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Wotte’s take on relegation, administration ... and why he wants to stay!
Such has been the nature of Saints’ season a chat with the manager about where it’s all gone wrong over the past nine months takes nearly two hours.
And that manager has only been in charge of the first team since the end of January.
Surely only at Southampton FC could that be the case, could there be so many twists, turns and extenuating circumstances in such a short space of time.
Mark Wotte has been around the block a few times in football terms, having managed all over the world.
He’s seen the extremes of football but, even so, this is an experience that he will never forget, whether it is coming to an end when new owners arrive or continuing in a bid to return to the Championship next season.
Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and evaluate.
The pair of us have spoken most days in the four months since he took charge of the team after Jan Poortvliet’s departure and yet Wotte is able still to pinpoint the key moments.
“Until the Charlton Athletic match I was very confident we would survive, very confident,” he said.
“When the club went into administration and we lost against Charlton I knew it would be very difficult and we needed to have some extraordinary results along the way.
“It’s not easy, it’s only four months you have taken over for and you don’t have an easy schedule.
“But I thought we had enough quality in the team to win more matches.
“We could have beaten Derby at home or QPR at home and in a normal season we would have been able to beat Charlton at home and that’s seven points.
“I was not faking that I felt we were strong enough to finish outside the bottom three.”
The trouble was that three days before that game against Charlton, Wotte had been told that Saints’ parent company would be placed into administration.
“The next day I brought the players in and told the players that there might be an announcement tomorrow that part of the company is in administration,” recalled Wotte.
“They were shocked and everybody was afraid of the ten points being deducted because then you are fighting a lost cause.
“I had a meeting with the administrator and had a meeting with the players and told them because it was the holding company we didn’t have to worry about anything, we wouldn’t be deducted ten points and we had to do our job on the pitch.
“It was two days before we played Charlton which was such a crucial and vital game – they were the only club below us.
“This match should have been three points no matter what. This game was a must win without any excuse but we under performed.
“When you see the run before Charlton we had picked up a lot of wins – 11 points in six games maybe and then we played them after a break so everybody was fresh and ready for four games in nine days.
“The timing was unbelievably crucial.
“When the ten points were deducted the dressing room was even worse.
“The announcement that part of the company was going into administration was a shock but we managed to keep everybody in high spirits, but then when the ten points were deducted everybody thought ‘this is the end.’ “It was the end.
“We then had to build the team up to try and avoid the minus ten next season and we played an excellent game against Burnley.
“I cannot blame the players that we didn’t win, only that we didn’t score another goal.
“I can’t blame David McGoldrick for missing a penalty.
“But still it’s a game knowing you are already relegated when you are trying to stay out of the bottom three to start next season on zero points.
“From January it is in your mind to try and save yourself from going down but suddenly you have to play with a totally different angle.
“There are not a lot of games I can blame my players for the spirit or effort they put in.
“For a lot of games they worked their socks off and tried to play the best football they could, but sometimes quality is restricted.”
While Wotte has accepted it as part of football’s rich tapestry, there is still a burning anger underneath it all.
He is furious at the timing of administration, knowing another four weeks would have allowed him to have seen out the season and given his team a better chance of survival.
Even now he occasionally talks about how he could have kept the club up, even though what he really means is finishing fourth from bottom before a ten point deduction relegated them.
“I was quite enjoying it – especially after the three wins in a row,” admitted Wotte.
“It was a little disappointing not winning one of the Derby or QPR games but after April 1 it was not in my control.
“Deep down inside, you are very disappointed and a little bit frustrated but you always have to keep up a façade towards the team and towards everybody that you will deal with the situation.
“We had a lot of communication in those weeks but you can’t grab water – you can grab sand but you can’t grab water.
“That was exactly the feeling I had, that it was slipping through my fingers.
“Still we were fighting to try and win games for the fans but also for yourself not to be relegated, but I never thought of giving up. Never.
“The commitment of the players was so strong and the players and the staff were so close together and giving up never crossed my mind.”
Of course, by the time Wotte took charge much of the damage had been done.
Most of the winnable home matches against teams who finished towards the bottom had been and gone and only Norwich had been beaten.
Saints had lost at home to Blackpool, Watford, Nottingham Forest and Doncaster by the time Wotte took over and had drawn at home against Barnsley, Coventry and Plymouth.
Another hugely significant moment came when Wotte had guided the team to three victories in a row.
It seemed for all the world as if finally Saints would get the massive psychological boost of climbing out of the bottom three.
But it didn’t happen and they never recovered.
“It was also a blow,” recalled Wotte. “I remember coming into the dressing room at Ipswich and everyone thinking we’re out of the bottom three and we were still in.
“It was due to the teams around us also picking up results.
“Mentally we have always been in the bottom three which puts a lot of pressure on the boys when you see the table.
“We benefited at that time because the teams we played against didn’t know how to deal with our shape playing in the diamond.
“Then Birmingham started to adapt themselves against us and Derby County played very defensively and QPR adapted themselves.
Lack of a prolific scorer
“Because of the lack of a prolific goalscorer – and I should say David McGoldrick had a great season for a first season – but if you don’t have a really top striker it is better to play with two strikers.
“You can have more power up front because when results aren’t there a 4-4-2 system is easier for the players.
“A lot of teams play 4-4-2 with the ball and 4-5-1 without it but I don’t want a discussion about systems because we played good and bad games with different systems.
“You can’t blame systems but a lack of power up front and a lack of power at the back.
“Chris Perry and JP Saeijs had a good run of games but still against Forest we lost this game because of a corner. The third goal doesn’t count because you are going for another goal.
“We have to create the situation at Southampton FC that we don’t concede goals from corners and set-pieces. Probably if you look back at all the goals being scored if we were a little stronger at that we would have picked up seven or eight points extra.
“It is a very physical league and League One is as physical as the Championship – maybe more, more simple, more direct, going for the odd goal and picking up second balls.
“As much as we like to have a lot of technique, skill and ability in the team and to play a nice passing game we have to prepare ourselves next year for a more simple, direct and physical way of playing.”
Wotte added: “I am ready to take this club back into the Championship with a squad equal to what we have now, but maybe with one or two changes, and I know the players are committed as well.
“A lot of players have told me they are happy and want to get us back, but if that’s not possible because of the intentions of whoever buys the club then I still hope the best for it.
“It’s such a great club – the facilities, the stadium, the fans. There are so many positives but we have to deal with negatives like finance and leadership.
“I can’t wait to start next season because nobody wants to leave on a relegation – no player, no staff member.
“I was responsible for the last four months so I am to blame as well.
“I made mistakes along the way probably but they are honest mistakes because you try to do something to win a game.”
Wotte is clearly determined to put right the wrongs of the past but has experienced enough to know things don’t always pan out that way.
“I will do the job for this club until somebody tells me not to do it,” he insisted.
“We have a very strong commitment between the players and the staff.
“We have worked very well on the training ground and in the dressing room over the last four months, but we didn’t pick up enough points.
“The way we have worked for me has never been better.
“There was an incident with the players after I just started with them in town but we dealt with it quite well and after that no disciplinary issue at all.
“The players were trying to do the best they could, were happy to play 4-4-2 and in the diamond.
“It’s up to other people to take decisions now.
“If I had to take a decision I would say to Southampton FC ‘stick with the squad and stick with the staff for a year because this staff has only been in charge for four months and although the results were not good enough there is a base to continue from to get this club back into the Championship.’ “But it depends also on the squad you might have.”