Though the ire and frustration on the average football terrace might persuade you otherwise, modern football fans are actually a remarkably patient and loyal bunch. Which makes the latest fan developments coming out of Southampton FC all the more remarkable. Shortly after the sale of young right back Calum Chambers to Arsenal for £11 million was confirmed a post appeared on SaintsWeb (the most popular Southampton FC fan website) suggesting a boycott of their next home friendly, against German side Bayern Leverkusen, on the 9th of August. The poster claiming that the fans needed to show the board what is going on is unacceptable, with the player exodus, lack of ambition of the board, lack of replacements and the audacity shown by the club by announcing ticket price hikes for the new season being too much to stomach. Whilst the response to the suggested boycott was lukewarm what was shocking was the sheer number of responses suggesting that they were seriously considering giving up their season tickets for the new season, and looking at more recent posts on the same site this seems to be a recurring theme.
So perhaps this explains why Saints chairman Ralph Krueger has decided that the sale of Chambers was the final straw. Even with £88 million in the bank from the sales of Lallana, Lambert and Lovren to Liverpool, Luke Shaw to Manchester United for £30 million and Chambers to Arsenal for an initial £11 million, the sale of Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez to Spurs for a combined £27 million seemed close to completion. Then Krueger pulled the plug. It seems perhaps fan pressure or, most likely given the lack of overt official coordinated fan action thus far, the slowing down of season ticket renewals filling the cash register may have forced him to act. “6 years of an amazing journey #sanitsfc DESTROYED in 1 hour!!!” tweeted Schneiderlin after a crisis meeting with Krueger where he was told, in no uncertain terms, that he was to remain at the club. Both Schneiderlin, and Southampton have blossomed since the Frenchman joined the club from Strasbourg in 2008 whilst the club were in the depths of League 1. If his goodwill towards the club has been destroyed by the club’s refusal to deny him a move it is nothing in comparison to the extent to which this young Southampton team have been destroyed in just one window.
Given the way modern football works, especially at smaller clubs like Southampton, it seems unlikely that Schneiderlin will have to remain at the club much longer with vultures the size of Spurs circling. If him and Rodriguez, although that is by no means certain given he is out with a cruciate ligament injury until October, depart then the net effect of this transfer window will be the almost utter decimation of Southampton’s first XI from last season:
With those supporting the club bewildered and even the manager resorting to gallows humour; who’s to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Many have pointed the finger at chief executive Krueger and executive director of football Les Reed for allowing this state of affairs to occur, especially following Reed’s cringing statement following the sale of Chambers earlier this week:
“We are naturally disappointed whenever any of our Academy graduates leave the club, and that is very much the case with Calum’s departure… Our position remains unchanged in that we are determined to keep our best young players at the club, as is evidenced by the decision to award Harrison Reed a new long-term contract last week, adding to the list of committed young professionals like James Ward Prowse, Sam Gallagher, Jack Stephens, Jordan Turnbull, Matt Targett, Sam McQueen and others who have seen plenty of first-team activity recently.
“It is important in the transfer window to remain calm, resilient and above all patient. We have targets, and we are working hard to get them across the line.”
To many fans Reed’s statement drew more ire than the sale that preceded it. Here, in their eyes, was a man struggling desperately to save face, throwing focus onto the club’s academy’s admittedly peerless ability to produce top quality players to allay fears about further sales. Whilst James Ward-Prowse is a huge talent and first team regular (and a target for Manchester City) the others are bit part players at best and although they may well prove to be stars of the future, it is stars of the present that Southampton and their fans are desperately need. With only two players signed so far the Saints are hurtling towards the new season devoid of players and, it seems, devoid of a plan.
But who is to blame for this situation? Many of the fans have pointed their finger at Katharina Leibherr, the owner who inherited the club when her father Markus passed away in 2010. Markus brought the club a year earlier when it was on it’s knees, languishing in League One and relying on big money sales of academy graduates such as Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain just to stay afloat. Upon his death the active control of the club passed to the Executive Chairman, Italian banker Nicola Cortese. Despite his abrasive manner and utter ruthlessness, (as seen in his jettisoning of manager Nigel Adkins in the middle of Southampton’s first season in the Premier League despite good results, and his replacement with Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, a decision that was utterly vindicated) he eventually gained the respect of the fans and was credited by many with being the mastermind behind the club’s meteoric rise in recent years culminating in last season’s 8th place finish.
However his departure from the club in January this year, citing irreconcilable differences with owner Leibherr, led to the creation of an atmosphere of uncertainty that has culminated in the mess that the club now find themselves in. Pochettino tied his fate to that of Cortese, and following his departure it was only a matter of time until he left, which he did this summer to join Spurs. The loss of Pochettino also made some player sales inevitable, with the likes of Lallana and Shaw taking their cue to jump ship and take, in the world of Les Reed ‘the shortcut to Champions League football’. Subsequently many fans have decided that the subsequent sales, of Chambers in particular was due to Liebherr herself looking to join the ranks of the rats abandoning the sinking ship.
Recent reports emanating from French freelance journalist Romain Molina suggest that Liebherr is looking to sell the club in the next 6 months, once she is able to convert the profits from this summer’s player sales into equity in order to add value to club before a sale. This would be a way of circumventing her father’s terms of ownership preventing profits being directly taken from the club by shareholders outside of a stringent dividend system; a move that would seem more at home in the fictional Machiavellian worlds of Game of Thrones or House of Cards than in today’s Premier League. The truth is she is almost certainly up to nothing of the sort. Such flagrant disregard of her late father’s wishes for the club, and such an intricate money-grabbing ploy from a woman already in line to inherit a £3 billion fortune, seems highly unlikely to actually be happening, especially from an owner who does not seem particularly interested in the club.
This fire sale is, in reality, far more to do with the personalities of Pochettino and Cortese and the realities of modern football than any dubious backroom dealings. The departure of Cortese led to the departure of Pochettino and to ambitious players with serious ambitions of playing at Champions League level the loss of the manager, trading up to Spurs, led them to wanting to do the same. The loss of Lallana and Lambert to Liverpool for £25 million and £4 million respectively actually represents good business for Southampton, as does the loss of Shaw to United for £30 million. Subsequent revelations about Shaw’s frankly ridiculous 120k a week wages at United and terrible attitude that already has him at loggerheads with Louis Van Gaal has also made it seem as if they have got rid of a potential time bomb of a character to boot. In the light of these losses the departure of Chambers, desire of Schneiderlin and Rodriguez to join their former boss at Spurs and swirling rumours as to the sales of Ward Prowse, Clyne and Fonte are not surprising. Having such a young and ambitious squad has done Southampton wonders over the past couple of seasons but now they are seeing the other side of that coin. Most of these players have big futures and none of them will want to stay at a club that is showing as little ambition as Southampton are at the moment. As much as the Southampton fans might want to find a bogeyman to blame, it really is as simple as that.
In truth there is time for Southampton to turn this around. New manager Ronald Koeman is, like Pochettino before him, a manger whose reputation is rapidly on the rise and the two signings they have made are promising indeed. Dusan Tadic, a young playmaker who lit up the Dutch Eredivisie last season with Twente is, if not a definite immediate upgrade on the departed Lallana, a player who certainly will be in time and will, in this writer’s opinion, go on to be truly world class. Gaziano Pelle, also signed from the Dutch league was absolutely lethal last season scoring 26 goals in 33 appearances for Feyenoord. Whilst signing strikers from the Dutch leagues has always been a gamble for English clubs, for every Wilfried Bony and Luis Suarez there is a Alfonso Alves or Jozy Altidore, Pelle looks to be as good a replacement for Lambert as the saints could have signed. With a club press release this morning promising the imminent signing of a goalkeeper, left back and striker it looks as if Southampton may be finally starting to get their house in order. The bookmakers also seem to trust them, with Betfair having them finish 9th, with relegation odds of 4/1 not hugely reduced since the end of the season. But time is of the essence. The saints must move quickly in order to allay the fears of their fans and prevent a boycott of the friendly against Leverkusen or worse; stumbling into a new season still in the bewildering state of affairs they currently find themselves in.