Seven years ago, Southampton were only just beginning their Premier League journey. Maya Yoshida has experienced all the highs and lows since; but what does the future hold?
There is not much Maya Yoshida hasn’t seen in his time as a Southampton player.
One of the founder members of the club’s latest Premier League adventure, the unknown Japanese defender was plucked from obscurity after impressing for his country at the London Olympics in 2012, the year of Saints’ promotion.
Only James Ward-Prowse from the current first-team squad has served Southampton for longer, with Yoshida making his 180th appearance under the lights at St Mary’s on Friday.
“When I come back to Heathrow from the internationals or to Southampton airport from a short trip, I feel more comfortable than when I land in Japan!” he jokes. Yoshida has an infectious laugh, a recurring theme throughout this interview just as it is from day to day at Staplewood.
“I feel settled here. The life in the UK is really similar to Japan. The people are organised and polite – not as polite as Japan, but still polite!” he interrupts himself, breaking into another chuckle.
These aren’t just hollow words to get the supporters giggling too. Yoshida has been in Southampton for nearly seven years now, his daughter was born here and he has developed a genuine affinity to the area. He even reveals he has applied for UK residency.
“It’s a good option to have, good for my daughter,” he says, before he’s quizzed on life after football. “We have the option to stay here, to go to Japan or go somewhere else.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do in my second career after the football career, but I need to have the coaching licence to make sure I have that option, or I can make a business here, with a visa.
“I have thought about what I’m going to do after my career since I was 18 when I was promoted to the first team in Japan. Still I don’t have the answer.
“First, I’m enjoying playing football. Second, I don’t know another world. I’ve never done anything else before apart from football.
“It’s exciting. When I was young, I was more scared when I started to think about my second career.
“Now I’m interested to see another world – not only football, but also business, education or foundation.”
maya yoshidai have thought about what i'm going to do after my career since i was 18 when i was promoted to the first team in japan. still i don't have the answer.
Some footballers are more comfortable in the media spotlight than others, but the Saints squad are accommodating enough when approached for interviews.
The only unknown is when they might turn up. As Yoshida acknowledged, he doesn’t know another world, and players can take their own sweet time finishing their daily routine at Staplewood. Match preparation comes first, which is only fair.
By contrast Yoshida is bang on time for his 2.30pm appointment at HarBAR, the rooftop bar of the Southampton Harbour Hotel that overlooks the marina in Ocean Village.
He strolls in consulting his phone, planning a family weekend away in Portugal over the international break, having been rested by Japan for their recent doubleheader with Colombia and Japan. Such multitasking underlines his commitment to punctuality.
Between posing for photos and sitting down to chat, he points to the block of flats where he based himself before moving to Winchester to start a family.
It gives the 30-year-old a chance to reminisce over how Saints have grown since taking their baby steps in the top flight, just two seasons after competing in League One.
“It has changed a lot,” he says, taking a deep breath. “After promotion to the Premier League, we had a different budget from the TV rights and from big sponsors – Under Armour has a seven-year contract, and there’s Virgin Media as well.
“We had new facilities – the training facility is much better than what we had before. That’s what the Academy kids are using now!
“It’s totally changed. People recognise Southampton as a Premier League club – not just a promoted club anymore.
“I’ve seen many great players fly away, but they are still part of it. It was a pleasure to play with those players and I have been inspired by a lot by them.”
The visit of Liverpool seemed an apt time to discuss those who have moved on.
No fewer than six current players joined the Reds directly from Southampton, including Nathaniel Clyne, now on loan at AFC Bournemouth.
Yoshida holds no animosity towards any of them, speaking honestly about Saints’ status in the football pyramid.
“Unfortunately, we are not a top, top club. We have to accept that and we have to realise that,” he explains, singling out Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mané. “I think it’s difficult to keep great players here.
“When I watched the last round of the Champions League, seeing Virgil assist Sadio’s goal and then Virgil scoring and Sadio scoring again… I think the fans should be proud of what we discovered.
“Fifteen months ago, Virgil was here. Three years ago, Sadio was here. Five years ago, Adam Lallana was here.
“I think they have done very well. They had the potential, they had the ability but they put in the effort. Every day Sadio was in the gym doing extra sessions.
“I understand it’s really frustrating for the fans, but at the same time they should be proud of themselves.
“We discovered great players and gave them the chance to play in the Premier League. They made us good money to discover another player – maybe Japanese, maybe Gabonese, maybe French like Yan (Valery), or maybe kids from Portsmouth!
“Those transfers are paying for the squad. It’s important for the market, because everyone knows Southampton is one of the really educated clubs in the Premier League.”
The cheeky swipe at those in blue is further proof of Yoshida’s indoctrination into life as a Saint over the years, even without the chance to play against the biggest rivals.
It’s clear he’s proud of the reputation his club has built worldwide, including back home in Japan, where he is regularly asked by major governing bodies for inside knowledge on Saints’ recruitment strategy.
“It’s a good business model for other clubs in the world,” he reasons. “Many people from J.League clubs ask me how Southampton are so successful and find such good players.
‘“Do they have good scouts? Do they have good education? Do they have a good Academy system?’ I just say ‘everything’.
“The JFA, the J.League, individual clubs – people ask me why Southampton are so successful in finding good players, educating them, selling them… it’s a secret!”
To sell players at a significant profit, you must first improve them. To improve them requires an accomplished teacher, and Yoshida is convinced Saints have found one in Ralph Hasenhüttl.
Had the season started at the time of the Austrian’s appointment in early December, Saints would be sitting comfortably in mid-table.
“He has passion. He’s an emotional guy – he shows that emotion before the game, during the game and after the game,” Yoshida reveals.
“But he has a plan – that’s the most important thing. If you don’t have a plan, you can never fight against Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and City. These clubs have a plan.
“If we get a result or not, we have a plan and we try to stick to that plan – something we have tried through the week.
“This is important – not just playing with no vision and no plan, sometimes winning and sometimes losing.
“I feel a similar feeling with Ralph as with Mauricio Pochettino. Under Pochettino, my second season was my worst season in my Southampton career – I only played eight or nine games in the Premier League.
“But I still think Pochettino is one of the best managers of Southampton in the last seven years. I feel similar things with Ralph.
“I think if you look back to last season, I have to be honest and say it was nearly a disaster. I think the fans can see a difference between this season and last season.
“We had the opportunity to win against United, we won against Arsenal, we won against Spurs… this is not a relegated club.
“We have to stay up and we deserve it, but we have to prove our ability. If we stay up this season we can be much more positive next season. We can make something new – that’s my feeling.”
maya yoshidaif we get a result or not, we have a plan and we try to stick to that plan - something we have tried through the week... i feel a similar feeling with ralph as with mauricio pochettino.
on the impact of ralph hasenhüttl
Yoshida tells a story from the Arsenal home game – Saints’ first win under the new boss.
“I came here (HarBAR) to have a drink with my friend,” he recalls. “Before I came upstairs, I saw the meeting room, which we used before the game. Ralph was there analysing the game.
“After two or three hours, I go downstairs, pass through the meeting room again and he was still there with Danny (Röhl), still analysing the game. That’s after a win!
“Sometimes, two or three hours after a game when it is nearly midnight, they are still in.
“I can see he is trying to do what he needs to do as much as possible, so I feel I have to be committed. I have to commit to him and I have to commit to the club… that is a true leader.”
The topic of leadership lends itself to a discussion on captaincy.
A senior figure in the dressing room, Yoshida has worn the armband himself a number of times, and taken on the role of national team skipper since last summer’s World Cup, after which veteran midfielder Makoto Hasebe announced his retirement.
“I’m not the guy showing emotion, shouting at everyone to lead the team. That’s Pierre!” he giggles again, suggesting Højbjerg’s intensity on the pitch is matched behind the scenes.
“After seven years, I don’t change anything whether I have the armband or not. I don’t change my attitude or my behaviour. I act how I am and I do what I believe is right.
“If I feel something is important for the squad, I will say it. It’s simple. It’s the same with the national team.
“After the World Cup, I became the captain of the squad but I don’t change anything. I do what I have done for the last eight years the same.
“Now there are young players coming up who can see my behaviour and my attitude, and I try to inspire them as much as I can by my work. I think that’s normal – nothing special.
“I’m not a magician, I’m not charismatic… I’m not a saint!” He’s laughing again, pleased with that pun. “A club captain is a really important person, but a national team captain is different. There’s more responsibility on my shoulders, but I’m proud of that.”
Only seven players have represented Samurai Blue 100 times – a milestone Yoshida is now just five caps away from.
But the defender is looking longer term on the international stage, to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, hinting that could be his swansong. And not just for Japan.
“I will be 33, but that’s still possible. A career after the World Cup? I don’t want to say that will be the end yet, but maybe a year before the World Cup I will think about it. I’m pretty sure I can go until then.”
Will he still be a Saint, if not a saint?
“I like an adventure. I like to discover a new world every time,” he says.
“That’s why, when I have two or three days off, I try to see a different part of the world. Last time I went to France, this time I’m going to Portugal for the first time.
“In the last window (last summer), there was interest in me from Saudi Arabia, but I don’t work for the money.
“I have a good contract with Southampton. If I had an offer from another Premier League club on the same level for an extra one million (pounds), I would choose to stay at Southampton and finish a beautiful career with good friends.
“If I get an offer from another country, maybe I will decide to see a different part of the world, but no one knows in the future.
“I think I have a good relationship with the fans and people know I have improved. I have had good times and bad times, but I am still here.”
Naturally, there’s still time for another joke or two before he goes back to those Portuguese flight times.
“Of course, I wanted to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona, but I don’t think that’s possible now! I’d like to finish my career like Steven Gerrard and stay with the same team,” he pauses for thought. “Actually, not Steven Gerrard… Kelvin Davis! That’s better.”