As Bad As Things Got: Southampton, 3rd April 2009
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course. The Dell, Southampton’s home since 1898, might have been an uncomfortable place for visitors, but space restrictions in the years following the introduction of all-seater rules in 1992 led to its capacity being reduced to just 15,200, but it was becoming uncomfortable for Southampton, too. For a club that had been in the top flight since 1978, a stadium of this size would inevitably stunt any plans that the club might have had for further growth.
Plans to build a new stadium in a village near Eastleigh ran aground following disputes with the council over their lack of community facilities and with local people, who didn’t want another town’s football club moving into their back yard. Eventually, though, a new site was located just to the north-east of the city centre, near the banks of the River Itchen, and it was confirmed at the end of the 1998/99 season that work was to start on the new 32,000 capacity stadium. The club moved out of The Dell in the summer of 2001.
Under new management in the form of Gordon Strachan, it seemed at first as though the stadium move was having its desired effect. Southampton completed their first season at St Mary’s in 11th place in the Premier League and the following year finished eighth – their highest league position since 1990 – while reaching the FA Cup final, where they lost to Arsenal.
Strachan, however, resigned in March 2004 to take a break from football, and was replaced by the former Plymouth Argyle manager Paul Sturrock. Sturrock had just taken Plymouth to two successive promotions, so he had a good reputation, but within weeks of his taking charge, rumours started to circulate of dissatisfaction among the players. He lasted just five months before leaving less than two weeks into the 2004/05 season. His replacement was something of a surprise. Steve Wigley’s only previous managerial experience had been three years in non-league football with Aldershot Town in the mid-1990s and some time with the Nottingham Forest academy. During his initial period as caretaker-manager he’d managed to smooth over the issues that had been bedevilling the club behind the scenes, but were his meagre managerial credentials sufficient for the rarefied air of the Premier League?
Southampton supporters got their answer to this question within three short months. Steve Wigley’s time in charge of the club was an unmitigated disaster. He was in charge for 14 games, of which they won just one (albeit against fierce local rivals Portsmouth), and after they lost 3-0 to Manchester United at the start of December he in turn was fired, with Southampton in the Premier League’s relegation places.
His replacement, though, proved to be even more controversial. Harry Redknapp had been the manager of Portsmouth when they lost to Southampton just a few weeks earlier and had quit there a couple of weeks later. The decision to appoint Redknapp at St Mary’s pleased neither Southampton nor Portsmouth supporters, and it didn’t improve Southampton’s fortunes at all. On the last day of the 2004/05 season, they were beaten 2-1 at home by Manchester United, a result that relegated Southampton after 27 years in the top flight. The club had spent much of the 1990s fire-fighting against relegation from the Premier League, but moving to a new stadium with double the capacity of the old one had been meant to break that cycle. Greater revenues were supposed to secure the club’s place in the Premier League, but instead, just four years after moving in, they now had to face up to a future playing below the top division for the first time in a generation.
The difficulties didn’t end with the relegation, either. After winning three of their first five Championship matches of the 2005/06 season, Southampton went on a run of eight consecutive draws and dropped to mid-table, while the decision to appoint the former England rugby union coach Clive Woodward as a performance coach was hardly a popular among supporters. Woodward was a personal friend of chairman Rupert Lowe and had no experience in association football. To many, his appointment smacked of nepotism and little else.
By November 2006, the rumour mill was circulating again. Alain Perrin was sacked by Portsmouth, and the suggestion was that this had come about in part because Redknapp, who was still the manager of Southampton at this point, had repaired relations with the Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric. Sure enough, two weeks later Redknapp jumped ship to Fratton Park with Southampton in 12th place in the Championship.
His replacement, George Burley, started with four straight defeats, and by the end of March 2006 Southampton were in 20th place in the Championship, just two above the relegation places. A run of five wins in their last six matches, however, didn’t only allay any lingering concerns of relegation. It lifted the team to 12th place in the final table, the position they’d been in when Redknapp left.
This late revival after a long and difficult season came too late for Rupert Lowe, though. Pressure had been building upon Lowe throughout the whole of the 2005/06 season, particularly from The Saints Trust, and in June 2006 he departed, to be replaced by Michael Wilde. The following season was more stable, with the team in touch with the promotion places for much of the first half. Their form, however, tailed off in the spring, and only another strong run at the end of the season saw them make the play-offs, where they lost on penalties to Derby County in the semi-finals.
The 2007/08 season, however, saw a return to previous struggles and the team finished the season in 20th place in the table, just two points above the relegation places. George Burley resigned in February 2008, with a John Gorman & Jason Dodd double-act proving unsuccessful for six matches before Nigel Pearson did just enough to keep them up at the end of the season. Jan Poortvliet assumed the managerial position in May 2008.
Rupert Lowe returned in the summer of 2008 as the chairman of Southampton Leisure Holdings PLC, the holding company which owned the club. It was becoming increasingly clear by this point that the problems at Southampton were as much structural as anything else. The holding company owed £24.5m to Aviva Investments in relation to the mortgage taken out to build St Mary’s. As a secured debt, this couldn’t be formally included when Southampton Leisure finally collapsed into administration on the 3rd April 2009, but the administrators hoped to be able to restructure this debt as part of any future rescue deal. On top of this, and despite selling young star players Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale to try and balance the books, the club also had a £4.5m overdraft with Barclays Bank.
Three weeks later, though, the Football League twisted the knife. Lowe had been confident that the League wouldn’t sanction Southampton FC because it was the holding company that had become insolvent rather than the football club, but on the 23rd April an announcement was made that threw a spanner in those specific works. The League had been under considerable pressure for the previous three weeks. Other clubs were deeply unhappy at what many considered to be ‘gaming the system’. It had only been six years since Leicester City won promotion fresh from coming out of administration, a state of affairs which led to the introduction of the ten point penalty for clubs which did so.
A Football League investigation by “independent forensic accountants” had found that the football club and Southampton Leisure Holdings were “inextricably linked as one economic entity”. Their league form had been dismal all season, and on the 23rd April 2009 they were already one place off the bottom of the Championship table with two games to play, needed to win both of their remaining two matches in order to stay up regardless of points deductions. The League confirmed that they would be deducted ten points either in the 2008/09 season, should they finish above the relegation places, or the following season, in the event of them being relegated.
It didn’t take that long for the club to find a buyer, despite relegation. Markus Liebherr had made his money in engineering. His Liebherr company, which had been founded by his father Hans, was one of the world’s leading manufacturers of construction machinery. Liebherr paid around £14m for the club – the exact figure was undisclosed – with joint administrator Mark Fry stating that, “Liebherr was attracted to Southampton by a number of qualities which include the club’s rich sporting heritage, loyal fan base, first-class stadium and training facilities and the potential for the Saints to regain their rightful place in the higher echelons of English football.”
Alan Pardew took over as manager, and Southampton started their first season in the third tier of the English league system with their ten point deduction. Things couldn’t have gone much worse. Southampton won just one of their first ten matches of the 2009/10 season. Following that 10th match – a 3-2 home defeat by Bristol Rovers at the end of September – they were still on -1 points and still ten points clear of safety. Their form recovered, but it was already too late to mount a bid for the promotion, though they did finish the season in a creditable seventh place, seven points adrift of Huddersfield Town. Without a ten point deduction they’d have finished fifth, even including that terrible start.
Pardew paid for another bad run – one win in their first seven, this time – with his job, but his replacement Nigel Adkins steered them to the runners-up place behind Brighton & Hove Albion that season, and twelve months later Southampton were celebrating a return to the Premier League, promoted for a second season as runners-up to Reading, and just ahead of West Ham United. They haven’t been back to the EFL since.
One very important person, however, wasn’t present for the club’s revival in the league. Southampton’s consolation during the 2009/10 season had been a trip to Wembley to win the Football League Trophy, beating Carlisle United in the final, and pictures of Markus Liebherr celebrating at the end of the match were plentiful in the press, the following day. On the eve of the new 2010/11 season, though, Liebherr died suddenly from a heart attack, aged 61.
His shareholding passed to his daughter, Katharina. But although there questions over whether she was as committed to the club as her father seemed to have become, her ownership of the club was, apart from issues with Nicola Cortese, who had been the chair of Markus Liebherr’s board of directors since the takeover. Cortese quit in January 2014, and Katharina continued as chair of the club until 2017, when she sold 80% of her shareholding to Gao Jisheng, a Chinese businessman, and his family. He in turn has been open to selling the club for some time, but Katharina has previously stated that she doesn’t wish to sell her stake. Meanwhile, recent bids to buy Gao’s shareholding have fallen extremely short of his expectations.
It’s all a long way from Markus Liebherr paying £14m to rescue a club that had just been relegated into League One just twelve years ago, but few would have believed in April 2009 that, by the summer of 2012, Southampton would be a Premier League club again. It’s unlikely that Southampton were in serious danger of going out of business in 2009. The new stadium and the potential that came with it made the club an attractive buy regardless of their league position at that specific time, and subsequent events have proved Southampton to be very a profitable investment for the Liebherr family indeed. It took a few years and more than a few mis-steps, but Southampton did eventually fulfil the potential that they saw when they left The Dell. It’s just a terrible shame that the man who rescued the club from its lowest point couldn’t be there to see its revival.