Time to extend the warmest welcome to Southampton F.C., who confirmed their promotion to the Premier League after 7 years’ absence. For some reason, I feel a fondness for Southampton that I don’t have for the other automatically promoted club, Reading, probably because of the memories of their exploits in the top flight back in the 90s at the Dell. The Dell was a 15,000 seater, horribly cramped and with virtually no space between the pitch and the stands. Although Southampton were a perennial relegation fodder, they produced some extremely memorable moments at their matchbox of a stadium. The 6-3 and the 3-1 wins against Manchester United are probably the most memorable, while it was the venue for a catalogue of Matt Le Tessier’s finest goals: the free kick against Wimbledon, the immortal solo effort against Newcastle are just some of the many he put away in style. Among the not-so-great moments were the Ali Dia debacle and Dave Jones’s trial, but generally Southampton tended to be quiet, uncontroversial, and resolutely a ‘small club’. They had a knack of finding foreign players no-one had heard of from the remoter parts of European football and then playing them at the top level for more years than seemed likely. Claus Lundekvam came from Brann in Norway and ended up playing for 12 years; Marian Pahars, the ‘Latvian Michael Owen’, was signed from Skonto Riga and stayed for 7 years; Jo Tessem, a part-time police officer from Molde, 6; Hassan Kachloul, the Morocco international, played over 80 games for the Saints and my abiding memory of him is of a magnificently risible dive towards the end of a season (can’t recall in what year or against which team) when he saw a defender steaming towards him in the penalty area and, anticipating contact, decided to take a dramatic tumble only to find that said defender had stopped well short of him and he had fallen over with nobody in the vicinity. The sheepish grin he wore as he rose to be greeted by the referee’s yellow card is one of my favourite Premier League memories.
Their fortunes seemed to turn, as it would have it, when the much-admired Jones had to take a gardening leave and was replaced by Glenn Hoddle, himself on a something of a rehabilation path after the bitterness of his England resignation. Hoddle kept them up in his interim season, and in the next one the Saints were threatening the top half of the table when he took off abruptly for his beloved Spurs. Although Stuart Gray almost took them down, Gordon Strachan came in and for three seasons established Southampton as a safe mid-table club. Hoddle had raised expectations, Strachan had met them, and in between the team moved to a new stadium, St. Mary’s. After a decade of almost constant rear-guard action, it looked as if the team was finally on a firmly upward trajectory.
As is so often the case in such circumstances, and uncannily similar to Leicester and Coventry, the new stadium coincided with Southampton’s fateful relegation in 2005, with Harry Redknapp at the helm. Redknapp had joined in what is one of the stranger managerial appoints of the modern times, pitching up at St. Mary’s almost immediately after leaving bitter rivals Portsmouth. He is lauded as a canny operator with underrated tactical acumen, and his record since then catapulted him to front-rank England manager candidate status (only to lose out to Roy Hodgson), but Redknapp was uncharacteristically impotent whille he was at Southampton. There was a suspicion that it was a rebound job after the acrimony of his falling out with Milan Mandaric, and the manner in which the Saints went down reflected badly on him. Even worse was the fact that as soon as they patched things up, Redknapp scarpered to rejoin Mandaric at Fratton Park. Southampton were badly let down, but in mitigation Redknapp may have felt undermined – and more than a little bemused – by chairman Rupert Lowe’s recruitment of Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning former coach of the England rugby team, for the technical director position. Woodward’s appointment was met with widespread ridicule and puzzlement, and intensified fans’ criticism of Lowe.
It kept getting worse and worse, an endless slide save for a brief revival and a playoff appearance in 2007. Southampton burned through managers: 9 since December 2005, and until the current manager Nigel Adkins, no one except George Burley and Alan Pardew lasted more than a season’s worth of matches. The chaos was exacerbated by boardroom battles and relentless takeover speculations, at one point involving Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. The reviled Lowe, having stood down in 2006, returned a year later after a mass boardroom resignation but could do nothing to stop Southampton from hemorraging** money and eventually going into administration. The resultant 10-point deduction led to their relegation into League One, a humiliating downfall for a club who spent almost three decades in the top flight and produced some of the most notable British players of the recent times.
It was indeed at providing staging areas for home-grown talent that Southampton excelled. Considered one of the best in the country, the Southampton F.C. Academy produced Wayne Bridge, Chris Baird, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Andrew Surman and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – all would go on to be Premier League regulars, Bridge and Walcott would be Champions League players, Bale is a bona fide superstar, and Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably be an England first-teamer before long. The Dell was also where Alan Shearer, Kevin Davies and James Beattie (the latter two involved in what was then an infamous cash-plus-player deal between Southampton and Blackburn Rovers) really established themselves as top-flight players. Given their scant resources, the Saints could never resist decent offers for their good players, always having to scour the continent for cheaper replacements and relying on Academy graduates. Recently, though, they have had trouble even keeping the latter for any meaningful period of time, Walcott playing for two seasons and Oxlade-Chamberlain just one before both joined Arsenal.
Just as money proved to be their downfall, it later came to be Southampton’s salvation. In 2009, Markus Liebherr, a Swiss billionnaire, purchased the club, paid off all outstanding debts and brought it out of administration. Alan Pardew was installed as manager, and although he was sacked after just one season having failed to reach the playoffs, the signings he had made with Liebherr’s money – the first significant investment in the club after years of player sales to service debt – became part of the foundation for their successive promotions. Southampton went up to the Championship as runners-up last year, and now they are in the Premier League at the first time of asking. With stable finances, a great stadium and a group of players – Morgan Schneiderlin, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana – that everyone is looking forward to watch, it’s a world away from where they were less than five years ago. It’s nice to have Southampton back in the Premier League: they used to be the club nobody disliked, the Dell was a uniquely difficult place for the big teams, and their matches against United – Fergie claiming that the shirts prevented players from seeing each other in that 6-3 defeat a particular highlight – meant that lots of people nursed a soft spot for them. They may not be that small a club anymore – St. Mary’s seats almost 33,000 fans and they are backed by Liebherr’s family – but if they prove to be half as entertaining as during their previous sojourn in the top flight, we should be in for a good time.