Generation Next is our regular feature on Just Football profiling the best young talents in the world. And here’s another to keep an eye on – Atalanta’s bustling midfielder Franck Kessie… Last summer, when Genoa former coach Gian Piero Gasperini made the move to Atalanta, after seven wonderful years spent in Liguria (interjected by spells […]
Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy is the production line of so many of the club’s crop of stars with Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Busquets, Puyol, Pique, and Pedro all current graduates of the Catalan nursery. Others plying their trade away from the Camp Nou include Cesc Fabregas, Bojan Krkic and Thiago Alcantara.
The facility known familiarly as ‘The Complex’ has become synonymous with the club churning out quality youngster after quality youngster educated in the ‘Barcelona Way’.
That same ethos is now paying real dividends for Premier League side Southampton, who have developed their own ‘La Masia’ on the south coast, with Southampton academy alumni including Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Calum Chambers to name just a few.
The summer sales of Lallana, Chambers, Shaw as well as Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren had the doom-mongers out in force predicting dark days ahead for the Saints, but those at the club in the know were confident in the club’s ability to raise replacements from within.
Indeed the future at St. Mary’s looks very bright with the club’s new £30 million Staplewood training facility opening in November to augment the club’s philosophy of developing young talent.
So why do Southampton seem to buck against the commonly held view that English clubs cannot bring youngsters through to become top-level players?
Southampton academy: A nurturing out of necessity
Well, the short answer is that it was originally a financial necessity caused by the club facing bankruptcy. Five years ago the Saints’ parent company Southampton Leisure Holdings went into administration with the club in the Championship. A 10-point penalty was incurred leading to relegation to League One and the club seemed to have hit rock-bottom.
Then along came a knight in shining armour in the form of late Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr, who bought the club and set about the rescue of the Saints. In April 2010 another key figure arrived at the club with Les Reed appointed as Head of Football Development overseeing youth development.
“We had this great history of young players but at that point everything had been run down,” Reed explained. “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.
“I think it’s definitely the best kind of investment,” he says. “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.”
The climb back up to the top
Back-to-back promotions returned Southampton to the top flight in 2012, with the onus very much on promoting youth and the ‘Southampton Way’. The appointment of some of the country’s best coaches welded to that whole-club philosophy has put Southampton in the enviable position it now finds itself -top four in the Premier League and fighting for a Champions League spot.
“When I came here, I could see that it’s the belief from the top end of the club that is a massive factor in being able to produce players,” academy manager Matt Hale explains.
“That’s belief from the owner, from the board, from the senior coaching staff. Whatever a player’s age, they will play him if he’s good enough.
“I think perhaps in other clubs, those players don’t get the chance to play. Without the support at the top end of the club, you can produce the players, but they might not play. That is the fundamental thing we have here.”
Other small details include the way the coaches deal with player indiscretions. Rather than dishing out financial penalties, the youngsters at the club are prevented from training: hitting them where it really hurts.
The proof is very much in the pudding and while not on the same level as Barcelona’s La Masia in footballing folklore, the south coast football factory should be seen as the leading light within English football.
Combined with a first-class scouting system and state-of-the-art technology to assess current and potential players, the Saints look to have developed the country’s foremost set-up poised to deliver more top notch talent.
Gareth Bale was once a scrawny nine-year-old signed to the Southampton set-up. He is now a Champions League winner who was short-listed for the Ballon d’Or.
“Without being there, I don’t think I would be where I am today,” Bale told the club’s official YouTube channel ahead of the launch of the new academy buildings.
“Since I was nine they looked after me. They really do take care of every step in your career and, for me, being at Southampton was the best education in football.
“It’s probably the only club that can consistently produce young players like that. It’s a credit to everybody at the club.”
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Cover photo courtesy of the Southampton Atlantean via Flickr Creative Commons.