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!”