By George Ankers
There will be something of a school reunion feeling at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday when Arsenal will field some of Southampton’s greatest former pupils against the team who taught them.
Few academies in England can boast as successful a hit-rate as the Saints, a fact which has been both a blessing and a curse for the south-coast club over the last decade in particular.
A club who had previously been Premier League regulars, Southampton were still nonetheless used to some of their best talent being poached by larger teams but, following their 2005 relegation and financial tailspin, the quality of their young products has arguably been the difference between survival and liquidation.
Arsenal have been the highest-profile beneficiaries of this abundance of talent. When the Saints first dropped into the Championship, the key source of optimism in a struggle to adapt was Theo Walcott.
|SAINTS' ACADEMY EXPORTS
Sold to: Chelsea
When: July 2003
Fee: £7m + Graeme Le Saux
Sold to: Arsenal
When: January 2006
Sold to: Tottenham
When: May 2007
Sold to: Fulham
When: July 2007
Sold to: Wolves
When: July 2009
Sold to: Swansea City
When: July 2009
Sold to: Arsenal
When: August 2011
Arsene Wenger knew it and splashed out £5 million on him in January 2006 – a fee that could have risen eventually to £12m but was revised to £9m in 2008 to ensure that the freefalling Saints could get the money quickly to stave off disaster.
Walcott has perhaps not yet flourished in north London, hampered by being left out too long on the right wing, a position in which he seems unlikely ever to achieve his full potential, but has done respectably enough nonetheless and remains young.
Yet already he is starting to be overshadowed by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the most recent of the big sales from St Mary’s Stadium. Like Walcott, the 18-year-old did not hang around for long after he reached the Saints’ first team. His single season in League One was conclusive proof that he was capable of much more, which was reflected in his £15m fee and lightning-quick ascent to prominence for Arsenal and England.
The white half of north London took adavantage, too. After Walcott’s sale, the underperforming Saints needed someone else to step up and inspire them; Gareth Bale was that man.
Making an impression early on as a free kick specialist, the 2006-07 campaign was spearheaded by Bale’s precocious displays at left-back. As Southampton reached the play-offs, it was clear that, if they did not push on for promotion, he would be impossible to cling onto. They didn’t and the Welshman joined Spurs, once again the fee soon being renegotiated from its potential maximum in order to keep the club afloat while a succession of administrations took a machete to the club’s bank balance.
Those are the names every Premier League fan remembers but there are so many more who Saints had to let go for much less. Before and during administration and the agonising drop to League One, several key youth products were flogged away for dirt-cheap prices.
The likes of Andrew Surman, Chris Baird and Nathan Dyer were all favourites and all had to go. Each has acquitted himself well in the top flight, the latter in particular costing Swansea City just £400,000 and now widely hailed as being ready for England duty.
|18/1||Adam Lallana is 18/1 with Paddy Power to open the scoring for Southampton at Arsenal
Over their seven-year absence from the top table, Southampton have consoled themselves knowing that offloading these starlets has kept them afloat, but it remains galling to see their best graduates moved on along the conveyor belt. Now, though, they can finally hope to put their foot down.
Despite initial setbacks, the Saints are optimistic of survival; such is the mentality that you earn when you win back-to-back promotions. If they do, then the latest batch of academy products will have had a big say in it.
The figurehead is now the superb Adam Lallana. If anyone benefited from the slide to the third tier, it was the attacking midfielder, who was able to spread his wings just at the right time and develop at the perfect pace and level. His rise in confidence and ability has mirrored Southampton’s ascent up the divisions exactly; it is no coincidence, his England call-up no surprise.
A soure of boundless creativity and energy, comfortable on either flank or through the middle, Lallana has been the main spark for Nigel Adkins’ side and will likely remain so despite the acquisition of Gaston Ramirez. He may not strike observers as necessarily a natural leader but his appointment as captain this summer felt like the right fit for a player beloved by the fans for being the one who didn’t get away.
If Lallana proves the benefits of not moving to a bigger club too early, James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw would do well to learn from him. Ward-Prowse, not yet 18, made his league debut against Manchester City on opening weekend and, just as he later did against Manchester United, looked not at all out of place. A calm passer happy to get forward from midfield, Wenger will undoubtedly have one eye on him on Saturday.
Left-back Shaw, meanwhile, is understood to be the subject of interest from Chelsea and it is little surprise. Pacy and with skill on the ball, the England youth international will put pressure on Danny Fox for a first-team place this season.
These are players who, if they had come through the ranks three years ago, would have been sold in a snap. Now, if they can make the difference and keep Southampton in the Premier League, they can settle, develop and be the base from which this still-recovering club can find stability for years to come.
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