Originally aired on: NBCSN
Known as a “selling club” that operates on a relatively modest budget, Southampton FC isn’t a side that should be competing with the heavyweights in England. Yet thanks to an extremely well run youth academy, a passionate fan base and a smart vision that pervades all levels of the club, the Saints continue to thrive despite their underdog status.
In this edition of “PL Download,” Roger Bennett of “Men in Blazers” fame visits the well-run south England club and spends time with coaches, players and executives to find out more about the Southampton Way. Bennett also wrote about the experience for NBC SportsWorld. Here’s what he had to say about the trip to Southampton:
I had never visited Southampton before making “The Southampton Way.” I had always mentally pictured the city as a quaint Southern port. Upon my arrival, one of the club’s ground staff quickly set me straight. “The Germans bombed the crap out of us during the war,” he snorted, “we’ve never really recovered.”
Despite that, it is impossible not to be charmed by the town. Southampton FC have been one of English football’s most romantic narratives in 2014. A small terrier of a club who have convinced themselves of their ability to run with the big dogs.
That conviction is not ill-placed, nor is it built on alchemy. An investment in long-term youth development, a meticulous training strategy built by coaching guru Les Reed, and a scouting system that Billy Beane would be proud of, combine with a value-driven culture fostered by former-NHL-coach-turned-club-chairman Ralph Krueger to create an environment that is rare for a Premier League team: one where optimism and strategy have been fused, and every department is encouraged to innovate in search of tiny competitive edges that can close the gap between Southampton and the petrodollar-fueled super clubs above.
Whether that gap can be closed remains to be seen. Romantic narratives are hard to sustain in the the modern football’s cruel, economic propelled reality — just look at Dortmund this season.
Yet no one at the club would bite on my question of whether they regret not having Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott to run at the opposition, with Adam Lallana threading passes to Rickie Lambert, and Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers locking down the back. There is pride in their youth development conveyor belt but almost no hint of nostalgia nor regret.
All the employees I encountered at the club were immersed in both pragmatism and strategy. How far that will that take them remains to be seen. But as I walked around their stadium with Krueger, and asked where he will seat the Real Madrid fans should the club qualify for Europe, he immediately pointed to their prospective ticketing area calmly, with no hint of irony.