Southampton’s Academy Director Matt Hale described a “proud night for the club” as 11 graduates were included in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s matchday squad against Liverpool.
If there was a way for a win over the reigning champions to be made even sweeter then this, a perfect illustration of The Southampton Way in action, was it.
Forming more than half of the 20-man squad which defeated the reigning Premier League champions, thanks to a solitary Danny Ings goal, were the following individuals from the club’s Academy: Harry Lewis, Yan Valery, Jack Stephens, Jake Vokins, Kayne Ramsay, James Ward-Prowse, Will Smallbone, Kegs Chauke, Nathan Tella, Dan Nlundulu and Theo Walcott.
Adding in former player Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who wore the opposition’s jersey on the night, and that makes 12 graduates that were part of the evening’s proceedings.
It’s an achievement that highlights the development pathway in place at the club and which brings a great sense of pride to the Academy, as described by Hale.
“We’ve had an academy objective for some time to try and get 50 per cent of the matchday squad made up of Academy graduates,” he said.
“When you see those sorts of numbers we’re certainly hitting that 50 per cent of the matchday squad, so it’s a real proud moment for everybody.”
“It’s a proud time for both the Academy staff involved right now in the present, but also the staff and people that have been involved in Bath and the Academy over many years.
“To see the likes of Theo [Walcott] and [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain on the other side. Then to see Prowsey [Ward-Prowse] and Jack [Stephens] as experienced, older professionals almost, it was great and a proud moment for us all.”
Two of the 11 Saints names who are thriving in terms of first-team involvement this year are Tella and Nlundulu.
Alongside making his first start for the first team against Brentford in September, Tella has been involved in 11 of the 17 Premier League matchday squads so far, coming off the bench on five occasions.
On the youngster, Hale said: “Nathan [Tella] has some previous insight into the first-team exposure and took his opportunity really, really well.
“He’s got some good physical attributes that lend himself very nicely to the style of play we operate in the first-team.”
It’s been a similarly fruitful season in terms of first-team exposure for Nlundulu, who has featured in ten Premier League squads, while appearing as a substitute in five of his last seven games.
“It’s not just his physical attributes he’s got,” said Hale on the forward, “But also his technical ability which lends itself to the methods Ralph is working towards.
“Dan has been through a tough last two years with long-term injuries, so to see him on the pitch getting that opportunity is great for him, but also great for the staff in the medical team, the sports science team.
“They have worked incredibly hard to make sure that he is highly conditioned now to cope with these demands.
“It will be a great bit of satisfaction for them [to see these two players out there] and a huge pat on the back for a job well done for getting it right.”
The 2020/21 season saw a change to the Saints Academy structure, with the adoption of the B team model in place of the previous Under-23s set-up, allowing the youngsters to more closely mirror the philosophies and schedules of the first-team.
It is something Hale believes will continue to help the success of the Academy to be felt at first-team level.
“It’s certainly been different to the way we’ve done things over the past few years,” he said. “It’s given us that alignment with Ralph’s philosophy, which is very unique, very different to what we’ve seen before under previous managers.
“It’s helped with the understanding and the transition, and it’s going to take time to really bed down into those players
“Whilst it’s not an easy thing to do, those players have really taken it on board. There’s a lot of new concepts there, a lot of new instructions that they need to fully understand. It’s quite complex at times, particularly without the ball.
“The coaches have done great to implement that, Dave Horseman and Craig Fleming in particular, to get those instructions across to the team. They’ve taken it on board and they’re having a good go, but it’s going to take time as well for the lads to fully understand that, as it has done with the first-team.”