Thursday 14 November 2013
Southampton's ascent to third place in the Barclays Premier League table as well as the selections of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez for the most recent England squad has shone the spotlight on Southampton's development of players, notably English ones.
What is the EPPP?
The Elite Player Performance Plan is a Premier League initiative that seeks to create more and better homegrown players who are properly equipped to succeed at the highest level. Clubs have invested £340m over the first four years into addressing the fundamentals of player development: the quality of coaching, acccess to coaching contact time and the provision of support facilities and staffing to enable the highest possible level of player development
Not content with having one of the best youth development conveyor belts in English football, Southampton are embracing the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) because they believe it is the future of the club and the Premier League. To emphasise their belief, Southampton have built a new £30m Academy facility that, according to the club's executive director Les Reed, will provide English football with its next generation of elite players.
"The mission statement of all youth development is the best coaches with the best players in the best facilities," Reed says when asked why the EPPP is critical.
Reed is the embodiment of his own testimony. Not only did three of his proteges cement places in the Southampton first team during the 2012/13 season, but he has also been central to the development of a new £30m two-storey building that will be the new Academy home for the South Coast club.
With sleek wooden lines this is a state-of-the-art facility. Inside are beautifully equipped classrooms, an education block, sports science facilities, indoor training areas, gymnasiums, a technically advanced analysis department, as well as offices, canteens and breakout rooms for parents. And that is just the pre-Academy building for the young players; it gets more advanced as you go through the age groups.
Outside, the Under-18s and Under-21s have an arena pitch each with a multi-purpose, double-sided grandstand in the middle. There are 1,000 seats on one side and 500 seats on the other, plus additional terracing for another 2,500.
The pitches will only be used on a matchday and will enable the Academy to develop a matchday experience for players. This is one of the key aims of the EPPP: prepare players for the Premier League matchday experience. Reed is proud of the facility and is clear of the function that the new facilities will provide.
"We are a club where if you really believe you will get into the first team, then there is every chance you will"
"This is a football development and support centre, because what we have built here is something that is aspirational," he says. "A player first comes into the pre-Academy at eight years of age and they work their way through to the main Academy.
"Then they progress room by room from 16 to 18 to 21, until they eventually reach the first team at the other end of the building. Each boy can see the journey he is on and where it is possible for him end up: they see the first team, they see the facilities they use, and they are all invited to watch first-team training.
"That creates an incredible work ethic. We are that kind of club where if you really believe you will get into the first team, then there is every chance you will achieve your ambition."
As a coach who has overseen the progress of many established England internationals he appreciates Southampton putting youth development at the heart of their business plan.
"Our chairman Nicola Cortese has been great," Reed says. "When he came into the club four years ago, the vision he sold to everybody was that we must build a football club that not only competes successfully at the top end of the Premier League, but is built on a sound business basis.
"That business incorporates the need to develop our own players. We have been pretty successful in that: four years ago we didn't have a single English player in any of the England squads and now we have 11. It forms the basis of the future of our club; we don't think it's just a nice-to-have to develop players, we think that's the future for clubs across the Premier League."
With that kind of attitude it is no surprise that Southampton have been such strong advocates of the EPPP. Reed believes that vision and drive was long overdue.
"The key is more technical coaching time, which couldn't
be achieved under
the old system"
"We have wasted a lot of time and it's been necessary for the Premier League to take the bull by the horns and do it because we can't keep on wasting the talent that we've got in this country," he says. "The key is more technical coaching time, which couldn't be achieved under the old system; the right coaches with the right age phases; a better holistic approach to training, which we're doing now with a better clear link between the education programme, the life-skills programme and the technical programme; the ability to introduce sports science and sports medicine at a younger age. The EPPP facilitates all of that."
Although it was three years in the making, 2012/13 was the debut season for the EPPP and Reed is surprised by the swift progress of the programme.
"We work in an industry where people don't like change and this hasn't reflected on where it is very well, and certainly hasn't made decisions based on fact and research," Reed says. "The EPPP changed that: it's so all-consuming, and there have been challenges, like the battle to persuade clubs to invest.
"But when you look at what has actually been achieved in terms of Category 1 and 2 Academies in particular, and the investment that's been made in resources and facilities to make it happen, we have the best foundation we've ever had to move forward."
Reed adds that he hopes that the national team will follow the example of Academy football.
"Those of us living and breathing youth development are very positive, but there's still much to be done," he says. "I'd like to see the concepts of the EPPP embraced at a national level. Just as we build a Premier League team from eight years of age, the national governing body needs to take this approach on board as well.
"The future England World Cup winning team needs to be developed, not just thrown together as a group of good players later in life. The good news is that I believe they are beginning to sit up. For me the EPPP will be here for ever because of the way it's been embedded now. For all of us in English football it's about building from strong foundations."
How did Southampton develop three of the Premier League's most exciting talents? And how have three Academy graduates cemented first-team positions? Les Reed explains.
"No two players are the same but the common thread in these boys is determination."
"He was driven, literally! His family drove him to us: there were a lot of miles, a lot of evenings and a lot of work but he deserves his success for his dedication."
"Alex was a very slender kid at 14 and his scholarship was in question. But he was so technically good that aged 16 we got him to play down an age group. A year on he had his growth spurt, become a powerful athlete and six months later was in the first team."
"We were also patient with Adam. He wasn't the most powerful but had a great work rate. At another club he might have been lost. But he took on board what we were saying, never gave up and applied himself. Now he's our captain."
"Theo's natural gift was his pace but he's also blessed with intelligence."
"Another blessed with intelligence; he's Oxbridge material and while working with us he got two A stars."
"Luke's intelligence is different. He's an incredibly clever game-related player; he takes on board football information well and learns quickly."
"What unites all of these players is that they had a clear vision on what they wanted to achieve," Reed says. "They put the extra effort in, made the sacrifices, listened and did whatever was required to make it."
This article is from the Premier League Season Review 2012/13. To download the review click here