By Liam Twomey
As Gareth Bale gleefully accepted all the awards the Professional Footballers’ Association could throw at him last Sunday, few will have been watching with a keener eye than Luke Shaw.
Many have been quick to liken Southampton's prodigiously talented 17-year-old to Bale, and recent weeks have shown both the pressure and the promise such a comparison brings.
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"The calmness he possesses for a 17-year-old is astonishing," Southampton captain Adam Lallana told reporters in November. "He has got a great left foot on him and he has bedded in really well. He has got to keep up his fitness and he is going to go far in the game.
"There are big similarities between him and Bale. He knows he has got to keep his feet on the ground and has a lot to learn but he is going to improve a lot with us, I can tell."
Watching the sensational attacking beast he has become, it feels strange to recall that, some seven years ago, aged 16, Bale made his Southampton debut as a technically gifted left-back with formidable pace, attacking instincts and an eye for goal, whether from set-pieces or open play.
While somewhat lazy, the desire to equate Shaw with one of the Saints academy's most celebrated alumni is also perfectly understandable. The duo possess many similar attributes, yet while Bale has developed into a devastating force in the final third, Shaw has so far caught the eye mainly for his defensive acumen.
And caught the eye he certainly has. Within weeks of making his Premier League debut, the 17-year-old was being tracked by Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. Southampton, however, never countenanced losing the jewel of a home-grown generation which also boasts the considerable talents of midfielders James Ward-Prowse and Harrison Reed.
On January 10, Shaw committed himself to a five-year professional deal which will begin when he turns 18 on July 12. Six days later, he showed Chelsea what they had missed out on, capping a superb individual display with a driving run and cross for Jason Puncheon to smash home and ensure the Saints came from two goals down to leave Stamford Bridge with a draw.
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For now, though, those who know him insist Shaw is in no hurry to go anywhere. The novelty and sense of privilege at getting regular Premier League action are yet to wear off, and his new deal will see his wages rise to £12,000-a-week – not a huge rate within the crazily inflated financial bubble of football, but more than sufficient for a teenager who has his best earning years ahead of him.
In fact, the biggest threat to his Southampton future to date has come not from transfer speculation, but from the club's stunning decision to sack Nigel Adkins in January, barely a week after Shaw had agreed professional terms. The youngster's reaction was a mixture of confusion and anger at the departure of the man who had given him his break in the first team.
The arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, however, has balmed the wounds. Shaw and his team-mates have struck up a good relationship with the Argentine, who has all but steered the club to safety on their return to the Premier League, while the whole episode has provided a timely and valuable lesson on the expendability of managers.
Meanwhile, a call-up to the England Under-21s to face Sweden in February satisfied another of Shaw's aims for the season. Injury has so far prevented him from taking the field in a Three Lions shirt, but all the signs are he would relish the chance to play in this summer's European Championship in Israel.
Fitness permitting, a call-up looks almost certain. Sir Trevor Brooking has already publicly stated his belief that Shaw is "technically very gifted", while Les Reed, Southampton's head of football development, revealed in December that England boss Roy Hodgson and his Under-21 counterpart Stuart Pearce have been impressed by Shaw on their visits to St Mary’s.
"He is still learning but nothing fazes him and he has stepped up into the Premier League very comfortably," he said. "I think a lot of that is to do with the way we bring them up. He has been with us since he was eight, as a lot of our academy players have, and we keep them grounded."
Southampton's proud record of elite youth development is both a boon and a burden for Shaw. The likes of Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have set an intimidatingly high standard. But the path is clearly defined, and he is more than capable of walking it.
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