Once again, this seasons Premier League kicks off with a club that was involved the lower divisions of the Football League just two years ago, with Southampton having repeated the feat that Norwich managed at the end of the 2010/11 season by getting promoted from the Championship at the end of their first season back in the division. Of all of the achievements that can be managed in English football these days, it often feels as if this is the one that doesn’t quite receive the recognition that it deserves. Any club that gets promoted into a new division these days would ordinarily be happy enough to enjoy a season of consolidation and getting used to its new surroundings, but for Norwich and Southampton this turned out not to be enough and, in a competitive division and with one of the English games prizes on offer, Southampton tore from the pack last season and to a second successive promotion.
A lot has changed since the club was last in the Premier League in 2005. Crippled by the financial burdens of the cost of building St Marys Stadium and with boardroom politics hopelessly out of control, a twenty-seven year stay in the Premier League had been ended by the decisions and actions of those at the time in charge of the custodianship, but the hangover was a lengthy one and it wasn’t until 2009 until the clubs holding company collapsed into administration, with the Matthew Le Tissier-backed Pinnacle Consortium withdrawing from purchasing the club before Markus Liebherrs consortium took control of it. By this time, the club had been relegated to League One, but with Liebherrs ownership came the beginning of the revival, although Liebherr himself wouldn’t live to see it. He died suddenly in September 2010.
Under the managership of Nigel Adkins, though, the revival has been swift and decisive, but is this perhaps a year too soon for the club to be returning to the Premier League? The big money move during the summer had come in the form of the acquisition of Jay Rodriguez from Burnley for £6m. Rodriguez is untried in the Premier League, but he has England under-21 experience and was very highly rated in the Championship last season and if the news being reported this morning is anything to go by, he will have the weight of transfer burden shared in the form of what might yet prove to be one of the transfer coups of the summer, in the form of the Uruguay international Gaston Ramirez. The lavishly-talented Ramirez is this morning understood to have agreed terms with the club to join from Bologna for a little shy of £12m, and when we stop to consider that amongst the other clubs taking an interest in this player were Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Internazionale, the extent to which such a signature – which, we should point out, hasn’t been formally confirmed yet – is an eyebrow-raiser should be apparent, whilst another £6m has been bid for Matt Phillips from Blackpool.
The clubs attacking options, then, are wide-ranging, with Rodriguez joining Billy Sharp, who joined the club in the January transfer window from Doncaster Rovers and scored nine goals in fifteen matches during the promotion push, and last years Championship player of the year Rickie Lambert. These players are impressive attacking options, but they are are untried in this division and it is impossible to say how they will fare in this rarefied atmosphere. Elsewhere, the arrival of Steven Davis on a free transfer following the Rangers debacle brings brings a splash of experience, while new young goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga is highly-rated and Nathaniel Clyne, who has joined the club for £2.3m from Crystal Palace, is likewise. Experience, however, remains an issue and with the Premier League season being eight matches shorter than the Championship there is little room for error for manager Nigel Adkins, especially with a considerable amount of money now having been spent on players – such investment has a tendency to mean less patience should things not be going so well on the pitch.
Adkins is another manager who cuts a singular figure in the Premier League this season. A graduate with experience in the Welsh Premier League and a mixed spell at Scunthorpe United, Adkins, who has taken the club to these two successive promotions, should be untouchable but he is another member of the clubs personnel with no prior experience of the Premier League either as a player or as a manager. His Southampton team has been a nicely balanced one, reasonably free-scoring at one end of the pitch and commendably mean-spirited at the other, but his success has all come at a lower level of the game. He should be given time by the owners of the club, but the amount of money being spent on new players may ultimately make his job more difficult than it might otherwise have been. The flip-side to this argument, however, would be to suggest that Southampton may have spent their money sensibly. The players brought into the club are all young, and if any one of them reaches the potential that they have suggested in their careers so far, the cost of all of this summers spending might yet be covered.
So this is where we stand with Southampton FC as the new season begins – we don’t know where they might finish. If this combination of lavish new signings and the backbone of a squad that has swept all before it over the last two years can knit together quickly, then the club might well be capable of repeating the successes of Norwich City and Swansea City last season. If the pressure starts to build – and let us not forget that the Saints start their season season with a trip to Manchester City, of all places, this weekend – then the evaporation of confidence from players who are not used to losing could be rapid. With the club spending the sort of money that it has been of late, anywhere between tenth and twentieth in the Premier League could be the final position for Southampton, come the end of this season. When we consider how far the club has come over the course of the last two years, however, merely the achievement of Southampton FC competing in the Premier League at all this season is something that all connected with the club would do well to keep in the back of their minds.
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