I’ve a good friend from Dublin who, when growing up, opted to swerve the glory-hunting boat people who follow Liverpool and Manchester United, throwing in his lot with Southampton as his English team of choice.
This was the Lawrie McMenemy era (below), where, in a substantial coup, the then European footballer of the year, Kevin Keegan was signed, to augment the talents of veteran Mick Channon and Alan Ball, also regarded as in his twilight as a footballer, but who enjoyed a fabulous swansong at the Dell.
One Dell of an academy …
It was exciting era to be a Saint’s fan, the personable Lawrie’s teams being geared to play attacking football, and roared on by partisan fans in an atmospheric, traditional ground where the crowd seemed to be right on top of the players.
Yet at the start of this century, Southampton, while producing talents such as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Wayne Bridge, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, had been in decline, culminating in administration and their relegation to the third tier of English football. Since being taken over by Markus Liebher, however, the Saint’s fortunes have revived.
The upturn has survived Liebher’s own death; always a hands-off owner, his family have also delegated others to run the club, the latest of which is former Canadian ice hockey coach and pro, Ralph Krueger. Saints have had a series of managers who have kept to the policy of making astute signings to augment the talent produced by their famous academy. The biggest success has arguably been the recent side cherry-picked by the Premier League’s big spenders.
Eyes on the balance sheet …
But this latest mass sale of their best players must have their fans wondering what the current regime of the club is really all about. Saints have a ground at St.Mary’s, which, while lacking the atmosphere of the old Dell, is certainly not the most drab and soulless of the new-build stadia.
I’ve only visited it once, some years ago with West Ham, where the guy sitting next to me sang in a repeated, drunken, almost tearful lament, ‘F**k off Di Canio, we’ve got Jermaine Defoe It was a reference to Paolo’s departure. Of course, his replacement would soon jump ship to Tottenham…
That blight aside, the visiting Hammers made plenty of positive noise, as did a section of the home fans. It was a tidy stadium, with decent sight lines.
No need for spending on infrastructure then, so why are the Saints almost gleefully selling off their stars? This is a dangerous strategy, as it’s often a signifier that the board’s primary interest lays in areas other than football. My own club, Hibs, sold its ‘golden generation’ of players in 2007, and went into a slow but steady decline, culminating in last season’s relegation.
Following this event, the club’s boasts of their state-of-the-art stadium and training ground seemed to ring hollow, showing that eyes were not on the ball, but on the balance sheet.
Deal or no deal …?
Of course strong finances are important. Many clubs have cut their own throats by playing hard and fast with money they didn’t have, usually in a futile attempt to keep up with the Yank, Russian and Arab sugar-daddied outfits, all pump-primed to soak up the TV revenues. In the cut-throat footballing market every club is a selling club. It’s pointless to lament players moving on, but the goods still have to be produced on the park – and Saints will be ultimately judged there.
So does the near £100 million quid pulled in from transfers constitute a good deal? Even in an English market grotesquely over-inflated by TV money, it might on the face of it look as if Southampton’s board has dealt smartly. The proof of the pudding, of course, is in replacing those favourites and Saints have shelled out almost £60m of that incoming cash on a clutch of players who are talented, but have little Premier League experience.
It might be a tall order to expect them all to settle in and quickly produce the goods in that strange, unforgiving environment.
It could be one Long season …
Of the players recruited from these islands, Ryan Bertrand might yet prove an adequate half-price replacement for Dejan Lovren, but £12m seems an awfully big tag for Shane Long, who scored four goals in 15 appearances for Hull.
Is he really worth three Rickie Lambert’s?
With last season’s personnel, Southampton might have been expected to push for a Europa Cup place. This term I suspect that my Dublin Saint pal can put his passport back in his Harrington, as this now looks to be a bit out of their range. And that might signal to some fans that whatever ambitions the club has, they perhaps don’t involve challenging at the top end of the Premier League.
Irvine Welsh is the best-selling author of Trainspotting, Ecstasy, Filth and The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. He’ll contribute to the Paddy Power Blog each month. Follow Irvine, if you wish, on Twitter here.