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Rob Hughes
Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sports

All must hail patience of Saints to groom raw talent

The Straits Times | Rob Hughes | Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Luke Shaw during a training session of the English national football team in Almancil, southern Portugal, on May 21, 2014, as part of the team's preparation for the upcoming FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The lunacy of football trying to recruit players from infant school is exposed by the tale of Luke Shaw.

At 18, he is going to the World Cup in place of Ashley Cole.

At eight, a Chelsea fan, Shaw wanted nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of the player he most admired in the world. Born and brought up close to Cobham, the Chelsea training ground south of London, young Shaw was rejected at that tender age. Yes, rejected.

"I was let go because of my height," he remembers. "I think it was only when I was about 14 or 15, I got taller and bigger.

"I can't remember much about being released but I remember the first day of my trial at Southampton - I got a phone call straight away to say they wanted me."

That judgment call, either way, tells us something about the whimsy of football clubs mining the world for kids to turn into superstars. Whoever was responsible for looking at the physical stature of eight-year-old Shaw, and not seeing the talent that the boy possessed, cost the club upwards of £27 million (S$57 million).

That is the fee that Manchester United is thought to have negotiated to buy him from Southampton once the World Cup has been put to bed.

It is the sum that Chelsea would apparently have happily spent if the Shaw family had chosen their boy's first love rather than a move to Manchester.

How did all this come about?

Well, the thing about children is that they do grow. Shaw is now a strapping young man. He stands 1.85m. He is fast, strong, solid and competitive.

He's had two years in the Saints' first team at left-back, and very few opponents (not even Gareth Bale when he was a Tottenham winger) could bully or outpace him.

England manager Roy Hodgson became attracted like a magnet to iron filings to Southampton's games. It wasn't just the emerging Shaw but also Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, who are both in the England squad.

It was also Jay Rodriguez who might well have made that squad but for injury.

Something happens in the Southampton kindergarten.

Here is a club on the south coast of England who have the time, inclination and patience to turn youngsters into proper players.

Not so much Lambert because he was a journeyman player who worked in a beetroot bottling factory before he got his big break down at Southampton and, at 31, his first England cap.

So it would seem that the big clubs can miss 'em in their childhood and miss 'em when they are old by football standards.

Lambert is not the most mobile or most silky of movers but he has proved a more reliable goal-scorer this season than any striker at Arsenal, Spurs or (sorry about this, Chelsea fans) the club who turned down Shaw.

I mention those teams because their catchment area for English talents is about one hour from the south coast. Arsenal have spent plenty on buying Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from the Saints, and the Spurs took Bale when he had come through a Southampton apprenticeship.

All these clubs have academies. All try to spot the talent in embryo.

And, a few years ago, Manchester United went as far as Australia to recruit a junior-school player whose family sold up to bring their son to Britain.

I will let you know if he ever graduates.

Meanwhile, every club in the world try to emulate the Barca school of La Masia - a school, incidentally, which Fifa has threatened with all manner of punishments, even closure.

Why? Technical breaches of international recruitment.

Barcelona, as you know, took in Lionel Messi when he was a weakling, a 13-year-old whose lack of physical growth required someone, somewhere to stump up the money to buy the growth hormone treatment that his family could ill-afford.

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