Southampton forced to navigate stormy waters

Southampton forced to navigate stormy waters

Rarely does Arsene Wenger poke his nose into the affairs of other clubs, or say anything quite so silly as he did this weekend about Southampton.

"I respect the quality of the work they have done," he said. "You look at Southampton and the team they had last year - plus Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale - they could have won the European Cup had they managed to keep everyone together."

The informed aspect of Wenger's comment is that he plundered the Saints youth academy by paying £9 million (S$18.9 million) for Theo Walcott as a 16-year-old, then £12 million for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at 17, and now a similar sum for Calum Chambers.

In the Chamberlain and Chambers deals, the payments will rise by £3 million or so each, if and when they reach their potential.

So, certainly, you would expect Monsieur Wenger to have a pretty deep appreciation of the way that Southampton finds and polishes raw talents.

And Bale went to Tottenham instead of the Gunners (before hitting the £80 million jackpot by being resold to Real Madrid).

Four products of the Saints academy, formed and fattened and sold on for a fortune.

But Wenger's added remark about winning Europe with these boys becomes silly when you think that if Wenger paid over the odds to cherry-pick the best of them, why didn't he win the Champions League through blending them together with the stars he has imported over almost two decades at Arsenal?

More sensibly, and perhaps more sensitively, Wenger also said that smaller clubs today cannot hold onto players they discover and develop.

"It will be interesting to see how they get over what happened to them," the Arsenal manager suggested. "They have shown in the past they are clever at scouting. It will be very interesting from here."

Indeed so. Southampton are a lovely club enjoying loyal support down on the south coast of England.

Their fortunes have swayed from relegation to promotion, but as a port city they well understand that players come and go, like ships in the night.

At least the team are currently in the English Premier League, while their neighbours, and rivals, Portsmouth have all but sunk.

Proud Pompey, a bigger club historically than the Saints, have been battered by fly-by-night overseas owners, from Russia and elsewhere, some of whom hoped to make a killing on the real estate value should the club go out of existence.

Portsmouth FC are still going. English fans almost never let their clubs die, but it will be a long, long haul out of the mire of debt if we are ever to see Pompey rise to the top again.

Southampton, meantime, are financially buoyant. Markus Liebherr, the German industrialist who bought the club when it was shipping water three leagues down, died in 2010 but his daughter Katharina, inheriting his £3 billion businesses, and kept hold of the club while admitting she knew little about the game.

Under a very ambitious chairman/chief executive, Nicola Cortese, there was even talk of that European competition which Wenger referred to.

Cortese was ruthless in sacking managers, but apparently inspired when he tempted the young Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino to take over. Barely able to speak English, Pochettino got his message over to the players sufficiently to drive Southampton to eighth in the Premier League last season.

Plain sailing? Not exactly. The owner decided that Cortese was too big for his own boots and removed him, opting instead for a new chairman in Ralph Krueger.

Krueger knows ice hockey from his Canadian roots, and his time playing pro ice hockey in Germany. He joined the Southampton board in February and a month later replaced Cortese in a silent coup.

Nothing changed at first. The Saints kept on playing Pochettino's bright, quick and energetic football.

The end of the season, however, changed the club's St Mary's Stadium entrance into a revolving door. Adam Lallana, who had played at Southampton since he was 12 and captained the senior side last season, departed.

Lallana and Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren have all joined Liverpool. One young full back, Luke Shaw, chose to join Manchester United rather than Chelsea. Another, Chambers, is now Arsenal property.

Five players gone, £92 million raised.

And the coach Pochettino? He's now at Tottenham, and keen on luring two more Saints, Jay Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin, to follow him.

Southampton say neither will go. Schneiderlin has gone public pleading to be sold, but chairman Krueger says there will be no deal.

However, the transfer window remains open until Sept 1, and Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is renowned for deadline dealing to squeeze the best terms out for Tottenham.

Southampton's new coach, Ron Koeman, knew something of what he was walking into. The big Dutchman, a huge defender in his time with Barcelona, did a superb rebuilding job when he turned Feyenoord around after arriving in similar circumstances in 2011.

Feyenoord's home is Rotterdam. Like Southampton, it is a port. Like Southampton it had a youth system, and Koeman promoted Jordy Casie, Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi who went all the way to the World Cup semi-finals with the Netherlands last month.

Koeman copes with it, with humour. Last week he posted on Twitter a photo showing the Saints' training ground marked out with cones and balls... but no players in sight.

There will, of course, be a full side when Southampton visit Anfield for the new season in two weeks' time.

Just who lines up, we will have to wait and see. The Saints have recycled some money by spending a combined £30 million on Dusan Tadic, an Algerian midfielder from FC Twente, and on Feyenoord striker Graziano Pelle. They also have Ryan Bertrand the left back on loan from Chelsea.

Koeman is hoping that if Pablo Osvaldo, the Italian striker who was a misfit at Southampton, signs for Inter this weekend, the Saints will get midfielder Saphir Taider in part exchange.

Koeman's shopping list is long. He wants Argentina left back Marcos Roja, Aston Villa centre back Ron Vlaar, Celtic players Fraser Forster and Virgil van Dikj and Norwich pair Leroy Fer and Nathan Redmond.

The fans wait. Some might delay buying their season tickets, most will pay up anyway. Supporters have no choice. They are the last loyal people in football. Saints from birth to death.

stsports@sph.com.sg

This article was published on Aug 3 in The Straits Times.


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