As the supporters of several different football clubs will most willingly attest, the concentration of too much in one set of hands can have unwanted side-effects. Over the last couple of years, the reputation of the now former Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese had risen from being the man who steadied the club’s ship after its flirtation with insolvency several years ago to something approaching a miracle worker. Under his chairmanship, the club rose from League One to the Premier League in successive season, stayed up and has now pushed on to become a comfortably placed mid-table club. Cortese never seemed afraid to take unpopular decisions, either. His decision to sack previous manager Nigel Adkins was highly criticised – including on these very pages – and extremely unpopular at the time, but the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino has turned into one of the Premier League’s most notable success stories of the last twelve months.
Happiness at a football club, however, can be a transient experience and the events of the last couple of days allowed the press the luxury of casting the Saints as a “crisis club” for the first time this season. “Southampton were a club coming apart at the seams on Wednesday night after the executive chairman, Nicola Cortese, quit and left the owner desperately trying to convince the manager, Mauricio Pochettino, not to follow suit” sais the Guardian, before going on to further embellish this feeling of impending crisis by falling back upon quotations from the manager dating from last May in which he said that, “I would not understand staying in this role if Nicola was not here,” and that, “The person who actually called me from the start, told me about the project and put the faith in me was Nicola.” It’s not that loyalty isn’t a touching emotion to witness, rather that in the viper’s nest of egos that is the Premier League, it’s unexpected to see anybody sticking up for anybody else for reasons other than sheer self-preservation. In themselves, though, these quotations proved little.
Nature, however, abhors a vacuum and during an otherwise slow news week there was plenty of speculation to fill the gaps left by an absence of hard fact. While much of this was – understandably – devoted to the whys and wherefores of Cortese’s departure from the club, though, there was also a nasty hint of sexism to be detected in much of reporting of this story on account of the fact that the actual owner of Southampton FC, Katharina Liebherr, has the temerity to be a woman, of all things. Ms Liebherr has long been understood to be a reluctant owner of the club, it having passed into her hands following the unfortunate and premature death of her father Markus three and a half years ago. She is believed to have little interest in football and was believed to want to sell the club as soon as possible. It has been widely rumoured that it was a dispute over when the club should be sold and, to a lesser extent, what Cortese’s renumeration might be as a result of this that were behind his resignation from the club.
The whys and wherefores of Cortese’s departure from Southampton, however, do not excuse the tone of some sections of the press over the last twenty-four hours or so. The Daily Mail led with the – in equal parts memorable and execrable – headline “Dream Wrecker” (“Dream” rhymes with “home”, you see – a handy cliché to dog-whistle into their headline) above an article which, in lieu of being properly able to paint Liebherr as a pantomime villain – which would be dificult, since she has done little but own something that she didn’t really want to own for the last three and a half years – instead became a puff piece which might as well have been written by Cortese’s PR people, praising his “stunning attention to detail“, “the elaborate plans for a world class facility for the game’s top players [which] is coming together at breathtaking speed”, and calling in “Money Mail editor and lifelong Southampton fan” James Coney to comment, without apparent irony, that, “A club that seemed upwardly mobile, has sunk its fans in to the depths of despair again.” As Football 365’s Mediawatch drily noted earlier this afternoon, “She has since ‘wrecked’ the ‘dream’ by spending £70m on transfers since they secured promotion to the top flight, breaking the club’s transfer record three times.”
Meanwhile, The Sun, never a newspaper to be outdone in any race to the bottom, followed a similar path with a less than flattering picture of Ms Liebherr on its back page which was accompanied by a shrieking headline which read, “EXCLUSIVE. REVEALED. Woman at centre of Southampton nightmare,” presumably because their editoral team feels that Ms Liebherr being a woman – and, more specifically, not a woman of the appearance that they would wish splash over page three of their rag – has some sort of relevance in terms of this story. One of their hacks painted Cortese’s departure from the club as being being akin to some form of Shakespearian tragedy, asking, “Is there any way back from the abyss?”, again without any apparent irony. Completing our trinity of the damned, the Daily Express reportedly went with the headline, “Herr Indoors Is In Charge Now,” though this headline didn’t make their website. Still, though, they had an insider to tell them that “she only has herself to blame” and added that, “doomsayers are predicting an exodus of loyal stars.”
This afternoon, however, the balloon of doom and gloom that some corners of the press had spent the previous twenty-four hours carefully cultivating was punctured somewhat when Pochettino held a press conference and, rather than sitting and sobbing uncontrollably whilst holding a half-crumpled picture of Cortese or falling on a club-branded ceremonial dagger, confirmed that he would be continuing as the manager of the club. “The new situation is different. We are in the middle of our new project.”, he said. “Nicola knows of my decision to stay; I have spoken to him. I am fully committed to the staff, the players, the club and it would make no sense to leave in the middle of our path.” And what about those comments from May of last year, so lovingly repeated by so many journalists last night and this morning? “The new situation is different. We are in the middle of our new project. Nicola knows of my decision to stay; I have spoken to him. I am fully committed to the staff, the players, the club and it would make no sense to leave in the middle of our path.”
So Pochettino’s own words this afternoon confirm that he stays at the club, and the result of this is that we now know what the future situation at St Mary’s will be, for the time being, at least. It’s possible, of course, that the manager may leave the club in the summer. It’s certainly likely that other clubs will have been monitoring the events of the last twenty-four hours with considerable interest. That, however, is a bridge that Southampton supporters will have to cross when they come to it. For now, the manager stays. Meanwhile, Katharina Liebherr – who doesn’t care about the club so much that she converted £33m in loans into equity last year – will assume the role of role of non-executive chair, while the club will now seek to find a Chief Exeuctive Officer, with its directorial organisation being rearranged so that so much responsibility for its wellbeing doesn’t again fall upon one individual, an implied nod, we might suggest, to what Cortese had achieved during his time with the club.
There remains a degree over the uncertainty over where, exactly, the future of Southampton FC might be headed, of course. When Katharina Liebherr does come to sell the club, who will she sell it to? Southampton supporters may well hoping that it isn’t to the likes of some of the other speculators who have darkened the door of English football of late, but it is worth mentioning that the club will be worth more to sell if it continues to make the progress that it has over the last few years. Will Mauricio Pochettino still be the manager this time next year? Nobody knows, but he stays for now. Perhaps there will be exodus of star players, but this should be countered by suggesting that What we do know with a degree of certainty, though, is that the caterwauling of a section of the football press seems to have been almost as misplaced as it was hysterical. No change there, then.
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