When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
This, the third part, celebrates the fine graduates of the incredible football school that is Southampton’s academy.
The Southampton football academy has a long and rich history of top quality talent development. The production line has been so consistently efficient over the last 20 years that it’s hard to think of the Saints without first thinking of their youth program.
With the creation of the £30m Markus Liebherr Pavilion, a comprehensive training complex uniting all aspects of the club’s youth and first team facilities, the Southampton academy has never been in better shape. While preparations for life in both the Premier League and European football has managed to push the youth prospects down the pecking order this season, Southampton’s academy is still churning out quality players worthy of first team recognition.
While the prospect of what’s to come is always of great excitement to supporters, considering those that have come before can inspire the same sensation. Looking back at the oodles of talent that have passed through the walls of St. Mary’s and the old Dell tells the tale of Southampton’s academic production better than any words can – a greatest ever starting eleven of Saints youth stars would make a formidable team indeed, perhaps one even capable of challenging for honours in today’s Premier League.
With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at just a modicum of the talent that has passed through Southampton football club, and see just what all the fuss is about.
10 BEST PRODUCTS
Note that these are players who have played professional football in and after 2000.
GARETH BALE // SENIOR DEBUT: 2006
It’s impossible to start such a list without first mentioning the most expensive British player in the history of the sport, as well as the co-star of the Real Madrid attacking midfielders, Gareth Bale. Bale’s ascension from the spindly left-back running out against Millwall in 2006 to one of the biggest names in world football is extremely grounding for your average Southampton fan. His move to Tottenham seems in hindsight to have been the bargain of the century – with the club in financial straits, the Saints allowed Bale to leave for a meagre £5m, raising to £10m based on appearances et al., but eventually had to sell on the clause for only £2m as their descent to administration continued. Since his £80m move to Madrid, Bale has had his critics for, among other things, his perceived unwillingness to pass to Ronaldo, but moments like the incredible lightning run against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa Del Rey remind us just why Los Blancos paid as much as they did.
LUKE SHAW // SENIOR DEBUT: 2012
The most expensive teenager in British football, the pacey wing back Luke Shaw has certainly seen his career accelerate over the last few seasons. After breaking in to the Southampton first team back in 2012, Shaw went on to become a regular starter during the Saints’ early Premier League campaigns, and drew the attention of national team manager Roy Hodgson. While questions over his fitness have plagued him since the beginning, Shaw has all the tools to progress in to one of the best left backs in the world, especially after his big-money £30m move to Old Trafford in 2014. Despite a less than stellar maiden season with the Red Devils, Shaw started the current campaign in fine form until his horrific leg break in the Champion’s League. Make no mistake, though, that Shaw will be a main-stay of the United back line for many years to come once he has returned to fitness.
THEO WALCOTT // SENIOR DEBUT: 2005
The youngest ever player for both Southampton and the England national team, Theo Walcott’s meteoric rise to fame in 2006 saw the striker – yes, striker – score on his Saints debut, travel to the World Cup finals in Germany, win the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year and seal a big money move to Arsenal. While the hype seems in hindsight to have muffled appreciation for his talents, Walcott has proven himself to be a useful cog in the Arsenal machine. Despite Arsene Wenger’s insistence, Walcott has finally broken away from his winger role and moved in to his much preferred central position, and seems to be growing back in to the role with every passing game. If he can maintain his goalscoring form, Arsenal, and indeed England, could have a lethal finisher on their hands.
ADAM LALLANA // SENIOR DEBUT: 2006
While Lallana may have left St. Mary’s under something of a cloud last season, there is no doubting that the Englishman remains a leading light for Southampton’s academy. Originally purchased from Bournemouth for £3000, Lallana spent the lion’s share of his academic years beneath the Southampton umbrella, cementing a place in the first team at the tail end of the Saints’ Championship relegation season. Lallana stayed faithful to the club after its flirtation with administration, going on to play 265 games for the club across League One, the Championship and the Premier League. Rumours may persist about a declaration to never play for the club again unless his move to Liverpool was granted, despite his claims of innocence, but Southampton should always be grateful to the contribution the former club captain made during his time in red and white.
ALEX OXLADE-CHAMBERLAIN // SENIOR DEBUT: 2010
Affectionately known as “The Ox”, Chamberlain came to the Southampton academy back at the age of 7, despite his family ties to fierce rivals Portsmouth. During the 5-0 home thrashing of Huddersfield – a game I ballboyed, I might add – Chamberlain made his first senior appearance for the club, making him the second youngest player in the club’s history. It was clear from the offset that then League One Southampton were not destined to enjoy his talents for long, and so it proved after a £12m+ add ons move to Arsenal in 2011. Despite his brief stint on the south coast, his ability was on show for all to see, and there is little doubt that he will become a vital part of the Arsenal and England attacking four if his development continues unabated. Pace, trickery and an ever-growing physical presence, the Ox takes some stopping when he’s on his game.
CALUM CHAMBERS // SENIOR DEBUT: 2012
Calum Chambers is another young English wing back that quickly drew attention from the big boys during his time with the Saints. While the media began waxing lyrical over Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne, Chambers quietly and efficiently kept his head down and let his football do the talking, seeming almost to slide under the radar until news broke that the youngster was subject to a bid from Arsene Wenger’s Gunners. Chambers is no one-trick pony, either – he can play centre back, right back, defensive midfield and could even venture further up the field as a Willian-esque attacking midfielder (or what I would brand the defensive attacking midfielder). Chambers has the maturity and authority to become a stalwart in England’s back line, and has as good a chance as any of captaining his country in the future.
JAMES WARD-PROWSE // SENIOR DEBUT: 2011
With all aforementioned names now departed, it’s of welcome relief to document a young man still wearing the red and white of Southampton – James Ward-Prowse. The youngster has a colourful history in terms of positional suitability; beginning his career at left back, JWP has since played as a central attacking midfielder, both a left and ride sided attacking midfielder, and more recently, a deep lying playmaker. Ward-Prowse is most widely noted his for Beckham-esque deliveries from set pieces, scoring some vintage free kicks during his time in both the Southampton U21s and the England U21s. With only one senior goal to his name (a penalty no less), Ward-Prowse has yet to capture the hearts and minds of the big clubs in the Premier League, which will come as a great relief to Saints fans – when Ward-Prowse adds goals to his game, he will be hot property.
TIM SPARV // SENIOR DEBUT: 2006
Perhaps a name that fans dissociated with the club won’t recognise as a product of Southampton’s academy, Finnish international Tim Sparv first cut his teeth on England’s south coast. Unfortunately, Sparv failed to make a first team appearance for the club, and elected to pursue a move to Swedish outfit Halmstad. Since then, the European journeyman has gone on to play for FC Groningen of Holland, German second division side Furth and the current Danish Superleague Champions FC Midtjylland. In fact it was Sparv who drove home the opening goal during the 1-1 draw with Southampton in this year’s Europa League qualifying rounds. Sparv also starred in a heartening piece in the match day magazine, crediting Southampton’s academy for giving him the education in football that had allowed him to enjoy the career he had. Proof that loyalty and sentimentality aren’t dead, Sparv remains a nostalgic icon amongst Saints fans to this day.
ALAN SHEARER // SENIOR DEBUT: 1988
While most noted for his time at Newcastle and his league-winning stint with Blackburn Rovers, Alan Shearer’s first and often times forgotten home was indeed Southampton. During his six year stay on the south coast, Shearer began to establish himself as the ruthlessly efficient striker that we came to know him as, becoming the youngest player to score a top flight hat trick in a 4-2 win over Arsenal. Later voted the Fans Player of the Year in 1991, Shearer’s £3.6m move to Rovers in 1992 was a then record transfer for British football. The man who came to Old Dell as part of the deal – David Speedie – didn’t quite enjoy the same success as Alan Shearer.
MATT LE TISSIER // SENIOR DEBUT: 1986
No list of great Southampton academy products would be complete without Le God himself, Matt Le Tissier. Not only did Le Tiss inspire a generation of Southampton fans, his influence stretched across the continent, with Barcelona and Spain legend Xavi citing him as a childhood icon. Though sometimes maligned for his indifference to running, Le Tiss’ ability was such that the man hardly needed to leave a healthy stride to leave players crumbling in his wake. Much like Thierry Henry, Dennis Berkamp and so many others, Le Tiss could fill a Top Ten Greatest Premier League goals list alone, and remains to this day a legend among Southampton fans. Now enjoying a career in punditry, his passion and love for the club are evident and fully reciprocated by fans on the south coast.
Every season begins with a hopeful glance toward the the Southampton academy for fans in red and white, and once again, the factory is churning out new stars. While Matt Targett and Harrison Reed are now first team members, they may still qualify as ones for the future, with certainly neither of them being at the apex of their ability as of today’s writing.
As for academy grads that are yet to enter the mainstream, the future of the Southampton captaincy seems safe in the hands of Jason McCarthy, recently loaned to promotion favourites Wycombe Wanderers of League 2. The centre back is as commanding and strong as Calum Chambers was at his age, and will only improve when he finally begins playing alongside Jose Fonte. Jack Stephens is another centre back with a bright future – more akin of Toby Alderweireld or Virgil van Dijk, Stephens and McCarthy could be the way of the future if given the chance.
Further up field, the big prospects among Southampton staff include Sam Gallagher, the man who unleashed the rocket that won the youth side the U21s Premier League Cup earlier this year, Ryan Seager and Josh Sims, the nippy young winger who couldn’t stop scoring for England’s youth sides last season.
With a great number of players and still left unnamed, it’s clear that Southampton’s academy is still the standard bearer amongst English football, especially when coupled with it’s glittering production history and new £30m training facilities. While the current position of the team doesn’t allow for as much movement between the U21s and the first team as it has in the past, opportunities will always be given to a youngster willing to take them, and at Southampton, there will always be a youngster willing to take them.
Written by Ross Bramble