After gaining promotion to the Premier League only two years ago, Southampton are now comfortably nestled in eighth position in the table, which would be their highest finish in the top flight for nearly a quarter of a century.
Southampton have flourished under the stewardship of Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino, who has assembled a team boasting several young English talents, including Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and James Ward-Prowse.
Behind the scenes at St. Mary’s, their success hasn’t come as a surprise; they have been building towards this for several years.
This season represents the realisation of a plan first put in place in the 2009-10 season, when the club were burdened by a 10-point deduction and languishing in League One.
The club’s former executive chairman, Nicola Cortese, arrived at the club in the summer of 2009 determined to return Southampton to the top flight.
But the Italian didn’t simply throw money at the task; he wanted to invest in the club’s infrastructure and their young players.
It was Cortese’s plan to create a successful youth system and a club where young players believed they had a chance of graduating through the youth ranks into the first team.
As Cortese told the Telegraph last year: "The academy is very important to become a sustainable business. We would want to see a starting XI in the Premier League that is fed from our youth development."
Accompanied by Southampton’s head of football development, Les Reed, Cortese travelled the globe looking at how other sports and professions nurture young talent.
They were naturally impressed with the spirit of excellence at Barcelona’s youth academy at La Masia, but they also studied drama schools, Nick Bollettieri’s renowned tennis academy in Florida, the Royal Ballet and Yehudi Menuhin music school.
Reed and Cortese wanted to create the right environment for their young players to give them the best chance to develop.
Reed recently expanded upon the club’s philosophy in an interview with Sky Sports.
We have built our club on sound business principles and the academy and development of young players is part of that business plan. We have a philosophy that drives the development of young players because we want a team with young, home-grown players.
We want a team of players who have come through from eight or nine years of age as well, not imported later on in life.
Our manager is under pressure to get results every week [...] However he has the comfort of knowing that we are all working to the same philosophy so he can pick young players and allow them to make mistakes, and he is not going to be put under pressure for that.
I think a club can choose to do that and have that attitude. Then it makes life a lot easier for young players to go through because we have created a pathway for them.
Over the last four years, this pathway has produced the likes of Shaw, Lallana, Ward-Prowse and Calum Chambers.
There is also a host of new young English talent on the fringes of the first team waiting to burst through, including Matt Targett, Jordan Turnbull, Harrison Reed, Omar Rowe and Jake Sinclair.
Southampton were immensely proud earlier this year when, during the international round of matches, 17 of their players were chosen to represent England from the senior side downwards.
As Chambers, an England Under-19 international defender who has impressed in 21 appearances for Southampton recently told the Daily Mirror:
They call it ‘The Southampton way’ to bring players up from a young age, through the academy, and educate them well, make them into young professionals, teach them the right way and give them opportunities to play for the first team.
When we were younger, we saw the likes of Bale, Theo (Walcott), Lallana, all coming through the academy and playing, and that gave us hope, something to aim for.
Everyone at the academy knows you’ve got a chance there. The manager, the way the club is run, it’s perfect for young players to come through and get given a chance.
From next season, the club will move into their new £30 million training ground built to keep producing their young talent.
The attention to detail at this new complex is incredible.
It will have 12 pitches with different surfaces to replicate the conditions they will play on in their away games.
For instance, Arsenal use a turf that has 20 million artificial grass fibres included in it, and so before a trip to the Emirates next season, Southampton will train on this exact surface to prepare.
Southampton are not content to remain in eighth place, and with the structure now in place to produce young talent, they could very well soon be competing for a place in the Champions League.
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