A lead had been taken then lost when James Ward-Prowse picked out the centre-forward. Two-one, and a first win of the campaign was then secured. Not just West Ham United’s eventual 3-1 victory over Chelsea on Sunday but Southampton’s season-opening 2-1 triumph at Sheffield Wednesday 16 days earlier.
They were his 410th and last appearance for Saints and his first for the Hammers. If the cutback for Che Adams and the through ball for Michail Antonio illustrated a skillset that stretches beyond a Beckham-esque mastery of free kicks, Ward-Prowse’s presence on the Hillsborough and London Stadium pitches was instructive in itself. He carried on playing for Southampton after West Ham had first bid for him, when there was a widespread expectation he would go and when Romeo Lavia, in a similar situation amid interest from Liverpool and later Chelsea, was left as an unused substitute.
Fast forward 16 days and Lavia, by now a Chelsea player, was deemed not ready. A match-fit Ward-Prowse was parachuted in for his West Ham debut and marked it with his second and third assists of the season, spread across two clubs and two divisions. It felt a triumph of the model professional and of low-risk recruitment.
There were parallels to be drawn, and not just with a former teammate whose youth and potential meant Lavia was the Southampton midfielder to attract offers from the superpowers. Chelsea unveiled their £222m double act in the second half at the London Stadium. Enzo Fernandez had already missed a penalty before Moises Caicedo came on to concede one. That Ward-Prowse slipped and skied a pre-season spot kick against Goztepe -not only strengthened the case that he is actually deadlier with a dead ball from 25 yards than 12 but meant Argentinian’s saved effort was less embarrassing in comparison.
Yet on what should have been an auspicious day for Chelsea, the last two British record buys were upstaged by Ward-Prowse: the Ecuadorian was rusty after his own summer saga, and not playing for Brighton, whereas the Englishman arrived match ready after appearing for Southampton. The game’s outstanding pass was his ball – not with his much-admired right foot, but his often overlooked left – to Antonio, its most predictably precise delivery the corner that Nayef Aguerd headed in.
A fundamental difference in strategy was shown by the eventual statistics – Fernandez attempted 109 passes, Ward-Prowse 23, with a slightly higher completion rate – but he conjured the finest. And, of course, the kind of corner that means a workmanlike midfielder who lacks the style of his new teammate Lucas Paqueta can add an extra dimension to a team: he is the everyman figure with a superpower in his set-pieces.
It offered a pragmatic logic to explain why West Ham signed him. Even as Southampton finished bottom last season, they still scored more set-piece goals than the Hammers. His delivery from free kicks and corners can add a decisive element. If contrasting blueprints have been advocated at West Ham this summer, with David Moyes looking to buy British and add experience while technical director Tim Steidten is more interested in raiding the European market than the manager, perhaps scarred by his struggles with Gianluca Scamacca and Nikola Vlasic, Ward-Prowse offers a kind of early vindication.
West Ham may not recoup much of his purchase cost, should he stay for several years, though £30m for the 28-year-old makes more sense than offering a similar sum for Harry Maguire did. The deposed Manchester United captain may look at Ward-Prowse’s debut and see the merits of a central part in Moyes’ plan, in a team whose tactical blueprint, if not overly ambitious, may suit each.
Perhaps Moyes’ idea was that Maguire would be his new captain; that Kurt Zouma wore the armband on Sunday, 15 months after his criminal conviction for kicking a cat, struck some as inappropriate. Then there is Ward-Prowse; one of the more notable comments from Moyes was that “his character is very similar to Declan Rice”. He said, too, that “he looks a really good lad for our dressing room” and when the Scot has had success, it has often been based on a dressing room of solid citizens who shared his work ethic.
Maguire could wonder if he was wrong to pull out of a move to West Ham. Yet the others with cause for regret while watching Sunday’s events – beyond Todd Boehly and Chelsea, obviously – should be Southampton. Ward-Prowse’s departure, after 20 years at the club, was a price they paid for their ineptitude last season, in a year of three managers and 16 signings, of too few points and wins.
Ward-Prowse finished the campaign with the most goals, assists, shots on target, touches, passes, key passes, crosses, tackles and interceptions of anyone at Saints. He played the most minutes, took 62 of their 63 corners, delivered three times as many crosses as anyone else.
With 410 appearances, Ward-Prowse stands 10th in their all-time list. But had they been competent enough to stay up, he could have been a one-club man, perhaps ending up second only to Terry Paine, whose tally of 816 Saints games may forever remain unbeatable.
Instead, he is at West Ham, earning an assist within seven minutes of his debut. And in the gamblers’ paradise of the transfer market, he looks the safe bet.