Southampton FC pride themselves that they have the best youth Academy in the UK. Is this good or bad thing?
At the best of times being a Southampton supporter is frustrating, mind blowing, confusing and very bad for your health. I think back to only six seasons ago and remember a time when Saints were up their in the Premiership thinking of a possible European spot, and then I sigh at how Saints have fallen so hard and fast.
I think the first part to this downfall started the summer of 2003 after the club were still buzzing about getting to the FA cup final and only loosing by a whisker against Arsenal. The good thing was that Saints had the European place that the club had been after since the 90s relegation struggles, but the bad news was the players were now back in the public eye. One of these was a 23 year old left back from Stanmore, Winchester (infact the same housing estate and town as myself) called Wayne Bridge.
Bridge was from the Southampton Academy as were the likes of Alan Shearer, Matthew LeTissier, Matt Oakley, Mick Channon, Denis Wise, Francis Benali etc before him. After the FA cup final Bridge caught the eye of recently bought out Chelsea who were looking for anyone and everyone to strengthen their side. Even though Saints got Graham Le Saux in a part exchange for Bridge, Saints were now without the speed they used to have on the left wing because of Graham’s relaxed way of playing football. Saints suffered and soon more players and even Gordon Strachan the manager were soon to follow Bridge and leave the club.
With this Saints were left scrabbling to buy/loan in new players to replace the old with very little budget and immature youth who couldn’t make the step up to first team level. When one did appear it was to late. We had been relegated to the Championship. On the first game of the season 2005-2006 I watched Saints try and adapt to the new league they faced and knew in my heart that this was going to be a very long couple of years for Saints as they scrabbled about against Wolves not being able to break them.
Then in the second half, at only 16 years and 143 days of age (the youngest player to play in the Southampton first team at the time) Theo Walcott came on. He had the speed Saints had missed since the sale of Bridge plus he had been put in as striker (which the club needed after the sale of Peter Crouch to Liverpool). Striker in hindsight was the wrong position for him completely. He had way too much pace and didn’t seem to know when to stop, but a little bit of hope burned inside of me that Saints had found the team’s next great player.
January transfer window came and so did Arsenal waving their cash. With only 21 starts for Saints, Walcott was gone and Saints fans were left scratching their heads again of how we could sale yet again a home grown talent so quickly like that.
After the low of losing Walcott it seemed Saints had done what they always do ‘create other teams stars’ the on 17th April 2006 another gleaming light came from academy. He didn’t properly show himself to be the player he would become until the first game of the 2006-2007 season when he started and scored against Derby. His name was Gareth Bale and seemed even better than Walcott at the time. He was a left sided defender/midfielder who showed amazing pace and presence on the field. He played an amazing season, alongside most of it with fellow Saints Academy star Andrew Surman. Bale scored 5 times in 40 starts for the club and helped them to the play-offs that season. Saints fans knew that if they didn’t get promoted back to the Premiership they would loose Bale to a much better side for sure like Walcott before him. During the second half of the first leg against Derby Bale suffered a injury and was unable to play the second leg because of it. This was one of the factors of why Saints lost the play-offs that year and also lost Bale in the summer as Tottenham came for him.
In recent years there have been several more like these such as Leon Best, David McGoldrick, Andrew Surman (who I named earlier), Martin Craine, Lloyd James and Nathan Dyer. All of these names were either sold or thrown away by the club on free transfers.
Yet now times have changed at the club. In 2009, after going in to administration and being relegated to League 1, the club were bought out by Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr who invested heavily into the club before his death in 2010.
Now Saints have two amazing home grown talents at the club again. First is Adam Lallana who is a confident attacking midfielder who has a eye for goal. Lallana watched younger players such as Bale and Walcott leap frog him to success but stayed true and got his chance. The other is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who is a young gifted winger who is the fastest player I’ve seen from England since Gerrard. Yet again Saints are getting the attention of the country and huge clubs are sniffing around these two.
But as I write this Lallana signed a new four and a half year deal with the Saints and hopefully Chamberlain won’t leave because as a fan I now can see the light at the end of the tunnel for Southampton. Maybe Saints aren’t the biggest shop after all and soon the club will be back in the public eye like before.
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