On the back of another disappointing major tournament exit via the haunting route of a penalty shoot-out, it has been refreshing to see the English FA finally wake up to years of failure with its national team and implement change behind the scenes. As well as the vote on coaching reform last May, the assistant to Clive Woodward in England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning side Dave Reddin has been named as the new head of performance services, Dan Ashworth became the first Technical Director of Youth Development in a decade after some great work with West Bromwich Albion and Matt Crocker, the manager of Southampton’s academy, was this summer named as the new Head of Coaching and Player Development.
The news of Crocker’s appointment came a week after Luke Shaw, the 18 year old left-back billed as the next huge talent to roll of the Saints’ production line, signed a new contract at the club amidst interest from Chelsea and Arsenal. Shaw’s new deal will see him tied to Southampton until 2017 and he will remain in place to carry on the legacy left behind by Crocker whose guidance saw the club’s academy recognised as a level one establishment under the new Elite Player’s Performance Plan.
Since breaking into the first team in August 2012, Shaw has become a regular for Southampton, making 25 league appearances in the club’s return to the top tier and has started his second year as the first-choice left-back. After impressing in Southampton’s unbeaten start to the season, Shaw has been called up to Gareth Southgate’s first under-21 squad together with James Ward-Prowse, the 18 year old who has started the season off excellently in central midfield alongside Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama. Ward-Prowse is another who broke through during Southampton’s return to the big-time, making 15 appearances after starting their first game of the last campaign away at Manchester City.
Both are set to earn their first caps at under-21 level shortly after Rickie Lambert marked his first cap at senior level with a goal against Scotland. The 31 year old is not a product of the Saint’s famed academy and neither is his striking partner Jay Rodriguez, yet he is part of Southampton’s England contingent buckling a worrying trend. A newspaper study of opening day Premier League starting XI’s revealed two-thirds of players were foreign nationals but four members of Mauricio Pochettino’s team in the opening day win at West Brom were academy graduates while eight of the fourteen players involved in the match-day squad were English.
While Roy Hodgson remains frustrated by the culture of foreign policy in place at the majority of Premier League clubs, he will be encouraged by what is happening on the south coast. Calum Chambers, the 18 year old right-back who has 9 caps for England under-19s, signed a new 4-year deal at the start of the season on the premise that he will be involved regularly in the first team and so far he has started both of the Saints’ opening two games. Nathaniel Clyne has 8 caps at under-21 level while club-captain Adam Lallana was recognised for his excellent form last September with a call-up to the senior England squad for the World Cup qualifier with Ukraine. Jack Cork has 13 caps for the under 21s and was also a member of Stuart Pearce’s Olympic team last autumn, the England set-up will be boosted by the system, philosophy and emphasis on domestic talent in place at Southampton.
“We have a significant project of getting young players into the first team,” said Pochettino. “And of course the young players will always have a chance within our structure”, making it clear that the vision of youth progression that has served the club so well over the years will continue despite chairman Nicola Cortese supporting the Argentine coach enough financially to break the club’s transfer record twice since he took-over from Nigel Adkins. A total in excess of £35 million has been spent on Victor Wanyama, Dejan Lovren and most recently Pablo Osvaldo, but even with Southampton flexing enough financial muscle to compete strongly in the overseas market, they seem unwilling to abandon the underlying production of English players on which the club have built their return from the brink of bankruptcy in 2009 to a now-established Premier League club.
The trio of 18 year olds, Chambers, Shaw and Ward-Prowse, who join 25 year old captain Adam Lallana as the quartet of youth products now in Pochettino’s first-team, are the latest of an academy alumni that includes Gareth Bale, now on the verge of becoming the richest transfer in history, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott of Arsenal and the former Chelsea and Manchester City left-back Wayne Bridge. Andrew Surman, Chris Baird and Leon Best have also passed through an academy that Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas described as a “great school of development” and saw fit to compare it to the youth systems in place at Sporting Lisbon and Barcelona.
After Cortese ruthlessly disposed of Adkins and his coaching staff last January in favour of Pochettino, there was a threat that the hard-working, loyal, visionary values of Adkins, Crocker and the coaching staff of Andy Crosby, Dean Wilkins and Jim Stannard would be lost to a foreign manager who had no previous experience of working in England and still requires the services of an interpretor to communicate. Yet, the executive chairman did explain his ridiculed decision by saying that Pochettino shared his commitment to building a team “by nurturing young players through a development system that provides a clear path to the first team, thereby creating a culture that keeps them at the club for the long term”.
So far this promise has proved true and as the rest of the Premier League subscribe to the view that foreign coach with foreign players is the most effective way to be successful in the modern game, Pochettino is very much the anomaly. His European contacts will land the likes of Osvaldo and Lovren, but the back-bone and the pride of the club will remain in the likes of Shaw and Ward-Prowse. Crocker may now be assisting England’s long-term vision, but his legacy lives on the south coast.