I TAKE off my hat to Southampton Football Club, whose 4-1 win against Hull at the weekend cemented their place in the Premier League’s top four and, arguably, marked them as the team of the season thus far. This is the club which languished in League One 30 months ago and is now entrenched in third place in the top tier, its sights set on the Champions League. Something special is happening down on the South Coast and I would think that most, if not all, of the established big guns are looking at The Saints and asking how and why. The news last week that England manager Roy Hodgson had called up Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez to the squad for the two friendlies with Chile and Germany is sufficient to tell us that whatever they are doing at St Mary’s, they are doing it right. But there is far more evidence of the remarkable story being written at Southampton’s state-of-the-art £30million Marchwood training ground.
Left-back Luke Shaw and wide right midfielder James Ward-Prowse, both 18 and in the England Under-21 squad, are threatening to gatecrash the World Cup party next summer. And the Saints academy success story doesn’t end there. Three other teenagers, Callum Chambers, Matt Targett and Jordan Turnbull are established in the Under-19s. Now, I have been a big critic of the much-vaunted, extremely expensive Academy system at the majority of clubs, for the facts show that too few players have come through to become established Premier League players. However, I can only doff my hat to Southampton who, quite clearly, have bucked the trend.
Chairman Nicola Cortese raised eyebrows, including mine, when sacking Nigel Adkins, who had led the team back into the top flight, and appointing countryman Mauricio Pochettino. Twelve months down the line, as the Saints go marching on, who is to argue? Pochettino’s team not only plays with a sense of adventure, it also displays tremendous discipline, a goals-against total of five from 11 matches being proof of my point. Signor Pochettino is clearly motivational and inspirational – and, so far as I understand, he hasn’t yet learned to speak English! Pochettino presides over a “small town,” “second tier” club which boasts one more senior England international than Manchester City or Arsenal and as many as Chelsea, and with a stack of them on the verge of breaking through. And this is the club which gave us Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier 25 years ago and, more recently, Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale, of Real Madrid.
I don’t know what is going on down there, but I do know that Cortese and his head of football development Les Reed travelled the world, studying best practice at the best clubs, and some non-football organisations, before finalising their plans for the Marchwood project, which is due for completion next year. Pochettino, himself a product of one of Argentina’s best youth academies, at Newell’s Old Boys, obviously shares the vision of Cortese, who said recently: “The philosophy is to implement a playing style not from top to bottom, but from bottom to top, starting with the under-eights. We would want to see a starting X1 in the Premier League that is fed from our youth development.”
What a wonderful outlook and approach to the challenge of producing a successful team of home-grown players. And what an example the Saints are setting to the big city, big-spending clubs, whose Academies are trailing in the wake of their seaside rivals. I understand that, while on his fact-finding travels, Cortese was struck by the example of Barcelona’s La Masia Academy, which spawned the majority of the players who formed what is, arguably, the best club side in history, Lionel Messi et al. Southampton seem to be saying: “If Barcelona can do it, so can we.” Manchester City owner Sheik Mansour has indicated he is calling a halt to the big spending after investing a massive £1billion, turning the spotlight instead on to the Academy. Well, City, if Barcelona and Southampton can do it…