Southampton’s academy showing signs of coming back to life after FA Cup win


For so long, Southampton Football Club produced so many. Renowned for their trust and opportunity in developing their own crop of talent, the club’s academy line seemed endless.

But in recent years, the acclaimed production line somewhat grounded to a halt.

Dating back to 1985 with Matthew Le Tissier, Southampton always had an extraordinary knack of manufacturing a player. But it wasn’t just your everyday, run of the mill footballer, the youngsters who learned their trade on the south coast became elites of the European stage.

Season upon season, Southampton continued to construct players, proving success was not just a one-off from some sort of golden generation. Instead, the club had built a track-record of churning out players for the biggest stages in football.

But in conjunction with Southampton’s recent demise, the academy also suffered. The departure of Luke Shaw was the last talent that exploded on the south coast. James Ward-Prowse proved steady but hardly spectacular, while various others came and went.

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The distinguished ‘Southampton way,’ a term which described the process of building a world-class player before moving them on to bigger things, found itself in the doldrums.

Like anything in life, change brings renewed optimism. A reshuffle in the board room and the arrival of Ralph Hasenhuttl gave the Southampton academy a chance to reset.

FA head of development Matt Crocker rejoined Southampton after leaving in 2013 and was appointed director of football operations. Speaking after the announcement, chief executive Martin Semmens described Crocker as the “outstanding candidate in Europe.”

Perhaps more tellingly, Semmens revealed the appointment seeked a return to player development:

“The Southampton way is at the very core of everything we do here at the club, with a strong focus on our player pathway into the first team.”

While Crocker’s fruits of labour will tell long-term, the appointment highlighted Southampton finding clarity in their vision. Following big-money flops leading to the side’s regression in recent times, the move had a feel of going back to what they were best at.

On Saturday, there may have been a glimpse of the re-appearing Southampton way. Aligning with the club’s upturn in form and fortunes, Hasenhuttl made 10 changes from the side that beat Tottenham on New Years Day.

And in the form of Will Smallbone and Jake Vokins, both making their full debuts, they sealed Southampton’s passage into the next round with a 2-0 victory against Huddersfield.

Goals from the two 19-year-old’s stretched Saints’ unbeaten run to five games and in the process, underlined the feel good factor which was now firmly back at St Mary’s.

Of course it remains to be the seen whether the pair – who both joined the club at eight-years-old – will make the grade and live up to the expectations the club have on them. Nonetheless, despite the overall team performance a dull one, Southampton fans were given an insight of the club’s future intentions.

Perhaps for the first time in a long time, it seems the coaching team and board are in agreement that the promotion of youth is vital for the long-term vision of the club.

A tell-tale sign came before the season had even started, when Will Smallbone racked-up the the most minutes of any player in pre-season, before suffering a calf injury in August – an indiciation of how highly Hasenhuttl thought of him.

Speaking after the Huddersfield win, the Austrian said:

“I think Will showed today on the ball he has some really good moves, a lot of quality and a fine touch.”

“He must get fitter, he must get stronger. But on the ball, he is one of the best lads we have in the youth, but football is more than playing on the ball, it’s also fighting to win it back and when the workload is high, he slips. But that is normal when you don’t play for a long time.”

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Since training with the first-team from the age of 16, Jake Vokins had always been the outstanding prospect from the ranks. And with the club’s affiliation for rip-roaring left back’s such as Shaw and Gareth Bale, it conceivable Vokins’ maiden strike hinted at the player he might become.

“I know Jake well and he is very, very forward-orientated,” Hasenhuttl said. “His reverse gear sometimes takes a little bit longer and he needs to be more nasty, using his body more. But it’s our job to make him better and that is what we will do.”

Given the club’s flying form, now might be the perfect time for the duo to bed in. Coming into a side full of confidence and a manager that has a proven track-record for nurturing youth, Vokins and Smallbone have a golden opportunity to establish themselves as first-teamers.

Amassing 16 points from their previous eight league games – second behind runaway leaders Liverpool – Hasenhuttl may be tempted to place a little more emphasise on the FA Cup, in light of their secured league position in recent weeks.

And given supporters desperation for a cup run, it would be understandable if the Saints’ boss was inclined to select a full-strength side for the next round.
However, the renewed vigour of ‘the Southampton way’ may create food for thought. On Saturday, the teenage pair provided a case for consistent starting berths. Considering the club’s proud history of developing young players, more opportunities for homegrown talent could be exactly what the south coast outfit requires.
And perhaps more striking, it would state the Southampton way is firmly back-on-track.

About Author

Football, Boxing and Cricket correspondent from Hampshire, covering southern sport. Editor and Head of Boxing at Prost International. Accreditated EFL & EPL journalist.

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