17-years old. League debut. Your club's first game back in the Premier League after a seven-year hiatus. Away from home. At the Champions. 

With all that in mind, it would be understandable if debutant James Ward-Prowse felt overawed by the occasion ahead of Saints' trip to Manchester City in August 2012. But was that ever a concern?

The coaching staff in charge seems to find that a thoroughly ridiculous proposition.

“We had no issues whatsoever with playing him,” Manager Nigel Adkins says matter of factly. 

First Team Coach Dean Wilkins chuckles before commenting: “There was never any doubt he’d be able to cope. I don’t think that was a question we even raised! Because he was so mature and such a strong character and so determined. 

“We were seeing it every day in training sessions,” Wilkins continues. “You’d come in every day after training and be impressed with his work rate, with his determination, with his personality on the training ground. So no, it was not really a difficult decision. Because he showed throughout that preseason, from day one James was a 17-year-old in a 26-year-old’s body - he was just very very mature.”

Mature or not, this was still bold, something Wilkins can recognise ten years on even if it seemed a clear choice in the moment.

“It’s amazing when you think about it - he made his debut against the Champions!” Wilkins laughs.

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse in action against Man City on his Premier League debut.Ward-Prowse in action against Man City on his Premier League debut.

“We had a long-term vision to get our own youth team players through the system,” Adkins, himself managing in the Premier League for the first time, says.

“James had been training with the first team since 15, he’d played the previous year, he’d scored against Coventry, he’d had a great preseason. He had a fantastic role model to follow in Dean Hammond. And we just thought he was ready to go for the game. He was well supported by some real good players around him - I think that’s important. And he did brilliantly.”

If all goes according to plan, James Ward-Prowse will make his 300th Premier League appearance tonight at Turf Moor. Still just 27 years old, manager Ralph Hasenhuttl sees no limit on the numbers he could get to.

“300 and he’s not even that old! He can go to 400 or 500 - I don’t know if it’s possible, maybe yes. 

“Absolutely the captain you want to have on the pitch, every game he invests the most. This season I think he’s made another step forward in his game and it’s fantastic to see.”

Daily Echo: Captain Ward-Prowse in the 2021/22 season. Image by: PACaptain Ward-Prowse in the 2021/22 season. Image by: PA

A full decade and 299 games later, this is the story of Premier League appearance number one. 

August 19 2012: Etihad Stadium. The opposition? Reigning Champions Manchester City.

“It is cool to have that memory, It’s something I really get a kick out of,” 59-year-old Dean Wilkins says, thinking back to Ward-Prowse’s maiden Premier League appearance on the eve of his 300th. 

“I don’t think there’s enough trust given to young players - because the game is so cut-throat, unfortunately. But young players, if you give them the confidence and they understand what each action consequence and outcome can give them, it’s a great feeling when they buy into it.”

There’s no doubt James Ward-Prowse bought in - and in turn - he was given a huge level of trust and responsibility on Saints’ return to the Premier League following back-to-back promotions. Against this Manchester City team, title winners three months earlier.

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In fairness, it’s also a very good Saints team. Ward-Prowse was slated to start in the middle of midfield with Morgan Schneiderlin to one side and Adam Lallana to the other, but the teenager played primarily on the right side of the trio with Schneiderlin sitting deeper and Lallana roaming along the left.

That much is clear immediately from the image of the midfield’s positioning at kick-off…

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With much of the opening moments taking place on the left side of the pitch - Saints breaking forward to win a corner after an incisive run and pass from Lallana - it took until the fourth minute for Ward-Prowse to mark his Premier League debut with the first of many thousands of touches.

Calm and composed, Ward-Prowse receives the ball from Nathaniel Clyne before quickly laying it off to Schneiderlin and moving into space.

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It’s not the most dramatic touch, but it’s a calmness that came through practice.

Wilkins, who arrived at the club when Alan Pardew was in charge, frequently spent time after training working on these simple but absolutely necessary fundamentals.

“He was really serious about his work. I would do little bits of technical work with him at the end of training, in terms of his awareness and his receiving skills. And he was so easy to work with, so receptive to things that were put to him.”

The receiving skills - the ease of the first touch - and the awareness - the scan of the space behind him before his move into the space ahead just says what everyone who worked with Ward-Prowse knows: a diligent trainer, everything practiced was put into action in the real thing.

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After a simple first-time pass a few moments later, Ward-Prowse’s next involvement says a lot about why a 17-year old was on the pitch at all.

Handed a free-kick halfway inside Saints’ attacking half, and with numbers waiting in the box, Lallana plays it laterally to Ward-Prowse.

Without a second thought - a full 35 yards from goal - he hits it.

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It doesn’t end up close. In fact, it doesn’t even reach the box, almost instantly blocked by a City defender. But exactly six minutes and 54 seconds into his first league start, it’s an indication as to why he’s he’s about to hit number 300.

“He’s a fantastic striker of the ball so that was something we encouraged of James all the time,” Wilkins recalls. “A calm confidence - that’s how I would describe him. He knew he had the confidence from the staff and the manager and he had confidence in his own ability. 

“And with James, I think it doesn’t matter what the surroundings are like or who the opposition is. He’s got this temperament where he can just step onto the pitch, understand his own game, understand his role within the team and just try and execute it as best he can. I think that’s how he looks at it. He’s a really calm character, he doesn’t get flustered. So it was no surprise he managed to perform the way he did on that day.”

“That didn’t just happen overnight,” Adkins says of Ward-Prowse’s arrival onto the top flight scene. “We had a good safe environment for players to learn in, well-coached, with great role models, senior players around them to support him.”

In total, Ward-Prowse managed 53 touches of the ball in his 65 minutes against the Champions. 21 of those touches were passes, 19 of them completed. While many of those 21 passes were simple backwards or sideways, there’s no point discrediting this performance from the 17-year old. He more than held his own.

And while it was his work on the ball that will have excited those visiting Saints at the Etihad, the midfielder showed the other side, needed in his position.

22 minutes in, he plays a loose ball in the direction of Schneiderlin, only for David Silva to steal it. Ward-Prowse immediately gets back into Saints’ defensive shape and moments later gets his revenge, robbing a Yaya Toure pass aimed for Silva.

Shortly after, he faces up to Samir Nasri on City’s left flank.

Fresh from playing for France in Euro 2012 - and scoring the equaliser against England in the opening group game - Nasri plays the ball ahead of Ward-Prowse and runs into the space beyond him.

Seemingly beaten, Ward-Prowse puts in a sliding challenge from behind, getting his toe to the ball.

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“For any player that has a career that long at that level, you have to have that edge,” Wilkins says. “He had it as a young man. Incredible attribute to have. He just loves football. You can see the way he plays, he just loves football. And he loves the club that he’s playing for. 

“So you put those two together and you’ve got a leader. And the more character and personalities you have like that, then it only bodes well for the club and the future.”

“It’s just how he applied himself,” Adkins says of Ward-Prowse’s work-rate on the day - something that has remained a major part of his game today. “Hard work ethic, always wanted to learn…James has demonstrated that consistently. You could see the values he has and now he’s the captain of the football club.”

Alongside his 53 touches, Ward-Prowse also managed three clearances, two successful tackles and one brave - albeit unsuccessful attempt - to beat 6’2”  Jack Rodwell in the air.

Much of this performance included the exuberance one would expect from a youngster making their first appearance in front of the eyes of the world. But there was also the discipline and leadership of someone much older.

Here’s a great example of those qualities. With City enjoying an extended passage with the ball, Ward-Prowse is well-positioned in the bank of four in midfield while pointing and passing on information to his teammates. 

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And again just past the hour mark, he’s set in his position while barking instructions as his side prepare to defend a corner…

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Discipline - or the mental and concentration element of his job - was not something that concerned the St Mary’s coaching staff.

“The work we did on the training ground would have helped with those messages,” Wilkins says. “But he was one of those players that if you gave him a responsibility, you only had to tell him once. And he would understand it. And if he didn’t understand it, he would ask a question and then you might explain it in a different way, you might show it on video. Players learn differently, but James was very easy in terms of giving him instruction - he’d pick up on it and understand it immediately.

Of course, the mental side of his game was helped by his athleticism, Ward-Prose frequently seen pressing when City had the ball or following runners when needed.

The preseason leading up to 2012/13 played a major role in Ward-Prowse’s selection and fitness was certainly one element of that.

“The confidence that we would have on that was from looking at his training data,” Wilkins explains. “He was in the top five in terms of performance from a physical aspect, every day. So again, you look at that and think that’s not going to be a problem!

It wasn’t all positive though for Ward-Prowse and his side as they battled bravely through a first half that saw Kelvin Davis keep things at 0-0 when he saved David Silva’s 17th minute penalty (just for fun, take a look at one of the first two Saints players sprinting into the penalty area).

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But with five minutes to go until the break, Carlos Tevez stole in and fired past Davis at the near post. Was it offside? I’ll let you be the judge of that. 

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Regardless, reality was the same  - Saints were headed into half-time 1-0 down.

But this team didn’t reach the Premier League by coincidence - giving up was just not part of their DNA, and it’s a quality that certainly rubbed off on the academy product who had been training with the first team for 18 months.

Just moments after the restart, a Saints possession ends with Schneiderlin playing a routine pass out of play. As the visiting players in the vicinity start to walk away, Ward-Prowse jogs into the frame, clapping and encouraging his teammates (something you may have to take my word for thanks to our low resolution ten-year-old video).

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Ward-Prowse’s exuberance certainly hadn’t waned due to the home side’s goal and he proved just that after 53 minutes. A City corner found its way out to Pablo Zabaleta and as the Argentine lined up a sight of goal, Ward-Prowse made his presence felt.

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Wilkins can't quite recall the moment in question but he’s also not remotely surprised it happened.

“His passion for the game is just…he’s probably as passionate a player as I’ve ever worked with,” he adds. “Totally in the moment on the pitch, concentration never would never wane. Just totally in the moment and did what needed to be done at that moment. I can’t remember that incident but it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. That’s just how he was. And how he still is.”

Despite lasting just over ten more minutes, Ward-Prowse had time to make his mark when striker Rickie Lambert was brought on in the 55th minute.

In his own words, Lambert was “raging like a bull” ahead of his introduction and that energy was levied at Ward-Prowse shortly after when the youngster decided to shoot instead of passing to him.

90 seconds later, Ward-Prowse didn’t ignore Lambert, laying it off to the striker whose shot cannoned off Joleon Lescott and back out. With a second opportunity, Lambert made no mistake, curling into the far corner to cue scenes of bedlam from the sea of red and white behind the goal - and the players on the pitch.

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Ward-Prowse would touch the ball just one more time - intercepting a pass from Silva aimed for Nasri - before being replaced by Steve Davis with 25 minutes left to play. 

In almost every way, it was the perfect subsitution. Ward-Prowse headed off with his head held high and Davis - signed over the summer from Rangers - put Saints ahead in the 68th minute.

“That game - you’re playing against the Champions of England,” Wilkins says. “His level of concentration in that game and the amount of emotional energy that he expended was more than any other game he’d played in to that point. If you play him for 90 minutes there’s the potential for mistakes in the last 15 minutes or for him to pick up an injury."

Daily Echo: Ward-Prowse claps the traveling fans on his way off.Ward-Prowse claps the traveling fans on his way off.

Saints ended up conceding twice in the final 20 minutes to lose 3-2 but there was more than enough to remain highly positive about both the team and the 17-year-old who would become such a crucial player for the club over the following decade. 

“Sometimes players are unlucky - they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I think James was in the exact right place at exactly the right time for his career to start," Wilkins continues. 

“Everybody who was at the start of James’ journey, I’m sure we’ve all followed it with interest and been very proud,” Adkins says.

“The way he’s conducted himself, the way he conducted himself then: he stayed consistent, he stayed true. His values are exemplary and he leads the football club with passion and pride. He’s a great role model himself.”