If you believe Executive Chairman Nicola Cortese, it was a rough decision that had to be made and it paid off. When Nigel Adkins was unceremoniously sacked in January, Southampton had recovered from a disastrous start to the season and sat in fifteenth place in the Premier League. Hardly setting the division alight, but at the same time a reasonable performance considering that two years earlier the club had been plying its trade amongst the flotsam and jetsam of League One. The possibility of protest hung in the air, but Adkins’ replacement, Mauricio Pochettino, continued to steady the ship and the Saints finished last season fourteenth place in the table, a solid performance from a newly promoted club.
With the end of this challenge, however, comes the start of another and, whilst last season’s performance might have inflated the hopes and dreams of the club’s support, we might well expect Premier League survival to again be at the top of the club’s list of priorities for the coming season. This is That Difficult Second Season, and plenty who have survived their first season at this level have found to their cost that problems can arise when the adrenaline shot that comes with promotion starts to fade to but a mere memory. Still, though, there is little to suggest that Southampton will get sucked into anything like a relegation battle this season for as long as complacency doesn’t settle in over St Marys.
In the transfer market, the club’s major outlay of the summer has been a club record £12.5m on the former Celtic defender and midfielder Victor Wanyama, whose extended courtship took two months to conclude and was regarded north of the border as an outstanding piece of business for Celtic, who only paid £900,000 for the the player two years ago. Whether Wanyama settles in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League is question that we cannot answer at this stage, but his signature does at least demonstrate an ambition on the part of Southampton to invest where necessary to retain the status that the club has managed to attain.
Yet in some respects the biggest battle that the club would face has already been achieved in getting into the Premier League and staying there in the first place. The importance of holding onto that position with the vast increase in television money that comes this season should be obvious. Television money this season will bring at least £60m into the club this season, and this means that record transfer fees being broken in the way that Southampton’s was with the acquisition of Wanyama are likely to become an even more common occurrence than they have previously been in recent years. Still, though, considering the financial basket-casery of previous Southampton regimes, at least this one seems likely to keep the club in the black the foreseeable future.
Last season for Southampton was one of contrasts, though, and with only half a season the jury hasn’t quite reached its verdict yet over manager Mauricio Pochettino. The nature of his arrival at the club means that there may still be those amongst the club’s support for whom he will never quite be a perfect fit, and it is also worth considering that the club only finished the season one place higher in the table than that which it was in at the point of his predecessor’s departure from the club. Because of this, it might even be argued that the Southampton manager is under greater pressure than other managers who ended last season in the morass that the lower mid-table of this division. If the sacking of Nigel Adkins after he had taken he club two two successive promotions had the air of a club seeking something approaching a deal with the devil about it, then nominally improving upon Adkins’ performance might not be enough for Pochettino, particularly on the current hire ’em and fire’ em culture of the modern Premier League. Improvement is necessary if Pochettino is to be secure in his position.
All of this leads us to one final question, upon which the wellbeing of Southampton Football Club over the coming mine months will come to rest: is this club capable of the sort of improvement that may be required to pacify those whose memories continue to stretch back to those few odd days after the departure of Adkins at the start of the year? The answer to this is probably, “yes, but.” Whilst breaking into the top seven in the division is almost certainly too tall an order, the frantic nature of those middle of the table means that there is scope for the club to improve and mid-table – perhaps even a place in the top half of the table – isn’t beyond Southampton, but the first order for the new season must be to try and cancel out the inconsistency that dogged the club throughout last season and to ensure that it doesn’t find itself dragged into a battle just to stay in the division in the first place. If this can be managed, mid-table and steady improvement is likely. If it can’t, though, the ghost of a manager past remains plenty capable of returning to haunt Mauricio Pochettino.
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