Southampton has become renowned in football for its academy. Down the years the club’s name has become almost synonymous with developing young talent.
It started off with players being recruited and brought through at local levels and stepped up a notch when Lawrie McMenemy introduced a much broader scouting network for talented youngsters that ultimately produced Matt Le Tissier, the Wallace brothers, Alan Shearer and many more.
After a slight slackening off Saints came again with heavy investment in the new academy structures under Rupert Lowe, which produced a fistful of stars who have gone on to ply their trade at the top level, with another generation now pushing for a first team place at St Mary’s.
Nigel Adkins has stated that he would like to see 50 per cent of his future Saints side made up of homegrown talent, and he believes he has an exceptional group of 17-year-olds from which that might ultimately be achieved.
But of course clubs don’t just magically conjure up promising 17-yearolds.
Producing young players is a long and expensive process with physical and emotional highs and lows along the way.
Saints’ former academy director, Huw Jennings, is a modest individual but must take much of the credit for the stars on the fringes of the squad now, as well as those who have been through the system in recent years.
He admitted a frisson of pride as he watched Swansea take on Arsenal at the weekend and saw academy products Nathan Dyer and Theo Walcott on the score sheet, Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain come off the bench, as well as noting Leon Best scoring for Newcastle and the likes of Martin Cranie and Simon Gillett plying their trade in the Championship.
Now a new generation of standard bearers is pushing forward – James Ward-Prowse, Luke Shaw, Sam Hoskins, and plenty more besides.
Most were recruited around the age of eight in the 2001-06 period that Jennings – who went on to work for the Premier League and is now academy director at Premier League club Fulham – was at St Mary’s, and, though coaching has obviously brought them on, it’s quite a legacy that era has left the club.
“It was a terrific statement from Nigel and nobody would be happier than me to see that group come through and establish themselves together,” said Jennings, who believes recruitment was one of the key factors in the success story.
“Malcolm Elias is one of the best in the business and I have now got him here at Fulham with me. We’ve worked together three times now and he has recruited so many fantastic young players.
“It’s all about getting a team in place as well though and at Saints we had Phil Spreadbury who found Luke Shaw and Rod Ruddick who was vital in the recruitment of Nathan Dyer, Gareth Bale, Martin Cranie, and the centre in Bath was very helpful.
“The level of investment meant we could beat many of our rivals.
“Reading have come up on the rails and have done very well recently but perhaps before that we were able to exploit the M3 corridor and a number of boys came from east Hampshire so you might have expected Portsmouth to have signed them.”
Of the current young stars, some were from the area and others from further afield, but the staffing structure Jennings put in place ensured their character was right.
“I remember I was going to a reserve team game, Fulham against Saints, and there was a young boy queuing to get in,” recalled Jennings.
“It was none other than Luke Shaw who we’d already signed.
“I wound my window down and asked what he was doing and he said he was queuing up with his local team to be ball assistants for the game and that said a lot about him and the scouting network because Luke was not from the Southampton area.
“To be able to reach up to get a boy of eight-years-old from further afield was fantastic and we did that very well indeed.”
Looking back a generation to the stars of today – Walcott, Bale and co – Jennings actually believes that relegation to the Championship gave them a great opportunity.
“Arguably one of the things that benefited them was relegation because it allowed them a chance to establish themselves.
“Would Walcott and Bale have come through in the Premier League at such an early phase? The Championship gave them that.
“The dilemma with the current group will be if they get promoted because in order to stay at that level many clubs feel they need to supplement their existing group with experience.
“That is the potential challenge they face.
“Young players can come in and hit the ground running but others sometimes have to wait to establish themselves another year or two.”
Saints have continued strong investment in their academy since the club was purchased by Markus Liebherr and Jennings gives plenty of credit to academy manager Matt Crocker and the current academy workers.
“A lot of praise should go to Matt Crocker and his team of staff,” insisted Jennings.
“I was involved in his appointment and he inherited a very difficult situation and it’s important that he is given credit for holding a firm hand on the tiller during difficult times and without that a lot of those boys might have been lost.”
Saints have got their young players to a very fine stage once again, but as Jennings knows only too well, that next step is often the hardest to take.
“If Southampton go on and win the FA Youth Cup then you are looking at the players being the best at under-18 level,” he said.
“But then you are into open age football and if you want to have say five in your first team then that means you have to have five of them better than the rest of the players at your club at any age level, which probably goes up to about 35.
“It is an advantage to look at a group though because they can drive each other on because of the standards they set themselves and if you’ve got the right balance of players – if you’ve got five good strikers they can’t all play – and an opportunity you can match that with a bit of luck in terms of injuries.
“The other thing is then maturity – some will have reached maturity, some won’t until 19, 20 or perhaps even 21.
“But to see these young lads and the generation before them doing so well does give you a warm feeling inside and a sense of pride.”