With Saints on course to match their best ever Premier League finish, a £30m training ground on the way and a team packed full of international stars, it is hard to believe five years ago today the club’s very existence was hanging by a thread.
April 2, 2009, will forever go down as possibly the darkest day in Saints’ long history.
At 10am it was confirmed to the stock exchange that shares in Saints’ parent company had been suspended with Begbies Traynor appointed as the club’s administrator.
Rumours had been rife the day previously, with the Daily Echo front page pre-empting the forthcoming catastrophe. Some may have hoped it was an April Fool’s joke, but it was anything but funny.
Within hours of taking charge, administrator Mark Fry was warning of huge debts and possibly only weeks to save the club.
A state of panic and despair washed over St Mary’s.
For years previously there had been behind the scenes wrangling, changes of chairman and boards and general instability as Saints had slid from one chaos to the next.
With a ten-point deduction about to hit, Mark Wotte had the impossible task of attempting to keep Saints in the Championship.
While their relegation to League One was sealed quickly, it took far longer for the fate of the club to have such a decisive moment.
Saints fans will surely remember the daily drill – checking the papers, every Internet message board or rumour mill to try and establish where the saviour was coming from.
They changed so quickly, with so many groups expressing an initial interest only to fade into the background.
The frontrunners ended up being the Pinnacle consortium, which had Matt Le Tissier on board, as well as Leon Crouch who coughed up the cash to stave off one possible insolvency deadline.
That bought them an exclusivity period to tie up a deal for the club.
At the time that £500,000 was paid, a Swiss consortium sat locked in a lawyer’s office in central London.
They thought they had all but agreed the purchase when the call came to tell them of the Pinnacle exclusivity period. They packed up their bags and went home.
Thankfully, they never let go of the dream of buying Saints.
It made so much sense to them – Liebherr’s visit to the south coast to tour the stadium had left him captivated and enthralled by the prospect.
On top of that it made perfect business sense – the cost of the club, about £14m, was a bargain. It wasn’t going to cost ridiculously more to get it into the Premier League, and then it was worth a fortune. Sure enough time has proved that to be correct with an investment just shy of £60m now producing a club whose value is estimated to be more than £150m.
Pinnacle couldn’t get over the line. The famous Micky Fialka incident – the letting agent who it was suggested still lived with his parents and ended up the butt of so many jokes after appearing on Sky Sports as some sort of financier – soon ended their interest and their credibility.
Liebherr had not gone away though, rather taken a back seat watching goings on.
Indeed Cortese reported that he kept up to date via the Daily Echo website, paying particular attention to the comments section under the stories to see what the fans were saying.
When the news was broken that it was he and his vast fortune behind the Swiss bid there was an obvious clamour for his takeover.
Liebherr noted the fans’ pleas and came to the rescue.
On July 8, it was all over. Liebherr had bought the club.
Just the next day Wotte was sacked, as Cortese started his running of Saints in typically ruthless fashion.
Within a few months Alan Pardew had been appointed as manager and cash had been splashed on improving the squad.
Since then it has been one continuous upward curve.
Though Cortese was said to be frustrated Saints didn’t get promoted from League One in that first season, despite a ten-point deduction, they did bag the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley.
The following season, with Pardew gone and Nigel Adkins now in charge, they did make it out of League One.
Though Liebherr sadly passed away little over a year after the takeover, the club continued to push forward.
With little extra investment they also sailed through the Championship, finishing second place in back-to-back seasons to earn successive promotions.
Just a few years after the very existence of the club was threatened, Saints were back in with the Premier League big boys.
Any thoughts they were to settle for finishing fourth from bottom soon dissipated.
Adkins didn’t last all that long before Mauricio Pochettino was brought in to manage a squad on whom more than £30m had been invested before the big top flight kick off.
Since that day Pochettino has enthralled and captivated the St Mary’s following with an attacking and entertaining brand of football.
Another £30m was spent last summer, while some of the club’s academy products have flourished in the first team.
Even Cortese’s time at the club has run its course, with the executive chairman who seemed to inspire feelings of joy and despair in equal measure, now gone to be replaced with an entirely new board and a fresh approach.
Now, just weeks away from the end of a second top flight season, Saints look like equalling their best ever finish in the Premier League era and potentially have four players going away to play for England in the World Cup.
Five years is not very long by most markers, but you could scarcely believe what has been crammed in at Saints in that period of time.
From quite literally a fear of the club not existing, from bucket collections from the fans outside the ground and employees deferring wages, from Fry warning several times of imminent bankruptcy, to flourishing in the Premier League.
If this was some sort of cosmic April Fool’s joke, at least the punch line has kept Saints fans smiling.