Manager Craig Fleming looks back on Southampton Under-18s' 2016/17 campaign.
It's been another long but fruitful season for Fleming and Assistant Coach Danny Butterfield.
Between an impressive FA Youth Cup run and helping a bundle of youngsters to receive international recognition, they have successfully been able to balance the constant toing and froing of talented players between the ranks.
Though before a number of the Under-18s started to move up to Martin Hunter and Radhi Jaïdi’s Under-23 set-up, there was time to show what they could all achieve together.
“Early on the squads were very well defined,” started Fleming.
“We, more or less, give or take one or two players in Thomas O’Connor and Yan Valery, were pretty much at full strength.
“The second match of the season, at home to Chelsea, was a heck of a game; Tyreke [Johnson] scored a great goal late on to win it 3-2 for us.
“They [Chelsea] only lost two games in the season, that being one of them, so it showed that when we are full strength the boys can match it with the very best in the country.”
With young players performing at such a level, it was inevitable – and only right – that they were eventually called up to experience Premier League 2 football.
And whilst there is an understandable level of frustration that comes with that, Fleming is clear on what his side’s aims are.
“I am not going to lie, all football people and especially ex-players, are competitive and want to win games and do well,” he continued.
“But it’s constantly about re-adjusting your thinking. Actually the job is to get them in, work on them and get them out into Radhi and Martin’s squad and then hopefully into the first-team as quickly as possible. And that process just keeps on going and going.
“With the reputation Southampton have got, we are a target for most teams that play us and want to take points off us, but it’s about re-adjusting our thinking to see that isn’t really the job.
“We all want to win and win the way that Southampton play, but the main job is to get them in and then move them on as soon as possible.”
There would, however, be another chance for Fleming to bring all of his players together.
In December his youngsters were drawn in the opening round of the FA Youth Cup away to the side who have won the competition more than any other: Manchester United.
“As soon as the draw was made, it was a double-edged sword really,” started Fleming.
“The Chelsea game had proved that we were right up there with the best teams in the country and capable of going a long way in the FA Youth Cup.
“So to draw a much-fancied Manchester United side at Old Trafford was exciting, but tinged with the feeling that if we got a kinder draw I thought we were capable of going a long way.
“As is turned out, it was a heck of a night. Thomas O’Connor, who was playing his first game for us, scored a fantastic goal and then Will Smallbone came off the bench and scored an absolute screamer three minutes later to win it 2-1.
“It was great to win at Old Trafford and beat a much-fancied Man United side. All the press coming out up north was that this Man United side had some exceptional players and they fancied their chances of winning it, so it was a fantastic performance from the players.”
The dramatic victory will rightly live in the memory of the Saints youngsters for the rest of their careers.
Though, as an observer, there was something else striking about the evening’s events.
The whole squad, including those not in the matchday squad, travelled to Old Trafford to support and share the moment with their team mates.
Something Fleming explains he has really tried to drill into his players.
“That’s the kind of thing we’ve worked on throughout the season, especially in pre-season,” he continued.
“We work on them individually. We try to get them technically, physically, tactically and mentally better individually but we want to work on them as a team as well.
“We want to make it known what successful teams do and that it is about the squad not just the starting eleven. As a group they were very much together. It was very much a squad and that showed towards the end of the season as the lads that hadn’t played as much came in.”
The next big challenge for Fleming’s group was to beat Wigan and continue to progress in the FA Youth Cup, which they managed to do thanks to Michael Obafemi’s late winner.
But the cup draw continued to be tough for Saints, as they were forced to face Manchester City away in the next round.
A 4-0 defeat to arguably the strongest side in the country followed.
“There is a tinge of disappointment with that one,” admits Fleming.
“I thought they [Man City] were exceptional on the night, taking nothing away from them, but we didn’t really play that great.
“The first 35 minutes we were right in the game and had a couple of good chances which if you take might change the course of the game a little bit.
“So yeah, there was a tinge of disappointment there because I don’t think they really saw the best of us. I think our bigger more experienced players just had a quiet night that night, but that happens.”
Although the cup run had come to an end, some of the ‘bigger and more experienced players’ that Fleming refers to were able to finish the season with international calls.
As well as an existing bunch of young internationals, a number were called into their respective squads for the first time. Some even went on to win major international tournaments.
“It’s great for the club,” explained Fleming.
“It’s great for everybody concerned, not least the boys themselves. We had existing internationals at the start of the season but probably the most pleasing thing is that we got lads into their respective sides.
“Jake Vokins got into the England Under-17s side that got through to the final at the EUROs, Callum Slattery went away with the Under-20s to win the Toulon Tournament.
“We’ve had Will Smallbone called up to the Ireland squad with Michael Obafemi, so we’ve had existing players like Christoph Klarer who was already an international go away, but also lads that through their hard work this season have got the international recognition they deserve.”