How Ward-Prowse convinced the doubters

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September 18, 2021
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    James Ward-Prowse celebrates scoring against NewcastleJames Ward-Prowse's approach to his role as Southampton captain has made him a popular figure with team-mates

    There was a time during the summer transfer window when it seemed James Ward-Prowse might be the latest in a long line of Southampton academy graduates to leave the club in a big-money move.

    After an impressive season which led him to the brink of England's Euros squad – he was in the initial party but cut when the final 26 were chosen – the 26-year-old was reportedly a transfer target for Aston Villa and Tottenham.

    Saints fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. After all, they are only too familiar with losing their star players..

    Alan Shearer, Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale are just some of the names to have shown promise on the south coast before being tempted away.

    But, rather than follow that well-worn route, Ward-Prowse bucked the trend. A new five-year contract could extend his stay with the club to 15 years.

    He will lead Saints out at Manchester City on Saturday having won over the fans and the manager. He is on course to become a club legend – not bad for a Portsmouth fan.

    A free-kick specialist aged six

    James Ward-Prowse takes a free-kick against Manchester CityWard-Prowse has scored more Premier League free-kicks than any other Englishman

    Ward-Prowse grew up on the outskirts of Portsmouth – Southampton's fierce south coast rivals – and was showing promise from the age of six when he stood out for East Lodge FC, in large part because of his ability to take a corner.

    "He was always crossing during practice so I told him there was more to the game, but he's done alright, hasn't he?" jokes Dave Hill, East Lodge's chairman and coach.

    Back then Ward-Prowse idolised David Beckham. It is perhaps not surprising that he has gone on to make free-kick expertise a hallmark of his game, to such an extent that Saints manager Ralph Hasenhuttl recently told BBC Radio 5 Live that Ward-Prowse is one of the world's best set-piece takers.

    The statistics back up that opinion.

    The midfielder has scored 10 goals direct from free-kicks, second only in Premier League history to the 11 of Sebastian Larsson. He also has the best conversion rate of any Premier League player to have taken more than 50 direct free-kicks since Opta began recording that data in 2003-04.

    "When it came to staying on after training to practise his delivery, it got to the stage where we'd have to pretty much drag him off – particularly when he was on the fringes of the first team," said Jason Dodd, who coached Ward-Prowse in the Southampton academy.

    A one-club man?

    The contract Ward-Prowse signed during the summer raises the possibility he could finish his career as that rarest of things – a one-club player.

    Dodd knows what it takes to sustain a career in the top flight with one team, having played for Southampton for 16 years. He describes coaching Ward-Prowse as a pleasure. "Even at 14, he had an old head on young shoulders," adds Dodd. "He wasn't afraid to ask questions on how to improve."

    A decade has gone by since Ward-Prowse made his debut at 16 against Crystal Palace. Back then the club was halfway through back-to-back promotions to the Premier League.

    Dean Hammond captained that Saints team and remembers the teenager standing out on the training field.

    "He had quality but he listened, too," says Hammond. "The boys from the academy were like that – Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James, they were nice lads, but they had this confidence about them and they wanted to prove themselves."

    Shaw and Oxlade-Chamberlain are two more examples of Southampton players lured away by so-called "bigger" clubs. Ward-Prowse stayed, but has not always had it easy.

    Before Hasenhuttl became manager in 2018, some Southampton fans questioned whether he merited a place in the starting XI – suggesting he wasn't physical enough, nor had the necessary influence on games. Hasenhuttl wanted more aggression from Ward-Prowse – and got it.

    "James has always been his own harshest critic," says Kelvin Davis, once a team-mate, now a Saints coach. "Even when he started to emerge in the first team, he would analyse his game and be working on different elements of play in order to really push on."

    In May he became the first midfielder to play every minute of consecutive Premier League seasons. After signing his new deal he talked about repaying the faith shown by the club.

    This mentality and desire to improve can be traced back to East Lodge, as Hill recalls: "When some youngsters make a mistake in a game they beat themselves up about it and it ends up affecting them for the rest of the game," he said. "James wasn't like that. He didn't let things faze him."

    That he is happy to stay at St Mary's should perhaps come as no surprise, since loyalty is something many recognised in him.

    It is a trait that goes back to the days at East Lodge. In 2019, he made a donation to renovate their clubhouse, returning for its opening. On one of the walls is a mural of Ward-Prowse – in a white England shirt, obviously. "We couldn't have painted James in a Southampton kit – we don't want the place burned down," says Hill.

    Emergence of a leader

    James Ward-Prowse cycles during pre-seasonWard-Prowse's conduct off the pitch has particularly impressed manager Ralph Hasenhuttl

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    The 2020 New Year's Day win over Spurs was most memorable for a Danny Ings goal, but fans noted how a Ward-Prowse tackle knocked Tottenham's Moussa Sissoko off of his feet. Before the end of the season he replaced Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg as Saints captain.

    It was another moment to dispel any doubts Hasenhuttl might still have had. The Austrian likes how his new leader talks to players, rather than simply criticising them. This goes beyond matches. During meal times Ward-Prowse makes sure he sits with different players, rather than always being with the same small group. His manager likes this behaviour, believing it helps cement the respect of team-mates.

    It is that kind of maturity which will help him overcome the disappointment he experienced when Gareth Southgate left him out of the Euros squad.

    "He has full belief in his own ability and knows that in football there are always hurdles to overcome," adds Davis. "The summer has gone now and he is fully focused on the Premier League season ahead. I am sure he will continue to push on."

    Hammond agrees: "He's still improving as a player at Southampton and achieving by playing for England. The new contract is good for him and the club."

    For Ward-Prowse, life has been about dedication and loyalty, qualities Southampton will need if they are to maintain their position in the Premier League.

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