22 August 2012

Little Saints

James Ward-Prowse. He's got the right stuff.

Southampton's conveyor belt of football talent will not stop anytime soon.

This season has seen the very welcome returns to the Premier League for two teams with renowned youth set-ups. West Ham United's world-famous Academy of Football has produced many top players for their first-team, but Southampton's kids are set to become more prominent in the months ahead.

The newest player off the conveyor belt is James Ward-Prowse, a 17-year-old central midfielder with good passing skills. He impressed on his full league debut on Sunday, playing for 65 minutes against defending PL champions Manchester City.

He is the first of Southampton's current crop of teenage talent to make his mark this season, but if these words from manager Nigel Adkins are anything to go by, he will not be the last: "The vision of the football club is to get 50 per cent of players in the team through the academy and I think everyone at the academy should be so proud that, at 17, young James made his debut and I thought he was outstanding. His mentality is top drawer."

This sounds like excellent news for other rising stars like left-back Luke Shaw, who has been the subject of strong interest from Chelsea, and fellow defender Jack Stephens, who was snapped up last summer after making a number of first-team appearances for Plymouth Argyle. Another name to look out for is Calum Chambers. Like Ward-Prowse, Chambers is a 17-year-old midfielder, although he will be found on the wings.

Don't forget, though, that the Saints team that put up a brave fight against City was captained by a youth graduate from a different class. Creative midfield man Adam Lallana has been in Southampton's first-team for six years, and is seen as the club's main assist maker. To say that the St Albans native is an important player at St Mary's isn't to do him justice.

As far as the Saints' youth team of the mid-noughties is concerned, Lallana is, of course, "the one who stayed at Southampton". He was one of the players to feature in the 2005 FA Youth Cup Final against Ipswich Town, coming on as a subsitute in the second leg. Having drawn the first leg 2-2, Southampton agonisingly lost the second 1-0.

In both legs of that final, most eyes were on a certain 16-year-old forward called Theo Walcott. Gareth Bale and Nathan Dyer also formed part of that Saints team. It'll be interesting to find out where those three individuals are now.

I'll pick out a few more names from the class of 2005. The goalscorers from the first leg were David McGoldrick, now at Nottingham Forest, and Leon Best, who didn't do a great deal at St Mary's before moving on to bigger things. Tim Sparv slipped through the fingers and went on to become one of Finland's star players, while Martin Cranie and Lloyd James still play in the Football League today.

Go further back, and you'll find scores of players whose footballing education began at this south coast club. Left-back Wayne Bridge first hit the headlines at the turn of the century, while earlier alumni Francis Benali and Matt Oakley both served the Saints well for more than a decade.

But the best players ever to come out of Southampton made their breakthroughs in the mid to late 1980s. Brothers Rod and Danny Wallace showed early promise but, for different reasons, couldn't realise their full potential. Alan Shearer famously scored a hat-trick against Arsenal aged 17 in 1988, before enjoying greater success at Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United. Matt Le Tissier became 'Le God' after scoring 210 goals during his 16-year, one-club career.

None of those four were locals. Le Tissier, as we all know, was from the Channel Island of Guernsey, Shearer came all the way down from the north-east, and the Wallace brothers were Londoners. All of them were spotted by the club's national scouts, and attracted by the club's set-up, and 25 years on, things have not changed.

Take Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, for instance. He was born in Portsmouth, and his dad Mark coached Pompey's youth team. Where did a young Alex go when he was seven years of age? Southampton. He knew which club was best for him in terms of developing his career. Fast forward to 2011, and after enjoying a wonderful breakthrough season at St Mary's, Oxlade-Chamberlain signs for Arsenal for £12million.

Southampton's youth academy became even more vital to the club several years ago, when they plunged head first into League One, slipped into administration and were on the precipice of liquidation. They were bought by the late Markus Liebherr in 2009, and under his ownership, the youth products were given more opportunities to show what they were capable of. Lallana and Oxlade-Chamberlain did just that, and you know what happened afterwards.

At a time where ridiculous spending for short-term improvement is jeopardising the finances of several clubs, and not just on these shores, Southampton's long-term thinking under Adkins' managership and Nicola Cortese's ownership is admirable. It would be great to see a team enjoying success with a strong core of local boys and youth graduates again, even if the days of Celtic's Lisbon Lions are never going to come back.

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