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Turmoil is a flashback to the dark days for Saints
SO here we are again.
With Saints sitting pretty in the top ten of the Premier League, everything in the garden at St Mary’s seemed to be smelling of roses.
The club possess a very ambitious chairman, a young up and coming manager fast making a name for himself in one of the world’s best leagues, and a host of young players coveted by some of the biggest teams in the country.
One of the best training grounds in Britain, if not Europe, is in the process of being built at Marchwood – 12 pitches, for a start – and there is seemingly no end to the impressive list of players rolling off the Saints academy conveyor belt.
Saints have been to Anfield and won this season, and got a draw at Old Trafford. They have held Manchester City despite being without half their first choice side due to injury.
In a nutshell, the future appears bright.
Certainly far brighter than it did this time five years ago when Saints were on a path that would eventually lead them to administration and third division football.
But Saints’ recent history has been clouded with controversies, boardroom shake-ups, power battles and departures shrouded in mystery.
And now, unbelievably, it's happened again - just at a time when they might have presumed all the above was firmly in the past.
Nicola Cortese – the chairman who has overseen Saints’ phenomenal rise from the depths of League 1 to, briefly last November, the top three of the Premier League – last night sensationally left St Mary's.
His relationship with the Liebherr family – who still own the club that Cortese’s great friend, Markus Liebherr, rescued from the brink of oblivion in July 2009 – has broken down to such an extent that it could not be fixed.
Where will this leave Saints? Where does Cortese’s departure leave Mauricio Pochettino, who has previously stated he would leave if the chairman departed?
Just how long will Katharina Liebherr be in 'temporary' control?
Questions, questions, questions.
It is not easy to answer any of them, but that has often been the case at Saints.
Following Markus Liebherr’s death in August 2010, the high-tech engineering conglomerate Mali Group – based in Switzerland and set up by Markus in 1994 – said the late owner’s daughter, Katharina, would assume overall control of the club.
“Please be assured that we all will continue to carry out his vision. Ms Katharina Liebherr is determined to continue the legacy of her father and his ideas for the future entirely in the interest of servicing existing as well as winning new Mali customers,” said a Mali statement at the time.
Were Saints fans ever totally assured, as the statement asks?
When the latest speculation broke surrounding Cortese, it was accompanied by a distinct case of deja vu.
After all, we had been here before.
Four years ago this month, in January 2010, the first stories emerged in the media that Cortese was a target for Italian giants AC Milan.
That speculation didn’t last long, Cortese telling fans he was committed to realising Markus Liebherr’s visions and dreams.
He has since been true to his word.
Then, last May, more stories surfaced in the English national press that Cortese was considering his future.
Pochettino came out in support of his chairman, saying he would go if Cortese left.
It was an unusual statement to make, as there has never before been a high-profile manager quitting a Premier League job just because his chairman has departed.
Back in 2006, then Saints boss George Burley went public in his backing of chairman Rupert Lowe as the latter faced a power battle he eventually lost.
Burley, though, never said he would leave if Lowe went.
Last May Cortese, after a few days of intense speculation, decided to stay at St Mary’s after talks with Katharina Liebherr.
A statement revealing the news was issued the day before Saints’ final home game against Stoke.
The statement read: “Southampton FC is pleased to announce that the Executive Chairman, Nicola Cortese, and the owner of the Club, Katharina Liebherr, yesterday concluded their regular strategy review for the Club and signed off on plans for the Club’s continued development.
“Commenting on the agreement, Nicola Cortese said: “We are now in a position to move forward with our ambitious plans for the Club and I would like to thank Katharina for the very helpful manner in which she approached our talks about long term strategy. I am pleased that this matter is now resolved.
“We can now focus 100% on our preparations for next season. We have tremendous momentum now at the Club and we are looking forward with great confidence to an exciting and successful campaign next season.
“The last few days have shown me the unity that we now have across the Club in the players, the First Team Manager, the staff and the Chairmanship which normally takes years to achieve.
“I have always believed that to create this unity would make us a very strong Club and it is a unity of which I am unashamedly proud.”
Now we know the matter was not 'resolved' at all.
We might never know what assurances Cortese received prior to that statement being issued.
We might never know whether those assurances were concerning the future of the club – whether it would ever be sold or not, and how much power Cortese would continue to wield – or how much money, if any, would be made available to spend in last summer’s transfer market.
We might never know if the straw that broke the camel's back was money related, and whether Cortese was seeking more to spend to take Saints further up the Premier League and, ultimately, into Europe.
That was Cortese’s aim, but the club need to spend a lot more money to get anywhere the top four.
Do the Liebherrs want to put that sort of money in?
Perhaps they do; perhaps they just didn't want Cortese to be the man in charge of spending it.
Perhaps they think Cortese has spent TOO much. We have to ask these questions, but we might never know the answers.
Markus Leibherr (right) with Nicola Cortese (left)
We might never find out just how much the Liebherr family have ploughed into Saints for new signings, after Markus spent only around £13m to buy the club at a knockdown price in 2009.
Perhaps all the money spent so far has been cash earned from Premier League prize money and Saints’ own ticketing and commercial revenue streams We might also never find out just how much of an interest Katharina Liebherr has taken in Saints in the last few years.
All the answers to these questions we would love to know, but almost certainly won’t.
Saints fan ‘Saint Christopher’ summed it up well on the Echo website dailyecho.co.uk yesterday morning.
“Whatever happens, the biggest disappointment in all this is the turmoil and change that we were beginning to hope was in the past,” he wrote. “Most Saints fans have had enough of that over the past four years and its a shame we might be facing more of the same.
“Just hope it’s a storm in a tea cup and will blow over, but can’t help feeling it may be more than that this time.”
He was to be proved right.
Who knows what the short-term future holds now, let alone the longer one.
A source quoted in a national newspaper yesterday claiming Saints would go into “meltdown” if Cortese left are surely wide of the mark.
It’s almost a cliché to write this, but no one individual is bigger than the club – whether they score all the goals, pick the team, or sit in the chairman’s seat in the directors’ box.
Such a comment also infers that the Liebherr family will be unable to appoint a decent replacement.
This is the same Liebherr family that successfully run a series of companies boasting a turnover of hundreds of millions.
The Liebherr brand name in Southampton is strong: Liebherr cranes were a common sight in the city long before Markus took the club over.
The family will not want to do anything to tarnish their good name in the area.
There was an outcry almost a year ago to the day when Cortese sacked Nigel Adkins and replaced him with a manager who had himself been dismissed by a struggling Spanish League club a few months earlier.
That outcry quickly died down. The King is dead, long live the King, etc etc.
Will the same now happen given Cortese's departure, or will his exit be easily the most seismic departure in St Mary’s history?
Cortese had great plans for Saints, we know that. Pochettino too.
One of them will definitely not be around now to see whether those grand plans come to fruition.
The spotlight today will shine on the other, and whatever Mauricio Pochettino says will be fascinating.
If he chooses not to face the media, as planned, at St Mary's ... well, that will be equally fascinating and the speculation concerning his own future will only escalate.
And you thought stability was now a buzzword at Saints!
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