Tuesday 27 May 2014
Southampton gained many admirers this season for embracing an attractive brand of football played by an exciting core of young English players, but for defender Jose Fonte, Southampton's joint-record eighth-placed Barclays Premier League finish was particularly rewarding, as he has been on every step of the club's remarkable rise from League One. "You cannot imagine how special the journey has been," he told premierleague.com.
"A few of us have been at this club since the hard days, when we had to go and play Dagenham & Redbridge and Oldham; not easy grounds to go on a Tuesday night"
Fonte first arrived at St Mary's Stadium in January 2010 when he decided to drop down a division and move from Crystal Palace to Southampton, in their first League One campaign following administration.
The Portuguese centre-back soon established himself at the heart of Saints' defence and has remained an integral part of the team ever since, helping them gain back-to-back promotions to the Barclays Premier League, alongside fellow first-team regulars Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Speaking to premierleague.com at the opening of a new £150,000 multi-use games area (MUGA), which was a result of a grant from the Premier League Community Facility Fund (PLCFF), at St Mary's Church of England School, near the club's main stadium, Fonte explained how toughing it out in the lower leagues has helped him, and those who made the same journey with him, value life in the top flight all the more.
"Not only me but a few other lads have been at this club since the hard days, when we had to go and play Dagenham & Redbridge and Oldham; not easy grounds to go on a Tuesday night," said Fonte. "We enjoy it now, but we enjoy it more because we've been there and we know how hard it is. It's been a great journey for us. For me, it has been one of the best times of my life."
Under the guidance of manager Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton surged up to third place in the Barclays Premier League table after a quarter of the 2013/14 campaign, during a run that included a 1-0 win against Liverpool at Anfield. A dip in form over the winter coincided with a string of injuries, but eighth place was eventually secured as the south-coast club reached their highest points tally, of 56 points, since the League's inception in 1992.
"It has been an amazing season," said the 30-year-old. "Everyone knows with eight games played we were third, two points off first, we were very motivated throughout the whole season. We had a little bit of a patch where we had some injury problems but we recovered from that and finished strong.
"We finished in eighth. I'm not going to say that's what we meant to achieve – we wanted a little bit more because we are ambitious and we always want more – but, in the end, we finished behind seven great teams. We're the best of the rest, but hopefully next season we can do better."
Southampton captain Adam Lallana is one of those team-mates who have enjoyed the ascent from the third tier, having joined the club at 12 years of age and graduated from the academy. Indeed, Lallana's performances have been so consistently eye-catching he has won a place in Roy Hodgson's 23-man England squad for this summer's FIFA World Cup, and his success has come as no surprise to Fonte.
"The kids can see that they have a chance and if they work hard the club will give them a chance in the first team"
"This year, especially, he has exploded," said the defender. "The manager [Pochettino] helped him a lot. This manager gave him the confidence and the belief to go out there and do what he does best, and he's scored goals, which always helps as you get noticed more. But, technically, he is so gifted and he works hard on the training ground. He deserves everything that he is getting now."
Fonte also thinks Lallana can shine on the international stage in this summer's showpiece event in Brazil: "One hundred per cent. I think he has all the ability to go out there, show what he can do and make us all proud."
Lallana, who came through the ranks alongside Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, is the most senior of a string of young English players who have established themselves in the Southampton first team after coming through the club's academy.
Left-back Luke Shaw joins Lallana in the England squad at just 18 years of age, while fellow teenagers Calum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse, Sam Gallagher and Harrison Reed have amassed 78 Barclays Premier League appearances between them this term.
Fonte said the success is down to "the set-up, the managers, the way they teach them", and, of course, a club prepared to throw youngsters in at the deep end. "The kids can see that they have a chance and if they work hard the club will give them a chance in the first team," he explained. "That makes them work even harder, because they know they will probably get a chance. So, the managers are doing a great job, everyone at the academy has been really good for them, and I think more will come through."
Although the uncapped Fonte will not be joining some of his compatriots at the World Cup next month he is looking forward to the new campaign and trying to improve on last season's exploits.
"The aim is to always improve," he said. "We can't aim to go backwards, so we need to go forwards, onwards and upwards, so we'll try and do that next year."