HE once watched former youth colleagues Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale sprint past him in the race from the Saints academy to the Premier League big time.

While those players were rubbing shoulders with world class team-mates and opponents, Adam Lallana was helping to cement his place among the hearts of Saints fans by helping the club win promotion from the third division.

Lallana has since gone on to emerge as a key member of a Saints squad that will claim a top eight Premier League finish just three short years after finishing runners-up in League 1.

He is also regarded as a ‘must pick’ for Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad this summer, despite not having made his senior international debut until last November.

As captain of a Saints team that has hoovered up accolades from rival managers and players all season, and with nine Premier League goals and six assists to his name, the playmaker’s star has never been higher.

He was one of only six players nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award last weekend, and along with Luke Shaw was chosen for the Team of the Year.

That completed a hat-trick of such awards, having been named in the PFA’s League 1 team in 2010/11 and the Championship team 12 months later.

Unsurprisingly, his impressive performances have led to the inevitable speculation linking him with the biggest clubs in the country.

Saints fans have had to get used to this in recent years.

Walcott and Bale were constantly linked with moves before they did leave.

Shaw was linked with the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal even before he made his Premier League debut in November 2012.

Jay Rodriguez, Morgan Schneiderlin, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Sam Gallagher have also been the subject of tabloid speculation in recent months.

Lallana is different, though.

He has been an almost ever present fixture in the team as Saints have risen phoenix-like in recent years.

Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had just one full season in the Saints teams before their multi-million pound moves to the bright lights of London.

Walcott had barely half a season in the first team before he was enticed away.

Lallana has been a regular ever since the start of the 2008/09 season.

He has played 263 competitive games for the club, and scored 60 goals.

Bale (45), Oxlade-Chamberlain (43) and Walcott (22) only played 111 between them.

The St Mary’s faithful view Lallana as one of their own, a modern-day Matt Le Tissier in terms of his skills and his ability to conjure up some spectacular goals.

Of course, Le Tissier stayed loyal to Saints throughout his stellar career, at times turning down far bigger clubs – and one presumes salaries – to remain at The Dell.

Will Lallana do the same?

He is coming to the crossroads of his career.

Turning 26 the day before Saints’ final game of the season against Manchester United next month, Lallana is at the peak of his creative powers.

Though transfer speculation must always be taken with a healthy dose of salt, the leading Premier League clubs must be looking at him closely.

They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t.

Clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea have mega money behind them, and they need top English talent in order to comply with Premier League squad rules and regulations.

A good World Cup in Brazil will only add millions to Lallana’s price tag. And every player has one, don’t forget that.

Adam Lallana is fast approaching the most critical summer of his career.

Forget the World Cup, I am talking purely Saints here.

If he wants to one day play for one of the biggest clubs in England – regularly challenging for honours at home and in Europe – the next few months surely provides him with what could be his best ever chance.

He might never get a better chance of joining one of the biggest clubs in Europe.

That is, of course, providing Lallana wants to go. He has never said he wants to go, and only last April signed a new extended contract taking him through to the summer of 2018 (Shaw is contracted the same length of time).

He carries so much hope on his shoulders.

I would suggest a lot of Saints supporters would expect Shaw to leave, if not this summer then the next one.

He is too good, with so much potential.

If Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City – all linked with the teenager – want to pay about £25m, surely Saints would take it.

The world record for a left back is the £29.5m Barcelona paid to sign Dani Alves six years ago.

Since then, Real Madrid paid £25m to sign Fabio Coentrao in 2011.

Only the most famous names in world football pay those sorts of fees for a left back.

If any club wants to pay that much for Shaw, I can’t believe many Saints fans would begrudge the player a move if he wants one.

Lallana, though.

Lallana is different.

If he left, the signals it would send out would be so very different to than the ones if Shaw departed.

Adam Lallana has been the recent past for Saints, and he is very much part of the present.

Saints need him to be part of their immediate future too.

If he left – and speculation won’t go away – it would be a massive blow for the club.

Lallana, despite his age, is almost certainly viewed by his colleagues as a senior pro at the club.

Not just the fact he carries the captain’s armband, not just his performances, but his longevity at St Mary’s earns him respect.

Players might expect a young lad like Shaw to move to a footballing giant, with a huge career ahead of him that could easily see him emulate Ashley Cole by winning a century of England caps.

But how would the departure of the talismanic Lallana go down with the squad?

What message would that send out?

A family man now, Lallana became a father in September 2012 to Arthur and got married to long-time girlfriend Emily in Poole just before last Christmas.

They are a south coast couple, who have grown up with all their friends and families around them.

Lallana would have to uproot part of that family tree to move to Anfield or Old Trafford.

For £70,000 a week, as has been rumoured, it could be a price worth paying.

Who knows?

What we do know, though, is this.

Adam Lallan is integral to the future of Southampton Football Club.

Many players have come and gone in the past six years, but he has been a constant presence.

Like Le Tissier in his heyday, Lallana is the pumping heartbeat of an at times thrilling Saints team.

It is impossible to see him leaving St Mary’s prior to the World Cup.

Surely Saints would wait to see how he performs in Brazil before deciding his future?

That gives the club precious breathing space in the transfer market.

And while player power is stronger than ever, the club do hold the ace card.

They don’t have to sell any player under contract.

No doubt the Saints squad is packed full of ambitious players.

And it is only human nature that having finished eighth in the top flight, you then want to aim higher next time.

To move up a few places from where Saints will finish this term, however, requires squad strengthening.

It will require the flexing of financial muscles.

Players will want to see new signings added to what Mauricio Pochettino has confessed is a thin squad in terms of numbers.

That is the harsh reality of the success Saints have enjoyed since last August.

To bring about continued success, more money must be spent.

There is no guarantee, however, that splashing the cash brings that success, that continued progress.

But it’s not all about bringing in new blood.

Along the way, Saints probably don’t want to lose any of their senior players.

There is a football hierarchy, though. Always has been, always will be.

Saints were losing top players to Manchester United back in the 1980s (Danny Wallace).

They were losing top players to clubs paying big money in the 1990s (Alan Shearer, Tim Flowers).

And they lost their top left back a few weeks after finishing eighth in 2003 (Wayne Bridge).

The footballing landscape has not altered too much over the years in that respect.

Now Saints fans face an uncertain summer, though they are used to that.

They will be hoping Adam Lallana can sprinkle some creative fairydust on the biggest stage of them all for England ...

... knowing that if he does, he could come under increasing pressure to continue to stay loyal to the club that turned him into a superstar.