Perhaps it is a sign of Southampton’s rising stock recently, and how big the current ‘crisis’ at Stamford Bridge actually is, that the Saints’ surprise 3-1 win over Chelsea wasn’t that surprising.
The Blues may be in the middle of what seems an increasingly public civil war between Jose Mourinho and his players and staff, but that would be downplaying Southampton’s achievements there.
The cold hard facts for Saints’s triumph in West London are clear. It was the first time they’d come from behind away from home to win since August 2014. It was also their first away win since QPR back in February and the first time Jose Mourinho has conceded three goals at home in the league as Chelsea manager.
As Graziano Pelle’s perfectly-placed shot skidded along the turf past Asmir Begovic and nestled into the Shed End goal’s bottom corner, the Saints fans, players and staff knew it would be a memorable night in West London. But for James Ward-Prowse, it would have been more memorable than most. Despite growing up as a Portsmouth fan, coming on against Chelsea means he has now made 100 appearances for the club he has been at since the age of eight. In stark contrast to most of the Premier League where many young hopefuls scarcely get a look in, Ward-Prowse is a Southampton centurion just a month short of his 21st birthday.
It is difficult to forget he is still a young player in football’s eyes because he has been around for sometime; come October 25th, it will be four years since he played for the senior team for the very first time, against Crystal Palace in the League Cup.
In a way, you forget his age when he first wrestled the ball from far senior players in order to take corners simply because he felt he was better at them. You forget his age when he would step up for media interviews even after Saints are beaten, because of how well he speaks.
The only time his age came into anything about him, was when it was rumoured that he had turned down a loan move to Championship new-boys AFC Bournemouth in summer 2013. He was up against more experienced midfielders, plus new signing Victor Wanyama. But he proved his worth to Mauricio Pochettino; the fact that he would go on to make 39 appearances in all competitions over the course of that season vindicated that call.
He had now cemented himself within the senior squad, but he is somewhat of an enigma amongst the St Mary’s faithful. Ward-Prowse, oddly in an era of exaggeration and hyperbole, is a paradox of how he is seen. Often admired by opposition fans for his set pieces and passing range, he is talked about in the media and by pundits as following in the footsteps of fellow academy graduates by making a big money move to one of the bigger fish of the Premier League pond. But Saints fans currently aren’t universally in favour of Ward-Prowse; his corners are appreciated, but it is often said that is all he brings to the team, and that he should impact on the team far more than from dead ball situations.
In some respects, that is correct. He may still be in the early years of his career, but now he needs to prove he’s more than a corner taker, and that he can grab a game by the scruff of the neck.
Morgan Schneiderlin was looked upon the same despite playing at a lower level. He had made 163 appearances before his first game in the Premier League – the Manchester City defeat that Ward-Prowse made his full debut in at just 17 – and flourished with experience.
Ward-Prowse was awarded the England Under-21 captain’s armband during the summer, and it doesn’t take much imagination to think he could step up when the club captain’s role is passed on from Jose Fonte. To become captain though, he needs to become pivotal. Of his 100 appearances, only 40 have been starts; that is a tremendous figure for a player of his age in the Premier League, but now he needs to make himself difficult to drop.
One of the main criticisms against him is the number of goals he scores; he would admit himself that just two, one in his second game and a penalty last season, isn’t good enough. A player with his ability from a free-kick should wrestle that role away from Virgil van Dijk, and should be able to notch at least two a season rather comfortably.
The early signs are good; this season he has shown more bite in the midfield, similar to how Schneiderlin did as he developed. In the disappointment of Midjtylland, he got the crowd up on their feet which was plenty more than some of his teammates did.
Getting into the squad was something that required sheer talent and will from someone so young, and becoming a first pick requires the same qualities. He needs to make that jump that his talent deserves, and perhaps become the icon that the previous academy centurion, Adam Lallana, was before bridges were burned.
From Fratton Park season ticket holder to Saints legend… now that would be something.