Luke Shaw is playing the best football of his career at the moment
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
There is a giant, and yet often overlooked, explanatory piece in the enigmatic jigsaw that is Luke Shaw.
His football life is not simply divided between the more authoritarian managerial styles of Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho and the people-first outlook of an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Gareth Southgate. There were also 11 long years of journeys up and down the M3 between Cobham and Southampton during which he developed from the eight-year-old boy who Chelsea initially overlooked into the most expensive teenager in football.
And it was this period, during which highly individualised support structures were created, that perhaps reveals most about why a roller-coaster career is again now surging upwards with England at Euro 2020.
“I felt we were really strong at being holistic – the person before the player,” says Matt Crocker, who was Southampton’s academy manager between 2006 and 2013 and is now the club’s director of football operations. “We knew Luke. We had been on tournaments and tours for weeks on end. Luke thrived in the environment. “It was a joined-up smaller club and sometimes you lose that at a big club. The connections between the first team and academy aren’t all there. It often surprises me when a player moves that more clubs don’t phone and say, ‘Tell us what to expect, what’s he like?’”
And so what was Shaw like? “Great kid, lovely family,” says Crocker, who emphasises the weekly sacrifices that were made by parents Paul and Joanna. Shaw would never miss a training session, despite the 140-mile round trip to Southampton’s Marchwood base up to three times a week. He was also in an exceptional group. James Ward-Prowse, Calum Chambers, Harrison Reed, Jordan Turnbull and Sam McQueen were among his year.
“They drove themselves, bounced off each other,” says Crocker. It was no secret that Shaw had a body shape which required particular attention. “He always needed to work really hard,” says Nick Harvey, who was the club’s head of fitness. “There’s a large genetic component to fitness and physiology – Luke is explosive, naturally strong, fast and powerful. Those players often struggle more with the endurance aspect. You need a blend of different types and he was a flier, but I think he’s developed his endurance and become more of a hybrid.”
Shaw, his parents, Harvey, former first-team manager Nigel Adkins and the club’s nutritionist, Mike Naylor, who now also works with England, would meet and the importance of diet and lifestyle would be emphasised. Dean Wilkins, who was assistant manager at Southampton to Alan Pardew and then Adkins, also became something of a mentor as it became clear that Shaw was destined for the first-team.
There were then managers in Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino who, while not always satisfied by everything they saw, were highly tailored and personable in their approach. Pochettino questioned whether Shaw was always ready to make the necessary sacrifices.
View this post on Instagram
A video of him at a service station Burger King went viral on YouTube in 2014 and Shaw himself has admitted he learnt to change his diet. Adkins says Shaw initially struggled to play 90 minutes, but had “this unbelievable burst of acceleration”.
There would be weekly meetings, involving Wilkins and Matt Radcliffe, who was one of the first-team physios, alongside all the academy staff to discuss the transition to first-team football. “Dean was pivotal – he’d find out about them as people and connect those bits,” says Crocker, who stresses that Adkins and Pochettino were “nurturing” first-team coaches amid what is a major physical, mental and social challenge for any player. Considerable thought was also given to the off-field set-up.
The club previously had an academy “lodge”, which once housed Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana. Arrangements had evolved by the time Shaw was 16 to host families. The standard approach was two years with a family and then, in their first year as a fully professional player at 18, shared “managed” apartments with another young player.
“We expect them to step up and take a certain responsibility – but Luke and his host family worked so well,” says Crocker. “He had broken into the first team and it was a lot to throw at him. So we spoke to the host family and made a collective decision, as an academy staff, with Dean and the family’s support, to stay in his host family. Little individual things like that are important.”
It was against this backdrop that Shaw, two weeks before his 19th birthday, then moved to United for £31 million. David Moyes had just been sacked. The adaptation under Van Gaal was clearly challenging, but Shaw had played every game of the 2015-16 season when he suffered his horrific double leg fracture. It was not the easiest moment to subsequently encounter Mourinho, whose often rapid judgment of players seems to grow ever more fallible. Harvey and Crocker would again see Shaw in their various FA roles at St George’s Park and his subsequent resurgence under Solskjaer and Southgate has come as no surprise.
Luke Shaw and Gareth Southgate have a strong relationship
“You look at the top leaders now and they are focused on developing the person, and I think Southgate fits into the same mould as Nigel and Mauricio,” says Harvey. “Gareth listens. Players respond. I can’t speak highly enough of him as a person and head coach.”
Back at Southampton, where an academy dressing room is now named after Shaw, there is also considerable pride. “Luke is one of the examples to the young players,” says Crocker.
“He has shown great resilience and it was just fantastic to see him against Germany on Tuesday. He is living the dream.”