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
Mario Balotelli hasn’t had the start he would have been hoping for since joining Liverpool for £16 million from AC Milan. The question is, will he ever come good for the Scouse side? He was woeful against QPR, fuelling concerns his best days are in the past.
James Piercy, Deputy Editor- YES he will come good:
Mario Balotelli missed two golden chances yesterday for Liverpool which pretty much summed up how his career at Anfield has gone so far.
The open goal showed a player low on confidence and belief and what was initially written off as a few teething problems is now a full blown headache for Brendan Rodgers who has to play the Italian with Daniel Sturridge again injured.
The primary issue with Balotelli is that he is simply not Luis Suarez. Signed, along with Rickie Lambert, to replace the Uruguayan in attack, he is neither as mobile nor the same kind of all-round player.
Balotelli is not a player to drop deep, turn and run at the defence (although his performance against Germany at the Euro 2012 semi-final shows he is capable) and doesn’t press and harry defenders. He looks totally inadequate for how Liverpool are playing and that unfamiliarity is manifesting itself into insecurity in his own performance.
Many will have no sympathy, he is employed to do a job and if Rodgers assigns him to try and bully a def-ence, bully a back four he should. But the Liverpool manager should have been more than aware of the type of player he is signing and has been unable to find the right system to cater to his abilities.
His inconsistency and idiosyncrasies will always be there but, at the same time, after turning 20, he averaged a goal every 140 minutes for Manchester City and AC Milan in league matches. For three quarters of his Milan career he was a game changer. The reason why an average Rossoneri won. At 24, he should be in a position to adapt his game and, although he will be accustomed to the Premier League as a whole, he’s still only played eight times for a team playing a totally different style he’s been used to in Serie A.
Ironically, he needs Sturridge back as much as Rodgers does. Someone to make space and lighten the leg work.
— Dubai Reds OLSC (@dubaireds) October 20, 2014
Given time he will start to find the target more regularly. If you don’t believe me, look who was standing behind both Richard Dunne and Steven Caulker as they put the ball into their own net. Balotelli wouldn’t have missed three opportunities with an open goal… would he?
Andy Lewis, News Editor- NO he will not come good:
It’s not very often you’d admit to being on the same side of an argument as one Joseph Barton.
But as Mario Balotelli did his best to shine a positive light on Emile Heskey’s Liverpool career with a wretched display of centre-forward play at Loftus Road, the QPR midfielder’s Twitter description of the Italian as “a myth” seemed apt.
That is because it has been so long since we have seen consistent evidence he is likely to blossom into the world class striker he once looked destined to be.
The word consistent is absolutely fundamental as it is something the 24 year old has never managed to achieve – on and off the pitch. The only thing he has done consistently in a Liverpool shirt so far is miss the target, with his shooting as wayward as his tabloid circus of a personal life.
You could argue he is still coming to terms with his new surroundings, a new set of team-mates. But Balotelli has considerable experience of English football, and there is more than enough creativity in this Liverpool side for him to have offered better than his one goal in 611 minutes of action. He has no excuses.
The truth is that he is mired in a dismal run of form. He has gone 10 league games for Milan and the Reds without a goal. Interestingly, in his last 20 Premier League games, taking into account the dregs of his Manchester City career, he has taken 39 shots, scored once, provided no assists and has a chance conversion rate of 2.6 per cent.
Will he turn it round? Not likely. You might see flashes, but it all comes back to that word consistency, and never in his career to date has he been truly reliable.
At City he stayed in favour with performances in big games – the 2010/11 FA Cup semi-final and final, with goals against Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. But his goals per game ratio of one every 2.7 matches was modest for a €26m signing. Liverpool would take that now.
Previously at Inter he scored a goal every 3.1 games. Yes, he scored 30 goals in 54 games across two campaigns with AC Milan, but 10 of them were penalties. He’s never scored 20 goals in a season and won’t in 2014/15.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are heading into next weekend’s mouthwatering El Clasico in top form, according to respective managers Luis Enrique and Carlo Ancelotti.
Both teams warmed up for the encounter by securing comfortable victories on Saturday, with Madrid particularly impressive as they thrashed hapless Levante 5-0, while Barca were forced to be patient to earn an ultimately straightforward 3-0 home success over Eibar.
The results leave Barca four points clear of their perennial rivals at the top of La Liga, having picked up 22 points out of a maximum 24, scoring 22 goals and conceding none in the process.
Enrique was satisfied with his team’s display against Eibar but attempted to downplay expectations for El Clasico, insisting his team will attempt to approach it as just another game.
“We’ll be going there with the intention of winning the game and being the better side, as we always do,” said Enrique, who also claimed that his team’s four-point advantage is not particularly significant as he joked: “The ideal situation would be if they had zero points. Whatever happens, it won’t be decisive.”
Ancelotti was somewhat more upbeat after watching his team ease to their sixth consecutive victory in all competitions, scoring 27 goals in the process, with their 5-0 demolition of Levante.
After a slow start to the campaign, Ancelotti believes his team have now found their rhythm and said: “You don’t score goals without effort and concentration. The best players know that. We are in good shape – both mentally and physically. The players have shown that we have a very competitive squad. The pace of the team was good and the players have all done very well.”
Madrid’s victory featured two more goals from the unstoppable Cristiano Ronaldo, meaning the Portuguese star has now made the fastest ever start to a La Liga season by netting 15 goals in his team’s opening eight games.
Asked how much more Ronaldo could give to the team, Ancelotti shrugged and said: “It’s impossible for him to do more. He just has to try to continue his good form and we will all help him to do just that.”
Barca boss Enrique had equally lavish praise for his team’s biggest superstar, Lionel Messi, who is now just one goal short of Telmo Zarra's all-time La Liga record of 251 goals after scoring against Eibar last weekend.
“Sometimes I look at whoever’s next to me on the bench and say how lucky we are to have Messi,” Enrique said. “It’s not just what he delivers – he also stimulates his teammates and having him in this form is fantastic.”
The majority of the 22 places up for grabs in next weekend’s starting line-ups are already decided, but both managers have a handful of big decisions to make and perhaps the most intriguing is whether Enrique will select veteran Xavi in the centre of midfield.
The Barca legend has reasserted his importance in recent weeks after barely featuring at the start of the campaign, and Enrique laughed: “Well, what a problem for me to have! He helps us when he plays and when he doesn’t play.”
In the meantime both sides have Champions League ties to focus on, with Barca hosting Ajax tomorrow and Madrid travelling to England to face Liverpool on Wednesday.