The Southampton Story: New beginnings
Following the news of Southampton being bought by a Swiss billionaire, Kieran Beckles takes a look back through The Saint’s recent history and what the takeover could mean for the club.
Captained by the late Alan Ball, Southampton were promoted to the top tier of English football in 1978. It heralded a 27-year participation in England’s top division. It was the richest period in the club’s history with some great names donning the red and white shirt: European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan; England number one Peter Shilton and club legend Matt Le Tissier.
In 1983-84, under the guidance of manager Lawrence McMenemy’s Southampton enjoyed their best ever finish in English football. With an impressive tally of 77 points they were only three points away from champions Liverpool.
McMenemy departed two seasons later and with his departure, Southampton’s most successful spell in English football came to an end. Yet they managed to avoid relegation despite many scares.
During the dawning of the Premiership era, Southampton were founding members of the league, having now been in the top flight for 14 years. Consistently found floating dangerously around the relegation zone, the Saints produced many of their own versions of the great escape throughout their time in the Premier League.
The late nineties and early naughties proved to be another good period for them. Glen Hoddle established them as a mid-table side, but he soon moved on to fresh pastures, seeking more glory at his former club, Tottenham Hotspur.
The Saints endured a dismal start to life in their new 32,000 all-seater stadium. Under Stuart Gray the side soon slumped into the relegation zone. Gray lasted until late autumn when he was replaced by the reliable Gordon Strachan.
The former Aberdeen star steadied the fortunes of the club, securing 11th place followed by an impressive 8th position finish the next season. Strachan also led the Saints to the FA Cup final – their first since 1976 when they upset Manchester United.
Arsenal proved too strong for the South coast club, with Strachan’s side left disappointed at the Millennium Stadium, suffering a 1-0 defeat. James Beattie had been colossal throughout the season proving key with an impressive 23 goals.
Strachan left ST Mary’s in March 2004 and was replaced by the highly-rated Plymouth manager, Paul Sturrock. Yet player dis-satisfaction saw Sturrock’s term come to an abrupt end before the start of the 2004-05 campaign.
Rupert Lowe, who had held the position of chairmen since 1996, placed his faith in reserve team coach, Steve Wigley. It proved a disastrous decision with the Saints able to manage only one solitary win in 14 outings.
Controversially, Harry ‘Houdini’ Redknapp was appointed to guide Southampton out of the relegation zone to safety. The relegation battle went down to the very last day with Redknapp unable to ensure Southampton’s top flight status. It brought to an end, the Saint’s 27-year stay in England’s top flight.
Relegation led to a 50% wage cut for the playing staff, but Lowe continued to earn a salary of £406,513 making him one of the highest paid chairmen in British football. It drew much criticism from the Southampton faithful.
The Saints did not manage to bounce straight back into the Premier League and with only one play-off semi final in three years, they never looked very likely to make a quick return back up.
Indeed, on and off the pitch, matters only worsened for Southampton. Amid much controversy Lowe left the club in June 2006. He resigned a matter of days before a scheduled EGM where it was predicted he would face the chop.
Southampton commenced the search for new investment come the start of the 2006/07 season. There were frequent changes within the boardroom with Micahel Wilde and Leon Crouch both overseeing the club as chairmen for short periods of time.
Amidst many rumours of potential buyers including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and SISU capitol, no takeover deal emerged.
On December 15 2007, Lowe and Wilde were both reinstated to their former positions. Wilde as chairman of the club and Lowe as chairman of the holding company.
On the pitch Southampton’s form was unpredictable. At the start of the 2007-08 season, manager George Burley announced that star players such as Kenwenye Jones and Gareth Bale would have to be sold in order to balance the club’s books.
Burley left for Scotland at Christmas. The financial constrictions at the club led to more first team players being either sold or loaned out. Nigel Pearson was appointed manager in February 2008 and managed to secure the Saint’s Championship status with a 3-2 final day victory over Sheffield United.
Despite Pearson ensuring that Southampton would start the 2008-09 season in the second tier of English football his contract was not renewed as Southampton moved dangerously near administration.
Jan Poortvliet was pulled from relative football obscurity to become the new manager. Mounting costs at the club led to senior players been shown the door in order to reduce the wage bill.
The St Mary’s side now had to rely on their impressive youth system to produce youngsters capable of performing in the Championship. An inexperienced Saints side soon found themselves deep in a relegation battle.
Their Dutch manager resigned in late December and youth coach, Mark Wotte was rushed in as a replacement. Matters on and off the pitch deteriorated alarmingly.
With Southampton lingering around the drop zone, the parent company was placed into administration. This led to an automatic 10 point penalty, which effectively sealed their relegation to League One.
It was controversial. Football league regulations state that if a club goes into administration, a 10 point deduction will be implemented. After an extensive inquiry, the parent company and the club were adjuged to be the same organisation.
Towards the end of May, Southampton’s employees were asked to go unpaid as a gesture of good will to prevent the club going into bankruptcy. The ‘Pinnacle’ consortium headed by Saints legend, Matt Le Tissier, paid the players wages and gained exclusivity of the club for 21 days.
Yet the takeover deal collapsed with the Football League unwilling to sanction the takeover due to the refusal of the consortium to accept the 10 point deduction.
However Southampton’s ailing fortunes improved last Wednesday as it was announced the club was being bought by Swiss billionaire businessman, Markus Liebherr.
He paid between £13-15 million for the club. His first moves as owner was to sack manager, Mark Wotte and give club captain, Kelvin Davis a new contract.
In a statement released by Liebherr, he announced his plans for the club: “I believe we have a superb opportunity to rebuild this great Club. Clearly, this will require resources, planning, hard work and patience.
“We will assemble a strong management team at every level of the Club. We will act rapidly, but also plan for the long term, because I am here for the long term.
“I also look forward to the Club re-engaging with the fans and the local community. We cannot succeed with out their backing.
“We should not expect instant success, but our fans, employees and other stakeholders can expect 100 per cent commitment from me and my team.”
A positive sign at last for the big fan base that Southampton enjoys. A club with a long tradition of top flight football, the club now seems to be in reliable hands. The new owner will now be seeking a new manager with the necessary experience to guide the Saints back into the Championship.