Down The Lane to Southamp­ton Way

By in Niall Quinn's Route One

Work took me to White Hart Lane yes­ter­day but wait­ing for the game to begin I was keep­ing an eye on what was going on down on the south coast where Southamp­ton were play­ing Swansea.

Southamp­ton ended a good week with their first win of the Premier League sea­son after two away losses and two home draws. On Thursday night they had picked up their first win of the sea­son when they star­ted their Europa League cam­paign.

Back to busi­ness as usual.

I smiled to myself and settled down to watch Spurs, a highly ambi­tious club who have done very well so far out of buy­ing play­ers (and hir­ing back­room staff) from Southamp­ton. For clubs around the top end of the table Southamp­ton has become a very good place to shop.

Last year I got to know the former Southamp­ton chair­man, Nic­ola Cortese, a little bit. It was an acquaint­ance I wished I had made long ago, before I got involved in the busi­ness side of the house at Sun­der­land.

Whereas I was sur­prised to find that I fell in love with Sun­der­land at the end of a long career, it was almost more sur­pris­ing that Nic­ola Cortese, an Italian guy work­ing as a banker in Switzer­land should have fallen in love with Southamp­ton FC.

Cortese was run­ning the sports busi­ness prac­tice for Banque Her­it­age in Geneva when he was asked to con­duct the pur­chase of Southamp­ton on behalf of Markus Lieb­herr a Ger­man-born busi­ness­man based in Switzer­land.

Look­ing in from the out­side you might have thought that the best advice Cortese could have given his cli­ent was to keep his money. Southamp­ton were in admin­is­tra­tion, in League One, and would be start­ing the sea­son with a ten-point deduc­tion.

Cortese con­cluded the deal expertly and was asked to take over as chief exec­ut­ive of the club. For some reason he said “yes” and what fol­lowed was one of the great suc­cess stor­ies of mod­ern Eng­lish foot­ball. He and Lieb­herr developed some­thing called the “Southamp­ton Way” which soun­ded like a slick slo­gan at the time but which has become the blue­print for a lot of clubs who don’t have bil­lion­aire sugar dad­dies.

Suc­cess in the mod­ern game gets meas­ured in dif­fer­ent ways. If any Southamp­ton fans are dis­tressed that the club hasn’t won the Premier League or the Cham­pi­ons League by now they should try to remem­ber how happy they were to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in the spring of 2010. How happy they were just to still have a club to fol­low!

I think they will be con­tent enough with their lot though. Southamp­ton fans know that the tag of being a ‘selling club’ has lost its sting largely due to their own club’s belief in its own sys­tem and ethos.

Schneider­lin, Lovren, Shaw, Wan­yama, Lal­lana, Mane, Clyne, Pelle, Cham­bers and oth­ers have moved on in the last couple of sea­sons fol­low­ing a path well worn by play­ers like Gareth Bale, Theo Wal­cott and Alex Oxlade Cham­ber­lain. Man­agers, too. Pochet­tino left. Koe­man has gone. Claude Puel has the seat now but the Southamp­ton Way lim­its the poten­tial for dis­aster. Poten­tial man­agers at Southamp­ton are scouted with the same due dili­gence as poten­tial play­ers.

I know how hard it is to be in the pos­i­tion Nic­ola Cortese found him­self in. We star­ted at Sun­der­land in The Cham­pi­on­ship, a level higher than Southamp­ton were when Cortese came and took the reigns. We found that one of the greatest things about the club was the fans. One of the toughest things was deal­ing with the pas­sion­ate impa­tience of those fans. We got pro­mo­tion and con­sol­id­ated. We tried to stick to our wage struc­ture and our trans­fer policy and to develop our academy struc­ture. All the good things.

Play­ers are play­ers though. Their careers are short and their expect­a­tions are high. If a guy has a good sea­son in your col­ours, the big­ger clubs are sniff­ing around and offer­ing mul­tiples of what Dar­ren Bent, Jordan Hende­r­son and oth­ers were being paid by us — and then they go.

We knew we couldn’t keep them because that is a fact of life in the busi­ness. Our trouble was cre­at­ing a sup­ply line through the academy to develop and blood play­ers at a faster rate then we were los­ing them. Truth is we relied on quick fix ready-made imports instead. I’d change that if I were back.

We also used Roy Keane’s con­nec­tions with Manchester United and later Steve Bruce’s to bor­row or buy what we could from Old Traf­ford. That has con­tin­ued fun­nily enough with David Moyes bring­ing in Paddy McNair and Don­ald Love in the recent win­dow.

The pres­sures come from both sides though. It is hard to attract estab­lished play­ers. It is harder still to keep your own estab­lished guys.

Southamp­ton, in fair­ness, had more time to build their model. In the first year after takeover, they fin­ished sev­enth in League One hav­ing star­ted with that ten point deduc­tion. Then they got two straight pro­mo­tions and have gone from strength to strength in the Premier League.

We found ourselves in the top flight, run­ning while we were learn­ing to walk. We did ok, but mak­ing suc­cess self-sus­tain­ing is a tough trick.

Southamp­ton inves­ted heav­ily in what was already a very good academy sys­tem, insist­ing on young play­ers tak­ing their edu­ca­tion ser­i­ously. Cortese would begin work at 0700 and a part of most days involved speak­ing to young play­ers check­ing on their pro­gress, aca­demic first, then foot­ball. “Smart heads on young shoulders make bet­ter foot­ballers” he told me time and time again.

If you were a young player at Southamp­ton you knew you had a good chance of get­ting a break. And if you didn’t you had some qual­i­fic­a­tions to fall back on.

Apart from the academy and the ulti­mate devel­op­ment of what they call ‘the black box’ (which is the tech­no­logy applic­a­tion of the Southamp­ton Way) what has inter­ested me most about Southamp­ton is the busi­ness model. Southamp­ton don’t buy a player or hire a man­ager without know­ing pre­cisely how he will fit in and accept­ing that he will prob­ably move on.

The Premier League is not a stable atmo­sphere. Lots of clubs put them­selves under major pres­sure with mis­spent money on bad sign­ings and man­agers who don’t fit their model.

Southamp­ton pre­pare for everything. They know that good play­ers will leave. The pres­sure of their sane wage struc­ture and the bright lights of big name clubs mean that pro­cess is just inev­it­able. Look at N’golo Kante. Won a Premi­er­ship with Leicester. Treated like a God. About to be part of Leicester’s first adven­ture in the Cham­pi­ons League and he jumps to Chelsea over­turn­ing the cliché about play­ers leav­ing clubs because they want Cham­pi­ons League foot­ball.

Southamp­ton live with that pres­sure by accept­ing it and pre­par­ing for it more thor­oughly than any­body else in the divi­sion. Their scout­ing is excel­lent but the club’s ethos from eight-year olds through to the first team is set by behind the scenes guys like Les Reed and Mar­tin Hunter who have become the guard­i­ans of the Southamp­ton Way.

Cortese knew that play­ers would move on. He believed that, if he imple­men­ted a sys­tem that could find and develop younger play­ers, in time the only play­ers mov­ing on from Southamp­ton would be those going to big­ger clubs and Southamp­ton would have a con­stant stream of new tal­ents com­ing through. No giant steps but slowly Southamp­ton itself would become a big­ger club and one with a sound and self-sus­tain­ing fin­an­cial basis.

Markus Lieb­herr sadly passed away in 2010, leav­ing his daugh­ter Kath­ar­ina in charge of the club. Nic­ola Cortese resigned in Janu­ary 2014 after allegedly (accord­ing to the media) “an irre­con­cil­able rift” had opened between him and Kath­ar­ina Lieb­herr. Hap­pily the sys­tem he developed, which meant that nobody was irre­place­able, worked. Southamp­ton have sur­vived without him.

I watch for their res­ults and I notice how they never blink when they hit the little speed bumps that all clubs hit. St Mary’s and the Staple­wood Cam­pus are serene places. They aren’t a top six club. Not yet. But neither are they a bubble wait­ing to pop. From the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy to where they are in just over six years, “That’s some jour­ney!”