If England are to end their 50-year search for a major international trophy at Euro 2016, then coach Roy Hodgson will owe a sizeable debt of gratitude to Southampton.
More caps have been won since the turn of the year by graduates of the club’s fabled academy than any other, bar Everton’s.
Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw all went to the World Cup, while Theo Walcott missed out through injury, and Calum Chambers has since been integrated into the squad.
Wales and Real Madrid star Gareth Bale also started life with the south-coast club, adding to an enviable list of alumni.
Youth development remains integral at St Mary’s, with the club moving into a new £30 million (Dh177.3m) training facility, but to understand why they have been so successful, you have to go back to a time before Bale (below), Lallana or Walcott were even born.
During Lawrie McMenemy’s spell as manager in the 1980s, the club recognised that one major stumbling block was that its location on the coast meant most of its catchment area lay in the sea.
To combat this, satellite training academies were set up in Bath, Slough and Newcastle. The former would produce club legend Jason Dodd – and later Bale – while all-time Premier League top scorer, Alan Shearer, arrived from the north east.
“Southampton in the ‘80s had a pretty expansive youth policy,” says Huw Jennings, the club’s former academy director, who has been credited with producing Bale and Walcott, among others.
“Even before then, the Wallace brothers had come from Essex. So, they had a pretty progressive youth development policy, and the likes of Shearer, and others, had come to Southampton as part of that.”
However, when Rupert Lowe arrived as chairman in 1996, he found a club, and management structure, concerned more with winning games than producing homegrown talent. Lowe is not a popular man among fans, but having dislodged Graeme Souness as manager, he set about instigating a system focused on youth.
Jennings arrived, while talented coaches, including Steve Head, Stewart Henderson, Steve Wigley and were brought on board together with head of recruitment Malcolm Elias.
It was at this time that English football’s new academy system came in to being, but crucially Southampton were allowed to
retain their west country base.
“Huw Jennings really was the pioneer behind it all,” says David Coles, who arrived at the club in 1998 to work with the young goalkeepers. “He was an excellent guy to work with, had good skills in terms of the social side and putting parents in the right frame of mind to get them into the club.”
Coles, the ex-Al Jazira goalkeeper coach, adds on Lowe’s (above) involvement: “He had a good youth policy and he wanted the club to succeed and bring players through. And it did, it just progressed and progressed.”
But arguably the academy would not have had players to mould, had it not been for Elias. According to Coles he “would scout to the ends of the world”, a fact borne out by the acquisition of Scott McDonald from Australia and Kenwyne Jones from Trinidad and Tobago.
“For me if you don’t have high-quality recruitment, you are not going to have high-quality players,” Jennings says of a man he is now enjoying success alongside at Fulham. “I’ve worked with Malcolm three times now and I think his track record is there for all to see. He has consistently identified and recruited talented players for the clubs he has worked at.”
With the players in place, Southampton made use of Darwin Lodge, a local hotel it purchased, to house its academy scholars.
It also gave the academy coaches that extra bit of information about their players.
Jennings admits it was following a conversation with Julia Upson, who ran the facility alongside her late husband Mike, that his fears were allayed over how a young, seemingly shy Bale would fit in.
Current Portsmouth keeper Michael Poke joined Saints at nine and lived at the Lodge for two-and-a-half years after signing as an apprentice. Leaving his hometown Staines at 16 was not easy, but despite initially suffering home sickness, he believes the environment fostered a togetherness that bred success.
“It was strange at first,” he admits.
“When you first move there, and you come out of school and move to an area you don’t know with a load of lads you’ve only really seen a couple of times a week, no-one really knows each other.
“But after a couple of months of bedding in it was brilliant. It was a really good idea because all the lads became a close-knit group.”
Changes were being made to the way the youth set-up approached games too, with Georges Prost preaching a passing game once he arrived from Marseille in 2002, initially as Under-17 coach.
Prost provided fresh impetus to the academy.
“Georges was just right for the players we had at the time, because what Georges did was that he enabled the players to express themselves,” Jennings (pictured above) says. “The likes of Lallana, [Nathan] Dyer, Walcott, [David] McGoldrick, those guys in particular, were players who really bought into Georges’ way of doing things.”
There was also already a clear route into the senior side but by 2004/05 Dexter Blackstock, Martin Cranie and Leon Best were ready to exploit it. Jennings left Southampton in 2006, 12 months after a team featuring Cranie, Best, Walcott, Dyer and McGoldrick – and with Lallana and Bale on the bench – were beaten in the final of the FA Youth Cup final by Ipswich.
Relegated in 2005, Saints would drop as low as League One before they were able to climb back into the Premier League seven years later. While grim for fans, this period would be extremely beneficial to the development of an increasingly impressive crop of youngsters.
“When Southampton went into the Championship they played a lot of the young players, and to be fair I think it was a very tough baptism,” adds Jennings. “Some of them struggled but in the long run it didn’t do them any harm and many of them emerged stronger.”
Indeed, Lallana was perhaps the biggest beneficiary the drop down divisions.
“He was able to play games, really cut his teeth and you could see that when he went to Liverpool,” says Adam Leitch, a journalist who has covered the club for the past 13 seasons. “He’d only had two seasons in the Premier League but had played the best part of 300 games, so was a very experienced player.”
Those players have since departed, of course, and Southampton is a very different place to the one Lallana inhabited underneath Jennings, Elias and Prost.
Yet despite a change of ownership, youth development remains central to the club’s ethos. Ronald Koeman was hired in the summer largely due to his track record of working with young players.
Les Reed now heads up the academy, which plays a 4-3-3 formation throughout the system in order to ensure its products are ready if and when Koeman wants them.
It is an approach that is still bearing fruit too, with Josh Sims the latest player to generate a buzz among Saints fans. It is clear, too, that the door to the first-team remains wide open