The FAME Academy; after Nurturing the Likes of Theo Walcott, Garth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Southampton Are Aiming to Create a New Golden Generation of Top Players
Byline: Nick Harris
BARCELONA'S contribution to the fortunes of Spanish football - seen again in last night's friendly against England at Wembley - could be replaced as a team of the future thanks to a remarkable project launched, not by one of the Premier League big boys, but by a club whose recent history has been beset by financial problems and a battle to survive.
Southampton's academy, tucked away on the south coast of England but with an ethos modelled on Barcelona's famous set-up at La Masia, has already provided home-grown talent now worth [pounds sterling]100 million-plus to Premier League clubs, including Englishmen Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wales star Gareth Bale.
Les Reed, the club's head of football development, insists that is only the start. 'Alex was not an accident,' says Reed of a player sold at 17 to Arsenal for [pounds sterling]12 million this summer. 'Maybe at the next stage of our academy's development we'll have two Oxlade-Chamberlains in a single year, and then three.'
Reed, along with Saints' Swiss chairman, Nicole Cortese, and academy manager Matt Crocker, is a key figure in an upgrade of the academy that will bring it in line with Europe's best. 'The model is Barcelona, who have homegrown players and success,' he says.
Crocker adds: 'The club has always had a philosophy of giving youth a chance and raising its own talent, from Mick Channon to Danny and Rod Wallace, Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer. What we're doing now is continuing those traditions at even higher levels.'
Southampton were among the first clubs to adopt an academy system at the end of the 1990s, when they still were a Premier League club. Relegation in 2005 and the resulting steep drop in income made it more important than ever to keep the home-reared talent flowing.
The sales of Walcott and Bale to Arsenal and Tottenham helped to keep the club afloat, and after near-extinction in the summer of 2009, it was clear to Cortese and Southampton's saviour-benefactor, the late Swiss billionaire, Markus Liebherr, that player development should remain at the core of the club's vision.
Since Liebherr's death aged 62 in August last year, Cortese has been driven by the desire for Southampton to become a self-sustaining topflight club, with all areas of the academy expanded and strengthened to realise that vision. The cost of running it, around [pounds sterling]2.3m a year, is seen not as speculating to accumulate but as economically prudent.
Saints have already made returns of several times their outlay over the past decade and in the future they want to keep players of the calibre of Bale, Walcott and Chamberlain, not see them go for big money to other teams.
SO THERE is a buzz among Saints fans as they take the Championship by storm, with Nigel Adkins's side five points clear and entertaining large crowds, while insiders are just as excited about the future. 'Aiming to match Barcelona is a big ambition but you need to strive for that to be successful,' says Reed. Southampton's revival from a club who just two years ago were languishing in League One after administration has been swift and strong, and it is hoped that future success will be populated with more of the home-grown stars for which Saints have become known.
Oxlade-Chamberlain joined the club at the age of seven in 2000 and was there until August, when he signed for Arsenal a few days before his 18th birthday for a [pounds sterling]12m fee that will rise to [pounds sterling]15m. He has already scored for Arsenal in the Champions League and netted his first England hat-trick - for the Under-21s - against Iceland last month.
Walcott is another who took the Saints-Arsenal route, nurtured from 11 by Southampton until a bigmoney move at 16 in 2006. Walcott and Chamberlain are both expected to be key England players of the future, while Welshman Bale is now his country's brightest star. …