Daily Echo comment.

AS Saints fans count down tonight to the latest in a long line of crunch encounters, arguably the club's most faithful supporters are facing the biggest decision of their association with Southampton FC.

While the focus over the last two weeks has been on the play-offs and Saints' chances of making Wembley and securing a golden ticket back into the Premiership, behind the scenes it is certain a much larger game has been in play.

Reports in this paper that the club is facing a bid from at least one, if not several, extremely wealthy parties will have galvanised opinion behind the walls of St Mary's.

It doesn't take someone with an in-depth knowledge of company ownership, nor the machinations of the finances of football clubs, to understand such a bid - whether from American multibillionaire Paul Allen or another source - will create a massive dilemma for the present club board.

Put bluntly, a takeover, while pumping millions into the club and delivering it from the vagaries of the action on the field, would mean share-owning board members who have the club close to their hearts taking a back seat - literally.

For, make no bones, should such a takeover take place, current board members such as Patrick Trant and acting chairman Leon Crouch would face giving up all of their shares, and with them their place at the top table.

Former chairman Michael Wilde, the club's majoeity shareholder, would also have to sell his stake.

And there would be other casualties.

The Corbett family, with its long, faithful history of a relationship with SFC, would also face losing their shares link.

In effect, such a move would leave the club with just one shareholder, one owner: possibly Paul Allen, possibly someone else, most probably foreign.

The dilemma facing all those currently holding large share options - including the Rupert Lowe camp, who still control some 26 per cent of the club shares - is whether such a sacrifice would truly be in the club's real, long-term interest?

To that question, the answer has to be a resounding yes'.

Investment on the scale that is being proposed by the Allen sports machine comes along once in a lifetime for any club.

The club's financial fortunes would be underpinned at a stroke.

What's more, such investment is likely to spread far across the city from St Mary's itself.

Elsewhere, where Allen owns sports clubs - Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers - other investment has included conference facilities, science parks and investment into 50 companies.

Then there's the golden glow such an association would have for the city of Southampton itself, perhaps even the region.

A city that has investment from the fifth wealthiest man in the world - an estimated £10b personal fortune - is likely to attract attention from wealth centres around the globe.

Allen's contacts alone would be worth rolling out the red carpet on a civic scale.

Other possible investors of a similar financial base would bring similar benefits.

A recent survey of Hampshire business leaders by this paper found universal support for the takeover along such lines.

Of course, the fans would demand any new owner bought in not only to the bricks and mortar, but also the spirit of the club itself.

A Paul Allen would need to show he and his team understood - or were willing to learn - the depth of feeling there is for the Saints.

But all this would leave at least a taste of regret for those currently controlling the club through their share ownership.

There's no doubt they'd have every right to feel a little discarded after doing so much - and investing their own money - in an attempt to take the club forward.

And it could be tempting to consider another route for SFC, one where the club continues to go it alone without serious financial backing.

At least this way, it might be argued, the club remains in local' hands and is not subject to the vagaries of a foreign owner.

In this scenario, the club would attempt to use whatever funds it received from bouncing back into the Premiership to secure a permanent place in the top flight.

Under such a scenario, however, should the club fail to win tonight and on May 28 at Wembley, they would need to oversee deep cuts in salaries and manpower at St Mary's, including, it must be assumed, among the team itself, to achieve even short term financial survival.

Under such circumstances, would the club ever be able to achieve more than Championship mediocrity?

Indeed, would it even face the nightmare of relegation in a Leeds/Nottingham Forest/Sheffield Wednesday scenario?

It is against this background those who love the club and hold its future in their hands must decide whether to sell their shares.

In the past, it's believed all of the major players have gone on record stating they would willingly step aside should the club need them to do so, especially in the case of investment.

Indeed, in February of this year, acting chairman Leon Crouch went so far as to put on record the fact he would be prepared to give his shares away for nothing should the right investor be found.

No one expects any of the shareholders to be quite so generous.

However, when the crunch comes, will they cling to power, or will they find the strength and courage of their statements and step aside, with the undoubted gratitude of the fans of the club they so obviously love?