In-focus special: Southampton’s impressive youth academy
Southampton, 11/4 for a top four finish this season, can count Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers as youth academy successes of recent years.
That is approximately nearing £200m worth of talent in latest transfer fees. The club’s academy is fast becoming one of the most respected in England, even rivalling that of top European clubs Barcelona and Ajax.
In November, the club launched their £30m state-of-the-art Staplewood training centre, which, in the long term, will only elevate their status as having one of the best academies in football. Even teams currently below Southampton in the Premier League table have spent nearing that amount on one player, Everton signing Romelu Lukaku for £27m being a prime example.
Executive director Les Reed thinks this is a much wiser outlay, however: “I think it’s definitely the best kind of investment.
“One player has a shelf life. What happens when he goes? You have to buy another player. You’re continually spending that kind of money and turning it over on importing players, where the investment here could be for the next 50 years. Instead of buying one player, we produce five players.”
Saints now have to try and hang onto those players and, with first-team manager Ronald Koeman brilliantly steering the club in the right direction this season, there is every possibility that the south coast outfit can flourish long-term and go from strength to strength. This will only act as a catalyst for them to retain top talent.
“We had this great history of young players but at that point everything had been run down,” Reed continued. “The club was selling off all the prized assets because it was going bankrupt, so it was a matter of taking all that history as a foundation and then building on it so we’re never in that position again.”
How times have changed. It has been a remarkable rise over the last five years, considering they were languishing at the bottom of League One and a breath away from going out of business, until Swiss tycoon Markus Liebherr recognised their potential and stepped in to save them. Oh, how this has been paid back.
Southampton are currently third in the Premier League, after their latest 1-0 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Idyllically situated on the edge of the New Forest, their training centre is one of Southampton’s unique selling points.
In these inspirational surroundings, with an abundance of fresh air, this could definitely be one fundamental factor that has led to incredible success for a number of Saints’ youth graduates. Location is definitely important in a young footballer’s development and, in these surroundings, Southampton’s talent can prosper.
The club made a point of bringing new signings Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic to their training base prior to them signing, which played a huge part in their decision making process.
Southampton’s then of head of recruitment, Paul Mitchell, who has since joined former manager Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, was quick to heap praise on the club’s talent spotting process.
“The player profiling is bespoke to Southampton,” he said. “Really we try to interline our recruitment with our philosophy. It’s important our players play in our system and in our style and cope with the demands of the manager and the coaching staff.
“Our lists aren’t endless. It’s not every player that can play in our style but we look for the best fit for us when we put together our recruitment targets.
“At the moment we are a very athletic team. We cover an awful lot of distance. We’ve matured a lot over the last few years in the Premier League.
“The attributes of a Southampton player? He has to be athletic, he has to be able to move and engage with the environment and engage with the information that Southampton give them to make them successful in their careers.”
Currently developing and breaking into the first team at St Mary’s is James Ward-Prowse, with the likes of Harrison Reed, Sam Mcqueen, Lloyd Isgrove and Matt Targett, who has been tipped to follow a similar kind of path to Bale, hot on his heels. Each of these five bright young things is under the age of 21 and all could easily force their way into future England teams, if their development continues apace.
Lower down through the ranks, prime examples of Southampton’s sensational youth development policy are gradually materialising. Jack Stephens at 20, is being groomed to transition into the heart of the Saints’ first-team defence for the long term and has made numerous appearances for England at Under-19 level.
Jake Hesketh is a stylish central midfielder who, at just 19, already models his game on Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta, who also came through his club’s academy; the revered La Masia. Ryan Seager, meanwhile, is a 19-year-old striker currently scoring for fun in the Under-21 set-up.
Further down at Under-18 level, left back Will Wood is an attack-minded outlet that aspires to be like Bale and has appeared in multiple youth sides many times, contributing strong performances even out of position as a left-sided centre back.
Niall Mason is a prodigious gift in midfield, known as “Sanchez” to his teammates. At just 17, he is a free-scoring, composed passer of the ball and hard-working both in and out of possession, counting Blackburn Rovers and Real Madrid as former clubs.
While Southampton do not want to put up a barrier for their youngsters’ route into the first team, they recognise that signing established players that fit into their footballing ethos is also crucial to their long-term strategy.
“If you get the blend right, you get Pelle,” Reed said at the time. “He played for Ronald at Feyernoord. We knew all about Graziano because, again, trying to be ahead of the game.
“Graziano was one of those players on those lists and when Ronald comes in and says, ‘I like Graziano,’ we are in a position to say, ‘Yeah, we know all about him. That’s not a problem. Let’s go for it’.”
Rewind back to the summer, and the club appeared in turmoil. Pochettino joined Spurs, then nearly £100m worth of talent left the south coast, though Reed maintains it was important not to panic.
“It wasn’t a coincidence,” Reed revealed. “It wasn’t a toss of a coin – ‘We’ll go for Koeman. Oh, we’ve hit the jackpot.’ It was a profiling process. That’s why I took my time.
“People were getting frustrated – ‘Club’s gonna implode. They can’t find a manager, who wants to go to Southampton when it’s all going to collapse?’ But it wasn’t. It was doing the same thing we do with players: due diligence, research, make sure you are going to make the right decision, not make a mistake.
“What’s satisfying is that what we call the Southampton Way worked. Keep your focus, don’t panic, you know you’ve got systems and processes in place. There’s no knee-jerk reaction here. Stick to it. See it through. What’s satisfying is we’ve done that and it’s come to fruition. Whether the guys who’ve gone look back and go, ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t have left,’ it doesn’t really bother us.”
Saints have won a lot of fans through their strategy. There is no doubting the ambition surrounding the club, and Champions League football is fast becoming a realistic prospect, thanks to some very clever individuals and a well-executed strategy.
Their approach is refreshing and commendable. They know that adhering to Financial Fair Play will only strengthen any future case for success. At the same time, there is no limitless budget.
What is obvious is that this is a club where intelligent thinking and unique presence of mind at the highest level has been applied, in order to create and originate innovative new methods of achieving the results they so crave.
Certain clubs in the Premier League and their executives could definitely learn a thing or two from the way Southampton have conducted their business model over the last five years, which Reed is very clearly at the forefront of.
“There’s been a lot of talk in the past – ‘We’ll win the Champions League,’” Reed said. “It’s not about that, it’s about aspiration. There’s no point investing all this with an aspiration to survive. You’ve got to have an aspiration to be successful.
“We don’t know when it will be. But we are putting everything in place to make sure. If there’s a fair wind and we achieve it quickly, we’ll take that. If it takes a bit longer, at least we know we have all the right things in the right place.
“The aspiration is to be there at the top and compete with the best. That’s what we want the players to buy into when they sign here at nine years of age, not to go to a bigger club or more successful club and go on loan into League One.
“We want them to believe they can come from there up to here and the next edition we’ll be down in reception with the trophy cabinet.”
Southampton have not only spoken, they’re proving it on the football pitch as well.