When James Ward-Prowse completed his first training session at non-league Havant and Waterlooville there was one prevailing question amongst the Hawks’ players and coaches.

“How old is this lad???”

The answer was 14 years old, a fact given away by his boyish face and slight frame but not by the calibre of his play or his approach to the men’s environment.

“If he was nervous it didn’t show!” then-Havant boss Shaun Gale recalls.

On Saturday, Ward-Prowse added another special moment to his lengthy Saints catalogue as his latest free-kick earned Southampton a 1-1 draw at Elland Road. Now 27 years old, Saints captain and England international, it's been a while since those days joining in with Havant training.

It was the winter of 2009, roughly 23 months before Ward-Prowse would make his Southampton first-team debut when he ran into a problem of sorts. Christmas break meant his academy team's training had paused. A few weeks without football just would not do.

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So instead of waiting, father John got in touch with Gale to see if his son could train with the then-Conference South side. 

“His dad, his brother and James used to come and watch when I was manager at Havant. And I’ve always kept in touch with the family,” Gale explains.

Still, despite the connection, this was an unusual request.

“No disrespect," Gale continues. "But the normal 14-year old would have found himself out of his depth in a men’s environment like that.”

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse in action for Saints' U18s. Image by: PAWard-Prowse in action for Saints' U18s. Image by: PA

“We had some really good players, some ex-pros, some really good non-league lads who had played at the level for a long time. But he wasn’t out of place in that. He didn’t look out of place and he wasn’t out of place.

"He’s always been so comfortable on the ball and he’s obviously worked hard on his game but he was more than comfortable on the ball.”

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With most other 14-year old kids - even 14-year old kids in academies - the request to join in with training would have received a polite no. But Gale knew all about Ward-Prowse’s ability, going back a full decade earlier. 

At that time the former Barnet and Exeter full-back was working for Pompey ITC (Pompey In The Community) putting on holiday courses for youngsters while also looking out for any potential talent to bring into Portsmouth’s academy.

Even at the age of five, Ward-Prowse stuck out.

“When they’re young you look at lots of things,” Gale says. “Firstly, can they play? He could play. He was head and shoulders above people, even older kids. His passion for the game…you could tell. You get the kids who come along and just want to enjoy it and the kids who come along and are players and who it means everything to and he was one of those. 

“When we worked for the community our job also was to identify talent for what was the centre of excellence at the time - I worked in both - and he was one we were pushing through. But obviously, he ended up going to Southampton which was the right decision for him because at the end of the day, he’s achieved what he’s achieved now. 

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse in the England team for the recent friendly against Ivory Coast. Image by: PAWard-Prowse in the England team for the recent friendly against Ivory Coast. Image by: PA

“It’s a long time ago but he was always technically very very good. For me, it’s a gift but he’s worked on it as well. He’s got the god-given talent but also you’ve gotta do more than that, you have to have the mentality as well and he’s always had that.

“He was always just a really good footballer. Good passer of the ball, what you see now really, he’s always been able to do that. Good control, good passing ability, good vision - always been able to see a pass and good quality. A much smaller version of what he is now!”

Despite growing up in a Portsmouth-supporting family, the mini-version of Ward-Prowse opted to join Southampton - and thankfully it proved the best decision for everyone involved (other than League One Pompey of course).

The mix of talent and a relentless drive to improve took Ward-Prowse back to Gale ten years after they first crossed paths but there were stops along the way including a five-year period doing private sessions with the father of Portsmouth native and current England midfield partner Mason Mount.

Mason had been receiving one-on-one coaching from his father Tony pretty much since birth before Ward-Prowse connected with Mount Sr in to order to iron out some flaws.

“I was introduced to James by his dad when he was about ten,” Tony explains.

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse in action against Mason Mount. Image by: PAWard-Prowse in action against Mason Mount. Image by: PA

“He’s a top lad and he was a top lad at ten years of age. Very very focused, wanted to improve in all aspects of his game, was playing at a good level, training within the academy at Southampton. 

“I went and watched him in a few games and just picked up on a few things, some feedback from his dad on how Southampton had reported on him, what his strengths and weaknesses were. Me and James hit it off straight away. He responded really well to what I was asking him to do and he was extremely up for it.

“You’re looking for certain things in boys. They’re all skilful, they’ve all got talent but you want to go extra and look at the extra ingredients. You’re looking for focus, you’re looking for boys who want to improve, who want to better themselves and when they’ve achieved what they wanted to achieve, they set goals for the next achievement. And James was always one of them.

"He would train fully focused and want to learn and want to improve. It was all about practice practice practice and everyone knows what James has now achieved at Southampton is tremendous, full credit to him.

“The rewarding thing is James always wanted to do it, he always wanted to be there. He always wanted to be pushed and be pushed to the limit and he always wanted to learn. Whether it was talking, whether it was using his left foot, right foot, passing, free-kicks, upping his aggressiveness and his tenaciousness…

“I couldn’t have picked anyone better to coach one-on-one than James. I was very very fortunate, he was a great student and I really enjoyed working with him.” 

Focus is something almost everyone connected to Ward-Prowse’s rise speaks about and it says a lot about his consistency as a player and person that two men involved in his coaching away from the academy talk in such similarly glowing terms.

“The way he conducts himself and plays was always 100% focused,” Gale says. “Even as a kid - 100% focused on wanting to be a footballer, to be a good footballer and to be the best he can. I think that just typifies how he is now, how he plays, how he conducts himself; he wants to be the best every week. And he was no different at 14. He was younger, maybe a little bit more naive but ultimately he was exactly the same.

“I’ve been in football all my life and it’s a tough industry, trust me,” Gale continues. “You’ve gotta be a tough cookie to deal with it. I like to challenge the players when they come in, he probably felt challenged but he dealt well with the challenge.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had any other 14-year olds in training with me if I’m honest with you. Because it’s down to them. A, they have to have the talent and B, they have to be able to deal with it, deal with a men’s environment. And it’s not just going for a kick-around, he didn’t come for a kick-around, he trained properly with us.

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse celebrates his free-kick against Leeds. Image by: PAWard-Prowse celebrates his free-kick against Leeds. Image by: PA

"My players weren’t going to kick him but they also weren’t going to let him have an easy ride. If he’s there to play in an eight vs eight and he was in the opposition, they would have been competitive with him. And he could deal with it because he’s a really really good player. He wasn’t phased by it probably because of his confidence in his own ability.”

While Gale may have seen a composed player, Ward-Prowse admitted in 2014 that he was probably not ready for the men’s environment at Havant. But that just made it all the more useful. 

"I was going there wanting to be kicked and beaten and shouted at,” Ward-Prowse said. “That definitely did develop me, more as a person than a player. It gave me the right kind of mindset and maturity to go and handle myself against older boys.”

To the onlooker, it doesn’t sound like the most fun of Christmas breaks - getting kicked around by men double your age. But it wasn’t about fun, it was about the challenge and the constantly growing end goal.

Ward-Prowse’s honesty about what he would face heading into the belly of the non-league beast mirrors what Tony Mount experienced in his first conversation with the midfielder as a ten-year-old.

“I spoke to James, we had a review, a dive into how he saw his game and where he saw areas of improvement,” Mount recalls.

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse training with England during the recent international break. Image by: PAWard-Prowse training with England during the recent international break. Image by: PA

“Aggressiveness…that was part of it, that needed to be upped and then refining other things. He was always a good passer of the ball, he always struck the ball really well so that was a given and it was just about practice practice practice. But he was quite a quiet boy and now look at him, he’s captain of Southampton and really vocal. So I’m really pleased that’s come out of him, that’s always been in there so we worked on that as well.

“He’s a very honest boy James, very very honest. He’s probably always been his biggest critic and that’s why he is playing at the level he’s at. He’s made the improvements and that’s why he’s reached where he’s reached. He’s never sat back on his laurels.”

Last week was the latest chapter in a prideful story for all those involved in Ward-Prowse’s development as he earned his 10th England cap against Ivory Coast. In the same squad? His former training-mate, Mason Mount.

“It’s quite an amazing story to see them both put on the England shirt and be on the same pitch,” Tony says. “From where they’ve come from, training together. James is four years older than Mason so when they trained together it was great for Mason as well as myself.

“I think Mason looked up to James as a person and saw the quality he had. And to mix the two of them together - there was a big age difference so there were certain things I couldn’t do with Mason that I would do with James - but Mason would always look on, learn, and just really good to work with both the boys and more rewarding to see where they’ve ended up.”

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