What's it really like progressing through the Southampton Academy? He may only be two games into his senior career, but it’s been a long journey to this point for Jake Vokins...
However the rest of the ‘20s play out, for club and player alike, Southampton’s first FA Cup tie of the decade has left an indelible mark on Jake Vokins.
One of two home debutants, as Saints defeated Huddersfield Town at St Mary’s in the third round, it looked like fellow Academy graduate Will Smallbone would be the headline act when he kept his head to fire Saints in front early in the second half.
Not to be outdone, Vokins seized his moment three minutes from time, latching on to Ché Adams’s square pass, raiding forward from left-back and scoring a rare goal with a driven shot that took the slightest touch off Danny Simpson – a one-time Premier League champion – en route to the back of the net.
“It hit the bar and I wasn’t sure if it bounced out,” he says, reliving the moment. “I had to wait until it hit the top of the net again to finally go and celebrate. They do always look the best.”
It rounded off a day that ticked every box. Saints were through, keeping a clean sheet, senior players were rested and two teenagers had stepped up, showcasing the next generation of Academy talent in front of more than 20,000 Saints fans, who will be seeing plenty more of Smallbone and Vokins in years to come.
The Southampton Way, in all its glory.
For Vokins, the younger of the two by 25 days, his journey began at the age of six.
“I was playing for my local team in Oxfordshire called Cholsey Bluebirds in a local tournament,” he recalls.
“I got scouted for Southampton, Oxford and Reading at the time, so I would train with Southampton at their development centre in Abingdon.
“Then when I was eight they asked me to come and train here (Staplewood) in the dome. When I was nine I decided to sign, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Signing at the same age as Smallbone, the pair have followed the same path at the same time. Vokins reveals they even stayed in digs together when they were scholars – a fairytale symmetry to their progression that came full circle against Huddersfield.
Smallbone, Vokins confirms, has always been a central midfielder for as long as he can remember, but his own transition to his current position came relatively late.
“I had a few years as a left winger,” he says. It’s a well-trodden path for professional left-backs – they often start higher up the pitch and work their way back.
“Then there was an unfortunate injury when I was in the Under-16s to an Under-18s player, so they threw me into a Youth Cup game against Birmingham. I played quite well and took my opportunity.
“Four games later, I was on the bench for the Under-21s whilst still only 15. Another injury, four minutes into the game, meant I came on for my debut.
“I ended up playing 10 games for the Under-21s that season, and I’ve been a left-back ever since.”
It’s surprising how often it happens. Youngsters need opportunity, and Vokins took his chance, even in unfamiliar territory.
He credits his upbringing in midfield for his assets on the pitch. “Those are my strengths, the attacking parts,” he declares. “I’m still trying to work on the defending aspects of my game.
“One vs one defending for a full-back is quite big. Some of the wingers here are very good, so I’m learning off people like Redmond, Djenepo, Boufal, Armstrong…
“They’re telling me what they don’t like as a winger coming up against a defender, which always helps a lot too, and obviously there’s the experience of Ryan Bertrand.
“He definitely helps me all the time, giving me advice and helping me through training.”
Vokins is just the latest in a long line of left-backs to graduate from the Saints Academy; Franny Benali, Wayne Bridge, Gareth Bale, Luke Shaw, Matt Targett. It’s quite a list.
“They’re obviously really big names to look up to and to aim to be as good as they are,” he says, respectfully. “I’ve always looked at clips of them and I always feel it’s better to learn from the best to be the best.
“One of the big ones for me is Gareth Bale. Obviously, he was a left-back/winger, similar to me. He was definitely a player I looked up to.”
jake vokinsi've qualified as a referee, a coach, a first-aider. it's all helpful stuff because playing football is not a certain future.
That respect has been drummed into Vokins from a young age, as the 19-year-old explains.
“The Academy here is one of the best,” he enthuses. “It’s about trying to bring up good human beings as well as good footballers.
“They have the 10 Academy Commandments that the boys look up to – things like ‘keep your shirt tucked in’, ‘hold doors open for others’, ‘be punctual’, things like that.
“The education system is very good too – when I was a scholar I did my course and managed to pass that. They’re really strict with stuff like that.
“I’ve qualified as a referee, a coach, a first-aider. It’s all helpful stuff because playing football is not a certain future, so having a back-up plan is always good.”
James Ward-Prowse is the oft-used example of a player who has come through the ranks at Staplewood and conducts himself in a manner befitting the club and its proud Academy.
In Vokins and Smallbone you see similar traits – polite, respectful, grounded boys who understand what it means to represent Southampton.
Another task to keep the youngsters in check is a bit of a throwback: each Academy player cleans the boots of the first-team player who plays in their position.
“As Academy players, we have jobs to do, and that’s one of them,” Vokins reveals. “That’s more of a scholarship thing for Under-16s to Under-18s.
“When you’ve first signed your contract and you’re into the Under-23s, that’s when most of those jobs happen.
“There’s filling up water bottles, making sure the gym is tidy, the changing rooms are tidy, the first-team physio room and laundry room is tidy… you make sure the jobs are done and then you can go home.”
Vokins scrubbed Matt Targett’s boots in the first year of his scholarship, and Ryan Bertrand’s in the second.
“You clean the boots every single day, then the Under-18s sing to the first team in the canteen at Christmas,” he grins.
“The players that clean the boots well get some Christmas money – a bonus. How much money you get depends on how well you cleaned them. I did very well both years!
“But one time, we did the payment at the end of the season and I went away to the Euros with England. By the time I got back, it was forgotten about!”
The year in question was the 2017 Under-17 European Championships, in which Vokins was named in the same squad as Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, as England went all the way to the final.
Playing with and against elite players is nothing new for Vokins, and he and Foden would meet again on his senior debut – a late substitute appearance at Manchester City in the Carabao Cup last October.
Just a little taster to whet the appetite.
“It was a very proud moment for me and my family,” he says. “It was just under five minutes, but I wanted to get out there and be in that atmosphere of a first-team game.
“Obviously the players on the pitch were not only the best in the league, but some of the best in the world.
“I was up against Bernardo Silva. I think I touched him once! They just kept the ball and I think I only touched the ball once, to be honest.
“Even if I had played for 10 seconds I still would’ve been over the moon, just to get on the pitch and play for the club I’ve been representing for nearly 13 years now. It wasn’t an anti-climax at all.
“I’m just hungry for more, to keep getting out there and showing the manager what I’ve got.”
If Man City symbolised the canapes on arrival, Huddersfield was the sit-down meal.
“All my friends and family were there,” he smiles. “Because it was a 90-minute game, I wanted to prove to the manager that he can give me more opportunities.
“I was very nervous. I get nervous before every game, but I was particularly nervous before this one.
“It felt a bit different, because it’s your starting debut and you want to do everything you can to impress.
“I wanted to keep my first touch as simple as possible. I think once the whistle goes, you get into the swing of the game and you’re just playing football again. It’s just natural.
“The hard work I’d been putting in, on and off the pitch, eventually showed. I thought I had a good game, tried to take my opportunity and the goal topped it off really.
“I’m going to cherish that forever. Obviously scoring, especially at home in front of all the home fans, and my friends and family… it was a very proud moment.
“Now I want to go for more. I’m always hopeful. I’ll always prepare right, and if I do get the opportunity, I’m ready to take it.”