"Chambo", as he's called at Southampton, has from the day he was born been destined to become a footballer. His father, Mark Chamberlain, was capped 8 times by Sir Bobby Robson in the early 80's and had a good if unremarkable career as a professional footballer spanning 20 years, 6 clubs and over 500 appearances. Upon retiring on the South Coast he took various coaching roles, including a job at Southampton's Academy.
Here is where Alex's story starts. Whilst his dad would be coaching the players already at the Academy he, as a toddler, would be on the sidelines either as ball-boy or with a ball practising. As he grew himself he'd occasionally get involved in the sessions themselves, until aged 7 he become a fully fledged member of the Academy himself. He was also encouraged to take part in various other sports, including athletics and cricket. Signs that his father and the club recognised the importance of being an all round athlete in order to become a good footballer. The ins and outs of what happened between then and 2009 when he became a scholar at the club I'll leave for him to discuss in his autobiography in a few years time, as it was in 2009 that I came across him.
In a role as Academy Performance Analyst at Southampton I, and the rest of the team I worked with, was given various tasks ultimately resulting in providing data for the club on both individual and team performances. My first encounter with Alex involved watching him for an entire 90 minutes against a physically strong and tactically direct Crystal Palace U18 side and noting down every pass, tackle, dribble, shot, cross he made as well as the distance, direction, player he passed to etc. An unexciting if very enlightening and worthwhile part of player development. He was playing centre-mid with a player a year his senior called Callum McNish, Callum was fast tracked into the first team that season and was ultimately released after only one appearance but at this stage was Southampton's big tip for the future. Whilst Callum made most of the penetrating moves Alex stood out for his consistent ability to retain possession. He made 46 passes in that game and came away with an 86% success rate. His range was also impressive, able to pass in all directions and whilst just under 60% of his passes were over a distance of under 10 yards (possibly because at this time he was a first year scholar and McNish was the star of the show, therefore he felt he HAD to give McNish the ball) he still showed an 84% success rate over 10-20, 20-30 and 30+ yards.
After this game we were asked to follow Chamberlain's performance on various occasions. Against Ipswich Town he showed he could penetrate defences with his dribbling ability (75% success rate), his heading and tackling needed improvement (50% and 59% respectively), but again his pass completion rate (79%), his willingness to pass over short, medium and long distances (slight favour of short passes but overall an even spread) and his composure in the defensive third, midfield third and attacking third was starting to make him stand out. Remember at this point he was a short if well built 16 year old playing with and against some monster 17 and 18 year olds, many of whom were on the cusp of Premiership, Championship and League One football.
He then started training with the 1st team and by the end of the season had made his first team debut. The following season he made 34 league appearances and scored 10 goals. In the January 2011 transfer window he was the target of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United (depending on who you read and believe). He is highly likely to leave Southampton this summer and will no doubt be a player to continue watching over the coming seasons. His passing range, decision making in possession and ability to penetrate defences is already decent and with continued first team football will surely get better.
So what is the morale of this story? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is one of hundreds of capable young footballers in English Academies who demonstrate the physical, technical and psychological attributes as well as supporting statistical data to show they're capable of becoming quality players. He is however one of few who are actually given the opportunity to parade and hone these skills and ultimately develop into a quality player. From an early age he was given opportunities to become a footballer. He was fortunate that his circumstances meant he was able to make the most of his opportunities but make no mistake he did not have an easy ride.
We as a country ARE producing players capable of playing at the top level, we as a country ARE NOT giving these players the chance to play at the top level. We don't need to start throwing players into first team action just for the sake of it, but we do need to start being more open to giving them the opportunity to prove themselves. This is something Arsenal have done since Arsene Wenger's arrival, Sir Alex Ferguson has always done, Kenny Dalglish is starting to do and various Championship and League One clubs are beginning to do.
It's not all doom and gloom in English football, despite a poor U21 showing this summer, the U17s did well and the U20s, though having a largely second choice squad, should give a decent account of themselves in Columbia. The lesson to be learnt is that if we want these players to kick on to the next level we have to give them the opportunity to play at the next level.