ARMANDO BROJA is one of the leading members of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s ‘Boy Group’ which is making Southampton young and hip again.
That is the phrase Hasenhuttl and his coaching staff use to refer to the quintet of Broja, best pal Tino Livramento and fellow whizkids Nathan Tella, Will Smallbone and Dynel Simeu.
The gang are often inseparable around Saints’ training ground, regularly eating, changing and hanging out together.
Broja and Livramento, 19, go way back after playing up the ranks at Chelsea.
Livramento joined permanently from Stamford Bridge in the summer, while Broja followed shortly afterwards on a season-long loan.
Saints would love to sign the 20-year-old permanently and are encouraged by how much Broja is enjoying life down on the south coast surrounded by young friends.
His and Livramento’s successes have quickly transformed Southampton’s reputation from an unfashionable club that Danny Ings, Jannik Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand all decided to quit in the summer, into a place where young players want to come.
Hasenhuttl has said other blossoming talents have seen how Broja has developed in the first half of the season and now fancy a switch to St Mary’s to get their careers going.
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Broja – pronounced Bro-ya – was born in Slough, the home of David Brent about 20 miles west of London, along with his two sisters.
It was where his father Xhevahir and mother Blerina moved to 23 years ago from Albania in search of a better life.
Despite their relocation to Blighty, Broja has always felt deeply connected to his Albanian roots and speaks the language well, with an English twang to his accent.
He would regularly go back there during the summer holidays to their home village of Kamice.
It is just over 16 miles north of historic Balkan town Shkoder, where Phil Foden helped England’s Under-21s team beat Albania 3-0 three years ago – though Broja was with his nation’s Under-19s at the time.
Broja’s parents built a football pitch next to their home to make sure he could keep practising his football skills during the summer.
The forward was picked up by Tottenham as an eight-year-old but then moved to Chelsea aged 11 after impressing in a game between the two London rivals.
He was always seen as a talent within the Blues academy and then when the opportunity came up to join sister club Vitesse on loan last season, he did not think twice, packed a bag and went.
Broja finished joint top-scorer for the Dutch side with 10 Eredivisie goals and caught Southampton’s eye with his pace, power and finishing ability.
Hasenhuttl believed him to be the type of attacker his team was lacking and made a pitch to the player, his family, representatives and Chelsea which promised first-team opportunities, a chance to learn and make mistakes away from the spotlight.
The Austrian has stayed true to his word, to the point where he claimed Broja’s family are keen for him to extend his stay on the South Coast – particularly as he enjoys the company he keeps.
Hasenhuttl said: “It was never as easy for him as it has been here because he had his best mate Tino from the first moment with him.
“Here we have a few young lads that are always training with us and who are always hanging together. We call them ‘The Boy Group’.
“It’s fantastic for him to be with them now. I think this is the reason why he loves it so much here.
“When you get a feeling as a player that what you’ve got told to do helps you develop your game, then you do it and like to do it.
“The rewards are goals and good performances.
“We tried to offer what we have promised and this is an honest way of handling this that helps you to come here and find your role in this club quicker.”
Making good on their promises will certainly help Southampton in any future negotiations with Broja, should they get to that point.
IN CHELSEA’S PLANS
But Chelsea only gave him a five-year deal last summer and are understood to view him as part of their first-team plans next season.
Talks are ongoing between Saints chief executive Martin Semmens and Chelsea dealmaker Marina Granovskaia.
Perhaps Southampton’s best bet is a similar deal to that of Livramento, who has a buy-back clause of around £38million to Chelsea, meaning the London club can re-sign him if he reaches a level worthy of that sum.
Every cough and spit of Broja news over here makes big headlines back in Albania, where the forward is a superstar.
Fans and media alike are baffled by national manager Edy Reja’s reluctance to start him regularly, with both of his winners against Hungary – a team England failed to beat at home – this season coming off the bench.
There is a clutch of Albanian fans who are regularly spotted at Southampton games holding up their national flag, which has a double-headed eagle on it that Broja references with his goal celebration.
The striker became the youngest player to score five or more goals in the Premier League this season with his strike in the 4-1 win over Brentford earlier this month.
On Saturday, Broja will have the ultimate test in club football when Saints host league-leaders Manchester City, followed by tough trips to Tottenham and Manchester United.
Hasenhuttl added: “In some games it will not be so easy to score goals and I think the next few games will be those games where it’s not always so easy to finish one against one.
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“There you have to show up and prove you are also able to perform against the best centre-backs in the world. This is what he has to do.”
It is quite the challenge.
But, ironically, if Broja passes it well, it may only convince Chelsea further that this Boy Group talisman’s long-term future lies with them.
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