It's been an interesting week for the academy teams.
The U18s had another excellent result, when two of English football’s most celebrated academies went head to head at Staplewood. Late goals from Dan N’Lundulu and Siph Mdlalose gave Saints all three points, and there was further good news as Callum Slattery completed 90 minutes for the first time since returning from injury. It will be interesting to see whether the much-hyped midfielder is promoted to the U23 squad in the weeks to come.
Speaking of the U23s, they endured a difficult day at Sunderland, where they went down to a 3-0 defeat. A performance littered with defensive errors was due in no small part to Saints having rested almost all of the most experienced development squad players ahead of Tuesday’s Checkatrade Trophy tie at Charlton.
Saints could have fielded several first team players, but chose to give youth its head, with the only over-age players being 22-year-old Jack Stephens and recently signed backup keeper Alex McCarthy. Saints had the better of a 0-0 draw, with captain Harry Reed missing a penalty before Stephens and McCarthy each did likewise in the deciding penalty shootout that followed after 90 minutes.
One of the many grumbles about the tournament is that teams are a awarded a point for a defeat on penalties, yet the competition’s problems have deeper roots, and the disillusionment of fans was reflected by a meagre attendance of just 1,336 (260 of whom were Saints fans).
The controversy surrounding their presence in the draw isn’t the fault of Saints’ youngsters though, and even if they’d come away without that consolatory point, they went a long way towards proving that much of what has been said about them- and young players in general- is nonsense.
The theory- and it is a well-worn one- is that it is all very well sparkling in the U18s and U23s; senior team football is much more physical, and even the most technically accomplished of young players will struggle against grown men, including those not good enough to play at the level to which said starlets aspire.
Yet there they were, zipping the ball about with ease and regularly winning the ball from their more experienced counterparts. Saints were able to keep a clean sheet with relative ease despite having 17 year old Yann Valery at right back, and18 year old Alfie Jones in the centre of defence. Sam McQueen, who played at left back, has only been learning that position for a couple of months. Coach Martin Hunter was understandably glowing with pride after the match, but he and Les Reed (who of course has strong links to the hosts) might be asking themselves what their charges gained beyond the belief that they can compete with League 1 players.
There is now research now suggesting that the exertion of constantly playing against physically stronger opponents can actually stunt the growth of players who haven’t yet finished developing physically. This, allied to the public relations disaster the Trophy has become this season, suggests that the creation of a division in which academy players can regularly compete senior teams from the lower league may not be the answer to the question of how best to develop good young players who haven’t yet broken into the first team at Premier League clubs. At the very least though, the Staplewood graduates were able to go some way towards proving that they aren’t porcelain dolls, and that remaining at Southampton and ideally training with the first team might be better for their development than being sent on loan to play a standard and style of football that didn’t seem to find them wanting on Tuesday.
Dom Gape, one of the players who started that game, has now been sent on loan to Wycombe Wanderers, yet this is probably more as an opportunity to build a reputation and earn a permanent move somewhere. Gape is a neat, intelligent and responsible midfielder, but hasn’t been involved with the first team squad since his brief debut against Everton almost two years ago, and at 21 and way down the pecking order, he is running out of time.
Harry Reed, however, is still at the club, in spite of rumours linking him with a loan to a Championship side. The abolishment of emergency loan window suggests that he and the others will probably remain so. Most of them will return to the U23s until the next Checkatrade fixture, at Colchester in October. They should head into that game emboldened by the knowledge that although it may be- literally- men against boys, it shouldn’t be a mismatch.