It’s hard to miss new Saints scholar Alex Iwumene. Surpassing six-feet by the age of 15, he’s someone you notice. Yet somehow, Iwumene's journey to St Mary's is marked by being overlooked - constantly. 

Trials at football league clubs as a youngster saw Iwumene emerge unsigned and he continued his football education instead in the concrete cages of South London.

But it just wasn’t happening for Iwumene. Then he broke into the Onside Academy for one final chance.

Aimed at providing coaching and a platform for players between the ages of 15-19 who have the talent but for whatever reason can’t get into a professional club, Iwumene is Onside’s 57th graduate to sign a professional contract.

It’s by no means the standard route, but for Onside Academy Director Alexander Kuye, that’s what makes Saints’ academy signing so unique and so exciting.

“Alex is a technically gifted central midfielder," Kuye tells the Daily Echo. "His first touch is really good but he’s still growing into his body because he’s quite tall. But he’s really good when he drives with the ball, his ball manipulation is good.

"In small-sided games, I think he struggles because he’s quite tall. By the time his body adjusts to getting the ball, someone is already on him. However, on a wide pitch he can do whatever he wants because he has that time. And I think that’s the reason he’s been overlooked for a number of years."

Daily Echo: Iwumene in action for Onside Academy.Iwumene in action for Onside Academy.

"The expectation of a central midfielder is to be quite mobile, as soon as you get the ball you can move and change direction. But now that he’s grown into his body he’s more mobile than he was before. You can’t get the ball off of him! For a tall guy, he’s very very technically strong.

“A boy like Alex, he won’t be part of that norm. He’ll bring something very very different to the team. He’s going to get the ball, drive forward, drive past players, little one-two, he wants the ball back. Take it on his left or right foot, bang.

"There’s a very very big difference in what the expectation of him will be - he’s going to have to play the Southampton way but it’s something where he brings something different than someone who has been at the club since they were nine years old won’t necessarily have.

“Players from inner-cities what we find is that they are technically very good but tactically quite poor. They’ve been brought up in a cage environment, playing on concrete, dribbling past three/four men and trying to score.

"However, a player who’s been in an academy environment since they were nine years old, they’re used to playing a certain type of way: receive the ball, pass, receive the ball, pass. Take the ball, half-turn, pass.

“There’s only a handful of clubs, in my opinion, that invest in those types of players - we know you haven’t been in an academy environment, we’re going to develop you. Middlesbrough have done amazingly this season with some youngsters they brought in from London. That’s because they’ve seen what they’ve got and worked with it.

"Some clubs say ‘no no no you have to play our way.’ But the reality is that that’s what makes them difference, that’s what makes them unique.”

Iwumene is what Kuye would call a “late developer”, exactly the kind of player Onside likes to work with but some academies give up on. Southampton have started to aggressively pursue late developers with January arrival Nico Lawrence - from non-league - another example of the approach.

"The Onside Academy is one the leading UK academies when it comes to Talent Identification," Kuye continues. "We work with players that people don’t necessarily want to work with because they’re getting ‘too old.’ People always talk about the Chelseas ‘oh they’ve got the best players.’ Well that’s because they’ve had them since they were nine years old. When you do have players who are late developers - the 15-19 year olds - that’s what we cater towards. We love late developers because we feel we can develop them.

“I always find that the late developers tend to have successful careers. That’s what I’ve seen. They haven’t experienced academy football, they’re hungry, they always want to do more, they always want to improve. They know that one year they've got, they're competing against someone who’s been at the club since he was nine years old."

Hunger is not something lacking in Iwumene and whether that’s due to his football upbringing on concrete pitches or the effect of often being overlooked, it’s a central part of his rise. Just to get the opportunity to pitch himself to Southampton and other top academies took serious patience and perseverance - and talent, of course.

Of more then 3,500 applicants, Onside whittled down the list to a final 16 to play a showcase match in front of hundreds of scouts. In his first showcase, Iwumene was partnered in centre-midfield by Ife Oni and Yacou Traore. The duo were snapped up by Birmingham City and Middlesbrough off the back of their performances but nothing arrived for Iwumene.

Daily Echo: Iwumene pictured at Staplewood. Image by: Southampton FCIwumene pictured at Staplewood. Image by: Southampton FC

It got to the point where England just wasn't looking like an option and this summer he was set to head to depart for Austin FC in Texas.

Then it all changed on February 6th with his second showcase game. This time he was the star of the show and Southampton were just one of multiple interested parties including Aston Villa, Millwall, Middlesbrough and Derby County.

“Honestly, I’ll tell you right now, he just doesn’t give up. He always gives more and he never gives up," Kuye says. "He’s quite quiet, he’s not always the person that shouts the loudest but he’s a hard worker and that never goes unnoticed.

“We’re not trying to mirror the Nike academy but if someone said describe your academy and how it works I would say very much like the old Nike academy (closed in 2017) in terms of nobody’s position is permanent, you’re playing for your next match, you’re playing for your shirt. We had about 30/40 centre-mids and Alex still kept his shirt. The people around him didn’t.

“He was very receptive to the coaching but I think he was a bit demoralised as well (when he arrived). Because he played for the Sutton academy grassroots team but he always got overlooked. Everyone saw his talent but they felt he wasn’t mobile enough. But when you’ve got a player who's 15 years old and nearly 6’1”, what do you expect? But now it will further give him that need to be more mobile than he was before. Honestly, they’ve got a really really good coup there.”

The next step for Iwumene will be to take his natural ability and apply it to the Southampton way of playing, advancing tactically to fit the systems of the U18s and B-Team while trying to provide the unpredictable spark he always has.

“Alex wasn’t part of any academy growing up, he had a couple of trials but was unsuccessful. He was quite big for his age, quite a tall boy. I think this was the best time for him in my opinion.

“For a number of years Southampton haven’t really brought many players through but I think it’s a good place for him to develop and I think in that environment, the facilities, the coaching staff and with the vision of Southampton where they’ve said ‘enough is enough, we need to start bringing players through again and get our identity back.’ For me, I think it will be a great opportunity for him.”

Iwumene himself is just grateful to finally be given his chance to show what he can do and continue growing as a player in an elite academy environment.

“I’m delighted to sign my scholarship with Southampton," the midfielder told the club's official channels last week. "It’s a proud moment for me and my family, signing my scholarship with a category one academy. Not many people can do it.

“I’m hoping to push on from here and not only develop as a player but as a young man.

“My footballing journey has been good. I haven't really been in a football academy, so this will be my first. I’ve just been playing grassroots and showcase.

“My expectations for the coming year are to develop as much as a player and see where the next two years can take me. Hopefully I can push on to the 23s and to the first team.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be at a professional club as big as Southampton, with a history as rich as Southampton, it’s an amazing feeling.”

It will no doubt be a severe learning curve for Saints' newest arrival but if there's one thing to take from his journey to the South Coast then it's Kuye's lasting memory of his former pupil: he just doesn't give up. 

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