LONDON: Three months ago Southampton fans were cheering; now they are worrying. Three months ago Southampton had just finished a highest-ever eighth in the Premier League; now they barely have a team.
Success proved costly for the south coast club. Everyone else was so impressed Tottenham took manager Mauricio Pochettino, Manchester United and Arsenal bought fullbacks Luke Shaw (£27m) and Calum Chambers (£16m) respectively while Liverpool splashed out on England’s Adam Lallana (£25m) and Rickie Lambert (£4m) plus Croatia’s Dejan Lovren (£20m).
When Dutchman Ronald Koeman arrived last month he found more than just the manager’s office empty. Famously, he tweeted a photograph of the club’s Marchwood training complex with cones and balls all ready. The caption said: “Ready for training.” But there was no-one out on the pitch.
Koeman did not intend the picture to be humorous but that is how Southampton supporters considered it. Not only that. They fear that more of their favourite players are heading for the door. France midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin is determined to force a path following Pochettino to Spurs who also have eyes on injured England fringe forward Jay Rodriguez.
In three years Southampton had risen from the third division to the top half of the Premier League and players, staff and their families were enjoying the sensation at the end-of-season dinner after the concluding 1-1 draw with Manchester United. That, reportedly, was then and there that Shaw told the club he wished to leave for Old Trafford.
Within days Lallana, wanting to hurry matters before heading for the World Cup, also told the club he wanted to join Liverpool who had already agreed to sign Lambert. It was the start of a stampede for the exit.
Apart from Schneiderlin or Rodriguez, uncertainty also surround the future of defenders Jose Fonte and Nathaniel Clyne, midfielder Jack Cork and Dutch defender Jos Hooiveld.
In truth, the first crack in the walls at St Mary’s had occurred last Janaury when Swiss-Italian banker Nicola Cortese quit as chairman. Cortese had been controversial but he had been responsible for bringing in Pochettino, encouraging a policy of stylish policy and further heavy investment in the club’s admired youth academy.
Cortese had one argument too many with Katharina Liebherr, daughter of the late Markus Liebherr whom Cortese had persuaded to spend a ‘mere’ £14m buying the club back in 2009. Two months after Cortese’s departure he was replaced, to the fans’ bemusement, by Ralph Krueger, a Canadian-born German direct from the world of north American ice hockey.
Krueger, on arrival, said: “Katharina was looking for someone to come in from sport on the leadership side. She has strong values and a fresh and interesting perspective on sport.”
‘Interesting’ is an under-statement to judge by subsequent events.
Fans fear that discontent might spread to the academy to which Saints have looked for so many fine players including Arsenal’s England winger Theo Walcott and Real Madrid’s Welsh world record capture Gareth Bale.
Southampton did not have to sell anyone for the money. They recorded a net loss of £7.1m in March. That has now been wiped out by the player sales. At least Koeman has plenty of money to spend on filling the gaps.
When he accepted the job he knew Lallana, Shaw and Lambert were going. In pre-season he used a host of academy players while adding four journeymen players in Graziano Pelle (Feyenoord), Dusan Tadic (Twente), Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea) and Algerian midfielder Saphir Taider (Inter) for a combined £30m. Promising teenage winger Demetri Mitchell has arrived on loan from Manchester United.
Koeman has insisted he is concentrated only on the players he has and the future, not the past. He is happy with Saints’ pre-season work and friendly matches, saying: “We have been playing good football but we still have to bring in some more new players then we’ll have time to prepare ourselves in the best way to start the Premier League.”
Good preparation is essential. Saints’ opening match, on Sunday, is away to. . . Lallana, Lambert and Liverpool.