Gareth Southgate confident Crystal Palace can now compete for top young stars as he cuts ribbon on new academy

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 (Crystal Palace FC)
(Crystal Palace FC)

Gareth Southgate was on typically eloquent, self-deprecating form as he returned to Crystal Palace to open the club’s new £20million academy on Thursday,

“Everything started here for me as a 14-year-old schoolboy,” he told a crowd of VIPs, former managers, club legends and current first-team players and coaches.

“So hopefully that gives the lads in the academy belief that you can start here and have an international career with England. Frankly, if I can end up in charge of the national team, then anything is possible.”

But beneath the humour, Southgate knew full well what a boon this first-class facility will be for his former club and, perhaps one day, an England team that will by then be someone else’s responsibility.

South London’s emergence as a hotbed of footballing talent continues to be well-charted, with a documentary ‘South Of The River’ set to air on BT Sport next month, and Southgate-era England have, at various levels, already benefited from the region’s youthful riches.

Jadon Sancho and Emile Smith Rowe will surely be pivotal figures in the Three Lions’ future. They lifted the Under-17s World Cup in 2017, as the age-group revolution to which Southgate was so central kicked into effect, as did Callum Hudson-Odoi, while Ademola Lookman and Ezri Konsa won the Under-20 equivalent.

Hudson-Odoi could yet have his time with the senior team again and the same goes for Joe Gomez and maybe even Ruben Loftus-Cheek, though the latter already has a World Cup semi-final on his CV. Tammy Abraham could go even further should he keep his place in the squad until Qatar next year. But what do all of those sons of south London have in common? Not one of them came through at Palace.

“You’ve got one of the best catchment areas in the country — but if you can’t match the facilities of some of the clubs nearby then that is going to be a barrier to recruitment,” Southgate said. “One of those differences now has changed. When young players come here they will feel just as special as they feel at any other club in the Premier League.”

 (Crystal Palace FC)
(Crystal Palace FC)

That is not to say Palace have been unsuccessful in producing outstanding young talent; it is only through a quirk of right-back fate that Aaron Wan-Bissaka does not have a senior England cap, while Wilfried Zaha and Victor Moses chose to pursue international careers elsewhere.

Nor that Palace will be providing half of the England squad within 10 years, or that had the academy been conceived a decade earlier, Sancho would necessarily be latching onto Smith Rowe passes and knee-sliding in front of the Homesdale Road Stand. Rather that facilities will no longer be the reason they are not.

The new academy, granted Category One status, boasts six full-size pitches, including an indoor one with its own sprinkler system, a restaurant, 500-seat stand and a host of classrooms and learning facilities to support young players’ development off the pitch. Eighteen months from now, the second phase of the project, featuring an expanded gym area, recovery pools and a medical rehab centre, will be completed, too.

It is a far cry from the Portakabins, pies and sausage sandwiches Southgate recalled from his days at the club’s old Mitcham base.

 (Crystal Palace FC)
(Crystal Palace FC)

“When we were at Palace we had a resilience, but whenever we travelled to Highbury or to Tottenham, we did feel a bit inferior,” Southgate said. “We didn’t necessarily have that investment in us. We didn’t necessarily feel that we could match those teams.”

In the academy stakes at least, that is no longer the case.

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