WHO is the enigma that is Saints chairman Nicola Cortese?

Adam Leitch profiles the man in charge at St Mary's who is being linked with a role at Italian giants AC Milan ....


Rewind almost four years to Friday, May 29, 2009. Nicola Cortese’s phone rings. It’s bad news.

Mr Cortese, a Swiss bank executive, is told that a rival group have been given a 21-day exclusivity period to buy Southampton Football Club after stumping up a £500,000 non-refundable deposit.

Mr Cortese’s initial reaction is shock.

He and the Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr were convinced they were only minutes away from entering exclusivity themselves, and securing ownership of the financially troubled League One club.

After a brief discussion with Mr Liebherr, who had only shortly before accompanied Mr Cortese to England for a tour of the club and the surrounding area, they forgot about it for three weeks, keeping little more than a watching brief on developments.

Fast forward to today.

The rival bid collapsed and Mr Cortese is now the executive chairman of Southampton Football Club, a forward thinking Premier League side whose rise through the divisions has been as fast as it has impressive.

Mr Liebherr passed away a little over a year after completing the purchase and installing Italian born Mr Cortese to his role to oversee developments.

Since Mr Liebherr’s passing it has been one man driving the whole show.

That man to many is an enigma.

A 44-year-old former Swiss banker who lives in a £1.7m mansion in Chilworth, drives an Aston Martin and who appears to enjoy the finer things in life, and yet |is no fly by night party animal, living |as he does with wife Alexandra and |their two children who are now at school in Hampshire.

Indeed, he has also shunned the limelight enjoyed by previous chairmen, with predecessors such as Rupert Lowe and Leon Crouch having been regulars on Southampton’s black tie dinner circuit during their tenures at the helm.

It’s just not his way, but nobody could argue with the results.

To see Mr Cortese on match day at St Mary’s, so often sat with an empty seat either side of him, one of which is kept vacant in memory of Mr Liebherr, you get the sense of somebody who is in control, who doesn’t need an entourage of 'yes' men with him the whole time.

Whatever anybody may think of him, good or bad, Mr Cortese knows his mind, and is very much in charge.

Fans often believe that many of the decisions that filter down to them wouldn’t be taken by Mr Cortese, rather some flunky lower down the food chain. They would generally be wrong.

Mr Cortese isn’t at St Mary’s every day, but his power is far reaching and he takes a personal overview of almost every decision taken, no matter how ~|big or small.

Even the size and shape of the Christmas tree in the St Mary’s lobby apparently attracted his attention one year.

That is Mr Cortese, a man of exacting standards, a perfectionist perhaps, |who has proven time and again at |Saints to be ruthless and determined to get his way and push the club forward no matter what.

Staff have come and gone, with a number of potential employment tribunals settled not long before a hearing, an indication of his willingness to make change.

His ways have led the club’s greatest ever player, Matthew Le Tissier, to deem him “not a very nice human being”.

But you cannot argue with his success.

Alan Pardew was his first managerial appointment and not even a ten point deduction to start the season was enough to convince Mr Cortese that promotion couldn’t have been achieved.

Mr Pardew did deliver the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in a Wembley final, but their relationship had deteriorated and very early the following season he was axed.

Next came Nigel Adkins. Their relationship followed a very similar pattern. Initially Mr Adkins could do |no wrong, and he became a hero to |the fans as he delivered back-to-|back promotions.

But rumours in the background had gathered even as Saints stood on the verge of elevation back to the Premier League that Adkins wouldn’t last.

He was seen as the man to get Saints there, not to take them forward to the next level.

In January, Mr Cortese made the |boldest move of his time in charge and sacked Adkins, despite all he had achieved and the fact his team were doing well at the time.

The decision led to a backlash from angry fans, not only at the dismissal but the manner of, Adkins being placed on gardening leave rather than give an instant payout, and the failure to give his achievements due recognition in the next matchday programme.

In came Mauricio Pochettino, a continental and suave foreigner, whose image fits Mr Cortese’s Saints.

Mr Cortese, self-assured as always, described the timing of the change |as “perfect”.

Whether Mr Pochettino will last or not, only time will tell.

What is not in dispute are the strides the club have made under Mr Cortese.

While Mr Liebherr and his family have funded it, and Mr Cortese earned millions during his tenure, there is no question that he has spearheaded all that has happened since the takeover.

You would surely think it would make him an unparalleled hero, but there are still very vocal critics, some of whom argue that the history and tradition of the club have been sidelined. Some jokingly refer to Cortese’s takeover day as ‘year zero’ for a club which was in actual fact founded in 1885.

To be so successful and yet make enemies of some of the club’s biggest supporters such as Le Tissier and Francis Benali is puzzling.

The Daily Echo has had similar problems, being no stranger to a few legal letters and having been banned from the ground for some time for issues that Mr Cortese has not sought to explain.

And that’s not to mention his high profile fall out with The Sun, who for a time referred to Saints simply as ‘south coast club’ and labelled the chairman ‘Nicola Clotese’ in a row over access to St Mary’s for photographers.

He has fallen out with the Ex-Saints Association, been criticised by others within the game as well as fans groups and built up a unique aura around him, with very few getting close enough to know whether it actually reflects the |real man.

All this in among one of the biggest periods of success in the club’s long and illustrious history.

This is the enigma that is Mr Cortese, the man so driven he is prepared to upset, even if it seems he doesn’t actually need to, in order to achieve success.

No matter what anybody says about |him, you cannot argue with what he has delivered for Southampton Football Club and that is what he is ultimately judged on.

Four years ago he was merely a little-known prospective suitor for a League One football club languishing in administration.

He is now the high-profile executive chairman of a thriving Premier League football club, turning over tens of millions every year.

The details merely pad out the occasional blank.


This article originally appeared in the Daily Echo Weekend Magazine last May.