The upper echelons of modern football tends to be so impatient, ageist and risk-averse. Hat’s off, then, to Southampton for breaking all the rules with their trio of England call-ups: Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez.
Unlike many clubs - who tend to write youth products off if they’re not equipped for first team football within a year or two of leaving school - the Saints were content to play the long game with Lallana.
Diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat as a youth teamer (and operated on to correct the problem) the wide man didn’t develop at anywhere near the same pace as his quicker, less fragile pals, Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale. Yet those inside the club didn’t panic just because he lagged behind physically. Seeing beyond the moment, they gambled that he might be strong enough, one day.
These were turbulent times, too. Relegation to the Championship then League One, administration, and a string of chairmen and managers didn’t exactly create a stable environment. Lallana, then 20, scored just one goal in 40 Championship matches in his breakthrough season. But still, in spite of the unrest and difficult climate, Southampton gave him longer to flourish.
By allowing Lallana time to breathe, to develop his own natural style, to prosper at his own pace, the Saints now have a 25-year-old star that’s supremely confident in his own skin. He’s ridden the bumps and emerged a better player. England can now benefit from that patient approach, if Roy Hodgson chooses to.
In Lambert’s case, most football business gurus would have strongly advised against League One Southampton spending £1million on a 27-year-old who’d only really shone in the shirt of Bristol Rovers. Using a ‘Moneyball’ theory, the numbers would have been put into a spread sheet, and the computer would have said no.
What Southampton’s management factored into the equation was financially unquantifiable – and that’s an individual desire and hunger to succeed. Lambert had it, they believed in him. Now, more than a hundred goals plus two promotions later, that faith has been more than vindicated.
I’d argue that by experiencing the lower leagues first, Lambert became a more-rounded player and person. Who’s to say being molly-coddled as a young pro in the Premier League, incessantly coached to play in a certain style, wouldn’t have been a less-enriching education? I wouldn’t argue against it.
And then there’s England’s other new boy Jay Rodriguez, a £7million gamble that most Premier League clubs wouldn’t have dreamed of entertaining. Why? Because he was almost 23, English, and only proven in the Football League. Newsflash: Players that know how to beat a man, make intelligent runs, work hard for the side, and finish with great skill in the Championship, are also capable of replicating it in the Premier League. And teenagers aren’t the only ones with potential. At 24, Jay-Rod – yes I did just call him that – is excelling in the big league, and can still develop immeasurably from where he is right now. Just look at Lambert.
Given how outstanding they’ve all been this season, it’s bizarre to think that Lallana, Lambert and Rodriguez would have been rejected by most top flight clubs, but this truth cannot be debated. The decision-makers citing they were too slow to develop, too old, too risky, too unproven should now sit up and take note.
Having been through the football system myself, I’ve learned that there isn’t one single formula for success.
You don’t have to be spotted at the age of 8 and coached into becoming an identikit player for that club.
You don’t have to be brought up at a Premier League club.
You don’t have to be a man-child at 17 to make it.
You don’t have to be ‘past it’ and without hope of making it to the very top just because you’re in the late 20s.
Every footballer should be considered unique and taken on his own merits. And that’s exactly what this Saints trio represent.
If you have the skill, a strong passion to succeed, a willingness to work hard, belief in your own talent and a club that’s willing to support your natural development. Then, you have a great chance of making it to the top. Breaking the rules has worked for Southampton and their players. I just wish more clubs would be as open-minded.
England are 2.00 to beat Chile on Friday - back them with Unibet.
Read more from Adrian Clarke here.