While other English teams are spending big, Southampton Football Club is producing young talent through its academy and punching well above its weight at the top end of the Premier League, and on New Year’s Day NBC Sports had promised to show me how they did it.
But five minutes into The Southampton Way my finger was hovering over the “off” button. I’d seen a lot of famous faces—Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Matt Le Tissier—telling me what a great club Southampton is, a disturbing amount of slogans extolling positivity, excellence and achievement, and a lot of talking heads telling me that Southampton are different because they do things … differently. It was celebratory but vague, with a whiff of propaganda. But I didn’t want the Southampton infomercial, I wanted to know their secrets.
Surely Roger Bennett, of Men in Blazers and and Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil fame, would not be complicit in producing a Premier League puff piece?
He wasn’t. Because as soon as Head of Football Development and Support Les Reed appeared on screen, the curtain began to be pulled back, just a little, and we got some enlightening little details. We heard about the Saints investing time into players overlooked by bigger teams because they hadn’t yet developed physically, about the big decision to place players with host families instead of keeping them all in one hostel and about Southampton’s policy of rewarding successful youth team graduates with longterm professional contracts.
We also saw an army of analysts working on Macs, studying video to assess the performance of youth team players; the $48 million training facility that looks like an Alpine retreat; and the mysterious “Black Box” containing Southampton’s bespoke player analysis software, which may or may not have been acquired from the future and may or may not be part of the Skynet machine that wages war on humanity in the Terminator franchise. They wouldn’t say. But I kind of enjoyed the titillation of seeing something I wasn’t supposed to see, however briefly.
After opening with a walk on the beach, Bennett asked some sharp questions, pushing owner Ralph Krueger and coach Ronald Koeman for specifics. I thought at the time, and I still believe, that the real prize when NBC Sports acquired Men in Blazers from ESPN wasn’t the knockabout podcast/TV show in which Bennett and Michael Davies make light of various Premier League happenings, but Bennett’s talent for producing, directing and presenting television specials exactly like this.
The Southampton Way has its flaws of course, the biggest being that it’s a little too convinced that the titular approach of Southampton Football Club is beyond reproach or question, leaving no room for any critique or challenge. For example, despite all the focus on Southamton’s successful youth academy, the team’s this season is really built on Ronald Koeman intelligently importing players like Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadi? from the Eredivisie this summer, with James Ward-Prowse the only (as far as I know) youth academy graduate making regular starts in the first team right now.
That’s a minor quibble though, because The Southampton Way isn’t supposed to be investigative journalism, it’s supposed to be 44 minutes of television providing a little peek behind the scenes of a Premier League team that’s doing things differently and succeeding.
Ddi you miss The Southampton Way when it aired on Jan. 1? No worries, NBC Sports subscribers can still watch the whole thing online.