About 20 miles south-west of London, the leafy suburb of Cobham has a strong association with the Premier League. The Surrey commuter town has been home to Chelsea’s training complex for more than a decade, and the surrounding villages are littered with the sort of mega-mansions and supercars that accompany an elite collection of footballers.
But just down the road from Chelsea’s facility, in Stoke d’Abernon, another team from England’s top flight are looking to steal a march on their rivals.
Barely a five-minute walk from the entrance to the Cobham ground stands The Yehudi Menuhin School, which has been in this quiet part of the world for more than 50 years, educating a small selection of young classical musicians. Founded by Yehudi Menuhin himself, the greatest violinist of the 20th Century, alumni include household names such as Nigel Kennedy, Tasmin Little and Nicola Benedetti. Today the school is home to some of Britain, and the world’s, most talented young musicians, taught by the world’s foremost musical educators.
And it is also somewhere Southampton, a club with its own proud legacy of youth education, have developed an interesting relationship.
“I just had an email out of the blue from Southampton,” explains Richard Hillier, the school’s headmaster, as we rumble down the M3 from Surrey to the South Coast. “They asked could they come and see us to talk about what they call ‘elite training’.
“So they came up for a one-day visit, had a look around the school, with the head of academy coaching and the academic head of the academy. And we talked, on that occasion, particularly about the integration of academic and professional training, discussing similarities.”
One visit led to another, this time with Edd Vahid, Southampton’s head of academy coaching, who brought a larger team of staff to watch the musical education in action. By then the conversations were more wide-ranging, drilling down into the specifics of how to get the best out of talented children.
“In particular they were very interested in the idea of assessment, of how you judge potential,” recalls Hillier. “How can you tell whether young people are meeting their potential, what do you do if they don’t?”
It was an obvious area of shared interest between a club looking to produce elite footballers and a school that serves as the starting point for an illustrious career in music. And it was that shared interest that led Hillier and Malcolm Singer, the school’s Director of Music, to the Staplewood Training Centre for a third meeting, this time on the football club’s turf.
The relationship – for want of a better word – between the two institutions is still in its infancy, an exchange of ideas with the very open acceptance that music and sport, while able to learn from each other, have enough differences to prevent too much co-reliance in terms of sharing methods.
But in the super-competitive world of Premier League football, where every scrap of knowledge is a closely-guarded secret, the lessons from the music world are proving a useful way for Southampton – already a leading producer of young talent – to seek an advantage over their richer rivals without breaking the bank.
“It was really interesting from our point of view, really quite thought provoking,” says Vahid of the first two meetings. “The opportunity to get out of your own environment, where you’re sometimes over-immersed, and go to other high-performing organisations, helps you grow.”
One concrete example is the contrasting attitude to individual practice that exists between music and sport. While talented young musicians will take part in chamber and orchestral music, the majority of their development comes through individual, mostly un-taught work. Young footballers, on the other hand, are far less likely to spend hours, unsupervised, working on their own skills with anything like the same intensity – something that his experiences at the Menuhin School have brought to Vahid’s attention.
“We’re encouraging them to engage in practice, trying to create an environment where they can go and practice safely,” he explains. “And that was one of the things we took from visiting you, the amount of practice we observed. So on the tour there was a lad in the middle of a corridor practising, and he was almost oblivious to this party of six or seven people walking past him. And that was one of my take-home messages, actually, do our lads know how to practice? Because that’s really hard. Rather than just the concept of it, do they know how to practice, do we create enough opportunities for them to practice, do they understand what possibilities exist when they’re not with us, and what that looks like?”
Vahid, it is immediately apparent on meeting him, is not your ordinary football coach. Although he played to a reasonable standard – a career in the non-League game around the South of England – his background is not what you tend to see inside a Premier League club’s academy.
Before Southampton, Vahid worked with British sailors and divers, preparing athletes not only for the Olympic Games and other major championships, but also life outside of sport. He has a PhD, the title of which (Psychological perspectives on progression and development within elite developmental performance domains) suggests someone who thinks about youth development rather more deeply, and more scientifically, than English football habitually does.
It is perhaps not surprising, against this backdrop, to see Vahid, and Southampton, reaching out to less conventional methods in a bid to get ahead.
His educational ethos feels, to an outsider at least, almost completely at odds with the portrayal of Premier League academies that is so prevalent in modern media. There, the image is of clubs stockpiling players and then tossing them aside without too much concern for their well-being; here the message is one of a more rounded learning experience, of preparing them for life outside the game when, as is inevitable, most of them don’t make it.
Education manager Toby Redwood talks the visiting group through the educational rigours that are used to help every boy, from the Under-9s to the young professionals, thrive academically, while they also have classes on everything from how to change a light bulb to coping with mental health problems and addiction – issues that seem to afflict modern footballers just as much, if not more, than other sectors of society. Those players who fall behind with their school work, in Redwood’s euphemistic term, ‘lose the opportunity’ and are removed from the academy set-up until their grades improve. It doesn’t happen often.
The ones who make it to become scholars, aged 16 and 17, are all taking BTechs and coaching badges, as well as qualifying as referees. Those who don’t make the grade in the professional game should, at the very least, have been given the tools to cope and build a different life for themselves.
“What we hope is to create good people who ultimately will transition in a positive way, whether that’s into the first team, whether that’s non-league football or whether that’s a degree programme in America,” says Vahid. “If you produce good people, you’ve got a chance in that respect.
“I think the reality is that success can’t really be defined by just one thing. There’s success in terms of, if you use the term crudely, productivity. So that’s players into the first team. You could use players playing in the professional game.
“But equally success is lads studying for degrees in the States who weren’t deemed quite good enough at that point in their development when they were here, but they’re going to go on and have really good careers. You’ve got a coach within our academy, for example, who was a scholar here, wasn’t good enough to be a player here, but is now a part-time coach. So there’s so many levels of success.”
It’s another parallel Southampton see with the Menuhin School, where much of the senior musical staff is made up of alumni, steeped in the 50-year ethos of the school, and where success is measured not only by concert performances but by personal development.
Indeed, Menuhin himself said, on opening the school in 1963, that he would rather the first pupils provided the world with ’30 good teachers than a handful of virtuosi’, and it is an attitude that remains to this day.
“I want that child to leave the school prepared to do whatever it is that, by the age of 18, that child has discovered they really want to do,” says Hillier. “Of course, we hope that we’ve identified the right ones at 8, or 9, or 11, or 13 or 15, and what they want to do is music. But occasionally that won’t be the case - and for me that doesn’t matter so much. Because in the end, and I’m sure that Menuhin would have been the same, you want the child to be doing what it is they are driven to do. And if they discover at 17, 18, they would rather be studying English Literature - much as they love music and want to continue playing, they want to study something different - that’s fine for us as a school, that’s not a problem.”
Above all, both sets of teachers see the development, whether in music, sport or the academics and life skills around them, as a learning process, and it’s in this context that Vahid feels sometimes young footballers are not fully recognised and appreciated.
“The best players are going to be the best learners, is our view,” he says. “Whether that’s in the classroom or on the pitch, if they’ve got the ability to learn they’re going to progress and develop. These are bright boys, they’re all bright lads.”
All of that means that the young men and women that come out of these two institutions are ready not only for a career, but, their teachers hope, for life.
Vahid explains: “They’re developing a lot of transferable skills, and I think sometimes, in the press, they don’t promote that enough. These lads are developing leadership skills, communication skills, the ability to be disciplined. The ability to review and feedback.”
“Discipline is the key,” interjects Singer. “If you look at the music conservatoires, the majority of students who leave, they don’t necessarily stay in music but they have disciplined education, they get jobs.”
This discipline, and the ability to overcome obstacles, is a constant theme throughout the day.
“I think we produce a lot of gritty players, or gritty people,” insists Vahid. “And gritty people tend to be the people who are successful in life. They’re resilient, they deal with challenges, they ride the obstacles and they get on. So I think sometimes we can lose sight of that, and we probably don’t do a good enough job of promoting those transferables that the lads are developing.”
As he talks, behind us Southampton’s Under-14s are reaching the halfway point of a game against Benfica, who are over to test their own players’ progress against what is fast coming to be perceived as one of Europe’s leading academies. As the half-time whistle blows there is a perceptible transformation – what had, moments before, been footballers, graceful in possession, tenacious in the tackle and brilliantly aware on the pitch, are suddenly, very obviously, as they sit down to listen to their coaches, just children.
It was a similar story watching the pupils at the Menuhin School, who from the age of eight or nine regularly perform in front of large audiences of paying customers. Walking on stage, a relatively shy student can look very much like a child. The moment they pick up the violin, or sit down at the piano, a virtuoso performer emerges, visibly different in posture, demeanour, and something less tangible too. It lasts only until the moment they bow – then the child re-emerges.
It was this phenomenon – of the child’s transformation into a performer – that really seems to have left its mark from the trip that Vahid and his coaches took to Cobham earlier in the year. The Saints’ staff not only saw teaching and practice in progress, they also witnessed a concert from some of the school’s younger pupils.
“That’s what we were so impressed with in that concert,” Vahid remembers. “When that young girl - I mean, we didn’t know, but apparently she made an error in the first 20 seconds of her performance. And she just got on with it. She has to park it there, rather than emotionally kill the rest of the performance.
“That element of performing in front of a crowd is key for us. Preparing for being in front of a crowd. And being able to learn how to react to making mistakes. Knowing you just have to get on with it in the moment. There are some good parallels.”
Underpinning their effort to improve the youngsters’ ability to perform under pressure is a state of the art psychology lab that is at the heart of everything Southampton’s academy does. Players from a young age are not only given support by a team of psychologists, but also put through tests on their personalities, their visual perceptions and their performance in high-intensity environments.
It may seem a long way from outcomes on the pitch – certainly there is a sense in conversations with the Southampton staff that some of the older players are not always particularly receptive to these new developments – but in amongst the scepticism there are stories of players using these resources to improve their game.
Above all, Southampton’s child psychologists are attempting to understand the brain and its relation to the body in a developing footballer – and indeed a developing person.
“You do need to have an understanding of the brain, and also the physical developments,” explains Vahid. “So our coaches are obviously technical and tactical experts, but you need to have an appreciation of psychology, physiology and the physical nature of the game as well.”
It is here that their work with the Menuhin School has proved particularly useful, as the physicality of musical performance emphasises physical development in relation to the instrument.
“When a kid goes through a growth spurt their limbs can be all over the place,” says Singer. “One of our students has just been through that and I saw them on stage the other day and everything was a mess. So you can’t judge them in the same way. And it happens so quickly, it’s extraordinary. We shouldn’t be surprised by it but, somehow, every time, you are.”
One coach who visited the school took a particular interest in what happens to a violinist who goes through those sort of extreme physical changes, and has since been attempting to educate his colleagues on the issue.
“He used that example, actually, in his presentation,” recalls Vahid. “He spoke about a violinist you mentioned where you could see their arms were out of sync with the rest of them.
“And the same applies here. The Under-14s is a good group for that, because they go through their growth spurts in and around that age. And sometimes they can look quite awkward. That’s where you need a coach who can take into account that context. That might be what we would consider a below-par performance, but the reality is it’s what that individual is capable of because their body is all over the shop and their brain is not quite sure how to manage that.
“That’s where, I guess, a big part of our ethos is to be patient. It’s a long journey. If a player joins us at 8 or 10, it’s such a long journey, because the average age of a Premier League debut last season was 23. And it’s not linear, there are bumps and scrapes along the way.”
What Southampton look to do, by showing that patience, is provide a pathway to the first team, and in that sense they are way out in front of most of their rivals. The production of players like Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Gareth Bale are obvious stand-out achievements, but the production line has continued since then.
The fact that they felt confident enough to throw central defender Jack Stephens into the first team midway through last season, making his full Premier League debut in January and keeping his place for every game until the end of the campaign, speaks volumes. Another graduate, James Ward-Prowse, is a regular in midfield, and four other graduates were handed Premier League minutes last season. Vahid and his team are obviously doing something right.
“I think that (giving players a first team chance) is the key,” he stresses. “We can’t ever compare ourselves to other clubs, every club has a slightly different focus. But what we’d like to think we do is create an opportunity, and I think that’s what you need whether you’re a footballer or a musician, often what it requires is an opportunity.
“And hopefully that’s what young players believe here, and that creates a particular environment when you believe you’re going to get an opportunity in the end, which is why they’re all here.”
The target at St Mary’s – plastered all over the ground and on the wall in the youth team common room – is for the club to produce a team capable of playing in European competition with at least half the players coming through the academy. There is no doubt that it’s an ambitious goal, but there is no club in the Premier League that looks more likely to achieve it. Exciting, out-of-the-box thinking like the partnership with the Menuhin School is part of the process, ensuring their graduates are benefitting from expertise that no-one else in football has yet tapped into.
And there is certainly plenty of learning that football is behind on, simply because academies embraced truly modern methods so long after their musical counterparts.
“The music schools are 50 years old, and the football academies, are, in their current form, only really 10 or 15 years old,” explains Singer. “So they’re coming at it with a freshness. But there are also things where they are trying to reinvent the wheel, and they want to learn from us because we’ve been doing it for years.”
But that’s not to say this is a one-way relationship. “The dialogue with them has been really fruitful,” adds Singer. “It wasn’t so much a case of who was learning from whom, it’s the fact of the parallels you find, the little things you find of ways of tackling. For example, parents’ expectations, and how you should be auditioning the parents as well as the child sometimes, they apply to both fields.
“The questions they ask us about what we do, they make us look at what we do from a completely different angle. It makes us think about things in a fresh way. So I think we want to come away tweaking what we do as a result of some of the things we see.”
Those potential ‘tweaks’ become more and more plentiful as the day goes on. Throughout the tour of the training complex there are, at regular intervals, comments from both Singer and Hillier about what they might take back to their own institution.
“We ought to have something like that,” one of them remarks as we are shown a whiteboard, hung over the gym, that records every first-team player’s fitness testing, displayed for all the others to see. Hillier in particular is obviously enthusiastic about the club’s embrace of psychologists to work with youngsters from a very early age – though admits it is something the school cannot yet afford. Both men are also clearly taken with the academy’s ’10 commandments’ which are plastered on every wall, and are clearly meticulously enforced. Number four – ‘Greet visitors’ – is particularly noticeable, as every young player we pass around the training ground stops to shake our hand.
The visit ends not at the training ground, but an eight mile drive across the city, at Southampton’s St Mary’s home. This has been carefully planned so that Singer, an Arsenal season-ticket holder, can combine the educational experience with the chance to watch his team as they visit the south coast in an eventually doomed quest to secure Champions League football.
But it is also there that we see the depth of Vahid’s attempt to look beyond football for new ideas. Alongside the Menuhin School pair are representatives from Saracens Rugby Club, the England and Wales Cricket Board and UK Coaching, all involved in the education of talented youngsters. Before, during and after Arsenal’s comfortable victory, ideas are bounced around, commonalities found, and future co-operation mooted.
These sorts of relationships, and this sharing of knowledge, may seem tangential to the eventual goals of a Premier League team. Even the players who benefit from them may never really appreciate that the ideas which help them to the top originate from other disciplines. But they are indicative of a club, and a sport, which knows it is lagging behind and is, finally, beginning to face the music.