Can Arsenal and Chelsea reject Luke Shaw become Man United's golden boy?
Luke Shaw was known as the “dopey” one in Southampton’s famed academy, according to team-mate James Ward-Prowse, but it is scouts from the major London clubs who will feel daftest today.
Shaw has become the most sought-after teenager in world football yet his journey both to Brazil and probably then to Old Trafford has met its share of rejection.
He was part of Arsenal’s development centres in Croydon and then Walthamstow but was released. He then joined Chelsea but was let go after it was decided that he was too small. He was also overlooked by Fulham following a three-week trial.
Shaw’s life, though, was to change one afternoon in Basingstoke in 2003 when he was taking part in an under-9s tournament that was also attended by the Southampton scout Phil Spreadbury.
“He was small, but strong and he was technically good,” recalls Spreadbury.
“There were a lot of scouts at the tournament but, as far as I know, nobody else talked to him. Luke was a Chelsea fan, but I just told him and his father that Southampton was a small family club, where he would get a better chance of breaking through. I told him about lads we had, like Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott.”
A six-week trial followed and, at the age of eight, Shaw was offered a place in the Southampton academy. One further problem, however, was that the family home was in Hersham, Surrey. That is 64 miles from Southampton – on the absolute outer limits of the one-hour travelling rule for under-12 players – but the presence of the M3 motorway ultimately convinced the Premier League that it was acceptable.
Much of the next seven years was spent on the M3 as Shaw’s parents, Paul and Joanna, ferried him to up to four training sessions a week with an academy year group that also included Ward-Prowse, Calum Chambers and Harrison Reed. The team went unbeaten for two years between the ages of 11 and 13. The ethos of the so-called ‘Southampton Way’ has been summed up by Chambers. “If you see someone thinking they are bigger than they are, then straight away everyone says: ‘Stop, you have to keep your feet on the ground, you haven’t made it yet.’ The players self-police. The staff do it as well.”
This mentality was also evident in Shaw’s approach to playing football for Rydens, his local secondary school in Hersham, where his younger brother is still a pupil. “Of all the students I have taught who have been to professional academies, he was by far the most committed to school football,” says Steve Hart, his former PE teacher.
“He never once missed a school game because there was club training or matches. Luke was very humble. There was no arrogance about him. There was no, ‘I can do this already’.
“The one game that sticks in my memory was the under-15 national cup quarter-final against Millfield School in Somerset. Luke scored one and set up another in a 2-1 win. They are an elite sporting school and we just had no right to beat schools of that nature. Luke was one of three in central midfield. He was head and shoulders the best player on the pitch. He worked so hard and his desire to win that game was unbelievable. It was the day I realised just how good he was.”
As Shaw developed physically as well as technically, Southampton were also beginning to appreciate that he was a special talent. At the age of 15, Shaw was fast-tracked into Jason Dodd’s under-18 squad. By the age of 16, Nigel Adkins was giving him his senior debut in the FA Cup.
Within a year, he was a regular in the Premier League and now, at still only 18, he has been selected ahead of Ashley Cole – arguably England’s greatest left-back – for the World Cup. Should a £27 million offer be accepted from Manchester United, Shaw will also become the second most expensive full-back in football history after Barcelona’s Dani Alves. In Southampton, he is regarded as better than Gareth Bale at the same stage of his career. “At a similar age nobody was quite sure whether Bale would be a left-back or a more attacking player,” says Adam Leitch, chief sports writer of the Southern Daily Echo. “Also he had not developed physically into the athlete he has become. No such questions surround Shaw.”
That rare physical strength is also highlighted by Matthew Le Tissier. “For such a young lad, he is so mature in the way he plays the game,” says Le Tissier. “Physically he has filled out early in his life. He looks like a man already.”
Mauricio Pochettino, the Southampton manager, actually believes that Shaw might also follow Bale in playing a more advanced role for club and country. “I think he’s a different type of player to Ashley Cole,” he says. “He can play throughout the entire wing and he can attack and he can defend very well.”
When Shaw was selected for England in March, his first thought was for the sacrifices his parents had made and there were tears when he telephoned his mum with the news. “The main reason is my family,” he says. “My mum and dad spent a lot of years travelling down to Southampton. It was hard for them.”
After making his international debut against Denmark, he was also back at Rydens Enterprise School the next day. Some of the staff were in tears and, after the confirmation of Hodgson’s squad, there was further celebration among staff and pupils today. “It’s surreal – especially the speed he got there,” says Hart, his former PE teacher. “It feels like he was here five minutes ago. It shows to other students that it’s not impossible.
"From what I’ve seen of him and what I know of his parents, he’ll take it in his stride. They are very level-headed and down to earth. It’s amazing for us. By far and away, this is the highlight of my career.” It is the same for Shaw, but perhaps not for those scouts at Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham who once overlooked English football’s new star.