Southampton supporters today were shocked to learn of the death of their club’s owner, Markus Liebherr, at the age of sixty-two. Here, Southampton supporter Neil Cotton pays his own tribute to the man that bought the club when they were at the point of extinction.
A former colleague once related that on her way to watch Southampton play Ajax she was cut up by another motorist. Far from being upset by this she bore the assailant no ill-will as she believed that the car was ferrying new-owner and club saviour Markus Liebherr to his first game; the driver no doubt unfamiliar with the city and the vagaries of its traffic lanes. The car may or may not have contained Mr Liebherr however, the story says much about the esteem fans held for the new owner.
Leibherr emerged after a dark summer where the club, now celebrating its 125th year stared into oblivion. Torn apart by boardroom infighting the club, long proud of its Premier League status, had been relegated the third tier, was in receivership and if that was not enough faced the added burden of starting the new season with a 10 point penalty. Fans had turned to the man credited with single handedly maintaining that hallowed Premier League status during the 1990s Matt Le Tissier. However, despite saving the club on-pitch time and time again off-pitch was a different matter. The consortium he was involved in crumbled away to dust just as the last few grains of sand were trickling through the neck of the egg-timer. Enter Liebherr the Swiss-based, business magnate.
This was an astonishing turnaround of events. Like an action movie the club had been plummeting freefall to the ground when just before the moment of impact it was scooped up, cradled in the heroes arms, and on a trajectory skyward. The club had entered a new era with Liebherr and his newly installed chairman Nicola Cortese boosting their already God-like status (previously only held by Le Tissier) at the club by promising future success within a solid framework of financial prudence. The clubs supporters rejoiced.
The new administration was quick to make changes and set itself the task of overhauling procedures across the entire club. Moves brought in such as making sure all club staff received an invite to the Christmas party welcomingly progressive and commitment to developing facilities for training and youth development meeting with universal approval however, other moves proved more controversial. Mark Wotte the manager who had held the squad together during the chaos of the summer was sacked the day after the take-over.
Though this move surprised supporters who had some sympathy for Wotte, the success of his replacement Alan Pardew went a long way to mitigating the decisive action of the incoming bosses. A spat with the local newspaper the Daily Echo overshadowed part of last season; the paper being issued with a ban by chairman Nicola Cortese who recently generated fresh controversy by barring press photographers from the ground arguing that the action was required to protect the clubs revenues and image rights.
Throughout these events supporters have remained vocally loyal to the club administration. The level of support is unsurprising given the events of the summer of 2009 and the fact that Liebherr and Cortese have presided over subsequent on-field success; the team missing out on the play-offs by a wafer thin margin in spite of a 10 point penalty and celebrating its first piece of silverware since 1976. Indeed, the future looks bright for the once beleaguered club now tipped for a return to the Championship. Almost all of this, including the fact that Southampton FC still exists, is owed to Markus Liebherr.