By NICK HARRIS
Barcelona's contribution to the fortunes of Spanish football could be replicated with the England team of the future thanks to a remarkable project launched, not by one of the Premier League big boys, but by a club whose recent history has been beset by financial problems and a battle to survive.
Southampton’s academy, tucked away on the South Coast but with an ethos modelled on Barcelona’s famous set-up at La Masia, has already provided home-grown talent now worth £100 million-plus to Premier League clubs, including Englishmen Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wales star Gareth Bale.
Les Reed, the club’s head of football development, insists it is only the start.
No accident: Oxlade-Chamberlain
‘Alex was not an accident,’ says Reed of a player sold at 17 to Arsenal for £12 million this summer. ‘Maybe at the next stage of our academy’s development we’ll have two Oxlade-Chamberlains in a single year, and then three.’
Reed, along with Saints’ Swiss chairman Nicola Cortese, and academy manager Matt Crocker, is a key figure in an upgrade of the academy that will bring it in line with Europe’s best.
‘The model is Barcelona, who have home-grown players and success,’ he says.
Crocker adds: ‘The club has always had a philosophy of giving youth a chance and raising its own talent, from Mick Channon to Danny and Rod Wallace, Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer. What we’re doing now is continuing those traditions at even higher levels.’
Southampton were among the first clubs to adopt an academy system at the end of the 1990s, when they still were a Premier League club. Relegation in 2005 and the resulting steep drop in income made it more important than ever to keep the home-reared talent flowing.
The sales of Walcott and Bale to Arsenal and Tottenham helped to keep the club afloat and, after near-extinction in the summer of 2009, it was clear to Cortese and Southampton’s saviour-benefactor, the late Swiss billionaire, Markus Liebherr, that player development should successful,’ says Reed.
Southampton’s revival from a club who just two years ago were languishing in League One after administration has been swift and strong, and it is hoped that future success will come with more of the home-grown stars for which Saints have become known.
Oxlade-Chamberlain joined the club at the age of seven in 2000 and was there until August, when he signed for Arsenal a few days before his 18th birthday, for a £12m fee fame remain at the core of the club’s vision.
Since Liebherr’s death aged 62 in August last year, Cortese has been driven by the desire for Southampton to become a self-sustaining top-flight club, with all areas of the academy expanded and strengthened to realise that vision.
Saviour: Markus Liebherr (right), pictured with former Soouthampton boss Alan Pardew in 2009
The cost of running it, around £2.3m a year, is seen not as speculating to accumulate but as economically prudent. Saints have already made returns of several times their outlay over the past decade and in the future they want to keep players of the calibre of Bale, Walcott and Chamberlain — not see them go for big money to other teams.
So there is a buzz among Saints fans as they take the Championship by storm, with Nigel Adkins’s side five points clear and entertaining large crowds, while insiders are just as excited about the future.
‘Aiming to match Barcelona is a big ambition but you need to strive for that to be successful,’ says Reed. Southampton’s revival from a club who just two years ago were languishing in League One after administration has been swift and strong, and it is hoped that future success will come with more of the home-grown stars for which Saints have become known.
Saintlets: Academy youngsters dream of following in the footsteps of stars who have made the big time. But the club hope to retain their best young talent in the future
Oxlade-Chamberlain joined the club at the age of seven in 2000 and was there until August, when he signed for Arsenal a few days before his 18th birthday, for a £12m fee that will rise to £15m. He has already scored for Arsenal in the Champions League and netted his first England hat-trick — for the Under- 21s — against Iceland last month.
Walcott is another who took the Saints-Arsenal route, nurtured from 11 by Southampton until his big-money move at 16 in 2006. Walcott and Chamberlain are both expected to be key England players of the future, while Welshman Bale is now his country’s brightest star.
Bale was spotted by Southampton at nine and attended their satellite academy in Bath before signing up, making his first-team debut in 2006, and moving to Tottenham in 2007.
Other Saints academy alumni include Manchester City’s Wayne Bridge, Newcastle’s Leon Best, Fulham’s Chris Baird and Norwich City’s Andrew Surnam.
Career opportunity Theo Walcott moved from Southampton to Arsenal in 2006
The home-grown star of Southampton’s current team is Adam Lallana, an England Under-21 midfielder who has been with Saints since he was 12.
All these players were produced by the academy as it stands today, with temporary buildings at the heart of a 10-acre site in the village of Marchwood on the outskirts of the city. But work begins within days on a vast and impressive new academy complex, complete with school-rooms, medical centre, swimming pool, state-of-the-art gym, video labs, restaurant and office suites for the youth recruitment department, coaching staff and support personnel.
‘We’ve got an ambition to be not just a Premier League club but a competitive Premier League club,’ says Reed. ‘If we want half our team to come from the academy, which we do, the recruitment needs to be the best, and the development plan for each individual needs to be excellent, as do the facilities, the sports science and the technical quality of the coaching.’
Superstar: Gareth Bale lit up the Champions League last season
Reed, 58, is a coaching veteran, best known for his short spell as Charlton manager in 2006. But he has spent much of his working life innovating behind the scenes, working as FA technical director, as an assistant to Sir Bobby Robson, Alan Curbishley and Kevin Keegan, and alongside Howard Wilkinson in trying to develop ways to improve young English players.
His research has taken him from drama schools to the Royal Ballet, from the Yehudi Menuhin music school to Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida and elite football centres across Germany — academies that have contributed greatly to that country’s international renaissance.
‘The philosophy of player-development at Bayern Munich,’ says Reed, ‘is “two each year for the first team, two for the league, and two for the rest of German football”. And you find similar aims across the top Bundesliga clubs.’
Reed was initially invited to Southampton as a consultant in late 2009 but is now a Southampton director, and his excitement at the future is obvious. The Saints academy has 104 students aged between nine and 16, plus 22 apprentices between 16 and 18.
‘We believe we have the equivalent of Manchester United’s Scholes, Beckham and Co already within our system,’ he says. Southampton’s ‘golden’ generation of 16- and 17-year-olds includes James Ward-Prowse, a creative midfielder who made his first-team debut last month, and Luke Shaw, an England Under-17 attacking full back.
Then there are striker Jake Sinclair and Harrison Reed, known as Saints’ ‘young Scholes’ for more reasons than his red hair. Harrison’s father, Dave, says: ‘Saints have academy coaches who have worked with Scholes and they make comparisons with Harrison’s discipline and dedication and his tenacity in that central midfield role. They’ve got high hopes for him.
‘He’s been at Saints since he was eight. He effectively left home for the club at 15 and lived with a family nearby. That was a wrench for us but it’s a fantastic club and his all-round education has been brilliant.’
Put through their paces: Southampton academy students train
Southampton employ six teachers on site. With class sizes as small as five or six, academic results are often better than predicted at their regular schools.
Julian Woods, whose 12-year-old son, Henry, has been attached to Southampton since the age of six, says: ‘They’ve always looked after him. In February he broke his kneecap but the care has been tremendous. I know he’s happy here.’
Southampton fans may be enjoying the moment. But behind the scenes, the future is dreamier still.