Wonder week epitomises Saints progress
Last year I wrote about the potential of Southampton’s youthful team, and their ambitions for the Premier League. After Nigel Adkins was sacked, I also described the canniness of the Chairman, Nicola Cortese.
Now, at the start of the 2013 season, Southampton FC are ready to explode into the Premier League.
And what a contrast – seven year’s ago, Southampton under the charge of Chairman Rupert Lowe, were plundering towards Premier League relegation for the first time in 20 years. Lowe then masterfully led them to League One and into administration, while selling off some of their popular young stars – Walcott and Bale – along the way. Southampton woke up in 2009 in League One with -10 points. Dark days for the club.
But from the depths of despair came a new Saint – Markus Liebherr, a Swiss millionaire, whose wealth manager, Nicola Cortese, found him Southampton FC. Marcus agreed the purchase only if Cortese took charge as chairman. Liebherr sadly passed away a year later, but with his daughter’s continued financial backing, two years later in 2012, Southampton charged back to the Premier League.
Now a year on, Southampton have had a week that sends a warning shot to the rest of the league.
Wednesday 14 August, on a train ride from London to Southampton
You could sense the excitement in the air (twitter air that is, not on the train – Southampton folk aren’t the most flamboyant).
Rickie Lambert, who epitomises everything that’s great about the squad – under-estimated skill, humility, hard work, had just been called up for the England squad for the first time, to play Scotland. That evening, subbed on for Wayne Rooney, with 30 minutes remaining and both teams level, he scored a powerhouse header to win the game for England. First call up, first cap, first touch of the ball.
Rickie’s story says a lot about Southampton. He credits the club for changing his mentality from an over reliance on natural ability, but without care for fitness, to the serious athlete he is now. Even in League One, Southampton were raising ambitions.
Something about Rickie scoring on his England debut inspired the nation. The Olympic spirit never seemed to translate to football – Wayne Rooney or Frank Lambert’s cagey drones don’t capture the same excitement as Mo Farah or Jess Ennis. But Lambert, bursting with enthusiasm at a post match interview: “I was trying to act cool all week, but inside I wanted to scream” brought the goosebumps back. Now the English know how it feels to be a Saints fan.
Thursday 15 August, reading the press stories about Southampton transfer activity.
Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, Italian international, was as you would expect, rejecting a move to Saints. Spurs were ready to pounce. Saints vs Spurs. vs London. Kaos vs Mahiki. 14th finishers vs Europa league qualifiers. No contest.
Saturday 16 August, first day of the Premier League 2013-14.
Southampton v West Brom. 3 debuts.
Cortese spent the summer filling in the gaps in the squad, not by looking for bargains in the leagues of journey men, or fading Premier League stars. When Don Cortese says he wants to play in Europe he means it. The hard negotiator snapped up two of the young Champions League stars from 2012 – Victor Wanyama, midfield powerhouse, who scored for Celtic against Barcelona last season. And Dejan Lovren, Lyon central defender who impressed so many against Tottenham last year.
The final debut was for Calum Chambers, 18, right back, product of Southampton’s famous youth academy. He wasn’t the only 18 year old on the pitch – with midfielder James Ward-Prowse, and left back Luke Shaw having established themselves last year. One of The Don’s ambitions for Southampton is to emulate Barcelona’s youth success with 50% of the first team taken from the academy. With four academy players in the starting line up (the fourth being 25 year old Adam Lallana) that isn’t looking too far off.
Not long ago, our youth were enticed by the bright lights of Arsenal or Tottenham, now they want to stay. Not long ago, we were bullied by the big boys for our talent – if Bale’s ￡100 million transfer goes ahead we will receive no benefit as Lowe sold the sell on clause to Tottenham. Now The Don out-wits them. Arsene Wenger only brings Oxlade-Chamberlain on 72 minutes or more into the game as The Don has a clause in his contract for a ￡10k payment every 20 minutes he plays (although as Wenger didn’t factor injury time into his calculations, we’re still demanding the cash).
The West Brom game ended with hero Lambert finishing off his amazing week with a penalty to win the game. Lovren, Wanyama, and Chambers all dominated on their debuts.
Sunday 18 August – train back to London, following breaking news updates
The media, reporting on the unliklihood of Osvaldo joining Saints, didn’t factor in the tenaciousness of The Don, or Southampton manager, former Argentinean international, Mauricio Pochettino.
Pochettino joined the club in January 2013, bringing a new explosive style. Inspired by Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielsa, he became a disciple of the high pressing, aggressive attacking style at his previous club Espanyol. He also brought with him a level of international respect that Adkins could never compete with.
Osvaldo once a player at Espanyol and managed by Pochettino, was quoted at the time: “He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes you feel like killing him, but it works.”
And here the dots start joining, and Osvaldo after numerous calls with his former boss, signed up for the lowly Saints ahead of Europe-fighting Spurs. Southampton fans were euphoric (although they hid it well on the train) – a rock and roll football star; a long way from the days of Jonathon Forte.
Watching Chelsea tear apart Hull, its clear there’s still some way to go to turn Southampton FC into a ruthless winning machine. But the promise and money is there, the set up is strong, team spirit is thriving, and that makes for a pretty exhilarating ride for Southampton supporters. 2009 seems a distant memory.
Written by: Louise Kyme