When Southamp­ton secured the sign­ing of 17-year-old Thier­ry Small in 2021 it was viewed as a real coup for the club.

Wide­ly con­sid­ered the best left-back in Eng­lish youth foot­ball at the time, Small was keen to progress his career and turned down the likes of Arse­nal, Man­ches­ter Unit­ed and Bay­ern Munich to sign for Southamp­ton hav­ing decid­ed to leave Ever­ton.

When Small was hand­ed his debut by Car­lo Ancelot­ti in an FA Cup clash in 2018, he became Everton’s youngest post-war play­er at just 16 years, five months and 23 days. The full-back cer­tain­ly did not leave the Tof­fees because of any per­ceived lack of faith from the club, with then under-23s man­ag­er David Unsworth con­firm­ing: “We made him an unbe­liev­able offer, we didn’t want him to leave.”

Southampton’s acad­e­my has pro­duced some real gems over the years, with the likes of Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shear­er and Gareth Bale all grad­u­ates. More recent­ly, the club has found suc­cess from sign­ing play­ers from elite acad­e­mies by pro­vid­ing them with a clear path­way to first team foot­ball and, when Southamp­ton announced the sign­ing of Small, jour­nal­ist Simon Peach post­ed on ‘X’: ‘Anoth­er excit­ing young sign­ing at #Saints­FC. High­ly-rat­ed 17-year-old Thier­ry Small has joined from #EFC on a three-year pro­fes­sion­al deal’.

The likes of the recent­ly sold Roméo Lavia and Tino Livra­men­to are evi­dence of this approach, as well as cur­rent play­ers Gavin Bazunu, Sam Edozie and Shea Charles. This was no doubt a huge fac­tor in Small’s deci­sion, how­ev­er it did not quite work out the same way; the Eng­land youth play­er only mak­ing one senior appear­ance before hav­ing his con­tract ter­mi­nat­ed by mutu­al agree­ment in Feb­ru­ary this year.

Thierry Small impressing at Charlton

Northampton Town v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One
Pho­to by Pete Norton/Getty Images

That sin­gle Southamp­ton appear­ance came in an FA Cup fourth round tie in his first sea­son at the club, with Small strug­gling before being tak­en off at half-time.

The Saints’ man­ag­er at the time, Ralph Hasen­hut­tl, said on Small: “Some­times you see fan­tas­tic things from him and then oth­er times you see hor­ri­ble things.”

Now 19, Small has dropped down to League One to revive his fledg­ling career and is doing so under none oth­er than Hasenhuttl’s suc­ces­sor at Southamp­ton, Nathan Jones.

The Welsh man­ag­er was an incred­i­bly divi­sive fig­ure in his eight league games in charge of the Saints, win­ning just once in the Pre­mier League and alien­at­ing the fan­base in the process with his often bizarre press con­fer­ences. Giv­en how quick­ly Jones lost the favour of the Southamp­ton faith­ful, it is no sur­prise that he was the short­est-serv­ing non-care­tak­er man­ag­er in Southampton’s his­to­ry.

Jones clear­ly has a point to prove in his first job since his three months at Southamp­ton and in Small he has tak­en on a play­er in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. His career may not have worked out how he would have envis­aged so far, but Small is still a teenag­er and is mak­ing up for lost time at The Val­ley.

Not only has Small start­ed the last sev­en league games under Jones, but he has also played every minute in that run. Play­ing a left wing-back role that suits his ath­leti­cism and desire to get for­ward, Small has con­tributed with a goal and assist whilst being a key part of a Charl­ton side that have gone unbeat­en in his run in the side, win­ning three and draw­ing four.

Speak­ing on his recent form, Small said: “I’m not get­ting too ahead of myself. It’s still real­ly ear­ly days in my short time here – but it couldn’t have gone any bet­ter so far.

“I need to stay lev­el-head­ed, try my best in every game and put 100 per cent into every­thing I do. That’s the bare min­i­mum. You’re going to see the work eth­ic and hard work – that should be expect­ed of every­one.

“I’ll be hon­est, they’ve only seen a lit­tle bit of what I’m capa­ble of. I feel with more expe­ri­ence and work­ing under the man­ag­er, that I can reach some high­er lev­els in my game.”

Did Southampton let Small leave too soon?

Southampton v Coventry City: The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
Pho­to by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Get­ty Images

Giv­en the scram­ble for his sig­na­ture as a 17-year-old and obvi­ous poten­tial, it may come as a sur­prise that Southamp­ton did not try and keep Small at the club for longer.

The fact is, though, that Small’s con­tract was due to expire this sum­mer regard­less and he had not been in the first-team pic­ture for over two years, as well as strug­gling to impress dur­ing loan spells at Port Vale and St Mir­ren.

That being said, at just 19 Southamp­ton still had plen­ty of time to reap the rewards of con­vinc­ing Small to choose them over a num­ber of Euro­pean giants in 2021 and the deci­sion to let him leave may well be one the club regret in years to come.

Small clear­ly felt a move away was what was required to try and reju­ve­nate his career and it is dif­fi­cult to argue against that when you con­sid­er the impact he has had in such a short time under Jones at Charl­ton.

Left-back is a posi­tion that Rus­sell Mar­tin has been short of options in this sea­son, with Ryan Man­ning the only senior nat­ur­al option that has been avail­able to him for the bulk of the cam­paign. The likes of James Bree, Kyle Walk­er-Peters and Jack Stephens have all deputised at dif­fer­ent points, but per­haps Small could have act­ed as an under­study to the 26-year-old Man­ning.

Young Spaniard Juan Lar­ios has stepped up his recov­ery hav­ing not played since Novem­ber 2022 and the 20-year-old will be tar­get­ing the left-back spot next sea­son, but it is per­haps the emer­gence of 17-year-old left-back Jay­den Meghoma which meant Southamp­ton felt they could let Small cut his time at the club short.

Meghoma has come in for Man­ning in the FA Cup and shown matu­ri­ty far beyond his years as he deliv­ered promis­ing per­for­mances against Wal­sall and Wat­ford. Two years Small’s junior and clear­ly a play­er liked by Mar­tin, it could have dam­aged Meghoma’s pro­gres­sion to have the now Charl­ton defend­er block­ing his route to the first team.

Small still has plen­ty of time to live up to his ear­ly hype, but a move away may have been the best way for him to improve his chances of ful­fill­ing his poten­tial.

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