Southampton often send out their young players on loan deals to give them a taste of first-team football – and this season has been no different.
Two of the academy youngsters breaking through and pushing towards the fringes of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s plans at the start of 2019/20 were Alfie Jones and Thomas O’Connor.
Both players have played a significant amount of football for Saints’ Under-23s but it was clearly decided in the summer that they both would benefit from playing regular senior games.
Saints took the option of sending both players out to the same club back in the off-season – Gillingham in League One, which is a level that the club knows all too well.
Some loan spells may not go to plan for youngsters looking to make their first steps in the game, but it is fair to say that both Jones and O’Connor will have gained a huge amount from playing at Gillingham this year.
When the 2019/20 season was stopped around two months ago, ‘the Gills’ were in 11th position in League One and still had a chance of reaching the play-offs.
Alfie Jones had made 34 appearances for them in all competitions, and all of the appearances that he had made had been as a starter.
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Despite playing mainly as a centre-back back in the youth teams at Saints, he has made the defensive-midfield role at Gillingham his own.
He played two league games for them as a centre-back, but manager Steve Evans clearly saw something in him that suggested he could play slightly further forward and screen the back four.
The fact that he has been a mainstay in the team since the change shows that Jones is more than capable of coping with the demands of senior football and willing to adapt his game to test himself – a great trait to have as a young player.
Thomas O’Connor had been playing as a defensive-midfielder in the youth ranks at Saints but has also experienced a change to his game that could benefit him hugely in the future.
Of his 32 games this campaign, 26 of them have been on the left side – as a left-back or a left winger.
The Republic of Ireland youth international if left footed but has not played in these positions before this season. The progress that both he and Jones have made whilst learning to play different roles must be hugely promising for Saints to hear.
What is even more impressive is that both men have been a big part of a hugely impressive run of results for Gillingham – they have only lost once in the league since November.
Both players have contracts at Saints that run out in the summer of 2021, and they may have been sent out this year to prove they are worth extensions.
By the looks of things though, some big decisions need to be made by those at Staplewood about the future of both players who have shown they are more than up to the challenges that senior football brings.