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“I wasn’t the toughest of kids when I was younger,” admits Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse. “I needed a bit of help and a kick up the backside.”
That kick came from National League South side Havant & Waterlooville, where Ward-Prowse’s dad sent him for some extra training sessions while he was at the Southampton Academy. He was just 13 at the time. “It chucked me into the man’s game at a very young age and made sure I manned up for the journey ahead,” he says.
Some eight years on, Ward-Prowse is the one providing helpful advice, albeit with fewer profanities and bruising tackles. We speak with him after he’s finished taking questions from youngsters at a school in Southampton.
The 21-year-old is happy to call on his own experiences in his answers. “I’m lucky enough to have had great support around me,” he says. “So it’s nice to be able to try and do the same for others now.”
The England Under-21 captain has been at Southampton since he was eight, making his senior debut for the club at 16, when then-manager Nigel Adkins called him into the squad for a League Cup fourth-round tie against Crystal Palace in 2011.
“Those sessions with Havant & Waterlooville played a big part in me breaking through to the first team earlier than expected,” says Ward-Prowse. “It was my dad’s idea. He loves football and knows a few people in the game. He used to take me to watch them play as well, thinking it was a good idea for me to watch that level of football to see the aggression and the tackles that went in. I knew that if I wanted to be a midfielder in the Premier League, then I needed to do that.
“I was a bit intimidated at first, but that’s normal for anyone thrown into that sort of environment at that age. It wasn’t so much about the challenges flying around, it was the atmosphere – they’re swearing and we’re training on a cold Tuesday night on a bobbly pitch. It was a tough, but it was ideal for me. It opened my eyes to what it would take. I could see the level they were at and I knew I wanted to be higher, so I had to work harder than them to get there.”
It was those Tuesday night sessions, says Ward-Prowse, that enabled him to deal with “the man’s game” at a younger age than some other players. That maturity has also helped him this season, which has presented some challenging times for Southampton. “The start to this season wasn’t the one we wanted,” he says. “We were very disappointed to go out of Europe early on.”
Ronald Koeman’s side bounced back from their defeat to FC Midtjylland, losing just once – to Manchester United – in their next 11 games. But then came the slump. Southampton managed just one win in a 10-game stretch, lasting from late November to early January, a run that saw them sink to 13th in the league. “Every team goes through tough periods in the season,” says Ward-Prowse. “That’s when you find out about each other and it’s a case of just sticking together.”
Pressed on where the team believed change was needed, Ward-Prowse points to the training ground: “It all starts there. Maybe our levels weren’t quite right in training. We could see we needed to change that, and we have done. That has been the basis of our success lately, and we’re determined to carry it on.”
Back in the top half of the table (Southampton were seventh as Sport went to press on Tuesday, before the midweek fixtures), Ward-Prowse says their aim for the season is back in sight: “We want to reach Europe. The whole infrastructure of the club is built around the European stage; we want to do everything we can to get there.”
Ward-Prowse is equally frank when talking about his personal aims, admitting he would like to start more games – at time of writing, 11 of 24 appearances in the league this season have been from the bench.
“It’s disappointing not to start every game, but the competition is very high and the manager makes tactical changes,” he says. “You’ve just got to remain patient and be ready to take the chance when you get it. I feel like I’ve done that this season.”
Ward-Prowse knows starting regularly for Southampton would be a big step towards winning a first senior international cap: “If you look around the England squad, they all play regularly in the Premier League. If I can maintain a regular position for Southampton, that’ll give me more of a chance to make the England squad. I believe it will happen when it’s supposed to.”
With an unshakeable belief in his ability and the maturity to recognise patience is key at this stage of his career, the school pupils of Southampton would do well to heed Ward-Prowse’s words of wisdom.
James Ward-Prowse was speaking at Saints Connect, a Saints Foundation project backed by BT Sport’s The Supporters Club and the Premier League, which helps disadvantaged young people