When Les Reed dared to suggest that Southampton are a ‘showcase club’ last Friday, it was a move that prompted many to roll their eyes. However, the current Director of Football at St. Mary’s was showing little more than a bout of realism.
There’s nothing to say that the acceptance of current status cannot run parallel with the ambition of progressing further up the league table, but for many fans, that’s exactly how it was taken.
Saints have now sold players to the tune of £130m across the last three transfer windows, and despite investing over £80m on replacements – with the £8.5m arrival of Jordy Clasie now imminent – many fans have complained that the club is little more than ‘a selling club’.
Reed’s statement on Friday – given in a BBC interview – that Saints are in fact more of ‘a showcase club’, has done little to dissuade fans from their original standpoint.
Southampton, as a club, has enjoyed rapid success over the past six seasons. A climb that is largely unrivalled, which has seen the club rise from the League 1 relegation zone and administration to the top seven of the Premier League. In the process, the club’s league performances have seen them go one further than that of the markers laid down by the likes of Norwich City and Swansea City, culminating in Europa League qualification.
Much credit has been attributed to Ronald Koeman in the wake of last summer’s rebuilding project, with some sections of the media suggesting that he finds himself with a similar task ahead of the new campaign.
But in truth, it’s incomparable due to the stage-managed nature of this summer’s departures. Morgan Schneiderlin’s exit on Monday was long-awaited, with the club reaching a verbal agreement with the player that he could move on. The transfer came just 12 months after the Frenchman was told he would need to stay for another season, after Southampton rejected a derisory £10m offer from Tottenham Hotspur.
The writing had also been on the walls for Nathaniel Clyne’s exit, with a long, drawn-out contract renewal saga that ultimately concluded with an Anfield switch.
Saints went into the market early and concluded some smart early business, which has left some detractors to level allegations of the club looking to operate on the cheap.
It is no secret that Saints owner Katharina Liebherr wants the club to sustain itself long-term, but nonetheless the club’s early business was impressive.
Juanmi, an energetic 22-year-old forward player, was the first in the door after Saints triggered the £5m release clause to bring the Spaniard – capped at senior level – to St. Mary’s. Malaga would undoubtedly have held out for much more for one of their prized assets, had they been able to persuade the player to sign a new deal with a much higher release fee.
Cedric Soares arrived at the club’s Staplewood training complex for a modest £3.5m, leaving Sporting Lisbon for a cut-price fee due to entering the final 12 months of his existing contract – much akin to the £12.5m that Brendan Rodgers offered to bring Nathaniel Clyne to Anfield.
Maarten Stekelenburg was next in, arriving on a season-long loan with oodles of international experience and appearances at the top level around Europe, in addition to past experience of the Premier League.
Cuco Martina has also arrived, and although considered little more than a cheap utility acquisition at £1m, he is another player with European experience. He comes with the added benefit of having worked with Saints assistant Erwin Koeman at RKC Waalwijk, and can cover multiple positions ahead of the gruelling combination of Premier League and Europa League football.
Off-the-field, growth continues. Staplewood continues to spread, as part of a £40m investment from Liebherr. A new state-of-the-art dome has now been constructed for indoor training, in addition to the Markus Liebherr Pavilion. ‘The Annexe’ is next on the list for Saints.
The club continues to make strides forward, but some can’t help but feel deflated by the outflow of high-quality professionals.
However, there are positives to be taken. Gone are the days of Saints being slim-pickings for around half of the league. Nowadays, only a select few, in the plush, roped-off VIP section of the Premier League nightclub, have the might to wrench a player away from Southampton’s arm.
This is a club that has usurped Everton, Newcastle United and other traditionally ‘bigger’ clubs such as Sunderland and West Ham United, in recent seasons.
When a player leaves, it’s routinely for a top fee. Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin and Adam Lallana all moved in deals worth in excess of £20m.
And, most importantly, the club have always replaced well. No clearer an example exists than in the form of the pending arrival of Jordy Clasie for £8.5m, just hours after the departure of Schneiderlin.
Southampton Football Club and its fans should not bemoan or be disheartened by Reed’s statement that the club is a ‘showcase club’, if anything, it should stir pride and offer encouragement.
It’s easy to feel that the current management are less ambitious than former chairman Nicola Cortese, who was planning for European football, a presidential campaign and world domination.
But Saints have executed a model that they need to persist with, one which sees them scour Europe, to pick up not only promising talents, but top players looking to make the move to England. The infrastructure and culture of the club is recognised for developing players and taking them towards the heights of their potential, before empowering them with a springboard to the elite level.
The club has made such rapid progress over the past six years, but now is the time to knuckle-down and commit to a sustainable and rewarding long-term strategy.
Saints need to be the middle man, who reaps the profits of hard-graft and smart thinking, and sow the seeds for the next successful crop. Over time, the flow of money into the club will see the squad grow, the facilities to continue to sprawl and amaze, and the culture of the club to continue.
It’s now time for Southampton to ‘showcase’ just what keeps them ahead of the game, and move forwards, once again.