The Southampton FC Academy Way

The Southampton FC Academy Way

This feature is part of The Academy Way

Invading the pristine St Mary’s pitch in their thousands, Southampton fans swarmed with a feverish energy towards the visiting Burnley faithful. Smoke grenades, plastic bottles and insults were hurled between the two groups until the slim line of police managed to force the northerners back under the stands.

A number of gleeful Portsmouth supporters had made their way into the away section to goad their bitter rivals, and the immediate bitterness detracted from the gravity of what lay in store for the Saints. The final whistle had been swallowed by the cacophonous chants anyway, and instead of a mournful silence, the air was filled with a highly charged static that seemed at odds with the facts. The date was 25 April, the result was 2-2, and Southampton were mathematically relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in over 50 years.

The atmosphere that crackled around the immaculate stadium that day perhaps should have been a signal of the seismic shifts about to take place, but almost nobody could have predicted the scale of them. A few months after dropping down to League One, with a 10-point deduction and racked with financial problems that had dragged the club into administration, the 1976 FA Cup winners were stuck in the relegation zone and in free fall. Academy staff were forced to double up as decorators, and away dressing rooms were scoured for leftover sports drinks, tape, scissors and other materials, such was their plight.

The only consistently valuable asset was the incredible array of youth team graduates that continued to pass through to the first team squad. Two years earlier, a scrawny 17-year-old Welsh boy who would later go on to become the world’s most expensive player of all time was sold to Tottenham, while their north London rivals Arsenal had snapped up a whippet of a winger who would travel to the World Cup in Germany without a single top flight appearance. Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott are just two of the names on a roll call of illustrious alumni as stellar as any in the game today.

Having a reputation for nurturing the finest young players is all well and good as long as a club remains a going concern, something which nearly ceased to be true for Southampton in the summer after that Burnley match. On 8 July, however, after a failed bid by club legend Matt Le Tissier’s Pinnacle consortium, German-born billionaire Markus Liebherr completed his swift takeover, clearing the debts owed to creditors and installing a rigorous overhaul of the entire club’s philosophy. Although Liebherr passed away just over a year later, his impetus and vision that saved the club from extinction have been maintained throughout the club, particularly in the ethos of the academy.

Around the time the most successful group of youth team players in the modern era were sweeping their way to the FA Youth Cup at Manchester United, Southampton’s academy was producing a stunning side that threatened to upset the balance of power. Alan Shearer, Francis Benali, Rod and Danny Wallace had all come through the fabled youth system on the south coast, but the jewel was undoubtedly Le Tissier, one of the most gifted English players of his generation.

The coaching staff were obviously critical to their football education – Shearer credits his academy coach and fellow Geordie Dave Merrington as his foremost influence – but material circumstance played its part too. Until 2001, Southampton had played at The Dell, a crumbling but intimidating 15,000-capacity stadium that simply couldn’t keep up with the lightning pace of the Premier League. It represented the challenge that the club faced to compete at this highest level, and gives a small insight into how their matters on the pitch have traditionally been run – building from within, giving youth a real chance.

After the Second World War, Sir Matt Busby famously expanded and developed Manchester United’s youth set-up to build the finest team of players by employing scouts all over the British Isles. By spreading the net wider than his competitors, he ensured he unearthed gems such as Duncan Edwards, George Best and Liam Whelan before anyone else, but it was his faith in their ability that made it a success. Southampton’s inability to offer large transfer fees may have been a factor, but they have embraced the same attitude towards youth, which has enhanced their reputation for nourishing the careers of talented youngsters. Instead of blindly placing faith in the products of quality coaching, the club has moved faster than most to adapt their academy’s approach to the modern game.

During Liebherr’s brief tenure, he sanctioned over £3 million in transfer fees as 13 players were brought in, including current team captain José Fonte for £1.2 million, much more than most clubs in the third tier. He was a forward-thinking owner, however, who realised that throwing money at the first team alone was not the answer. Crucially, he realised that a ‘bottom up’ philosophy was the only way to bring long-term stability and renew the bond between supporters and players. In April 2010, he appointed the FA’s former Technical Director Les Reed as Head of Football Development and Support, a role that would have been an anathema to English clubs a decade earlier.

“Part of our philosophy is to make sure we never lose sight of the fact that we already have very, very good players already in the building,” said Reed in 2015 at the Global Sportstec Innovation Conference. “If we give them the right pathway and develop them properly, they’ve got a chance to blossom and come through.”

He frequently talks of pathways and education when discussing his incarnation of the philosophy of the club, highlighted by the rebranding of the Southampton Football Club training ground as the Staplewood Campus. “It is an environment of elite development that takes youngsters on a journey through to Premier League football. We treat it more like a university than simply a facility; it’s about the people in them.”

Young hopefuls are brought in from eight-years-old, the same stage at which Bale was first spotted by Head of Youth Recruitment Rod Ruddick, but they are not simply offered a place straight away. There are a number of satellite development centres run by the club across the south of England, with a major cluster based on Bath University’s sports complex. An initial trial of six weeks is conducted within a short distance of the child’s home at the nearest development centre where they are monitored and assessed for technical awareness instead of physical strength or athletic ability.

“We spot potential quite young, but not necessarily what other clubs might see as potential,” under-18 coach Anthony Limbrick told NBC. “Some clubs go for the bigger, stronger and more physical players; we are more patient, and give our players more time to develop because we see more ability in them technically.” One striking similarity between the graduates from the academy in recent years is the slight build of the players – James Ward-Prowse and Calum Chambers are only 66kg while Walcott is 68kg – so it is potential, not ability, that is the priority.

A huge part of the pathway that Reed describes is teaching youngsters to take ownership for their own development. Every academy member from the age of eight is given an iPad with access to all the training drills they have completed, homework assignments and video clips of their own performance, as well as access to the cutting edge technology the club employs through SportsCode. They are tasked with identifying their own personal goals before each match, while the coach supplements these with team goals. Parents are encouraged to see what their children are being taught to foster an inclusive learning curve, and the city centre hostel where youngsters were housed has been scrapped in favour of a host family scheme to offer a more guided atmosphere.

Training sessions are the focus of life at the academy as the youngsters progress, but it is not until they are 16 years of age that they become full-time residential members. Every session on the pitches is filmed by remote controlled cameras placed behind each goal and on each halfway line, all of which is fed back to the players via their tablets, and to the Support Centre, otherwise known at the ‘Black Box’.

At under-12 level, players come to the club’s Staplewood Campus once a week, staying overnight with host families, allowing them to have two days of training and a day’s academic education every week with the seven full-time on-site teachers. Ward-Prowse, for example, has broken into the first team but has also gained three A grades at A-level, while the academy graduates have a 100% pass rate on all BTEC exams. These contact hours rise by an extra day each year until they reach 16 when they join the sports diploma course.

Original Series  |  The Academy Way

Liebherr’s vision was of restoring the club to the top flight, playing attractive football with local talent, which the fans could be proud of. Two major factors contribute towards achieving this goal. Firstly, although like most clubs there are at least part-time scouts covering most of the country, Southampton have chosen to dominate the south of England by concentrating their efforts there. Scouts are specifically trained to identify the skills required to fit in at Southampton, and to delve as deep into each youngster’s playing history and personal background as possible.

The trial system that they believe is essential to screening potential academy members would not be feasible nationwide. Development centres offer an opportunity to assess youngsters without uprooting them from their homes before offering a place in the academy, and at any rate the further they spread their net, the more competition they would have to attract the best to their system. The nearest top flight clubs are based in London, so by building a consistent track record of recruiting and developing the finest regional talent, future generations are more likely to put their trust in Southampton.

Secondly, the system of play that is introduced is used right through from the earliest age groups to encourage the right skill set. “We use 4-3-3 through our academy as a basic structure in terms of the style of play, not because 4-3-3 is the winning formula, but because to play it properly, you have to develop a whole range of things that you don’t have to develop if you play 4-4-2,” explained Reed. “It requires rotation in midfield, full-backs to push on, it requires centre-backs to be able to split and have plenty of the ball. If you want to play entertaining football that people want to watch, you keep it on the floor and play from the back.” Tactical systems change at lightning speed in the modern game, so adaptability itself is fast becoming the most valuable attribute in young players.

Club management structures are evolving too, at least on the continent – something else that Southampton are embracing. The move to appoint the progressive-minded Rugby World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward as Director of Performance under Rupert Lowe led to ridicule, but at least it recognised the need to think outside the box.

The last six years has seen a revolution at Staplewood – the ‘bottom up’ approach Reed talked about. “What’s the point of developing a player in your academy for eight years, and then a new manager comes in and says ‘We’re not doing it that way anymore’? So our approach has been to select a head coach who shares that philosophy.”

Nigel Adkins may have had an unusual route to management – he started life behind the scenes in English football as a physio – but his record of promoting Scunthorpe twice meant his appointment at Southampton was no accident. Mauricio Pochettino’s brief record at Espanyol didn’t bring him any silverware, but he showed he could be bold enough to trust youth, so although many believed Adkins’ sacking was cynical, the Argentine simply continued and enhanced the work of his predecessor. Adam Lallana, Chambers and Luke Shaw all had an outstanding season under him, before being sold on for a combined total of nearly £70 million, most of which has been reinvested into new players.

Ronald Koeman was brought in after, having shown a similar ethos towards utilising the academy graduates a club has to offer instead of throwing millions on outsiders. At Feyenoord, he oversaw a squad that was 50%per cent made up of academy products; while Ajax’s youth system has attained legendary status worldwide, it was Feyenoord’s that provided half of the Dutch World Cup Squad in Brazil. He may have been a much bigger name than the two previous managers, but his philosophy is the same.

The inevitable byproduct of running such a successful system is that money has begun to flow into the club as a result of the enormous premiums that wealthy opponents have been willing to pay. 2015’s £90 million windfall was invested in more experienced players; it has not been a betrayal of the system, but rather an evolved philosophy that will lead to the club continuing to grow in all aspects. As romantic as an ideal of only selecting academy graduates may sound, it is untenable as the solitary means of sustaining the club’s success on the pitch, so naturally as the club becomes more successful, it brings in successful players to ensure the momentum is not lost.

The research done in the ‘Black Box’ accounts for all aspects of the club, from player development, scouting, staff scouting, opposition research and training, and employs a team dedicated to using the SportsCode technology that is widely used across the Premier League. It effectively breaks down video clips into specific categories of performance, so instead of assistants taking hours to run through DVDs then editing them into passing, positioning, shooting, pressing and set pieces, the programs themselves do it. Sam Allardyce has long been known as an advocate of the use of technology in coaching after his time as a player in the NASL, and he credits systems such those in use at Southampton as vital to the success of his vision.

Initial scouting and performance development are not the only benefits of the Support Centre. As thorough as the system is, players do inevitably slip through the net sometimes, whether through performing poorly at a trial, or not having the right attitude at such an early age. Even once they join the academy, there is no guarantee players will succeed all the way through to the under-18 squad. One such example is Kevin Phillips: now a coach at Leicester City, he was played as a right-back when he was an apprentice at Southampton, but was released after six years on the books. After a long route back through non-league football where he was converted into a striker, Phillips earned a move to Sunderland where he became the only Englishman to win the European Golden Boot in 2000.

Where the Support Centre comes in is that it stores all information on a player, even if they have been rejected at a trial of released from the system, in case they show signs of improvement in the future. There is a Second Chance Scholarship program the club runs to offer 16-year-olds a route back into the academy if they have been released by other clubs or have failed to make the grade earlier, where they follow the same full-time curriculum as the academy players.

If a player is offered a place, it is never on a whim – careful due diligence is taken and stored in advance, not as result of spotting a bright performance. The aim is to ensure that no promising young player is missed, and to offer the teenagers a way back into professional football, whether with Southampton themselves or helping them find another club. One such example is Isaac Nehemie, who earned a place in the under-18 squad through the program, but had two other left-backs ahead of him, and so was allowed to sign a two-year contract with Aston Villa.

Technology is embraced in all areas of the academy and training ground. The medical department has designed its own custom-made apparatus to aid specific recovery, and the analysis of training sessions and matches allows staff to offer feedback to coaches to avoid future injuries. Last season, Southampton suffered the fewest soft-tissue injuries in the Premier League, despite covering more ground than any other side. Even the laundry has washing machines which pump in extra oxygen to kill 99 percent of bacteria in the dirty kit.

A project as innovative and crucial as this requires more manpower. Seven years ago, there were only six staff in the entire academy, and only 14 in total at the club involved in the football side of operations. Now there are 56 staff in the Football Development Support Centre, and up to 80 overall involved in the non-commercial side. Some are based at the magnificent Markus Liebherr pavilion at the Staplewood Campus, a complex that was officially opened last November and may end up costing around £40 million. As Reed points out, while it may seem a large sum for a club of Southampton’s stature to spend on a facility, it is no more than the price of one world class player, and even then, there is no guarantee that a new signing would gel.

The design of this training facility would have made the saviour of the club proud; all the pitches are arranged closely together around the two-storey complex so everyone can see all levels of the club in action. Giving the younger academy graduates a tangible incentive to push themselves to improve is key to the atmosphere of the centre. Even the changing rooms are next to each other down a corridor, starting with the under-18s, then the under-21s, and finally the first team. The symbolism of the pathway to the ultimate goal of the first team is another entirely intentional move, as is the list of academy graduates who have gone on to achieve professional success written on the dining room wall.

Southampton’s rise from the pits of League One to pushing for a Champions League place within five years is a remarkable tale, but perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise. Barely a season goes by without a handful of clubs being taken over by an oil magnate or a member of a Middle Eastern royal family, so for a family whose estimated £3 billion fortune placed them fifth on the UK Football Rich List in 2012, to revitalise a club in Southampton’s position simply follows the modern way. To do so with such revolutionary methods and such a holistic approach, however, is the real shock – and it all begins from the world-class academy.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint