As St Mary’s welcomes in a new decade, goalscoring debutant Will Smallbone hopes in years to come he can reflect on 2020 as his big breakthrough...
As we edge into 2020 and a new decade, the last 10 years will go down as one of the best in Saints’ history.
The catalyst for back-to-back promotions, eight consecutive top flight seasons and two European campaigns could arguably be the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success of March 2010.
The club’s first domestic silverware since 1976, all associated with the club will hope the 2020s equally quench the thirst for noteworthy moments.
For more selfish reasons, Will Smallbone – who joined Southampton at the age of eight – will be targeting a memorable second decade with the club of his own.
Just 10 years old when Dean Hammond and Kelvin Davis lifted the enormous Johnstone’s Paint Trophy as it reflected a jubilant sea of red and white inside Wembley, the creative midfielder grew in stature within the club’s Academy in similar fashion to the first team, who went about restoring their Premier League status.
Watching on and working hard from within as The Southampton Way churned out prospect after prospect – now household names within the game – the Republic of Ireland Under-19 international made the best possible first impression on Saturday, scoring on his senior bow.
Named on the bench by Ralph Hasenhüttl for the first time at the end of 2019 for the Premier League meeting with Crystal Palace, Smallbone has had a taste of the top flight that’s done little to appease his appetite.
“It’s something that you dream of when you’re growing up, to be in the Premier League, so it was different to be in that environment,” he says.
“To get on the bench was great for me and is a great starting point. Being around the first team day to day is good, but on a matchday it’s just different.
“The manager could turn around and say to come on at any time. It’s obviously something that I want to do soon.”
There’s plenty of encouragement to take from within the four walls of the dressing room, too.
Once joined by Michael Obafemi and Yan Valery further down the chain at Staplewood, the 19-year-old has seen them progress to become familiar faces as part of Hasenhüttl’s squad.
There’s no fear of promoting from within and giving youth a chance, a mantra very close to the ethos and soul of the club, and it’s something Smallbone draws encouragement from.
“When you’re in the Under-23s you’re always looking up, and Mikey [Obafemi] was the first from my age group to break through,” he explains.
“To see him doing it gives you more incentive to do it as well, because it shows you that you can get a chance.
“He is doing really well for himself and it does show that there is a pathway which is not necessarily there at other clubs.
“I sit next to Michael in the dressing room, so I speak to him quite a lot about breaking through, but he’s quite calm and collected about it.
“It’s good to hear the different experiences that he has had. He broke through a while ago and then didn’t play for a while, but is now starting to get in and around it again.
“It’s good to have those people around to speak to and help you. Yan Valery is the same as well, they all help.”
Of course, role models inside the Saints ranks are not in short supply. However, there is one man who has become synonymous with Southampton and all it stands for, a man who draws plenty of similarity to Smallbone himself.
James Ward-Prowse, who this season passed the 250-appearance mark for Saints, occupies a similar midfield position and, in identical fashion, has been with the club since the age of eight.
Whilst initial focus is simply on crossing the white line for the first team, the long-term aspiration is manifested in JWP.
“You grow up in the Academy and people speak about Prowsey and how good he is and how much of a role model he is,” Smallbone says.
“To come up and train with him is good; he’s very professional and has everything you need to be a professional footballer, so it’s good to be around him, see what he does and pick bits off him to try and build into my game.
“To come all the way through and be used as a role model in the same light would be special,” the 19-year-old allows himself to dream.
“I have good relationships with everyone down in the Academy and it was such a big part of my life growing up. I’d do it for the teachers, coaches, psychologists and physios who you get close to.
“This club means a lot; it’s like a second family really. I’ve been here since the age of eight, and seeing how it has changed and grown has been special.
“A lot of staff have been here for ages and it feels like a family now.”
Whilst dreams are what drive the teenager on, the reality of football hit hard after spending the entirety of pre-season with Hasenhüttl’s squad – racking up more minutes than any other player – as a calf injury ruled out the midfielder until the latter part of November.
“Coming in for pre-season and getting told you’re training and travelling away with the first team makes you want more and to stay in the first team,” he continues.
“It was all going quite smoothly so to then get an injury was tough, especially when I had setbacks during my recovery as well.
“You just want to get back playing and it was hard missing cup matches where I could see the likes of Jake [Vokins] make the bench and then his debut.
“I struggled with it,” he admits. “After training I liked to stay out and hit balls about, but that’s what set me back with my injury.
“I was staying out too long trying to get back to fitness quicker, but it ended up having the opposite effect.
“It’s hard to rein yourself back in and understand when you come back that it takes time to feel the same again, but it’s something I’m learning as it’s what you need to be a professional.
“I’ve learnt that with injuries you have to give it time, but I’m back now and I’m just waiting to get my chance.”
Whilst his injury was unfortunately timed after an impressive pre-season, his return to the fold proved to be timely.
Facing Huddersfield Town in the third round of the Emirates FA Cup, Smallbone rewarded Hasenhüttl for sticking to the policy shown last season – when four players from the Under-23s were handed a chance to impress against Derby County – by breaking the deadlock against the Championship side early in the second half.
“It could be a good stepping stone,” he says. “If you can do it in the FA Cup and make a good impression then the manager is going to be thinking about you for the Premier League when you need different players for different games.”
Smallbone will be hoping his successful senior debut acts as a catalyst to ensure the start of a second decade at the club to rival the one he witnessed as a youngster in his first.