Gareth Bale’s world record transfer to Real Madrid is testament to the club’s tried and tested methods of producing young talent.
It only seems right for Tottenham manager André Villas-Boas to pay tribute to the education of the club’s top scorer last season and the most expensive player in history. Speaking to the media earlier this year, Villas-Boas compared Southampton’s traditions of nurturing young players at all age groups to Catalan giants and current La Liga champions Barcelona.
Southampton were one of the first clubs in England to implement an academy system in the early 1990s. Since then, players educated at the club have generated over £180 million in transfer fees. Despite relegation to League 1 following the club entering administration, the board of directors insisted that the academy was vital to the regeneration of the team and its future.
Bale’s own education at Southampton came about due to the extensive scouting network used by the club to find young talent. Having excelled at many sports while still at school, Gareth Hale first spotted Bale playing and invited him to a trial with the club at a training camp in Bath. 4 days per week were spent in Southampton, with Wednesdays spent in Bath, and at the age of 16 he moved permanently to the south coast. Southampton’s commitment to education doesn’t stop on the pitch however, and like most scholars with the club, Bale earned 6 GCSEs during his time there (obviously with an A grade in P.E).
Even after the Saints have spent more than £35 million in transfer fees on new recruits this summer, manager Mauricio Pochettinho still continues the groundwork of his predecessors. Midfielder Adam Lallana has stayed with the club he loves through both League 1 and the Championship, and is now revelling in the Premiership. Luke Shaw has been touted as the most promising English left-back since Ashley Cole and has already committed his future to the club he joined as a 9 year old. Likewise, James Ward-Prowse has already managed 24 first team appearances, despite being only 18, and has completed 90 minutes in all 3 league game this season.
In an era where money and transfer fees are at the centre of most fans anger with the game, the pursuit of encouraging player development is a refreshing and welcome alternative. Few things will delight fans more than to see academy graduates make their first team debuts and thrive alongside players bought with millions of pounds worth of investment.
Academy director Les Reed has spoken of his ambition for the club to field a Premier League XI made up of at least 5 home-grown players in the future. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that is backed whole heartedly by the club and its staff. As it stands, the club may not be too far away from it.