By SFC Media Tue 29 May U 18

Academy coaches reflect on a highly successful 2017/18 campaign.

It's been a fruitful season for Craig Fleming and Danny Butterfield's youngsters, with unprecedented success in the Under-18s Premier League and more pro deals achieved than ever before.

We journeyed back through the season's highlights, and between triumphs over academy giants Man City and Chelsea, a 10-game unbeaten league run, and a well-deserved first-team debut for teenager Michael Obafemi - we weren't short of conversation topics!

Fleming, humble in his approach, put the majority of the season's achievements down to work ethic, but, throw the right amount of talent and potential into the mix, and the results are there for all to see.  

High standards, naturally, were the foundation lay down in pre-season by all academy staff, and Fleming's well-drilled youngsters certainly lived up to the billing.

We started the chat with recalling early-season wins over Man City and Chelsea, which arguably set the tone for the remainder of the campaign.

CF: "Looking back, we were good in both boxes which is key at this level. We were the full package, which didn't always happen throughout the season.

"Chelsea was the standout performance, given the opposition. We were prepared for it, and they executed the game plan to perfection.

"That performance backed up everything we'd be speaking about, with regards to hard work and belief. Collectively, it galvanised the group."

DB: "It might have been a surprise to most. But it convinced our lads that they're good enough to compete with the best in the country.

"When you come up against Man City and Chelsea there's a fear factor, because of reputation, but it was two great performances which stood us in good stead for the remainder of the season.

"Massive positive for the players to beat a team like Chelsea. Looking back at the goals, things that we speak about in training daily, were definitely applied there.

"Concentration during set-plays, clinical in the final third, composure when finishing - clearly we were doing the right things on the training field. It was all on show.

"As coaches, the kick we get is seeing things implemented from training. The Chelsea and City results, in quick succession, gave us all a lift."

A 10-game unbeaten league streak followed (8W, 2D), with Saints finding the net in every fixture along that run.

CF: "The team had evolved towards the end of that run. As is the way with 18s and 23s football, it's always a fluid situation.

"The younger boys came in and carried on the good work that the older boys had started. It's been a good period of progression.

"Everyone bought into the ethos, that's always key. A few tight games, where we nicked it 1-0 and that goes back to hard work and perseverance."

DB: "The belief grew from the Chelsea game onwards. The goals were shared out among many of them. The big thing was our togetherness and spirit.

"Alex Cull ended up as the keeper with the highest clean sheets in the country, at this level. The team unit defensively was another huge success."

In January of this year, 17-year-old striker Michael Obafemi got his chance to make a name on the Premier League stage, replacing Manolo Gabbiadini against Spurs at St Mary's, a proud moment for the academy coaches.

DB: "We told Michael not to be overawed. Don't try and do anything that you haven't been doing for the 18s. We always try and give the lads the confidence and the knowledge that there is a definite pathway at the club.

"You need to be ready if that chance is forthcoming. A really proud moment for us, because that's what we get a joy out of, seeing debuts happen. It should inspire everyone in the academy.

CF: "I was off my seat when a chance came his way. It came at him a little quick, it was a tough chance. But that would have been the absolute dream. It could have been headlines, but he'll get another chance!"

Michael Obafemi prepares to make his Premier League debut in front of a capacity crowd at St Mary's.

A season of development aplenty, a host of Under-18s made their Under-23s bows for Radhi Jaïdi's side, ahead of making the big step up next term, while many players also signed their first professional deals at Southampton FC.

Proud to oversee their progression, Fleming and Butterfield were especially pleased that so many youngsters have now committed their futures to the club.


DB: "Our job is to supply the U23s and first-team with as many talented players as possible. The moment you tell them they've achieved that is emotional, it's something they've dreamed of.

"It's only the start of course, but the joy in their faces, along with parents is what continues to drive us on as coaches."

CF: "There's clearly some good players here, and more importantly some good characters. Only time will tell as it's getting more and more difficult, with the talent in the first-team at this club.

"As a team, the stats are comparable [to what the James Ward-Prowse/Luke Shaw era produced]. But these guys really have to kick on now and make that next step count.

"We're here to develop players for Southampton, and our aim is to get players in the first team so really happy that so many boys now have pro deals."

We finished by discussing the final game of a long season for the Under-18s, as they signed off with a 3-2 comeback victory over Swansea City, which appeared, from the outset, to encapsulate the season's drive for success.

DB: "This game summed up the U18s season in one. We had to show character, we had to stick together, help each other out - it epitomises the club really. We've had to keep driving on this season!"

CF: "An away win is a good way to finish, and you can see the lads together in the celebrations at the end of the game."

DB: "You have to have that inner strength inside you, it's critical. Radhi [Jaïdi] is inheriting a team of winners, they've proved that over the course of this season and I only hope that continues!"

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