Twelve months ago, Southampton were down and out. Relegated from the Championship and handed a ten point deduction for entering administration, the famous south coast club was just days away from insolvency and subsequent banishment from the Football League. A number of consortiums deliberated bids for the club but none proved to be successful, including that of the Pinnacle group which included Saints legend Matthew Le Tissier in their ranks.
The St Mary’s faithful feared the worse, and then suddenly, Markus Liebherr, a Swiss billionaire who made his money in construction machinery, stepped in and saved the day. With the takeover complete, Liebherr said “I believe we have a superb opportunity to rebuild this great club. This will require resources, planning, hard work and patience.” For once it appeared that the club had found an owner with a real interest in returning Southampton to the top level of English football. Indeed, with the debts written off, despised former chairman Rupert Lowe finally out of the picture and a super-rich owner at the helm, better days seemed to be on the horizon for Saints fans.
Within days of the new administration taking the helm, Alan Pardew agreed to join the club as manager and the new owners gave the former West Ham supremo a hefty transfer budget. The envy of every other League One manager, Pardew used his owner’s money wisely, bringing in a number of excellent players. His biggest coup was signing the league’s top scorer from the previous season, Bristol Rovers striker Rickie Lambert. This delighted fans, and with the additional signings of the tenacious Colchester midfielder Dean Hammond and the experienced Raidi Jaidi in defence, the Saints looked set to quickly overturn the 10 point penalty and make a charge for the play-offs. However, things didn’t quite go to plan.
It took eight games for the new look team to muster a win and their inconsistency proved damaging as they struggled to impose themselves in the notoriously tough league. It wasn’t until the new year that things really started to click and Saints went on a formidable run which suddenly made the dream of making the play-offs a realistic possibility. A decent FA Cup run presented them with a big money tie against local rivals Portsmouth and despite a heavy defeat, the air of optimism that filled St Mary’s on the day of the takeover was well and truly back. However, despite growing success on the pitch, Nicola Cortese, the club’s French chairman, hinted at signs of discontent within the club’s upper echelons. Just days before Pardew’s big day out at Wembley for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final, Cortese told BBC Solent: “We were in a similar position to the likes of Norwich and Charlton. We started with minus-10 points but now we’re 31 behind Norwich, and 22 behind Charlton. The gap is too much.”
The words drilled fear back into Southampton fans as the possibility of another managerial change disappointingly came back into contention. Despite delighting the city with a convincing win at Wembley, Pardew’s position became under immense scrutiny. And now, after finishing seventh in the league, just one place and seven points outside the play-offs, Pardew is set for showdown talks with his chairman. Numerous famous names from Southampton’s history have expressed their belief in Mr Pardew and agree that he is building something very special down on the south coast. Le Tissier has expressed his disappointment in the chairman, telling the Southern Daily Echo that “He (Cortese) has handled the situation very poorly.” Lawrie McMenemy and Kevin Keegan have also backed the manager and without doubt, the vast majority of the 44,000 supporters Saints took to Wembley are right behind their man.
So despite new owners, a new regime and a revival in form, are Southampton in fact the same old club who throw out managers as frequently as they throw out the rubbish? Liebherr made very clear when he took over Southampton that he did not expect instant success, and as quoted earlier, he professed that he understood that returning the club to its former glories would require “…planning, hard work, and patience.” Note the word patience there.
To many, it would seem that Pardew has in fact brought instant success to the club. By winning the JPT, Pardew delivered Southampton’s first piece of silverware for over 30 years. Albeit it a minor competition, the victory brought an overwhelming sense of joy back to St Mary’s and indeed the city as a whole. Furthermore, he guided his team agonisingly close to a play-off position (they would have comfortably made it without the 10 point deduction) and achieved a goal difference second only to the league champions Norwich. Understandably, the owners want to see a return on their investment; however they should realise that in football, nothing comes easily and the efforts of Pardew and his players this season have been remarkable. With talk of big clubs such as Celtic and West Ham showing an interest in their manager, Liebherr and Cortese should know when they are on to a good thing and support the man who really can bring the good times back for the long suffering Southampton faithful.
Written By Alex Smith