What would your football club do with a spare £40m?
Arsenal would most likely squirrel it away for ten years before exchanging it for a diminutive attacking midfielder. Chelsea would use it to buy in a fine selection of Europe’s top talent. And Tottenham? At present, Daniel Levy would probably use it to purchase one of Richard Branson’s spaceships and get himself out of town until Spurs remember how to play football again.
For Southampton Football Club, £40m (or near enough) is the cost of moving their club one step further forward. But towards what, exactly?
“A sustainable football club that plays great football,” says Gareth Rogers, the club’s chief executive, at the launch of the club’s new Markus Liebherr training facility last month.
Most of the money comes from the fortune of the club’s owner Katharina Liebherr (below, with chairman Ralph Krueger) – the daughter of the deceased Swiss businessman who rescued the club from administration in 2009, and whose name now takes pride of place on the side of the new building. It means Southampton can afford a state-of-the-art facility designed to help the club improve on an already impressive record of developing their own star players.
The names of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Calum Chambers, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and many more who have travelled the well-worn pathway from Southampton’s youth academy to the first team and beyond are listed on the wall of a gleaming new canteen. Aspiring Southampton footballers from the under-8s all the way up to the under-21s cannot help but be reminded of the opportunities ahead of them.
That excitement has been bolstered further by Southampton’s sensational start to the season. With eight wins from 11 Premier League games, and a place in the Capital One Cup quarters secured, a team reported to be in meltdown a few months ago is proving that not all football clubs are built on the shifting sands of colossal wage bills, fickle philosophies and erratic owners.
Yet just five years ago, Southampton’s finances lay in ruins. With the club’s parent company in administration, Saints were stripped of ten points and sent tumbling from the Championship into League One. Unless a buyer could be found, Southampton were heading for bankruptcy.
Bottom to top
Markus Liebherr (below) arrived on the south coast in July 2009. After only two hours at St Mary’s, he had agreed a deal to buy Southampton FC. The sum was reported to be between £13m and £14m, although Liebherr would confirm only that it was “ein schnappchen” – a bargain. With his trusted Italian advisor Nicola Cortese installed as chief executive and Alan Pardew hired as manager, Southampton’s journey back to the top had begun.
This summer, it seemed the club had reached a crucial crossroads. Cortese had departed in January. In May, Saints’ impressive young manager Mauricio Pochettino was pinched by Tottenham after leading Southampton to a record-equalling eighth place in the Premier League. The great summer sell-off followed, with five players who had been key to the team’s recent success sold to three of the league’s bigger clubs: Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Southampton had lost their way, insisted the football writers. Social media spat out ‘funnies’ featuring images of deserted training pitches and dressing rooms filled with piles of cash in place of players. But for those on the inside of the club’s training centre, where the team was busy preparing for the season under new manager Ronald Koeman, there was never any doubt over where they were heading.
A formula that works
“The Southampton Way stays, no matter what happens,” says Martin Hunter, the club’s technical director. “So there were no doubts over the summer at all. The club is galvanised. Everybody here – including the board and Katharina – buys into what we do and understands that there’s no point in changing things for the sake of it. We’ve got a way of doing things and we stick to it – it’s a formula that works for us.”
Hunter is one of the most highly qualified coaches in the English game. He spent 13 years at the FA, working his way from regional director of coaching to head coach of the England under-19s, and arrived at Southampton in 2010 as coach of the under-21s. Now Hunter oversees coaching at the club across all levels, from junior teams through to the first team. Every step of the way, players are learning to view the game from one unified standpoint.
“The beauty of this role is that I have contact on a daily basis with Ronald [Koeman] and his staff,” explains Hunter. “Therefore, there’s a very clear pathway for our under-21 players to train with the first team, and hopefully get in the squad. There’s a thread that runs right the way through, from the youngest boy at the club to the first team.”
Hunter might not have been at Southampton at the time Theo Walcott was making his way through the ranks. But in his autobiography, Theo: Growing up Fast, the Arsenal and England winger talks about how that thread helped fast-track his career: “I had to start adapting early at Southampton. Even as I was getting to grips with living away from home, I was also beginning to train with the first team. Sometimes Harry Redknapp (Southampton manager at the time), got me practising with the senior professionals, and sometimes I’d be with the youth team.”
Now in his fifth season at Southampton, Hunter says it is “quite simply the best football club I have worked in”. “It’s the most progressive club I’ve been at, and there’s a great unity and discipline here,” he adds. Hunter credits Les Reed, who arrived in 2010 as head of football development and is now executive director, with helping to instil that culture: “I’ve worked with Les for 20 years now, and a lot of his work at the FA [where Reed spent nine years], is how we’ve gone about things here. We’ve been given the opportunity, in terms of time and facilities, to continue the work we’re doing in a very structured and very determined fashion.”
Top to bottom
For academy manager Matt Hale, who arrived just over a year ago after his predecessor took up a post at the FA, it was quickly obvious why Southampton’s academy had become one of the country’s most revered.
“When I came here, I could see that it’s the belief from the top end of the club that is a massive factor in being able to produce players,” he explains. “That’s belief from the owner, from the board, from the senior coaching staff. Whatever a player’s age, they will play him if he’s good enough. I think perhaps in other clubs, those players don’t get the chance to play. Without the support at the top end of the club, you can produce the players, but they might not play. That is the fundamental thing we have here.”
While Hale admits it is difficult to measure the potential of young players, he says there are ways to keep tabs on their suitability for life in the first team: “It’s a multidisciplinary approach, involving a lot of work both on and off the pitch. And it’s not just about the coaching. There are also the teachers who educate them and the sports scientists who know the physical standards required to play in the Premier League. They are constantly analysing players so we know what we have to work on.
“We get together and discuss individual players across all those disciplines, making sure they’re equipped to play at the highest level. That is the benchmark for us now. We’re not producing players for League One or the Championship. We have to produce players for European football.”
If there is a potential downside to Southampton’s successful production line, it is surely the frequency with which it is made use of by clubs prepared to pay over the odds for homegrown talent. Even Real Madrid galactico Gareth Bale credits his sensational rise to the academy he called home between the ages of nine and 16.
“They looked after me all the way,” says Bale in a Next Chapter video made by the club ahead of the new training centre opening. “They really take care of every step in your career. For me, it was the best education in football being at Southampton… without being there, I really don’t think I’d be where I am today.”
Players moving on is, however, simply what Hale calls “the business of football”. “Our job in the academy is to produce players for the first team who will use them to try and earn points in the league,” he explains. “It can be difficult to see those players move on, but there is a realisation from the staff that that is the business end of football. The players we produce either become assets for the club to sell, or assets to gain points for the first team. It’s not for me to decide what’s best, but I think it has been a pretty successful story so far.”
From that point of view, this summer was a successful one for Southampton. The sales of Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren helped the club to close the window as one of just three to make a net profit. The cash Southampton received for those players meant, despite shelling out just shy of £60m, they were more than £30m in profit. Not bad when you consider the amounts pocketed by the other profit making clubs – Tottenham made around £6.5m, and Chelsea approximately £0.8m.
The formula is one to turn other Premier League chairmen green with envy: sell your best players, buy cheaper ones and still improve your team. Spurs chairman Levy is apparently the greenest, with reports suggesting he has already convinced Saints’ head of recruitment, Paul Mitchell, to join Pochettino at White Hart Lane.
Mitchell’s stock is high after the summer signings of Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic. But his real feat has been the creation of a system that means the arrival of two of this season’s most successful signings is just the beginning.
Known as the ‘Black Box’, the high-tech suite at the Southampton training ground looks like a private cinema: dominated by a giant screen, there is also seating for a handful of privileged guests.
“I would switch it on but I don’t want to give away any of our targets,” says Mitchell when Sport speaks to him shortly before the reports of him joining Tottenham are made public. The equipment he has at his disposal allows him to look at footage of players from all levels and leagues across the world, and was designed specifically for Southampton.
“You won’t go into any other club and see software like this,” Mitchell promises. “What is unique about it is that we can also look at our own squads and what we’re doing in development. We use this room to player audit. So we can look at how a player is performing at under-21 level, and our benchmark and key performance indicators will tell us if he’s capable of producing those same outputs for the first team. Then we try not to recruit on top of talent.”
Koeman is a regular visitor to the Black Box. Sometimes it’s to watch footage of a player who caught his eye on TV. Other times it’s for a more formal meeting – “when we really get to the meat and bones of different targets and go through the balance and depth of his team”, says Mitchell. While Mitchell’s brief is to identify players who fit the template of an ideal Southampton footballer, he says that was also the priority when the club was looking for Pochettino’s replacement.
“When we look to recruit managers, they need a core philosophy similar to Southampton’s,” he says. “The due diligence we did on Ronald to recruit him as manager was similar to what we do on the players so that, when he comes in here, he isn’t bringing up names that don’t look anything like our profile. Ronald’s philosophy and ideas on players are paralleled with ours, so a lot of the players we were presenting him with over the summer fitted with what he saw as a good acquisition for his style. Ultimately, his style should reflect what we’re trying to represent as well.
“Having that consistency is key at the younger levels, too. They know their journey is a pathway. It isn’t pot luck or balanced on the flip of a coin. Our younger players can see a clear strategy: that we’re trying to employ the best manager to fit the club, and the one who will give them the best chance to develop here. They know they’re not going to be asked to adapt to a different style right at the penultimate moment.”
When Mitchell first arrived at Southampton in 2012, he says the club’s recruitment process was “in its infancy”, but recognised that he would be given the opportunity and resources to put his theories into practice.
“I wanted to use statistics more in performance and recruitment and also to challenge perceptions in the industry,” he says. “Football is an opinion-based sport. People will look at players and have that argument in the pub: ‘He’s a good player; he’s not.’ It’s interesting to me that two people can look at the same thing and see it totally differently.”
Statistics are helpful, but Mitchell is aware that recruitment isn’t a perfect science: “We try to dig as deeply as we can into a person – into their character – when we’re looking at them, but that’s a bit more subjective. It’s where the five to ten per cent of what you can’t measure comes in.
“For example, you don’t know how someone’s family is going to respond when you move them out of a certain environment. But we try to look into it as thoroughly as we can, because it plays a big role. The players who succeed here are the ones who come and embrace what we’re trying to do. They’re open to the sports science, the medicine, the coaching, the tactics, the analysis – all of those streams of information. They can’t come here and think they’re the finished article, because this is a great platform for players to move forward – not to stand still.”
Spit and skeletons
Standing still is something Southampton players have been doing less of than their rivals in recent seasons, says Mo Gimpel, the club’s head of sports science: “The Prozone data, which provides the physical measurements of all players on a match day, allows us to see monthly tables of where we are compared to everyone else. For the past two years, we’ve been at the top of the physical outputs.”
Added to the UEFA studies that show, over the same time period, Southampton has suffered the lowest rate of soft-tissue injuries in the league, it is even more impressive. A 16-year veteran on the Southampton staff, Gimpel has implemented a strategy of injury prevention that has seen Saints achieve record levels of squad availability (85 per cent is considered excellent; Southampton are usually above 90 per cent). It’s something that Gimpel says has been achieved by making use of new technologies and adopting a holistic approach.
“The players do a battery of tests every day to assess their wellness to train,” he explains. “That includes saliva testing, blood testing and musculoskeletal screening. We also have an app that allows players to fill out daily questionnaires on their tablets before and after training. It flags up any alerts, so we know before training starts if we need to ask questions.”
One area of Southampton’s new training facility that stands out from the standard Premier League offering is the physiotherapy room. It’s a vast space filled with contraptions resembling the reformer machines used in pilates. Gimpel says it’s not in the gym, but in here that the key part of players’ conditioning work takes place: “The players will be on those machines every day. They focus on retraining efficient movement. If you move with a faulty pattern, you set yourself up to have pain. If you move efficiently, that chance of pain is diminished. Once the movement is good, only then should you add the load [or weight].
“This retraining programme starts in the academy so, by the time they come through the system, players are moving efficiently and can add weight without risk of injury. When players have repeated injuries, I believe it’s down to the fact that a big chunk of this issue is not being addressed.”
So, Gimpel believes, a run of injuries cannot simply be put down to bad luck. Fortune, he explains, has little to do with it. “It’s controversial because medical staff at different clubs will have different thoughts on this,” he says. “My personal thought is that a huge part of it is preventable. If players are physically prepared and fresh, they can perform at a very high level with minimal risk of injury. There is always going to be a percentage of injuries that are unpreventable – from a tackle or bad landing, for example – but the philosophy here is to prevent every injury.”
Such philosophies are a running theme throughout the club, and as a result the ‘Southampton Way’ is yielding success both on and off the pitch. “I’d love to play against Southampton in the Champions League next season,” Gareth Bale told Sport recently. Even if that doesn’t become reality, with the club’s rock-solid foundations in place, the Saints are set to go marching on.