Bale and Walcott Saints but no angels
Published 20/11/2010 | 05:00
From the outside, there is nothing remotely remarkable about 164 Hill Lane. It is a large, two-storey, semi-detached guesthouse opposite Southampton Common which currently stands vacant.
The faded red stripe running around the middle is the only outward indication that it is the property of Southampton Football Club. Yet it was here, in Darwin Lodge, where the scholars of the Southampton academy lived from 1998 until May of this year.
More notably, for one season between 2005 and 2006, it was the residence of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale. And they even shared room No 9 on the corner of the first floor.
Running Darwin Lodge was Julia Upson, a landlady whose job ranged from being cook and cleaner to counsellor and stand-in mother. She also remains the trusted keeper of numerous secrets.
"I lived on the job for 11 years and it was absolutely brilliant," she says. "When you spend that amount of time looking after a house for 22 boys, there is not much that can shock you. Some young players do go off the rails a bit. They get success and good money at a young age. Some like the nightclubs. Some gamble their money away."
Upson is far too discreet to mention names and, in any case, she stresses that the overwhelming majority of scholars in her care were "fantastic".
Her face instantly lights up when she recalls her two most famous former residents. "Theo and Gareth? Always polite, always well-mannered," she says. "Lovely boys who just wanted to play football. And they haven't changed at all."
But what about away from the cameras; surely there must have been some mischief and the occasional telling-off?
"A few times for a bit of high jinks, but there was never anything serious with Theo and Gareth," she says. "Just lots of playing jokes on each other. They both liked that. Things like putting water on the top of the doors. Knocking on doors and running off. They are two genuinely nice people."
One abiding memory for Upson is the personal support they showed when her husband died, even after they had both left Southampton.
"Theo and his dad came to the funeral," she says. "Gareth couldn't make it because he was on tour with Tottenham but his mum and dad attended. They have always kept in touch."
Understandably, those who worked at the Southampton academy can still scarcely believe that two boys from the same room should go on to become, respectively, the most exciting right and left winger in Britain. Together, they are now worth upwards of £50m.
"It has to be unique -- Southampton might want to bottle what was in that room," said Malcolm Elias, the club's former head of recruitment.
So was their success just a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence? "It was always felt that Theo could achieve great things," says Upson, "but Gareth's progress was less certain early on.
"Gareth was very determined, but he would beat himself up a bit sometimes. I remember him having an ankle injury and worrying if he would ever get into the Wales team.
"I think sharing a room helped both of them. They were a good influence on each other. You have got to have talent to start with, but you must be mentally strong too. Some players do let success go to their heads but, with Theo and Gareth, you always knew they had the right attitude and temperament."
The idea of grouping all the young academy players under the same roof originated from when Rupert Lowe was chairman. The aim was to foster team spirit, but also ensure there was structure and a discipline to their lives.
"We tried to have good standards, which was important for the young players to get on in life, not just football," says Upson. "It was standard accommodation -- a few of the rooms had ensuites but Theo and Gareth's didn't. They had good food, it was warm and it was clean but not luxury by any means."
The boys would be up every morning for breakfast at around 7.30, before boarding their mini-bus to the training ground where they would stay until the afternoon. After returning for their evening meal, there would generally be some free time until they all had to be in their rooms by 10.30.
The favourite social activity of Walcott and Bale was tenpin bowling, with Upson usually providing the transport. "You needed an adult with you if you were under 18 so they used to drag me along," she says. "I would drive us all, with Theo always making sure he sat in the front so he had control of the music on the radio."
Thursday's ritual was late-night shopping in the WestQuay centre and it was on one of these trips that Walcott met girlfriend Melanie Slade.
"She was working in Claire's Accessories but the story was that Theo sent in Zach Kalthoff, who was a Canadian goalkeeper also living at the Lodge, to speak to her for him to start with," she says.
"I remember them telling me all about it when they got home."
When they moved out, they both signed their names beneath the window sill of their room. It is a strip of wallpaper that remains intact and, just like Walcott and Bale, is probably increasing in value by the day. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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