At last, a bit of welcome news in this disastrous summer for English football. Southampton found a last minute buyer earlier this week, and they are making the right noises about how they intend to run the club. The Liebherr Group took control of the club on Wednesday, and their opening statement as the new owners should act as a template for anyone seeking to take control of a football club:
I believe we have a superb opportunity to rebuild this great club. This will require resources, planning, hard work and patience. We should not expect instant success, but our fans, employees and stakeholders can expect 100% commitment from me and my team. 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 without their backing.
It is a massive breath of fresh air to see the new owners of a football club preaching these values over “get rich quick” values which are too often flaunted elsewhere. Of course, we will have to wait and see to what extent they deliver upon these pledges, but it is encouraging to see the new owners of a football club making it public that the rebuilding of a football club that has slipped two divisions from the Premier League will be from a sustainable base from which they intend to grow, rather then simply throwing money into a pit and hoping for the best.
The news has had an automatic effect on the club’s supporters. Those that turned out at the club’s first friendly, a 1-1 draw at Eastleigh last weekend, were still wondering whether they would be starting this season but season tickets will now be going on sale and the air of optimism around St Mary’s Stadium may prove to be critical as they aim to get promoted straight back into the Championship. The only thing against them in the build up to the new season is how soon it starts but, with many clubs at this level remaining in a state of turmoil, they have as good a chance as any to get promoted from League One, which promises to be one of the more intriguing divisions to watch next season.
Behind the scenes, there is no question that the new owners are acting rapidly. Coach Mark Wotte has already departed, leading to some speculation over the level of the new owners’ ambitions. His replacement for the time being is Stuart Henderson, but it seems doubtful that this will be a long term appointment. In another sign of the wave of optimism sweeping the club, goalkeeper Kelvin Davis turned down a move to Premier League West Ham United after being talked around by the club’s new owners. For a thirty-two year old player to turn down such a move when time may be starting to run out on his career (goalkeepers may have a longer sell-by date than outfield players, but Davis may only have a handful of seasons left as a player nevertheless) says a lot for the persuasive skills of the new owners.
Fine words, however, are one thing, and the onus is now on Liebherr to back up their statements with action. Southampton supporters have been kicked from pillar to post over the last four or five years by appalling management, and the club’s administrator John Fry’s parting words, “I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all Saints fans for their support and patience in what have been uncertain times for the club”, speak volumes about what attracted this new group to the club in the first place.
Such loyalty has earnt its reward this week, and the new owners, starting completely afresh, should at the very least be able to stabilise the club. The fact that someone will step into a club that is two promotions from the Premier League proves that the notion of a football club with 20,000 supporters playing in the second or third tier in the game being massively in debt is an anachronism that sums up the madness of the English game. There was, frankly, no need for Southampton to be in the mess in which they found themselves. If the new owners of the club can see their opening statement through to fruition, Southampton Football Club could have a very bright future indeed.