Between September 1955 and July 1995, Southampton Football Club had five managers – Ted Bates, Lawrie McMenemy, Ian Branfoot , Chris Nicholl and Alan Ball. During this period, the club rose from Division Three South of the Football League to the First Division for the first time in its history and – barring four seasons during the mid-1970s, when any disappointment on the part of the supporters was ameliorated somewhat by beating Manchester United to win the FA Cup for the first time in the club’s history. Upon returning to the First Division in 1978, Lawrie McMenemy built what was probably the best team in the club’s history, finishing as runners-up to Liverpool in the First Division in 1984 and holding onto that top division place in spite of odds which increasing acted against the club. In the seventeen and a half years since then, Southampton have had twenty managers, including two joint managers and caretakers. In that time, the club has won nothing, and in the second half of the last decade it was relegated twice amongst a flurry of bouncing cheques and unpaid invoices. There’s a lot to be said for loyalty and continuity.
Nigel Adkins wasn’t necessarily a universally popular manager of the club, but he did at least lift the club out of the fug that it had been in over the last few seasons. Appointed as its manager in September 2010, he managed it two two successive promotions – the sort of achievement which never receives the credit that it deserves – and got the club its much-missed and sought-after Premier League place back. Once there, staying in the division was always going to be a tall order, but Adkins’ team had been performing reasonably well on the pitch of late, including highly creditable draws against Arsenal and Chelsea, the latter of which saw the team show great strength of character in coming back from two goals down, away from home, against the champions of Europe. That this turned out to be the manager’s last game in charge of the club is all the more ironic when we consider that this unlikely result lifted the team to fifteenth place in the Premier League table, three points and three places above the relegation positions. Southampton aren’t safe by any stretch of the imagination, but they are outperforming many people’s pre-season anticipations of what they might manage.
The decision of chairman Nicola Cortese to sack Nigel Adkins this morning, then, is a somewhat perplexing one. His statement on the subject - complete with wretched middle-management phrases such as, “For the club to progress and achieve our long-term targets a change was needed” – gave away little other than that his replacement (because sounding out other managers while your club has one in place who is doing a reasonably good job seems to be the way of things these days) was available, and that they wanted him to manage the team instead. The man that they wanted instead is Mauricio Pochettino. Pochettino’s playing career started at Newell’s Old Boys, two spells with Espanyol, Paris St German and Bordeaux, as well as twenty appearances for Argentina, before he moved into coaching, again with Espanyol.
Joining the club in January 2009, and managed a best finish of eighth place in La Liga in 2011, but he left the club “by mutual consent” (code: “You can either leave by mutual consent or we’ll sack you”) in November with the club bottom of table, having won just nine points from their opening thirteen games of the season. Since Pochettino’s departure, for the record, Espanyol have picked up nine points in six matches, and now sit in sixteenth place in the league table, two places above the relegation positions in Spain’s top flight. Pochettino is well-regarded by some, but there is little in his managerial career to suggest that there is anything stellar about him, and all concerned seem a little coy describe in what way he might be the exactly right man to help Southampton “to progress and achieve our long-term targets.”
The new manager is certainly going to need to turn on the charm if he is going to win over the club’s support, which seems to be, in the main, incandescent over the decision to replace Adkins. Such matters are, perhaps, the hidden cost of making a replacement of this nature. Southampton’s next match is at home against Everton on Monday night, weather permitting, and it is likely that the atmosphere will be somewhat sour. Pochettino isn’t going to get a “honeymoon period” at The St Marys Stadium because of the nature of the way in which he arrived at the club in the first place, and on top of that he will have to deal with a group of players that may well have been just as shocked as everybody else by the decision to offload Adkins and bring in a prearranged replacement as well as a first four matches matches which see Southampton playing not just fifth placed Everton but also both Manchester City and Manchester United. Indeed, considering all of this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cortese on the pitch at St Marys this weekend shovelling snow onto it, in order to get it postponed and allow a little time for the dust to settle after this decision.
If the decision to offload Adkins and replace him with Pochettino doesn’t necessarily make much sense, though, where are we to start with any moral aspect to the story? Perhaps it is pointless to even try. Perhaps football never had a moral compass to start with. There is, after all, a long and not particularly glorious history in the game of football club owners and chairmen spotting something shiny in the middle distance which they think might be a trophy or some money and knocking over their own grandparents in the rush to get to it. There seem to be few other walks of life in which loyalty count for so little except amongst supporters, where it is taken to granted to the point of abuse. But that loyalty on the part of supporters can be a double-edged sword, as Nicola Cortese might find out to his cost if Pochettino isn’t the success that the chairman seems to believe that he will be. And so it is that football’s growing winter of discontent continues.
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