For those watching on from the outside, Southampton Football Club is held up as a shining light.

A rare case of a club living within their means and remaining competitive in the financial arms race that is the Premier League. A club who produces top players and recruits on a budget before selling for a profit. Lessons can be learnt from Southampton, they say.

But for those not on the outside - for fans at the heart of the club - is that enough anymore? 

As the 2021/22 season comes to an end, supporters are having to reckon with yet another campaign that ends in survival (hopefully) rather than meaningful progress.

Only Brentford, Burnley, Watford, and Norwich have a lower net spend than Southampton over the past five years and at least two of those - possibly three of them  - will be spending next season in the Championship.

For some, both inside and outside the club, that means this season can be categorised as a success. On limited resources, Saints will have managed to avoid ultimate disaster and unless things go astonishingly wrong, 2022/23 will mark their 11th straight season in the top flight. Saints are now one of the most ‘stable’ clubs in the division.

Daily Echo: Premier League net spend on transfers over the last five seasons - Saints in redPremier League net spend on transfers over the last five seasons - Saints in red

Since finishing 8th under Claude Puel in the 2016/17 season, Southampton have remained a consistent and firmly entrenched lower-mid table side. At their peak in 2019/20 they finished 11th with 52 points but outside of that they’ve earnt between 36 and 43 points in each of the other four seasons.

They could still end with 46 points this time around, but with Liverpool and Leicester left to play, remaining on 40 seems far more likely.

For those who hold up Saints as an example to other football clubs, this is just more evidence of the model working. Saints are playing moneyball, hacking the system and staying alive despite not spending the kind of money many other Premier League sides are forking out.

Just look at Everton, they say. Just look at Fulham, they continue. What about Watford?

But all of this clinical financial talk is missing the heart of the matter: the heart. From a business standpoint, Saints’ Premier League stability is a success. But from the standpoint that matters even more - the emotion and passion element - it means so much less.

Premier League survival is an achievement, there’s no doubt about that. But this existence of barely hanging on to the rest of the division - doing just enough - is simply not enough for many fans.

Daily Echo: Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl. Image by: Stuart MartinSaints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl. Image by: Stuart Martin

Fans want something they can believe in, something they can dream about. Right now, it doesn’t feel like Southampton is giving them that. This feels like a club happy with the place they’re in and supporters’ refusal to accept that is understandable.

Why would the club consider parting ways with Ralph Hasenhuttl when he’s consistently delivered Premier League status? Seemingly that status has been the extent of the club’s ambition in recent years.

But Southampton fans can rightly dream of more than that. After finishing 14th in their first season back in the top flight following promotion under Nigel Adkins, Saints went on a run of 8th, 7th, 6th, and 8th place successes. 

The lowest points total they amassed in those four years was 46 and the most they managed was 63. It was a real golden period propelled by players who went on to achieve incredible things both at St Mary's and after moving on. 

But in the summer of 2017, 80% of the club was purchased by Gao Jisheng and ever since then they’ve been treading water.

It hasn’t been a downright failure. Southampton continued to remain competitive and have shown they can beat the best in one-off occasions. Meanwhile, both this season and last they’ve embarked on memorable cup runs. But they’ve also collapsed once again this season as has become a common theme whenever fans start to think there could be more in store.

Daily Echo: Saints points by season since returning to the Premier League.Saints points by season since returning to the Premier League.

Is it possible for Southampton to reach those heights of the mid-2010s? The truth is, it’s harder than ever with more and more teams spending excessively in an attempt to get somewhere.

But the other truth is that the way Southampton have been operating - selling their best players and replacing them with frequently unsuccessful budget versions - is merely a means to survive and doesn't seem to be working any longer.

Saints fans have time and time again been forced to reckon with the departures of their favourite players over the past decade as richer clubs vulture the budding stars they've helped elevate. But how many players in this squad are fans even worried about losing? James Ward-Prowse? Kyle Walker-Peters? It's hard to find many outside of those two.

On the pitch, the team has slowly declined since the summer of 2017 and too many of those involved with the running of the club seem to have found that acceptable. 

In all fairness, Hasenhuttl himself has expressed his desire to aim for more than survival.

"I think it is visible that this season we are not speaking about ‘now we are safe’,” the Austrian said in mid-April. “I think that is the first time since I am here, we are not saying ‘okay, now we are safe, so that’s it’.

"This season we try to focus on higher targets and this is what we said. We are in this middle part of the table. It is very tight, every club now has the chance in the last six games to climb positions or to lose positions. This is the goal now.”

But once again, survival is going to be the highlight of the season as a mammoth summer finally approaches.

Daily Echo: Saints owner Dragan Solak with CEO Martin Semmens. Image by: Stuart MartinSaints owner Dragan Solak with CEO Martin Semmens. Image by: Stuart Martin

Gao Jisheng is now out of the picture, with Sport Republic buying his 80% stake of the club in January. But speaking in February, CEO Martin Semmens didn’t make it sound like things will drastically change under the new ownership.

“I think the most important thing is we have a plan in place. We have a strategic plan – it’s sitting on my desk in front of me and that's what Sport Republic have bought into and we will continue on that path.

“So I don't think you'll see a massive change in operations, but does it leave us in a better position than yesterday? Yes, it does. We have found partners with ambition for the future, but with a clear understanding of what Southampton stands for and the direction we must go in now.”

Of course, words spoken after a draw with Manchester City may be somewhat different to the actions that follow another late season slide.

But ultimately, it’s a matter of how you look at the club. As a business, it’s functioning to an outstanding degree. For the year of 2021, the club lost just £13.7m, an impressive figure considering the lingering effects of Covid through the second half of last season. That number was helped by making a profit of £16.8m on player trading.

Once again, it’s why Southampton are championed from the outside as a team doing things right. Rival fans and those within the football world from agents to executives see Southampton as a model to look up to.

But that glow ignores the most important people: the fans. Everyone wants their club to do things the right way but no matter how much money is saved, is hanging about in the bottom half of the table the right way for fans? 

Everyone will have a different idea as to what is an acceptable expectation but fans want to see a journey developing. There’s few things worse than a club that’s stuck in place. And at the moment, Southampton seem stuck.

There was a period this season when fans were allowed to dream but it ended in the kind of disappointment that’s become too regular over the last five years.

Fans are getting more and more restless, never clearer than when a section of the travelling support turned against Hasenhuttl on Saturday afternoon in West London. Regardless of who you want to blame, many fans have grown tired of just existing in the Premier League. 

Where’s the fun in that? Fans want something to believe in and something they can build dreams on. That’s been at the centre of the Southampton way throughout so many periods of the club’s history but at the moment it doesn’t feel like the same can be said.

Stability now feels like the dream from those in charge and some fans will agree that that is the right way for the club to function. But many others won’t continue to be satisfied with survival. And who can blame them? 

Fans want to believe their club is going somewhere. And right now, it’s hard to have confidence that Southampton are. It’s time for Sport Republic to prove that wrong and show this club is on a path to be excited about.

A message from the Editor

Thank you for reading this article - we appreciate your support in reading the Daily Echo.

Subscribing to the Echo means you have unrestricted access to the latest news, features and Saints coverage - all with an advertising-light website.

You will also have full access to Saintsplus, your new home for Southampton FC tactical analysis, features and much, much more.

Don't take my word for it - subscribe here to see for yourself.

Follow the latest breaking news in the Southampton area by joining our Facebook group - Southampton News - Breaking News and Incidents

Follow the latest court and crime news on our dedicated Facebook group - Hampshire Court and Crime News