The released footballer – gone but not forgotten.

Ian Herding is arguably the most important person at Southampton Football Club you’ve probably never heard of. But to all released academy players he is the go to man.

Lost in a mass of dedicated Academy staff befitting the now world renowned Category 1 Academy at their magnificent Staplewood base, the Performance Education and Life Care Officer conducts his pioneering work in typically understated fashion.

Southampton are an innovative football club. It’s a word that most organisations want to be associated with, and all too readily pronounce, but few ratify their claims with substance or evidence. This two-part interview provides insight into good practice with the hope it may spark the imagination of our footballing community. Separated into two themes titled; ‘The released footballer- gone but not forgotten’, and; ‘Life education-the Southampton way’.

How do you define innovation? For me, it’s simple;

“Innovation is anything new, useful, and surprising. Great innovation often leaves you thinking, wow that’s a good idea, why didn’t I think of that”.

None more so evident than their approach to the ‘released player’. While the world wakes to ever increasing stories documenting the struggle of mental health issues of footballers, it’s reassuring to hear that preventative actions have, and are, well under way when it comes to the 99.5% that don’t make it to first team level. Recent cases of bullying, depression, anxiety and unhappiness within Academy football settings are as alarming as they are distressing. Let’s try and redress the balance with some innovation.

With pleasant ‘surprise’ Ian opens his laptop to display the clubs ‘alumni database’. Eight years of data tracking 165 released players at the end of their scholarship (U18). A permanent evolving record of their current playing status, career pathway, and specific educational and vocational support offered by his team/ the club. A database that grows organically through the concerted efforts of its creator, as is customary with a practiced auditor. The crucial part is most notably the human interaction. Ian details their last communication logging the conversations. So much so that with an air of certainty he’s able to update me on some unfamiliar names to the average Southampton fan among this talented crop of 2010/11.

Southampton FC Youth Team 2010/11

The avid Saints fan with just a cursory glance at this youth team photo will probably be able to recognise the fresh faced footballing success stories of Ward-Prowse, Reed, Shaw, Chambers, Isgrove, Turnbull and Hoskins to name a few. But to a former employee pictured with this crop some eight-years past, it was the familiar names of Nicholas, Foot, Curtis, and Young etc. that grabbed my attention. Lee Nicholas was ‘let go’ after his scholarship, and Ian was able to update me on his timeline since. Entering full-time education and gaining qualifications from Loughborough and Solent University, the degree graduate then went on to improve his coaching qualifications with the support of the clubs academy staff acting as mentors. He is now employed as the Coaching and Development Officer in the foundation arm of the club. An FA affiliate tutor he’s also one of the academies foundation phase coaches, completing a full cycle in impressive fashion.    

Southampton Graduates right to left; Chambers, Sinclair, Shaw, Reed, Turnbull, Ward-Prowse.

Perhaps offering the most powerful testament or indictment of the work Ian and his team undertake are these honest opinions of the released player. Personal reflections from the player and their parents on how they perceive Southampton FC’s after care provision seem to vindicate the need and validate the process. What a rich collection of data! The academic in me is itching to investigate the qualitative data and examine player differences and perception (on hold for now). Within the remarks Ian highlights one or two negative statements in which he refers to as “important to appreciate so we can reflect, evaluate and improve our practice”. But on the whole, the feedback is heart warming.

“The club and the people involved with the club did more than enough to prepare myself and the other members of the team for life after football, and I couldn’t be more grateful! The help they supplied us with has led me to the next chapter of my life which is at a University in North Carolina, without the help I was given I would neither be prepared and able to do this without the club and the people within it”.

Player who spent 4 years at Southampton before release at 18.
SFC Youth team in action at Staplewood 2019.

“I will forever be grateful for the time people at the club have spent making sure my time there was the best it could be, but also the time they spent making sure we grew into be good all round people and live good lives whether it was with football or without”


A released Scholar.

In a data driven world why don’t we introduce some numbers. Southampton released 11 players from the U16 group from the 2017/18 season. All 11 players went on to sign a Scholarship at a professional football club, a 100% success rate. The following season 10 players were released of which 7 have signed with professional clubs, 2 have entered higher education, and 1 is unaccounted for at the time of writing. Is this tremendous statistic by chance? No chance.

The club operate an exit strategy for all released players. It is of course the nature of the beast in this occupation, and considered by many academy football practitioners as the toughest part of the job. Ian, aware of the decisions and which player’s will need his support, prior to parent and child meetings begins his work immediately. Acting almost as an agent or intermediary on behalf of the player. Contacting clubs through an extensive network built over time he is able to forward a comprehensive dossier showcasing their talents to any prospective new employer.

The detail is exhaustive. A combination of written documents and video files offer a true reflection of the players’ performance metrics. It’s true that since the inception of the The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012, accountability at club and staff level has increased tenfold. Every staff member associated with that player’s development contribute to a mix of objective and subjective information. Technical coaches offer summary of their skills, highlighting strengths and weaknesses supported by game statistics and periodic performance reviews; analysts capture game and training footage; conditioning coaches map the physical load, training data, and current maintenance or production programming, with a mix of performance measurements that chronologically define the player’s output. Some CV!

It is not always an easy process for both Ian and the player. The administrative duties are far-reaching , player incomings and outgoings within an academy take considerable expertise and knowhow. Notwithstanding the logistics of transport, accommodation and kit, there is always the overriding governance of the Premier League, the Football League, the Football Association, and the club’s internal policy and procedures to comply and satisfy. On behalf of one individual Ian contacted 54 clubs, with the player unsuccessfully trialing at 9.

Today, the player remains unattached and Ian remains determined.

Please hit the link for the second part of the interview; https://thefootballfamily.co.uk/life-education-the-southampton-way/

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