As a Southampton fan, it does seem a little odd to be writing about what makes a ‘great Academy’ for a West Ham magazine. Over the years the Hammers have had a fantastic reputation for producing talented young players.
But as yours was producing the last of England’s ‘Golden generation’, the Saints were just starting to sow the seeds in theirs. In fairness, Southampton’s youth team has always had a decent standing having produced the likes of the Wallace brothers, Alan Shearer and, of course, Matthew Le Tissier.
Yet until the likes of Wayne Bridge’s emergence it tended to be one off players rather than a raft of talent coming through. What changed around that period of the late 1990s into the new millennium was the whole culture of the club. Then chairman Rupert Lowe, much maligned by Saints fans for some of his other exploits has to be credited with the vision that was put into place, and although the board has changed several times, the philosophy has not. Time has been the greatest investment at Saints, and the unwavering dedication to the cause.
When other clubs have suffered financial difficulties, often the youth system is the first thing to go, but Saints took the opposite approach, seeing the Academy players as the cheapest way to rebuild. Lowes’s appointment of Georges Prost was the masterstroke and the catalyst to everything that we see now.
The Frenchman, who was largely credited with the development of his country’s 1998 World Cup winning squad, changed the entire ethos of its recruitment policy in young players, selecting not the best players but those he thought most intelligent and the most athletic. At the same time the club built a ‘Satellite Academy’ to widen its small catchment area and the rest as they say is history.
Nicola Cortese arrived in 2009 and took everything at the club up a level in terms of preparation and professionalism. He sent people to the best Academies in the world, not to learn from them but to identify their mistakes. By this time Saints was ‘the’ Academy being favoured by young hopeful players and their parents alike. The ‘family’ atmosphere and philosophy of the club with a clear route plan from youth team to first team meant that like a natural progression the standard of player arriving at the club was getting better year on year.
The focus for each individual is clear, and they are all working to a career plan set out for them by the coaching staff, and while the club does a lot to hone technical skills it also places an importance on making them decent people too. The confidence in the players they are creating is clear, and a succession of managers has had no qualms whatsoever about using them. That is one of the most attractive prospects for young players.
It might seem like a better idea to go to Manchester United. Chelsea or Liverpool but what chance is there in reality to make the grade? At Saints it is almost guaranteed. I’m not sure what other clubs are doing wrong as I think by now most worth their salt are following a similar model to Saints, but they are certainly behind. I watched Liverpool play at Stamford Bridge last season and there was a member of the visitor’s academy, Brad Smith, who was handed his debut. He completely froze, looking out of place on the main stage.
This is something that I can’t remember ever happening to a Saints debutant from the youth team. These kids are coming in technically sound, full of confidence and look like they have been playing at the highest level.
The key to Saints success in this area are clear, investment in facilities, time and the right people. Couple those with a policy of using your young players in the first team and the rewards are fantastic.