IT'S a big season for the Saints academy as they look to continue to justify the club’s heavy investment in their youth set-up.

Martin Hunter’s under-23 side kicked off their Checkatrade Trophy campaign at Peterborough this week, a timely reminder that it is not just the first team whose season is well and truly up and running.

Saints are, admirably, using the competition as a chance to field a genuine under-23 side, rather than bloat their team with a few over-aged players who require match time because they are out of the reckoning with Mauricio Pellegrino’s squad.

Ultimately, an academy lauded as being one of the best in the game, and in whom Saints put so much time, effort and money, has to produce.

At this level it is far less about results on the pitch than it is about producing players for the first team.

Of course, winning is habit forming, and Saints want to have that momentum and mentality from their youngest age groups right through to the first team.

However, there are two main reasons they put so much stock into their academy, indeed, make it a pillar of the club’s philosophy.

The first is that Saints have a proud history and tradition of developing young players.

It goes to way before the idea of an academy had even been dreamt up, to what used to be called a youth set-up. Lawrie McMenemy was the first Saints boss to really cast his net far and wide to haul in the best young talent.

That conveyor belt, so famously coached by Dave Merrington, produced Matt Le Tissier, Francis Benali, the Wallace brothers and Alan Shearer amongst others.

As the academy structure begun to be implemented, Saints continued to be a by-word for producing fantastic young footballers.

Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana were among the leading lights of another golden generation.

A quick look over those names and their career paths reveals the second reason Saints are so desperate to make their academy a success.

It makes business sense to try and grow your own players.

With the Premier League transfer market as it is these days, even when investing several million each year into an academy, it only has to produce only player every five years and it has paid off in terms of getting someone in the first team that would otherwise have demanded a fee.

And then, of course, comes the really meaty bit.

If you have saved that money already and got some good years out of them, but are then offered a huge sum of money to sell them on, then you are making even more of your investment.

Put simply, investing in youth makes sense. It just needs to be done correctly, and Saints spend so much time on getting it right.

Like all these things, the process is not a simple one to manage.

Saints have almost been spoilt by the fact they have done so well and produced brilliant players.

It becomes all too easy to expect them to continue this incredible production line year after year, and to act with a certain amount of surprise and disappointment if there is a more fallow period.

That is inevitable, though.

Saints are good, but they haven’t reinvented the wheel, and if it was that easy everyone would do it.

It is probably fair to say that Saints are in a more fallow period now.

James Ward-Prowse continues to be the poster boy for the Saints academy, being the last player left at the club to have come all the way through the ranks to really make a significant breakthrough.

Others have enjoyed fleeting moments of success, but he is the only one who has been able to make it stick at Premier League first team level.

Given he made his first Saints appearance six years ago – and it is three years since Calum Chambers was sold to Arsenal - it underlines that the club haven’t been as prolific as they once were.

However, this is not an exact science, and like in days gone by there still have been plenty of players that are enjoying careers lower down the pyramid that just didn’t quite make the grade at the top level.

There is one crucial difference between now and days of yore, and that is the standard required to make the first team grade at Saints.

Back in the youth set-up days you had to be able to compete with some of the best British players as a youngster to make the step up, which was no mean feat.

When the likes of Bale, Walcott, Lallana and Chamberlain made their names at Saints, the club were outside of the top division, which had a similar effect.

Nowadays the Premier League contains the very best players in the world.

So, therefore, to get into a Premier League team as a young player you have to be able, at 17, 18 or 19, for example, to be better than stars who hold down those places normally.

It’s a mammoth ask, and many clubs, not just Saints, are finding it very difficult to produce players who are ready for that level.

You are seeing a trend of ‘youngsters’ making the breakthrough when they are not youngsters at all – in their early 20s, maybe, like Jack Stephens.

Saints and their supporters have to keep things in perspective.

Sam Gallagher is out on loan, Harrison Reed is out on loan, Olufela Olomola is out on loan, Harry Lewis is out on loan – because they need it.

They need game time, and the scrapping of the reserve team system in favour of an under-23 type set-up, though in principle sensible, can mean youngsters are not provided with what they need to make the next step-up.

Saints are right to get young players out on loan. If anything, they should do more of it.

That, combined with participating in the Checkatrade Trophy, not playing against another academy side but a team made up of seasoned pros, is good for them.

It’s where their steel is really tested and you discover whether they have what it takes or not.

In truth, there does not seem to be genuine young players who are realistically likely to break into Mauricio Pellegrino’s first team this season.

You never know, but even those who had glimpses last season, such as Jake Hesketh and Josh Sims, were unable to sustain it or turn it into something that felt as if it were going to be more permanent, as Ward-Prowse has done.

Relegation from the top under-23 league last season was a disappointment, though ultimately not the reason Saints are in the business of youth development.

But they will be keen for the academy to continue to prove its worth and that means even more development behind the scenes.