Teenage Frenchman flying the flag for Saints' next generation.
When Yan Valery was selected to start Ralph Hasenhüttl’s first match in charge of Southampton, away at Cardiff City, little did he know the trend he was about to set.
The 19-year-old Frenchman already had some first-team experience, playing in the last two games under Mark Hughes, but life under the new boss would be like starting afresh.
Valery’s impressive showings against Leicester City in the Carabao Cup and Manchester United, no less, on his Premier League debut, proved he was capable, but would not count for much if Hasenhüttl decided he had better options.
The Cardiff experience was a steep learning curve. As well as he stifled the forward runs of fellow Staplewood graduate Luke Shaw the week before, the youngster admits Josh Murphy caused him too many problems. Valery was substituted at half time.
If that was his sink or swim moment, Valery is still gliding across the water. He’s featured in every Premier League game since, and was one of eight Academy products in Saints’ matchday squad for the recent FA Cup replay against Derby County.
The defender’s journey began in Champigny-sur-Marne, in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris, eight miles outside the city centre.
“It’s a rough area, but I learned a lot there,” he says. It wasn’t perfect, but it was home.
“It’s good when you’re young – you can just go and play football with other children and I had a lot of friends there.
“My parents didn’t really let me go out too much, because they didn’t want me to follow some of my friends in the rough areas – people doing drugs and robbing things.
“They knew when I was going out, I was only going to play football. I was not interested in other things – just playing football, chilling with my friends, laughing and joking. I didn’t do anything bad.
“People see rough areas as a bad thing, but when you grow up in this sort of environment you learn a lot.
“It makes you mentally tougher, because you see a lot of things. I’m happy to have come from there.”
After joining his local team at the age of six, Valery revealed he temporarily gave up on football.
“I was a little bit lazy – I didn’t really like to run too much, so I stopped it and tried other sports,” he says.
“I tried fighting sports – boxing, karate, judo – and tennis, but people were telling my mum I was quite good at football and I should be playing for a club, so I ended up going back when I was about nine or ten.
“When I go back home in the summer, I still do some boxing with some of my friends who do it. It’s good for fitness.”
yan valerypeople see rough areas as a bad thing, but when you grow up in this environment you learn a lot.
By his teenage years, Valery was being scouted by professional clubs and joined Stade Rennais as a 14-year-old.
“At that moment, it was the best Academy in France,” he states, proudly. “It was a very big change.
“I went there and the training was really quick for me – technically, I was not good compared to the other players.
“I really worked a lot there, and they helped to improve my technique a lot as I trained.
“After two or three months, I could play my football and progress. At the start, it was a big change, but afterwards it was fine.”
Rennes, as they are widely known, don’t have a good reputation for producing players for nothing.
Valery trained with Sevilla centre-back Joris Gnagnon and World Cup winner Ousmane Dembélé, who stars on the wing for Barcelona, in the Academy, while Premier League winning graduates include Mikaël Silvestre and Sylvain Wiltord (six titles between them).
For all his growing up on the pitch, Valery admits at times he felt judged off it – his every move scrutinised due to his Parisian roots. Only some of it was self-inflicted.
“When I went there, I was still thinking like I was in Paris,” he remembers.
“I was doing some stuff and people were saying ‘what is he doing? He’s crazy!’ because they knew I was from a rough area.
“When you do something and another player does the same thing, for you it looks worse. It was a little bit like that, so I had some trouble.
“The coaches told me ‘you’re from Paris, so obviously we look at you and what you do’. I thought that was unfair, but my parents just told me ‘that’s life’. You just have to take it.”
Like a lot of foreign players, Valery grew up admiring the Premier League and always felt the English game might best suit his talents.
By his own admission, the technical side of his game came less naturally, but he was strong for his age, athletic and wholeheartedly committed.
At 16, having impressed in a tournament for Rennes, Saints were alerted to those attributes for the first time.
“I was told some clubs were watching me, but I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t,” he says.
“I didn’t have an agent, so Southampton came to my parents and told them they were interested.
“Ever since I was young, I’d always wanted to play in England, so when I heard that I knew I had to take that opportunity.
“It was the best Academy in England – a good club, with Morgan Schneiderlin, Sadio Mané… good players. I just said ‘if this is true, I won’t even think twice. I will go’.”
After a quick tour of Staplewood he stayed true to his word – Valery was uprooting his life to chase his dream.
There were stumbling blocks along the way. He was training through the week without the opportunity to play on a Saturday because of a delay in acquiring international clearance, while his grasp of English was limited.
Valery points to French-speaking teammate Dan N’Lundulu as a big help, while Under-23 boss Radhi Jaïdi also took him under his wing.
“It was easy, because as long as you have people who can speak your language, they can translate for you,” he explains.
“I was also taking English lessons on the side and trying to talk with other players in English, even if I knew my English was not good. That’s how I really learned quickly.
“After six months, I was understanding everything and my spoken English was not too bad. After a year, it was good. I couldn’t believe it!
“It just comes from being around English people and listening. When I was making mistakes, they would tell me ‘you should say it like this’ and next time I would say it right. Making mistakes is how you learn.”
Valery, just turning 17, was invited to train with the first team by Ronald Koeman and went on his first pre-season tour under Claude Puel in 2016.
Surprising, then, that it would take another two years for his big breakthrough to arrive. He would have to be patient.
“I was ready, but I was never thinking ‘I should be in the first team soon’” he insists.
“I just wanted to play consistently well in the Under-23s, and the chance would come when it would come.
“I was never thinking ‘when is it coming?’ or ‘I should be with them’. I was never like that, but when it came, I knew I had to take my chance.”
Valery had never been on loan, so his only taste of facing senior opposition had come in the Checkatrade Trophy.
Had he struggled against Leicester, all of what’s followed might still be a pipedream. You only get one debut, and Valery knew the significance of his.
“I found out I was playing the day before, so I had to sleep on it,” he recalls. “I was thinking a lot about the game, but my sleep was not too bad.
“I told my family, who were really proud and happy. I thought I would be more nervous, but I wasn’t – I was more excited. I couldn’t wait to play and see what it was like.
“Before the game started, the manager and the players were telling me ‘even if you make a mistake, you’re young – just play’. That helped me as well. You feel free.”
Having completed the full 90 minutes, Valery was still on the pitch for the ensuing penalty shoot-out, and admits the nerves were jangling as both teams dispatched their first five spot-kicks.
“I didn’t want to take a penalty, to be honest,” he shakes his head. “But if it was to come to me, I would have done it. I was not going to put my name in the first five!”
Ultimately, Saints were out before Valery was called upon, but he had done enough to keep his place and go head to head with some of his French idols.
“I was thinking ‘it’s Man United. You have more to win than you have to lose. There’s no pressure – just go and play’” he told himself.
“When I’m on the pitch, I don’t really look at who I’m playing against. If you start to think ‘it’s Pogba’ you might get scared.
“That was weird, but I didn’t really realise it until after the game when everyone was texting me saying ‘you played against Pogba!’ and ‘you played against Man United!’”
Valery soon found that friends in high places get you far in football, collecting Anthony Martial’s shirt as a special souvenir to mark the occasion.
“I spoke with him, Pogba and Lukaku, because they all speak French, and they know Mario (Lemina) who I was with,” he added.
“They just told me I’d done well and to keep going, so I said thank you. That was it really.”
Simple words, but it clearly meant a lot to the teenager, who was celebrating Pogba’s goal in the World Cup final only five months earlier.
Valery was living the dream, but evidence of football’s tendency to throw you a curveball was lurking just around the corner.
The United match would prove Hughes’s last in charge and Valery was left out for Saints’ next game, at Wembley, against Tottenham.
Enter Hasenhüttl, a new boss Valery knew nothing about, and the chance he feared he may have squandered in south Wales.
“Murphy was good, but I don’t think it was him who made me learn, it was more about myself,” he says of the Cardiff experience.
“I was running forward a lot, not thinking enough about the winger, who was quick, and that I was going to have to get back as well.
“I was making a lot of runs, getting tired and making stupid fouls. We were playing four at the back in that game, instead of five, so I learned from that too.
“Even when I play well, I’m still learning from every player and every team I play against. They are all good at something different.”
Valery explained how a conversation with a player he knows at Leipzig – friends in high places again – reassured him Hasenhüttl often puts his faith in youth, with the aspiring Saint fearing he could be dropped to the Under-23s.
On the contrary, Valery kept his place for the next game against Arsenal – the first victory of the Hasenhüttl era – and hasn’t looked back since.
“That really showed me he trusted me, so I was really happy,” he said, recognising his manager’s bravery. “I didn’t care that it was Arsenal – I had to show him that he had done the right thing, and we won that game 3-2.
“It was his first game at St Mary’s, so I was just really happy that he trusted me against a big club like that, even though I was young and might make mistakes. At the time Arsenal had won a lot of games in a row.”
It would be wrong to suggest the likes of Kayne Ramsay, Callum Slattery, Tyreke Johnson and Marcus Barnes have not grafted feverishly to earn their chance in recent weeks, but their cause has surely been aided by Valery’s consistency, reinforcing the message that the talent pool beneath the first team is alive and well.
yan valerythe talent is definitely there. the manager can't force himself to play young players - if he plays them, it's because he thinks they can bring something to the team.
Michael Obafemi, another profiting youngster, joined Valery in making his first start against Leicester, and the Frenchman understood the importance of setting the right example if others were to follow.
“I thought if we do well and they trust us, they could trust some of the other youngsters,” he reasoned.
“Obviously I want to see most of my Under-23 teammates moving up with me and Michael, so we can all be together. I hope he can bring all of the Under-23s up!
“I was focusing on my own game and trying to play well, but also thinking ‘surely if I do well, someone else will come?’
“I didn’t think it would be that many, but I thought at least one more would come up. That’s good – I’m happy to see all of them coming up, and I hope it will be more.
“The talent is definitely there. The manager can’t force himself to play young players – if he plays them, it’s because he thinks they can bring something to the team.
“It’s good to see us going back to the days when Southampton were playing a lot of youngsters.
“When someone talks about Southampton, that’s what you think of straightway.”
Whether Valery will follow in the footsteps of some of the most celebrated Staplewood graduates, it’s still too early to say, but the chances of one of Saints’ next generation making a name for themselves is increasing with every game he plays.