For many well-informed football fans in England, the epitome of grassroots football is Southampton Football Club and its famous youth academy.
The youth academy has produced a number of respected prodigies in the past, with Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana being the standout success stories from this century alone.
Yet, despite boasting a clear tradition for youth development and a good eye for bargains, Southampton FC is well-known as a ‘selling club’.
This reputation as a ‘selling club’ was further underlined by the presence of several former Southampton players, whether home-reared or otherwise, in the Champions League knockout phase.
761 minutes, zero recognition
Most notably, this year’s four Champions League semi-finalists contributed a total of 761 prior minutes for Southampton. The vast majority of these minutes were, of course, accounted for by Liverpool players.
Former Saints Virgil Van Dijk and Sadio Mane played every minute of both legs, and both men were influential in Liverpool’s near-miss of the Premier League title in 2018/19.
Mane’s propensity to strike early, and maintain a superlative energy level, has been one of Liverpool’s great Unique Selling Points of the domestic season just gone.
The calming influence of Van Dijk, like a rock in central defense, has also been a cornerstone of Liverpool’s drastic improvement as a trophy-winning unit. So too is it currently one of the main reasons that show Liverpool as massive favourites, to beat Tottenham in this year’s all-English Champions League final.
Though the duo’s future achievements will always be remembered as part of Liverpool’s history-in-the-making, nothing will change the fact that they received their education of the modern top-flight in the stripes of Southampton.
The other semi-final was also rich in Saints alumni. In the Tottenham camp, Victor Wanyama and Toby Alderweireld formed the base of a Tottenham spine, which came 2-0 down against Ajax to reach the London club’s maiden Champions League final.
Ajax themselves also fielded spot-kick master Dusan Tadic. He was one of the great driving forces during Southampton’s strong finishes under Ronald Koeman earlier this decade and entered the semi-finals on a rich vein of Eredivisie form.
Thus, while Southampton cannot yet use guaranteed European football as a pull factor for potential newcomers, it can certainly offer them the chance of going from good to great in a very short space of time.
One-way traffic: Greed, culture, or a necessary evil?
In the post-1992 era of the Premier League and current-format Champions League, and the financial boom both advents have brought, the likes of Matthew Le Tissier and James Ward-Prowse are becoming an increasing rarity.
The apparent ‘greed’ of modern players looking out for themselves, as opposed to a specific crest, is seen as a negative by those that believe unconditionally in football’s inherent sense of romance, struggle, and destiny. However, it is ultimately necessary for progression, unless clubs have a long-term funding plan.
In business, there are winners and losers, but there are also middlemen. Though seemingly little more than bit-players, in a sport now considered by many to be a ‘business’ in its own right, Southampton comfortably falls into the latter category. They also, most certainly, do not fall into the category of ‘losers’.
While it is frustrating for Saints fans to see top players depart almost every transfer window, this is not an undesirable state of affairs for any team wishing to escape the gravitational pull of mid-table obscurity.
Strong Foundations Negate Losses
Ultimately the ideal scenario is to retain talents until they can command a useful price. Following the sale of Virgil Van Dijk to Liverpool, Southampton FC has a degree of stability that seemed unthinkable just over a decade ago.
That is something that can easily be built upon, and other clubs could do a lot worse than to emulate Southampton in a bid to become a top-flight mainstay.
One of the Championship’s promoted clubs of 2018/19, in the form of Sheffield United, is one such club that could use its solid reputation for youth development to its advantage.
The last couple of years have seen some impressive Blades alumni, such as Dominic Calvert-Lewin and David Brooks make a name for themselves in the top flight. Serial Premier League winner Kyle Walker (of Manchester City) is arguably the greatest product from the Blades’ grassroots operations so far this century.
With the profits and other add-ons such as goal bonuses enabling Sheffield United to build a squad worthy of promotion under Chris Wilder, it seems as though a selling culture is something to be embraced, rather than dreaded.
Without profitability from the sale of stars in lieu of Champions League money, there can be no squad building. And without squad building, there can be no hope…