Southampton continue to invest in youth after Gao Jisheng’s reshuffle | Football
When Gao Jisheng bought 80% of Southampton for £210m in August 2017 the club’s executives did not know what to expect. Would the Chinese businessman be a hands-on presence, dictating policy as some of his compatriots have done from similar positions at English clubs? There was uncertainly and a good deal of waiting. Yet the shake-up did not come and so, for the men on the ground, it remained day-to-day business as usual.
Spool forward to this summer and a round of musical chairs that was prompted, in part, by the departure of the chairman Ralph Krueger, upon the expiry of his contract. Krueger was ready for a new challenge and he has returned to NHL ice hockey, where he has become the coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
The headline item of Southampton’s top-level reshuffle has been Gao’s decision to take on the post of chairman and, once again, it has led to questions about his intentions. He remains based in China and, so far, he has only truly got involved in club affairs when it has come to the sacking of managers (Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes) and the setting of budgets at the start of a season. Is now the time for him to tighten his grip?
What is clear is that the coming season will be instructive, mainly because of a contractual clause that gives Gao and his family the option to purchase the remaining 20% of the club within 12 months from Katharina Liebherr, the former majority shareholder. Will Gao go to 100% and really push? Or will he keep what he has and is doing or, even, could he sell up?
Nobody at the club really knows and it is fair to say that an element of mystery surrounds Gao, who has maintained a radio silence in England since his takeover. He has two employees from China in Southampton, who work in and out of the training ground while a third, based in China, has been credited with the unusual shirt sponsorship deal that the club announced in May with LD Sports.
What the Southampton board do know is that Gao does not intend to invest significantly in the playing squad. Before this window, the club’s transfer dealings under his stewardship showed a £7.7m profit and, although money has been spent this time – namely on Danny Ings, Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo – there will be book-balancing sales to follow those of Matt Targett and Sam Gallagher.
Southampton have encouraged the agents of Mario Lemina and Charlie Austin to push their clients to interested clubs; Jordy Clasie is primed to return to Holland and Guido Carrillo has offers in South America. The problem could be that Carrillo prefers to stay in Europe. Wesley Hoedt has returned for pre-season in good shape but the club will listen to offers for him, together with Fraser Forster, Cédric Soares and Sofiane Boufal.
All eyes are on the transfer market and the signing of the pacy and dangerous Adams from Birmingham has quickened the pulse. Yet he has not been the only striker to swap St Andrew’s for St Mary’s. When Southampton announced the capture of the 16-year-old Ramello Mitchell from Birmingham at the beginning of July, it made waves in youth football, not least because Manchester United and Liverpool had wanted him, and it also shone a light on how the club are continuing to adapt their recruitment strategy.
There was a time when Southampton would stick to harvesting their youth players from within a 90-minute radius of the club – plus their satellite academy in Bath, for which they were given special dispensation because of their location on the coast; there are no footballers to be found in the Channel.
But the realisation came to dawn that they had to do more; they had to compete on a broader playing field, particularly for talent aged 16-18. And so they started to hunt for young players on a national scale and in specific European countries – namely France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia.
Yan Valery, who was taken from Stade Rennais in 2015 at the age of 16, was the trailblazer and the club have since signed others from outside their traditional catchment area. Michael Obafemi joined from Leyton Orient in 2016 and Kayne Ramsey came from Chelsea in 2017 – the year that the club also took the highly-rated winger Enzo Robise from Reims and the midfielder Will Ferry from Bury. Ferry is current academy player of the year.
The standout purchases at this level last summer were those of the midfielder Alex Jankewitz from Servette and the centre-half Allan Tchaptchet from Sannois Saint-Gratien. The club paid an initial £400,000 for Jankewitz and the fee could rise to nearly £1m. He has just signed his first professional contract and is considered to be a superstar in the making.
After Mitchell, Southampton announced the captures of the forward Sam Bellis from Manchester City and the attacking midfielder Marco Rus from Yeovil, while they have completed further deals to take 16-year-olds from elsewhere. Southampton were also in for the Fulham winger, Harvey Elliot, only for him to choose Liverpool.
Each youngster has been attracted by the first-team pathway on offer, something that Southampton have long traded on and, under Ralph Hasenhüttl, can push afresh. The manager is committed to giving young players a chance and wants to work with a streamlined squad so as not to stifle upward growth from the academy.
Southampton’s next pre-season friendly is against Guangzhou R&F in Macau on Tuesday, which will be the latest nod towards Gao’s ownership. The club’s identity comes from elsewhere.