing a game in that way gave did give us that kick we needed to step up another gear.
“People all over the world must have been looking at that thinking, ‘that’s them done now.’ I think it says a lot about the team and the coaching staff that we were able to recover from that, and we’re in a good position to be able to climb the table now.”
james ward-prowsei don't think it would be normal if you didn't go home and think about it. it's a good thing in a way - it shows that you care.
on reacting to defeat
One week and three defeats later, Saints finally had the chance to take stock ahead of a daunting trip to Arsenal, as Hasenhüttl vowed to “get back to our basics and our fundamentals.” Ward-Prowse picks up the story.
“When the manager came in, we had an immediate identity of how we played – with and without the ball – and I think we had lost that a little bit,” he admitted.
“We were very much in between a few things and we weren’t clear on our way, but I think in that international break we were able to find that identity, and you could see that at in the game at Arsenal, which was a massive turning point in our season.
“I think the way we were brave without the ball, going to a big team and a big stadium and playing the way we did, although we didn’t win the game, it was a good feeling to come away with a point.
“More importantly, how we played was definitely the standard of how we need to play for the rest of the season.”
The 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium flattered the Gunners in the extreme, as did Newcastle’s 2-1 success at Saints’ expense.
But performance levels are on the rise and seven points from four games represented a healthy return prior to the weekend defeat by West Ham. Now it’s time to build on that momentum – particularly at St Mary’s.
“The home form is massive,” Ward-Prowse asserts. “If we want to achieve anything we have to be dominant at home and we haven’t been for quite a while.
“Once you get that winning feeling you want to continue it and you want to play every few days.
“That’s why this Christmas period is vital for us, because we’re going into it in a good run of form, everybody’s confident and everybody wants to play. It’s a good chance to pick up a lot of points.
“I think this has been a real season-changing period for us, and I think everyone feels we’re back on track and going the way we should be going.”
james ward-prowseobviously it helps the more you score, because people come to expect it. i enjoy that expectation, and when they come off it's an unbelievable feeling.
on the buzz when he stands over a free-kick
A season-changing period for team and player alike, perhaps? By his own admission, Ward-Prowse’s form in the spring was the best of his career to date, but recent signs suggest he’s on his way back to those heights.
“The manager was brutally honest with me about what I needed to change and what I needed to do,” he remembers of the early days under Hasenhüttl.
“When you have that backing and commitment from somebody and they believe in you, you want to repay that.
“I enjoy the way that we play as a team now, and I have been versatile in playing a few other positions at times, which is handy but it can be difficult as well.
“I love the game, I love football, I love being able to play in different positions and it’s something I’ve done throughout my career.
“It’s definitely helped me in terms of being able to play a lot more this season, but obviously I’ve enjoyed the last few games, playing my real natural position in central midfield.”
Tactically, it’s been more of an old-school flat 4-4-2 for Saints in recent weeks, at the heart of which Ward-Prowse has excelled.
“I’m a bit more disciplined in that central role as a two,” he explains. “If I play on the right, or as part of a midfield three, I can be more direct and get into the box.
“We do a lot of tactical work and that’s one of our strengths, in terms of knowing what to do without the ball.
“I think we’re very strong in knowing when to press and when to defend deep. The more you play, the more you learn how to do that role.”
In two weeks’ time, we’ll be into a tournament year, with Wembley set to host as many as five England matches at Euro 2020.
Whilst admitting it is a target of his, Ward-Prowse is modest about his chances, albeit buoyed by last season’s call-up and his positive relationship with Gareth Southgate, for whom he was a key man at Under-21 level.
“He (Southgate) has proved he’s willing to give players chances based on their form and it’s not just about the big names,” he reasoned.
“But he’s not going to pick me if I’m not playing well, so I need to focus on doing that. I believe if I do that, hopefully the opportunity will come.”
“My focus at the minute is on ensuring we do what is required to stay in the league, and hoping I can play a big part in doing that.”
Another Saint surely on Southgate’s radar is Ings, who has struck up a bond – on and off the pitch – with Ward-Prowse, who was more than happy to sing the praises of his red-hot teammate.
“We seem to get on quite well – we’ve got a good relationship and we’re able to give each other a bit of stick and a bit of banter. But we love each other really and it’s just a bit of fun,” he grins.
“To have scored five in a row is an unbelievable achievement. People may only see the goals, but the hard work he puts in and the extra runs that people don’t see… that’s the difference in why he’s doing what he’s doing.
“More importantly, apart from the goals and stuff, he’s a great lad to have around. He’s funny – always at the centre of a laugh if it’s going on. He’s a great guy.
“He’s a top striker and I always try to look for him if I can – like the Norwich goal. I’d like to be scoring goals, but equally if I can find him to score that gives me great pleasure as well.
“By all means I’ll be backing him to get in that squad, and I believe between now and the next internationals in March he will have banged in a few more.”
The pair may have shared penalty-taking duties in the past, but there’s only one man who will be stepping up the next time Saints are awarded a free-kick in shooting range…
“Obviously it helps the more you score, because people then come to expect it. I enjoy that expectation, and when they come off it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Ward-Prowse added, having struck gold against Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Watford in 2019.
“I think about the Tottenham one quite frequently, because it was such a special moment – a good example for me that my hard work does pay off, and in those moments it can be pivotal for the team.
“You practise a lot out on the training pitch for those situations. Sometimes, when we’re not playing well, those goals, like the Watford one, can decide the game.
“I love that pressure and that excitement of being able to do it, and hopefully a couple more before the end of the season will be nice.”