FOLLOWING a tumultuous season at St Mary’s, Saints chairman Ralph Krueger faced the music in an hour-long interview with the Daily Echo’s chief sports writer Adam Leitch.

In the first of a two-part series, Krueger answers questions on the season, what went wrong and who is accountable for any mistakes made.

  • What have you made of the last year?

It hasn’t been a great one on the pitch, though you got away with it in the end The reason there is so much pain in the heart of the season was because of the ambition we have developed here over the last years.

Since I have been here I have of course never experienced this. I had heard about what it’s like to be part of a relegation battle and I know it’s part of the fabric of the club but if you look at where we started coming off of four top eight finishes you have clear expectations which are high through the staff, club, players, team and fanbase.

The reality was we couldn’t live up to those expectations coming into the new year and although we had been in that position the last two seasons where we recovered in those seasons and moved on to sixth and eighth we slipped the other way this time.

I think the Crystal Palace game at the start of January was a turning point, lots of draws following that and suddenly we slipped into the middle of the battle.

It tested our fabric in every single way. In a way that no other sports league tests a staff, the team, the players, everybody, because it’s the biggest drop on the planet. There is no bigger drop in any country, anywhere, any sport. Nothing compares to this.

The cliff is frightening to look at and we looked at the middle of it.

I get very emotional when I think of us just being in there and we had to deal with it and either come together, and I include every person who cares about this club in that.

Either we were going to boo the team as fans, point fingers in the dressing room, run away as staff members, or we were going to get all in on facing the relegation battle and staying in the Premier League. I am so grateful that everybody picked the second one.

In my five years I have never felt such support, unbelievable unity at St Mary’s, in the stadium, on the road, in the locker room, down the stretch. As a result Swansea is a strange kind of championship game and it all came down to that.

Because we were victorious we got to cheer and celebrate and hug each other and jump up and down so on the short term at the very end we had a wonderful celebration.

Within the boundaries of the season we went through huge expectations, great disappointment, an unbelievable reaction and we came out victorious for the season we had.

I am not going to say it was a winning season but at the end we were winners as a club and as a group.

I am especially grateful to the fanbase and the fans and the decisions that happened there without us prompting it at all.

It was excellent work from our social media team to keep people engaged and to try and keep an honest conversation going but in the end the fanbase had to decide to get in on it too and push and we got a lot of fuel from that.

  • What went wrong?

Somehow the mix of the players and the expectations, the goal setting, the management of the team, all of that had trouble finding harmony.

Sometimes there is no clear black and white answer for that.

I have been in sports professionally for 40 years and sometimes it just doesn’t fit and it’s not just one person to blame. This type of season is absolutely not blameable on one human being. That’s the easy way, to say it was that player, that coach, that manager or that board member. That’s the easy answer.

The hard one is for everybody to take responsibility in some shape or form and get better.

What went wrong was we got the mix wrong somehow and we were able to get it right down the stretch and now let’s get it right right off the hop next year.

You waste energy on blame, you invest really well energy on looking for improvement and for understanding that we made multiple mistakes, a bunch of little mistakes.

The Premier League, the difference between eight and 18th is percentage points and we got them right for four years in a row and we got them wrong this year.

We accept that we made multiple little mistakes but what went wrong it would be totally false to mention one name, one event or one set of circumstances because it’s all of them combined.

It started in the first game against Swansea, outplaying them as much as we have ever outplayed a team, a 0-0 draw.

It was a season where we kept thinking we were making the turn and had that game bringing us back in and we went flat again and we drew ourselves to death.

I used to think it was only important to hate losses, but I have also learned you need to hate draws because we are in tenth place as far as losses go but you can see where that got us. You’ve got to win football games and that’s certainly something we learned this year.

All the draws left us at points in time in a state of limbo and it would have possibly have been better to lose some of those games to make more dramatic steps towards winning.

We got into that momentum and the January and February drop was disappointing but the recovery and what we did in the stretch gives us the chance to reflect in an optimistic way to take what was good at the end into the new season.

I cannot say one thing went wrong.

  • But the flip side Ralph is that therefore nobody is accountable for what went wrong

I am accountable.

I told you that in January.

If you want to blame one person, blame me.

  • It’s not about blaming one person, but who is accountable, and people want to know how are they accountable? What happens? Whether it is the right or the wrong culture, when things go very badly somebody’s head rolls

In most clubs, and it did with Mauricio this year, but he wasn’t ultimately responsible alone for our situation.

Quite clearly, as I said in January if you want to take a name or face I have to be ultimately responsible because that’s my job and if I can’t handle that I’ve got to get out of here.

I didn’t try to make a sarcastic statement. My job as chairman is for the owners to be their representative here and here you go Ralph.

Then we have specialists in all areas of the club and what you have to see is that the fan has the right to put all his emotions into the moment, and that’s why people come and pay for tickets to watch on a Saturday. They are only present there and they have a right to boo and to cheer and to do all those things.

Then it expands into a larger area and into a season.

In my role we have to look at bigger picture things. We can’t say we finished top eight four years in a row and we are going to forget all that. That’s not fair.

It’s not fair to say the club did well to go from League One without me here and then it did this and then this so now we have to roll heads. No. We have to see what the lessons are.

The biggest mistakes a lot of clubs do is that they look for individuals, as you said heads roll, and you lose all the experience, so whatever you just went through becomes lost in space if that person leaves.

I am a person who believes that in my past as a leader in sports every single medal I won, championship I was a part of, anything special that ever happened, came off the heels of something really difficult and challenging.

We went through the most difficult challenge possible in sports and we survived.

You have every right to look for defined things to improve…

As a coach I know you sometimes end up with teams you just can’t get connected and we could end up with a book rather than an interview but I say maybe we didn’t get the leadership right last summer.

Maybe we didn’t deal with the transfer policy right because we wanted to consolidate the team and for the very first time we didn’t sell a player we didn’t want to sell and we left the Southampton Way a little bit. Possibly that was a reason.

Maybe it was fate that two goals go off a post and so on and so forth….

We are not giving up on our ambitions because of the situation. We want to reach for the top half of the table, to find a pathway back to Europe and reach for that and we are not embarrassed about this season that we now hide from our lofty ambitions.

We have to improve everybody, everywhere, every step we take and in the end we saw we had a good football team which we felt all year but couldn’t connect them.

Mark Hughes was able to connect that group at the right time and we need to strengthen that group and go forward.

  • You stay. Les Reed stays. Ross Wilson stays. Martin Semmens stays. The people at the top stay to learn from the future?

Ownership has been extremely supportive of us all season to learn from good and bad times.

For Mr Gao it’s been good to have the experience of Katharina there. It’s a good example of how valuable it is in an ownership change for the experienced owner to stay part of the process so we are thankful for that.

The dialogue was always very strong, the support was always there and Mr Gao watched every game he wasn’t here live in China, even if it was the middle of the night.

I was permanently messaging with him so I can answer that question in that the management team we have here is staying in place, or the board or whatever you call it.

  • From a close position on the outside looking in, I think a lot of people would say that the business side of the club has delivered well and been successful.

The accounts show that, the change of ownership shows that and the amount of money that was paid shows that. The last two years you have been through three managers, spent a lot of money on players where you have reinvested, and a lot of them haven’t done very well. That’s two years of failure on the football side. How is nobody accountable for this?

Accountability is one of our five values…

  • But if every time you keep saying when things go wrong ‘we learn from it’ is that accountability? I’m not sure that is in most senses of the word. We aren’t talking every little decision, we are talking sacking two managers in less than two years and surviving relegation by the skin of your teeth. That’s a pretty dramatic and sustained period of under performance

I don’t think last year finishing eighth and the cup final was a disastrous season for Southampton Football Club…

But you sacked the manager

That we ended up sacking the manager was a decision on principle, a long term decision and it’s not fair this year to blame everything that happened on Mauricio Pellegrino.

It was part of a storm that evolved in the timing of it all, the locker room difficulties made it difficult for him with his style to get the potential out of the team.

Accountability is number one that you are willing to take responsibility for the good or the bad. It’s also holding others accountable.

That means each and every discussion we have in the boardroom put all the truths on the table and don’t stick our heads in the sand.

That’s why we were able to save the season in the end because we did look at what was happening and didn’t try and hide it or colour code but we rolled up our sleeves, we got together, we stuck together and that is also accountability that you then take responsibility.

Ultimately we as a board are responsible for whatever happens to the club and we need to make some changes which we are now in a position and a period of reflection, analysis and we will certainly make adjustments out of this.

The Premier League is ever changing, ever getting stronger and it’s more difficult to be a competitive team and get into the top half so we automatically have to improve and if we don’t we aren’t going to be able to sustain our position.

I think it’s unfair to say we have made a lot of mistakes.

I think we have made some transfers also of players that we still see have potential growth and no club in the world will ever hit 100 per cent on purchases and selling but if you do the net on buys and sells possibly one of the biggest things we got away from was the pathway to the top clubs last summer.

When Sadio Mane came and he told us he wanted to be the best football player in the world he truly believed that. He came and played his two years and he went and now he’s playing in the Champions League final.

We allowed that pathway and we were an important part of that and we should be proud of that but we got away from that.

Maybe our ambition made us reach for a pathway that wasn’t ours.

The consolidation of a team and the not selling of any players possibly exactly was one of the biggest mistakes we made as a board last summer. That might be where we got it wrong but nobody will ever know.

We don’t have any of those transfer situations in the air. They could evolve naturally but we don’t have that urgency.

That’s just one example of analysis we are doing right now and you will see it in our behaviours throughout the summer…

I think our club decision to consolidate last year and hang on to core players was for Southampton Football Club wasn’t the right time to do that. That definitely hurt us.

  • Part two of the Daily Echo’s interview with Ralph Krueger will appear online and in print tomorrow.