Super Saints show the way
I’m not sure how many of you were fortunate to watch Barcelona’s 5-1 destruction of Valencia in the Nou Camp last night, and in particular Lionel Messi’s four-goal mastershow, but it was a breathtaking exhibition of football. How Barca didn’t double their tally was astonishing.
The Messi stats were incredible. His fabulous foursome, which included his sixth hat trick of the season, took his tally for the campaign to 42. Yes, 42! And he has scored 146 goals in 200 La Liga appearances for the Spanish giants. But the stat that caught my eye the most was that nine of Barca’s starting XI were home-grown.
Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique might have gone away, and learnt their initial trade with Arsenal and Manchester United respectively, but they returned to their spiritual home and are now integral parts of the team, even if Pique’s form of late has been a bit “iffy”. Perhaps something to do with his liaison with Shakira, I suspect. Lucky lad!
Anyway, my point is that, in the game today – the apparent player-gets-rich-quick era as many view it – there are still clubs around, mostly lower down the leagues, who place a high premium on producing their own players. With no Premier League action this weekend, the upward fortunes of Southampton especially grabbed my attention.
OK, they’ve had their bad times in the not-too-distant past, a bit like what their neighbours and south-coast rivals poor old Portsmouth are experiencing at the moment. But they have re-emerged in a healthy position, at the top of the Championship, and what I have really admired about them – through the good and bad days – is that they have always maintained their basic infrastructure and placed a huge emphasis on their youth set-up.
Just look at the top talent that has moved on from the Hampshire club – Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and, now, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And there are many others who are plying their trade successfully away from the Premier League – Matt Mills, Dexter Blackstock and Leon Best among them. Don’t forget, either, that Nathan Dyer, another Saints academy product, appears to have moved seamlessly from the second tier to the top flight with Swansea.
In the Premier, few youngsters – unless they are exceptionally gifted – get the chance to come through from the ranks. The managers are under so much pressure to provide success – and today – that they dare not risk blooding a promising kid; instead, they buy supposedly proven goods, often from abroad, who will, hopefully yet not always, immediately supply that success.
But in the Championship and beyond, the investment in youth is increasingly crucial. Just think how much money Southampton have made from the sales of Walcott, Bale and Oxlade-Chamberlain? And how that can fund their academy expenditure for years to come; and that has probably helped, in part, to also to bring striker Billy Sharp to St Mary’s Stadium for a reported fee of £3 million.
Adam Lallana, the creative and highly rated Saints midfield player, will almost certainly move on at some stage. That is, unless the team gets promoted at the end of this season. So, if he does go, too, the St Mary’s kitty will receive another large windfall. And how they deserve it. Their conveyor belt continues to roll on.
This is the blueprint for the future, surely? It has been for years, perhaps started by West Ham – who proudly boasted the once legendary “Academy of Football” – and which was replicated by Dario Gradi at Crewe Alexandra. But it is even more vital in these troubled times.
Southampton might not ever produce a Lionel Messi. Who could? He is unique. But the Championship clubs of today, and their little cousins farther down the pecking order, must keep trying. If not, they might as well pack up their bags, give up and resign themselves to a life of poverty. And that would be a crying shame.