When the Saints go marching out


One of the things that puzzled me about football as a child was just how Southampton managed to stay in the top division, season in, season out. Apart from Matt Le Tissier, one of the Premier League’s best ever players, they had everything going against them. They had a tiny stadium, not much by way of a budget, seemed to bounce from one bad manager to another and, apart from the odd season here and there, always seemed to be in deep relegation trouble every season before somehow managing to claw their way out.

It really was a fantastic achievement that the Saints managed to stay up for so long, especially as bigger, richer, and in all honesty, better teams were relegated around them. Southampton stayed in the top flight for 27 years before they were relegated in 2005.

Southampton went through a bad patch after they were relegated. They struggled to cope with the loss of Premier League income and got into severe financial trouble. However, it was around this time that Southampton started to reap the benefits from investments made in their youth academy as some brilliant players started to come through, like Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana and a few years later, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and good players still continue to come through to this day, like Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse for Southampton on and off the pitch. The sales of Walcott and Bale couldn’t prevent the club from going into administration, and Southampton were relegated to the third tier of English football.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Southampton were bought by Swiss millionaire Markus Liebherr, who made the wise decision to bring in Nicola Cortese, who had the experience in sports finance that he lacked. With the money of Liebherr, and the guidance of Cortese, who proved to be a very adept Chairman, Southampton for the first time in years were able to build a team, rather than have to sell it. Some of those signings, like Jose Fonte and Rickie Lambert became pivotal in Southampton’s later rise.

For the first time in a long time, there was real optimism about the fortunes of Southampton. Even the sad news in 2010 that Markus Liebherr had died didn’t derail the club, with Liebherr’s daughter Katarina becoming owner and stating that she wanted to honour her father’s vision for the club.

The appointment of Nigel Adkins in 2010 proved to be great move, as he got Southampton back-to-back promotions which meant that Southampton had returned to the Premier League after a turbulent seven years.

But, unlike most sides newly promoted to the Premier League, it quickly became apparent that Southampton didn’t just come up to survive; they wanted more than that and we prepared to take action to get it.

In early 2013, with Southampton having had a pretty good start to their first Premier League season and on a pretty good run of results, they made the surprising move of sacking Adkins, then replacing him with Mauricio Pochettino, a former Argentina international who was best remembered by English fans, if remembered at all, for being the player whose leg Michael Owen dived over to get a penalty at the 2002 World Cup.

I’ll hold my hands up; I was one of the many thought that the sacking of Nigel Adkins was a truly boneheaded move. I thought it was a desperation move, made all the worse by the fact that Southampton were not in a desperate situation. I couldn’t believe that any manager could get any more out of that group of players than Adkins did.

I was wrong.

Under Pochettino, Southampton started to play a high-tempo game which was the perfect mix of pace, skill and physicality, played by a team which was a good blend of exciting academy products, veterans, and some shrewd signings.

Not only did Southampton survive in the Premier League, under Pochettino they started to thrive.

Last season, Southampton had an excellent season, finishing eighth and playing some great football along the way. The only fly in the ointment was Cortese leaving the club during the season; and in a surprising move, he was replaced by Ralph Krueger, the former Edmonton Oilers coach.

Unfortunately for Southampton fans, their good season didn’t go unnoticed by the other Premier League clubs, and this off-season, Saints fans have had to watch in horror as several of the players that were key to the success of the team last season have been bought by other clubs.

Firstly, Mauricio Pochettino was poached by Spurs. Pochettino’s replacement is Ronald Koeman, a man who had a stellar playing career, but has had mixed results as a manager, and has never managed in England before, so will have to adapt.

Then the player sales started. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren all moved to Liverpool. Luke Shaw, who seems set to become the first-choice left-back for England for years to come, has joined Manchester United. Right-back Calum Chambers has opted to join Arsenal.

It’s not even clear if the sales have ended. Earlier this week it seemed as though Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin were about to be reunited with Pochettino at Spurs, though Krueger, much to the annoyance of Schneiderlin, has said both players aren’t for sale.

As I’m writing this there are more rumours about the possible sales of goalkeeper Artur Boruc to Bayern Munich and rumours persist about the futures of Nathaniel Clyne, Jose Fonte, Jos Hooiveld and Jack Cork. Dani Osvaldo is likely to be sold, but he pretty much burned his bridges with Southampton last season anyway after he attacked Jose Fonte in training.

It’s not accurate to call what’s happening at Southampton a firesale. Southampton are believed to be in a relatively healthy financial state, and with a new TV deal kicking in for Premier League clubs this season, it was believed that Southampton would be in a position to buy players, rather than having a need to sell.

If you look at each of the sales individually, they all make sense. Southampton got above market rate for two players who had stated publically that they wanted to leave in Shaw and Lallana; sold Lovren for a 12m profit a year after buying him; got a good fee for a 32-year-old striker and got a huge fee for a Chambers, who was far from guaranteed to be the Southampton first team anyway.

It’s when you look at those sales collectively, that thing get a bit weird. It’s the perception of Southampton which seems to have changed. A few months ago they seemed to be the very model of stability, and seemed to be the club which other newly-promoted teams should aspire to become. Now, from the outside looking in, it seems as though Southampton are in disarray and the stability has been replaced with uncertainty.

While Southampton have a lot of money to play with, they seem to be struggling to spend it; with the only signings so far being striker Graziano Pelle, midfielder Dusan Tadic and a loan deal for Chelsea left-back Ryan Bertrand. England goalkeeper Fraser Forster may soon arrive from Celtic, but it does look as though the Southampton which will kick off the new season won’t be anywhere near as strong as the one which ended the last one.

Southampton also have to spend their money in accordance with Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. A few years ago, the Premier League came up with its own version of UEFA’s FFP. One of the rules is that if a team has a wage bill of over £52m, they can only increase it by £4m per season, unless they can show that any extra increase is covered by commercial deals.

Last season’s accounts show that Southampton’s wage bill was around £47m, so it’s possible that for last season, given Southampton made a few big signings, that had increased to be around or above the £52m mark. Southampton doesn’t have the large fanbase or commercial appeal of other clubs, so would be limited to increasing their wage bill by only £4m for this season.

So even had Lallana, Shaw and the others wanted to stay, it’s unlikely that Southampton would’ve been able to pay them what they could get at other clubs, and Southampton have to be careful that any new signings don’t want too much money.

Even if Southampton do manage to spend the money they have received on new players, it’s still going to take time for that team to gel and get back to the level they were last season, let alone do better than last season.  

This season, Southampton were expected to push on from last season’s eighth and possibly put in a challenge for a European place. Now, they are amongst the favourites for relegation, with many predicting a grim season ahead.

I think people are getting a little carried away here. While I can’t see Southampton coming close to repeating last season’s strong performance, I don’t think relegation something Southampton fns need to worry about. The team which is left is still stronger than all of the promoted sides and a few of the other Premier League sides. With a few smart signings, Southampton will be fine, and the rebuilding process can begin.

I’ll also say that I’ve seen far worse Southampton teams than the one which will kick off the upcoming Premier League season survive in the past. I’m not counting them out just yet.