SOUTHAMPTON FOOTBALL CLUB HAVE RECEIVED MUCH PRAISE in recent seasons for the success of their academy and their sustained challenge for a UEFA Champions League position. Currently floating around the top six positions, they have performed more consistently than Arsenal, Manchester United, Spurs and Liverpool; clubs that all have much larger fan bases and greater financial resources. This has all been achieved after the club lost nine of its first team players during the summer of 2015.
The recent success of the club has been meteoric. After going into administration the Saints were relegated to League One for the 2009-10 season. Since then, the success of the club’s youth academy in developing players such as Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana has not only contributed to success on the field, but also provided the club with well over £100 million in transfer fees.
Southampton can rightly point to its recent success at developing some of the most skilled young players in England, however the model of achieving sporting success against larger clubs through the success of its youth academy does have precedence.
Dario Gradi and Crewe Alexandra Football Club have long out-punched their weight against larger clubs. The town has a population of just over 80,000 yet the football club has long been recognised as one of English football’s most flourishing player development nurseries for young talent. Crewe Alexandra is a small club that has fluctuated between the Championship and League Two — the second and fourth tier leagues — in England.
During Dario Gradi’s tenure at the club alone, Crewe banked more than £20 million in transfer fees for players that they have developed, which includes well-known names such as Nick Powell (Manchester United), Dean Ashton (former West Ham/England), Danny Murphy (former Liverpool/England) and David Platt (former Arsenal/England).
In 2004 I was able to travel to their academy and study the work of Dario Gradi and his talented coaching staff. What struck me about the training at Crewe Alexandra was the obsessive focus on technique. All players are schooled in developing a good first touch, passing technique and being positive in 1v1 and group attacking situations. Dario Gradi has developed a distinct coaching philosophy and this is religiously followed and implemented by all the coaching staff at the club.
Passing and movement is key and an emphasis is placed on maintaining possession, quick passing patterns on the ground and taking the initiative in attacking play. Graduates from the academy have always been provided with first team opportunities early and the team maintains its attacking principles of play, even when they are faced with taller and more aggressive opposition in the lower leagues who use long passing up to tall and physical centre-forwards as their main attacking plan.
The type of football that Southampton currently employ and the commitment by the club to give young players early opportunities in the first team is very similar to the development model that has been used by Crewe Alexandra since the early ’80s.
Crewe Alexandra placed such an emphasis on their academy that Dario Gradi juggled his responsibilities as first team manager with coaching the under-14 academy team and overseeing the academy operations. There has been no other club in the country to place such an emphasis on youth development and the link from the academy to playing for the first team.
One of the coaches at Crewe mentioned that at other clubs, if players were sold for transfer fees, the money was rarely ever reinvested back into player development. At Crewe, though, things have been different. When players are sold, the proceeds are immediately ploughed into facilities or other areas of academy operations that will help generate the next crop of talented young players.
As Gradi has frequently said, and it’s a line that I like to repeat often at our own academy, the aim is “to develop better and better players, and more and more of them”. Gradi’s vision in his 30 years with Crewe Alexandra has always been to name an entire first team — that’s starters and subs — made up of home-grown players. That was achieved in May 2013 during their league game against Walsall in their final home game of this season. It was a remarkable achievement and one that many more clubs in England are trying to emulate.
There is a growing realisation throughout the professional game that spending transfer fees on players who may only stay at the club for a few seasons represents a poor return on investment. Investing this money in youth academies makes more sense — particularly when young players can be schooled from an early age in the club’s values, philosophy, and style of play. These players will also develop strong personal relationships with the other players around them, other people at the club and indeed the club’s fans. Barcelona and more recently Borussia Dortmund have proven that this development model can successfully work at the highest levels of the game.
Crewe Alexandra has been doing this with great effect for many years; now clubs like Southampton are deploying the same model in the Premier League. This is in direct opposition to its competitors such as Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City who are regularly criticised for not giving young English players enough opportunities at the first team level.
In England. Crewe is the only club outside the top two divisions to be graded a Category Two academy club by the FA and they are rightly proud of the players that they have produced and on the way they play the game. As another indication of their “class”, Crewe won the PFA Bobby Moore Fair Play trophy twelve times in 15 years during Gradi’s reign as manager. What better place to learn the game than a club committed to investing in their youth, playing attacking football, giving young player’s early opportunities in the first team and epitomising the values of fair play?
This has all been achieved despite having to compete in the same catchment areas as Manchester United and Manchester City. While some families were tempted by the larger status of the Manchester giants, many players and their families valued the education that they would receive at Crewe and the knowledge that young players who performed would have clear pathways into the first team and be given a chance.
In November 2011, Gradi stepped down as manager and is now Director of Football and plays a prominent role in the academy. The club is now managed by Steve Davis, who played for Crewe under Gradi from 1983 to 1987. Davis, schooled in the philosophy of Crewe’s youth development policy, echoes the sentiments of his mentor.
“You have to build and give these boys a chance,” says Davis. “Sometimes they take you down. Sometimes they get you promoted. You have to add a bit of experience to the team to help them along the way. But you have to be brave and courageous in playing them.”
Business as usual, then, at one of Europe’s most successful football talent centres — and a model that is now being recognised and deployed more and more by larger clubs.
By Ian McClurg. Follow @1v1SoccerFC