An unwelcome sense of deja vu is infesting Southampton. The club began last season with a 10-point deficit as punishment for sinking into administration during the previous campaign and results so far this season mean they risk giving their promotion rivals a similar head start. The League One favourites lie 18th in the table and have already been eliminated from the League Cup and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
Even more ominously, machinations off the pitch have spawned fears that the club are lurching back into the sort of managerial instability that relatively recently sent them plummeting from the top flight to the third tier and the brink of collapse. Those chaotic days were supposed to be long gone following the club's takeover in July 2009 by the German-Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr.
Liebherr died last month but had developed such affection for the club during their brief relationship that he made provisions for continued investment after his death. The club say his family have given assurances that they will pursue his declared ambition of leading Southampton back into the Premier League within the next three years.
That ambition is shared, of course, by every Southampton fan, many of whom believed that in Alan Pardew they had a manager capable of attaining that goal ? which is why there was widespread bemusement when Pardew was sacked last Monday after a 4-0 victory at Bristol Rovers. Southampton sources claim the club have received more than 50 applications to replace him, including one from a serving Premier League manager, and plan to make an appointment this week but, before doing so, they will presumably provide their preferred candidate ? currently believed to be the Scunthorpe United manager Nigel Adkins ? with an explanation as to why Pardew was dismissed, something they have yet to offer fans.
There have been vague mutterings from club officials about arguments between Pardew and unspecified staff members at the swanky new training facilities in Staplethorpe, but it is difficult to know how much credence to give those claims.
Naturally the void created by the lack of any clear statement from the club or Pardew has been filled by all manner of rumour, but the most likely reason for Pardew's downfall would appear to be discord between him and Nicola Cortese, the chairman Liebherr put in charge of day-to-day running of the club. He has become even more influential since the erstwhile proprietor's passing.
Cortese was not Pardew's most ardent admirer and Southampton's early stuttering seems to have shattered his patience. Whereas Liebherr was loved for saving Southampton and funding lofty dreams, there is less goodwill towards Cortese, whose intentions are not well understood. Public relations do not seem to be one of the Italian's strong points ? while Liebherr has been credited with the decision to play without a shirt sponsor this season as the club mark their 125th anniversary by wearing the kit first worn by the St Mary's Young Men's Association in 1885, Cortese is blamed for banning press photographers from the stadium ? which is why the Guardian has used an illustration rather than a photograph from Saturday's 2-0 defeat to Rochdale.
Under Cortese, the club are also charging fans for the use of the car park and demanding that season tickets be paid for up-front rather than in instalments. Questions have also been asked about his influence over transfers and how much enthusiasm Pardew had for the recent recruitment of the Brazilian midfielder Guly do Prado from Cesena. What does seem certain following the team's poor start to the season is that recruitment will have to continue under the new manager.
The reason Southampton were so heavily fancied to win the league this term was that they stormed up the table in the second half of last season and were expected to carry that momentum into the new campaign. Pardew, however, had insisted prior to his dismissal that that could only be sustained with further additions to the squad and Dean Wilkins, who has succeeded him on a caretaker basis (and, in keeping with the secrecy surrounding the club, refuses to confirm whether he wants the job permanently) said after Saturday's humbling that the club need to take advantage of next week's reopening of the loan market, especially with Adam Lallana out of action for another six weeks after knee surgery.
Lallana is Southampton's most creative midfielder and his absence was again acutely felt on Saturday. Saints dominated possession but lacked imagination and incision, as in their opening?day defeat by Plymouth. All the same, they did create enough chances to at least warrant a draw and would have done so if not for another shortcoming ? with the striker Lee Barnard suspended and the top-scorer, Ricki Lambert, stifled by excellent defending by the visitors. Southampton finished sloppily, Jason Puncheon, David Connolly and Dan Harding being the main culprits.
Maybe Pardew's dismissal was rash. And maybe bookmakers were a bit hasty in making Saints favourite for the title?
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.