WHEN Saints captain and legend James Ward-Prowse was informed by Gareth Southgate that he was not part of England’s 2022 World Cup squad, I dread to imagine the feelings.
I’m not an international footballer, but from other life experiences it was that familiar sinking feeling of the worst possible scenario – but one you’d imagined, thought about and suspected for a while – that was confirmed.
While the initial emptiness eventually gives way to sadness and regret, it likely does so with a washout period of anger. From what we know of Ward-Prowse, most of it will be self-directed.
As the Lions of England linked up today ahead of tomorrow’s flight to Doha, the 28-year-old will have and will continue to replay in his mind the moments when he feels he has let himself down this season.
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The tournament that should have been played in the summer – which would have seen Ward-Prowse go into it as a Premier League Player of the Year nominee and selection – is his second disappointment.
“It was hard to take,” said Ward-Prowse, after missing out on a call to be part of the eventual European Championship finalists last summer.
“It was kind of trying to find that balance between where I was, but I had to use that as motivation to raise my levels, even more, to make sure I don’t miss another one.”
Part of the preliminary squad – and played in four of England’s five games that year before the tournament – Ward-Prowse could not have been closer to the squad for the eventual finalists without actually being in it.
“I want to be there and want to be part of this great group and replicate the success we had,” added Ward-Prowse, of the upcoming World Cup.
But having played every minute of the Premier League season so far – as he so often does – he has failed to deliver the performances that saw him nominated alongside Jarrod Bowen and six others from the ‘big six’ clubs in May.
His season began with a trademark opener against Tottenham but has largely stopped there – save for a couple of deliveries against Leicester City and most recently Liverpool, which came after the squad selection was made.
Ward-Prowse has effectively lost his place to the younger Conor Gallagher, who excelled last season on loan at Crystal Palace but has also not shown his best football now back at parent club Chelsea.
Southgate’s decision is one that looks forward to future tournaments on England’s behalf, even though he probably won’t be there himself, and on form, Ward-Prowse can’t feel hard done by.
But I have no doubt that the second time around will hurt even more and leave the mind searching.
The concern is whether some of that anger feeds into delusional thoughts about how he has not been, in part, best assisted by his beloved club during the most critical months of his individual career.
Ward-Prowse is the model professional, as exemplified by new manager Nathan Jones at his first press conference in charge of Saints last week – less than 24 hours after Ward-Prowse’s gut-wrenching omission.
“We spoke yesterday and look, although he is bitterly disappointed, the professionalism (Ward-Prowse) showed yesterday was really admirable,” the Welshman explained.
However, large sections of the player management group were ultimately unhappy with the club’s management towards the back of last season.
Ward-Prowse was the best player for the club to put in front of the media after the game after a tough result, but the frequency of his appearances has dropped dramatically this term – Romain Perraud and Joe Aribo among those in his place.
Oriol Romeu – the other safe pair of hands – was handed a sentimental move to Girona on deadline day after seven years’ service, even after Romeo Lavia was ruled out for eight weeks with a muscle injury.
Ward-Prowse may well have been adamant that the Spaniard – his faithful midfield partner – would make his return home to play for a Catalan side in the top division.
But it undoubtedly left the Englishman a bit stuck. Without Lavia, it meant a double tap of Ibrahima Diallo or the still-learning Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
The former has been shown not to work effectively in this way and the latter was described by Ralph Hasenhuttl as having “a lot of work to do” to be ready.
In the lead-up to the World Cup, Ward-Prowse had more to do in midfield than he ever had before – considering the team had still barely won a game since February – and it showed.
Regardless of who plays around you, it doesn’t take complete control of your feet and leads to wayward passing, some of which we saw at Anfield on Saturday. But a bold recruitment plan and possible club crisis does not give you the best platform.
“Ward-Prowse is out, isn’t he? Poor guy,” former England international Ben Foster said in a recent episode of his YouTube podcast.
“I think if he played for one of the (bigger clubs, which include Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur) he would be there before Conor Gallagher.
“The fact that he plays for Southampton, who are struggling, is the reason why he is not away, which is a shame for him,” he concludes, showing an outsider’s view.
Ward-Prowse could not have done much more to commit to the club amid interest from elsewhere, with the most serious being a £25million bid from Aston Villa that was laughed out of the room last summer.
The Academy candidate signed new five-year contracts in both 2020 and 2021 to protect his value as an asset and fend off potential suitors – while also apparently improving his own situation.
As a result, Ward-Prowse has written himself into the history books at what is a proud, historic club. James Beattie and Matt Le Tissier never really got a fair crack in England either, did they?
Without Ward-Prowse’s 10 goals, which themselves accounted for eight points, Saints would have been relegated to the Championship along with Watford and Norwich last season.
I commented last summer that Sport Republic needed to show players like Ward-Prowse serious ambition to persuade them to stay at the club for their entire careers.
His stock has probably declined but given his physical reliability, exceptional attitude and dead ball infamy; he would never be without admirers.
Saints boss Jones added: “I spoke about his role going forward in terms of the leader he needs to be here and I would like him to be here.
“The influence he can have off the field and obviously the influence he can have on the team in terms of games. He buys into it.”
Just as Saints have needed him to pull them from dark depths, Ward-Prowse, who will be almost 30 when Euro 2024 arrives and 32 before the next World Cup, now needs Saints to help him rise again.
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