The humour at Southampton has been lifted from the gallows. At least, staff members have joked, they now have the money to buy back Gareth Bale. Better still, in light of the shedding of the club’s best players, there is no longer anything left for the predators (that, regrettably, is not quite true).
Even Ronald Koeman has got in on the act. The new manager tweeted a photograph on Monday morning of the pitch at Marchwood which had been marked with cones for the session ahead. “Ready for training!” Koeman wrote. The pitch was deserted. Later in the day, Koeman tweeted a snap of his office at the training ground and he noted that there were some “nice pictures” on the wall. Subtext: what might they fetch on the market?
It is better to laugh than cry, or to confront the issue that has crossed the minds of many club employees and has been openly discussed by them.
Is the owner, Katharina Liebherr, who took over from her late father, Markus, in 2010, cashing in on her asset? Reassurances have been forthcoming. This is not the case, employees have been told, but nobody can be 100% sure.
Southampton entered the summer having to make repayments of £22m on outstanding transfer fees and with costs relating to the redevelopment of the training ground having risen from £15m to more than £30m. Liebherr has converted £33m of the club’s loans into equity.
Ralph Krueger, the chairman, who was brought in by Liebherr in late February to replace Nicola Cortese, with whom she fell out, said player sales would “definitely not be factored in” to combat the debts. Krueger said the solution lay in sharpening up in a commercial sense, in realising the full potential of various markets.
Southampton have raked in £88.5m from the sales of Luke Shaw to Manchester United; Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert to Liverpool and Calum Chambers to Arsenal, with further lumps to follow in add-ons. Each deal has an eye-watering quality – even the £4.5m the club received for the 32-year-old Lambert. Chambers has made only 18 Premier League starts and yet he cost £12m, rising to £16m.There could be more in the pipeline. Tottenham Hotspur, who have already taken the manager, Mauricio Pochettino, from St Mary’s, want Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez.
Southampton are digging in hard, with their valuation of £27m – or “Shaw money” – for Schneiderlin, the key midfielder, intended to act as a deterrent. They met the player on Tuesday to tell him that they would not sanction his release even though he wants the move to White Hart Lane: “6 years of an amazing journey #saintsfc DESTROYED in 1 hour!!!” Schneiderlin tweeted with reference to the meeting.
Krueger had said earlier on Tuesday that neither Schneiderlin nor Rodriguez would be sold – and he was categoric about it. Rodriguez is expected to be fit in October after knee ligament damage.
Southampton have also received a £3m bid from Cardiff City for José Fonte; they want to off-load Dani Osvaldo, the £15m misfit, while other players, including Nathaniel Clyne, have questioned their futures. The picture is one of a club that is seeing the heart torn from it, having had the temerity to have a decent season and finish eighth. The little guy might enjoy his day in the Premier League but the door to the top six or seven is bolted.
José Mourinho, the Chelsea manager who had wanted to sign Shaw, said he pulled out because to pay a wage of more than £100,000 a week to a 19-year-old would have “killed” morale in the dressing room. What of Southampton? It would have sunk the club, particularly when financial fair play is factored in. Saints are living a modern immorality tale.
The problem, of course, is that it has happened all at once for them and it has been allowed to happen in the wrong order. One of the basic rules of the football market is to secure the replacement first. Instead, Southampton have banked the money but find that the clubs from whom they wish to buy have jacked up the prices. Koeman wants the goalkeeper Fraser Forster and the centre-half Virgil van Dijk from Celtic and another defender, Ron Vlaar, from Aston Villa. The deals are proving difficult to close. Other areas have been targeted, notably central and wide midfield.
Krueger has suggested he wants a sporting director at the club or, at least, a team to develop around Les Reed, the current director. However, for now, Reed remains in sole charge. A tough negotiator, he has managed to extract top dollar for the departing players but he might soon reflect that he has to pay over the odds to complete the incoming business snappily.
Moreover, the club have had, and do have, the option to hold the remaining players to their contracts. The players might not like it but history shows that they will generally knuckle down for one more season before being allowed to leave. It is a stop-gap measure, not entirely satisfactory, but it can buy time. Koeman has so far refused to use the tactic but it has come into force with Schneiderlin.
It is easy to feel that a damaging momentum has gripped and there is sadness at how quickly an excellent team has been dismantled, together with dark mutterings about how this sort of thing can be accelerated when players are away at World Cups, listening to what the top names tell them is possible.
The Southampton hierarchy has called for trust and patience but Reed’s statement after the Chambers deal went through on Monday was notable for its lack of assurances, along with the talking up of the club’s emerging talent.
Koeman, who worked effectively at his previous club, Feyenoord, with young players, has used a host of Southampton academy prospects in pre-season. There are high hopes for the midfielder Harrison Reed and the left-back Matt Targett, while Reed also name-checked Jack Stephens, Sam McQueen and Jordan Turnbull. Lloyd Isgrove is another one to watch. They will need experience around them, though.
Nobody at the club is panicking and there remains time for Koeman to supplement the purchases of Dusan Tadic, a £10.9m playmaker from Twente and Graziano Pellè, the £8m centre-forward from Feyenoord. However, the season is fast approaching. Southampton are playing with fire.