Southampton’s golden boy – but James Ward-Prowse’s heart remains in Portsmouth

The hand-painted depiction of James Ward-Prowse adorns an outside wall at East Lodge Youth.

Monday, 25th March 2019, 11:07 am
Updated Monday, 25th March 2019, 11:11 am
James Ward-Prowse is welcomed back to East Lodge by president Dave Hill at the unveiling of the building his 15,000 donation helped renovate

‘It was decided not to put him in a Southampton kit,’ said the football club’s president, Dave Hill.

‘We didn’t want people to wreck it, if you know what I mean, so we left it as a white strip.’

The Farlington-based club remain proud of the exploits of their most famous son, irrespective of an association forged with the city’s bitter rivals.

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Ward-Prowse, then a Fratton end season-ticket holder, eloped to Southampton following a period with Pompey’s under-nines.

Pragmatism overwhelmed sentiment in what has proven to be a pivotal career decision.

Now aged 24, the ex-Oaklands Catholic School pupil has amassed 227 appearances and netted 18 times for his adopted club.

Last night he occupied England’s bench for their Euro 2020 qualification victory over the Czech Republic.

Yet Ward-Prowse’s heart remains in Portsmouth.

When first club East Lodge enquired about a donation towards the transformation of a dilapidated storage building at their ground, the midfielder contributed £15,000.

He was also present for the November 2018 unveiling.

‘I had Jamie when he was aged five or six at the beginning of his football days, he lived around Havant Road and came along with his dad,’ said Hill, who founded the club in 1997.

‘His idol was David Beckham and copied him all the time when practicing free-kicks.

‘I would tell him he needed a little bit more than taking the kicks and crossing, there's more to a game than just crossing the ball, you have to be more physical.

‘One day his dad came up to me and said “James has to choose between Pompey or Southampton, where do I send my son?”. So I told him – Southampton.

‘I didn’t like saying it, but it was for the good of the boy and that’s where he went, going on to do really well for himself.

‘Recently we’ve been trying to find the money to change this old storage building falling to bits with an asbestos roof into a club house, containing a meeting room, store room and a couple of dressing rooms.

‘Jamie donated £15,000 – and to thank him a mural was created on the building.

‘He even turned up with his partner, baby son and parents for the launch.

‘We’ve had people from Pompey at events always on their phone, they stay half-an-hour and want to go. Jamie never got his phone out once, not once, and we had to remind him he’d been here for two-and-a-half hours!’.

As a Blues fan, Farlington-raised Ward-Prowse would accompany dad, John, and older brother, Ben, to home matches.

For one game, the brothers appeared as mascots, the four-year-old James listing Andy Awford as his favourite player in the club programme.

And soon his fledgling passion for football developed into a prodigious talent.

‘When James was five, his dad brought him to a Pompey In The Community session on a Thursday night at Horndean Technology College,’ said Paul Hardyman, at the time assistant youth development officer.

‘I was asked: “Can you look after him, I think he’s got something special”. He was right, straight away it was obvious the lad had loads of ability.

‘As I talked to his dad, this kid was taking free-kicks and putting them into the top corner. At that age he could strike a great ball – and is still doing it now.

‘From there I would also take James into an advanced training centre, working with those boys which showed a bit of talent. We looked after them and, when old enough and good enough, put them through to Pompey’s Centre of Excellence, which later became an Academy.

‘Every half-term, Easter, Christmas and summer holidays he was on courses at either Horndean or Roko, often winning the best player. There weren’t many he didn’t attend.

‘James had a fantastic mentality, always very calm, assured on the ball, never flustered playing against bigger boys on the courses and a very good footballer.

‘He played for Pompey’s under-nines – and then picked Southampton. We lost him.

‘The family decided James should go for the more glamorous side of it by playing at Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea, rather than Gillingham, Southend or Wimbledon.

‘Pompey, though, is a hotbed of football, there’s a different breed of player which comes out of this city. They are brought up to have that fantastic work-rate and never-say-die attitude.’

Ward-Prowse made his Southampton first-team debut at the age of 16 in a Carling Cup encounter at Crystal Palace in October 2011.

It arrived months after leaving Oaklands Catholic School in Waterlooville, an education establishment which focused on rugby rather than football.

And, in January 2016, Ward-Prowse returned to guest at the school’s annual Presentation of Certificates evening.

Oaklands headteacher Matthew Quinn said: ‘I can remember the first conversation I had between James and his parents.

‘Southampton had approached us for him to go on a day-release scheme – and we were quite happy to support him.

‘Gradually, as he moved through the school, he also progressed with the Southampton Academy and was out for four days a week towards the end. However, alongside that he maintained commitment through his GCSEs and did very well.

‘I recall having a chat with his dad about should the football thing fall apart then he’d come back here to do A-levels. His dad was quite realistic, he knew it only takes one unfortunate knock and you are out of the game.

‘James came back here in 2016 for our prize-giving ceremony and gave a speech. I would go as far as to say he was inspirational in what he said to the pupils, what a tremendous role model.

‘As a pupil he was very affable, well liked and worked hard at whatever he did. He deserves the success he’s now experiencing.’

Today Ward-Prowse is Southampton’s longest-serving player.

Yet during his development, a training stint at the Hawks is credited as toughening the midfielder in preparation for the physicality of future first-team football.

Shaun Gale, manager of the Hawks at the time, said: ‘Southampton didn’t have a game for a month or so over the Christmas period, the kids had been given time off, so I was asked if James could train with us and tick over.

‘It was his dad’s idea. James must have been aged 14 or 15 and it was also the opportunity to get the feel of training with men.

‘There were a couple of sessions at Westleigh Park, we did some shape and finished with an eight-v-eight, but he never looked out of place. I just told the lads to make sure we didn’t kick him!

‘It was good for him, physically that’s where he needed to be. It was a case of coming into a non-league environment, seeing the physical side of it and dealing with that rather than training on his own over Christmas.

‘He didn’t take any free-kicks, though. I know he’s a dead-ball specialist, but that shouldn’t detract away from what a good player he is.’

Today Ward-Prowse is an England cap and recently netted free-kicks against Manchester United and Spurs in the Premier League.

Yet, according to those who know him, the kid from Farlington remains unaffected.

Hill added: ‘When he hasn’t got a game, Jamie sometimes comes with his dad on a Saturday morning for a walk around the pitches to watch the East Lodge kids play.

‘He’s a great lad. You cannot fault him.’

Although some of Pompey persuasion inevitably will.