"We have a B team. It's our under 21 team."
This was Southampton's Executive Director of Football Les Reed in March 2014, speaking on Sky's Footballers Football Show. The statement was part of a debate about the difficulties facing youth development in English football, the merits or otherwise of sending young players on loan, whether the (now defunct) Professional Under 21 Development League presented an appropriate challenge, and whether 'feeder' clubs would help. The panel consisted of Reed, Mark Warburton, then manager of Brentford, now of Rangers, and Ged Roddy, the Premier League's Director of Youth.
Warburton spoke effusively about the benefits of the loan market and was enthusiastic about the possibility of 'feeder clubs'. Reed strongly disagreed. ""From a player development point of view," he explained "I don’t understand the logic of investing significant sums of money in resources and facilities and in trying to attract the best possible staff and then sending out your best prospects to somebody else who hasn’t done that." Reed felt that the best way for a player to develop was by staying at Southampton and playing with and against the first team players in training on a daily basis at the club's expensively constructed Staplewood campus. "They have to be accepted with the first team," Reed said. "And once they are, then the only way is up." It was a surprise then, when later that same month, young defender Jack Stephens was sent on loan to Swindon Town. In fairness, Reed had added a caveat during the discussion on Sky. "I’m not saying that on the odd occasion there isn’t an experience a player can get with a short term loan at some point in his career." Then, the following August, fellow centre back Jordan Turnbull joined Swindon on a season-long loan. A month later Stephens returned to Swindon too, and played 37 games for them that season.
What had changed? It might not be a coincidence that by the time this deviation from the script took place, former chairman Nicola Cortese had left Southampton and Saints manager at the time, Mauricio Pochettino, who had said the previous summer that he would follow Cortese out of the door should he depart, was already being linked with Tottenham. Managers tend to lose interest in developing talented youngsters when they know they won't be staying long. Why spend valuable time on the training pitch mentoring a player who aren't ready now but might be brilliant in a couple of years, when you won't be there? Much better to pursue more tangible achievements- get the team as far up the table as possible. Where you finish in the league goes into the record books. The influence you had on a youngster might get you a mention in his autobiography, and they may even dedicate a goal to you, but the immediate rewards are negligible. Pochettino's reputation as a champion of youth has largely been earned. It is hard to imagine his successor, Ronald Koeman, using Calum Chambers- a winger who had been treading water in the age group teams a few months previously- at right back in the Premier League. Yet it is worth remembering that journeyman Brazilian Guly do Prado played more during that season than highly thought of youngster Harrison Reed.
For further evidence of this, we need only look at the very recent past. Back in 2014, Reed's views on how best to nurture youth were very clear. "They have to be accepted with the first team. And once they are, then the only way is up." Yet last season it was rumoured that, far from being accepted, most of the young players been banished. This was probably an exaggeration, but while Koeman was disingenuous on numerous occasions, he was unequivocal about his approach when it came to running the first team. ""We have to win now. I don’t say ‘but my contract is three seasons, my job is after three seasons to have a good team.’ Come on. After last year we did a great job, we would like to continue, we’d like to improve." After all, as explained above and in a previous piece, there's no need to consider the future when you don't plan on being part of it. Koeman, it seems, developing Southampton's academy graduates was no longer a priority. When questioned in a press conference about a rumour that Manchester United were interested in U21 midfielder Jake Hesketh, Koeman pertly told the journalist to "ask Martin Hunter". Hunter is in charge of Saints' "development squad". Koeman was making it clear that Hesketh wasn't his problem.
It could be, of course, that the players submitted for the consideration of these managers simply weren't good enough. Nonetheless, it's clear that a number of people on the coaching staff think they are. If this wasn't the case, these young professionals wouldn't keep getting new contracts. Stephens actually signed a new long-term deal on the same day he was packed off to Middlesbrough for what turned out to be an abortive and unfulfilling spell. Previously to that, in March, winger Lloyd Isgrove had been retained for another two years, despite by then being 22 years old without a single Premier League start to his name. A month earlier Turnbull had also re-signed. He has now spent two seasons at Swindon, away from the carefully constructed environment at Staplewood.
And more and more players were sent on loan. Luckless striker Sam Gallagher relocated to MK Dons, only to reappear in Saints' U21s a few months later after an abortive and unfulfilling spell. Gallagher is now being linked with another loan, this time to Blackburn. Jason McCarthy- yet another defender- had a far more rewarding time at Wycombe Wanderers, winning their player of the season award. Left-sided Sam McQueen went to Southend. Isgrove went to Barnsley. Ryan Seager- a little livewire striker with the priceless knack of being able to get a shot on goal no matter how crowded or off-balance he may be- had a loan to Crewe Alexandra cut short by a heartbreaking knee injury minutes after scoring his first professional goal. In total, six academy products were loaned out in 2015/16.
We can infer that this happened because the players were being neglected by the manager (it's not inconceivable that some of them might have asked to go on loan) and deprived of the opportunity "to train and play and compete every day with top international players" that Reed prized so highly. Once Koeman had adopted a short-termist approach that was antithetical to Reed's plan, it was always unlikely that he'd be around for long. Predictably the new manager, Claude Puel, has said that "It’s important to respect the strategy of the club. It’s important that the club of Southampton will be respected because young players in the academy are important for Southampton". Famously, Puel has had a goal dedicated to him by a grateful protégé. He has also, however, acknowledged that there are "differences between the senior and young players – it’s normal." So while he is keen to emphasise that it is "important to consider them and work with them", it doesn't seem like Puel will immediately be fast-tracking any academy products into the starting XI.
So what will happen to them? Given Reed's past antipathy for sending his brightest and best to clubs whose facilities and staff he felt would be inferior, it would once have seemed a sensible assumption that they would remain at Staplewood to work with their new guru. Yet one of them, McCarthy, was sent on loan to Walsall before Puel had even been appointed. What's more, Reed has now publicly softened his stance on loans. "What’s important at this stage of their development is games under their belt. It’s something we take very seriously. We haven’t loaned players out in the past because they’ve come completely through on the journey and got into the team. Secondly you have to be very careful about the loans you do, and we weren’t too happy with all the loans we did last season. I’m meeting with Championship and League 1 clubs who would like to develop partnerships with us. It’s not just about the Saturday, it’s about everything they do out on loan. The other thing we might look at is working with a club in Europe." All this was said before Koeman was appointed Everton manager, but sure enough, a month or two later Paulo Gazzaniga joined Rayo Vallecano for a season in Spain's Segunda Division. It could be argued that it's less important for a goalkeeper to be constantly immersed in the playing style of their parent club, but when Gazzaniga's move was announced, the Reed expressed the hope that it would be the start of an "ongoing relationship", and added "maybe we will see some of our budding outfield players getting a taste of the continent in years to come."
So although they now have a manager who is happy to train young players who may not quite be ready for the first team just yet, Saints seem set to continue lending players to clubs they deem suitable.
A number of factors could explain the changes to club policy. First, and most obvious; Saints now have a larger number of experienced professionals in their squad than they had when Reed appeared on the Footballers Football Show. 34 players were issued with squad numbers this past week. Add to that all the players in the development squad with professional contracts, and they must have over fifty professional players on the payroll. In almost every position they have at least two players who have played in the top tier of a European league, and experienced internationals not guaranteed of a starting place. When former Saints left back Luke Shaw emerged, he saw off Danny Fox and Dan Harding. Young centre back Alfie Jones- tipped for international honours by academy manager Matt Hale- has four international centre backs standing in his way, not to mention Stephens, Turnbull, McCarthy, Will Wood, and Ollie Cook to compete with. In a recent U23 friendly against QPR, Jones ended up playing out of position at right back. Which brings us to another comment Reed made on that Sky panel programme;
"Clubs choose to carry lots of players. If they choose to carry lots of players, then what they are choosing is to go down a route where there’s going to be lots of failure. Because they know that that number of players is never going to come through their first team. So I think those clubs, rather than just parking players elsewhere, and then those players ending up playing in the football league, not in the Premier League…. Great for the players… It’s great for them to develop their careers, but should they be at those clubs in the first place? If they haven’t got the potential to be Premier League players, why are those clubs carrying such large squads of players? I think they need to be more selective, and they need to work harder with smaller pools of players and then develop them into their first teams."
While Saints certainly don't currently "carry"- or loan out- the same number of players as a club like Chelsea (who loaned out TWENTY EIGHT last season), but maybe they have started to manifest a less pronounced version of the same syndrome- a number of players who they don't use but don't want to lose. To be blunt, they have started to do exactly what they once criticised other clubs for doing.
Saints' official site shows that thirty four players have been issued with squad numbers this season. That, clearly, is far more than can fit into the first team and the development squad XIs. More to the point, it's a lot of players for Puel to be working with on the training pitch. Below them, you have plenty of other players with professional contracts. The academy coaches will want their brightest and best to be training with what is now the U23 team. As Reed told the Sky panel, they want to "work harder with smaller groups of players". Yet the whole time Koeman was employed by Southampton, they continued to give contracts to academy products in whom he showed little interest.
Reed told the other guests on Sky that he could "understand why some Premier League managers would like somewhere to park their players, rather than play them in their team or work with them on the training ground, I just don’t believe in either of those two arguments". At that point though, Reed felt he had a manager (Pochettino) with the same mindset. It seems that Pochettino's attitude may have shifted, and as for his successor, for all Koeman's talk upon being appointed of making use of the club's "world class academy", he soon lost interesting that. Reed said that "everybody on the staff, from the first team coach right through, has to believe in that and drive it through." The amount of contracts handed to young players who have seldom been near the first team are proof of what can happen when the first team coach doesn't believe in the academy.
There is likely a reluctance to concede that a player isn't going to make it. It must be hard not to be sentimental about young men who have been at the club since they were young children and built up close relationships with staff, particularly when the club's stated aim is to have half the first team made up of academy products. It was also probably hard for Saints to trust Koeman's opinions on young players because they were so uniform. They were usually delivered in the same breath as grumbles about his transfer budget, making it easy for Saints to convince themselves that he was being excessively brutal in order to persuade the board to part with more funds.
"What’s the point in developing a player for eight years in your academy then a new manager coming in and going ‘We’re not doing it that way any more'?" asked Reed in 2014. By early 2016, Koeman was so off-message that it must have been tempted to discount anything he said about a young player. Now, however, Reed has seen Isgrove, Gallagher et al given plenty of playing time in pre-season by Puel. Satisfied that these players have been given a chance, Saints are perhaps willing to accept the new man's assessment of them. It may not augur well for Gallagher if, having worked with Puel for several weeks, he is indeed sent to Blackburn. Saints have Marcus Barnes (whose brother Giles- now of Vancouver Whitecaps- was once a wunderkind himself at Derby County) back scoring goals in the U23s and Seager to come back too, as well as Olufela Olomola, who has featured briefly in friendlies for Puel in the last few weeks. It may be that the decks are being cleared (centre back Bevis Mugabi- signed to a professional contract a year earlier- completed a permanent move to Yeovil Town recently).
Reed's view that lower league football merely prepares players for the lower leagues may have changed, what with the reference to "games under their belts", but this season brings what may be an opportunity to get the best of both worlds in what is now the Checkatrade Trophy (formerly the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, which Saints won in 2010 while still in League 1). In that competition, Saints academy products can line up against lower league teams, but do so wearing a Saints shirt, having been prepared by Saints' coaches and using Saints' facilities.
Inviting PL teams to participate in the competition was presumably an attempt to give the top clubs an incentive to keep their best young players around rather than loaning them out, but the guarantee of three games with month-long gaps between them isn't likely to be much of a motivation. And in any case, it is on the verge of degenerating into a farce before it even begins. The involvement of what will effectively be PL reserve teams has seen threats of a boycott, and a number of PL teams have "turned down the invitation anyway. On top of this, the rules regarding which players can be fielded are ridiculous. According to the EFL website, the stipulations are as follows:
"Each Invited Club must ensure that in each Match at least 6 of the starting eleven players named on the Team Sheet are players who were aged under 21 as at the 30th June in the year in which the Season concerned commenced."
So in reality, a PL club could conceivably get away with not fielding a single player developed in their academy, or even qualified to represent England.
The old U21 league has been replaced by the "Premier League 2", essentially an U23 league which, according to PL executive chairman Richard Scudamore, "is structured to give players the optimum opportunity to get to the Premier League through more competitive and meaningful game time".
What effect, if any, this all has on what Saints decide to do with their academy's various alumni remains to be seen, but- like the regular interest in their players and staff from elsewhere, Reed's subsequent acquiescence to many of the conventions he railed against on that broadcast of the Footballers Football Show may actually be a case the club being a victim of its own success. A payroll featuring a large number of players who are unlikely to make your first team is the football equivalent of a 'first world problem', but like that phrase itself, it may be symptomatic of something more troubling. The club's infrastructure and strategy are sound, and the grand plan to have a team that is 50% home trained is laudable. Yet all of it remains vulnerable to, among other factors, fallow periods of youth development, pressure to maintain performance, changes in regulations from the game's governing body and capricious, self-serving first team managers.
- For an apparently mild-mannered man, Les Reed seems to have become an oddly enigmatic and often divisive figure among Saints fans. My research for this piece has left me with the impression of a likeable character who believes he has a duty of care, both for Southampton Football Club and the game at large. This article isn't criticising him. Far from it- there is no shortage of praise for him from these quarters. My next blog will be on Reed's relationship with the FA, and the juxtaposition of that organisation with Southampton Football Club.