When Les Reed said at Southampton’s seasonal awards dinner that he was looking forward to a quiet summer, the host Ed Chamberlin’s smile in response had more than a touch of nervousness.
As a Saints fan himself, Chamberlin’s reaction was pretty representative of the fanbase as a whole. For all his good work behind the scenes to strengthen the club, Reed’s comments have often come to bite him on the proverbial.
From the claim there would be ‘no fire sale’ in summer 2014 just before five first-team players departed for big money (six outgoings if you add in Artur Boruc’s loan to Bournemouth), to the assertion Southampton had arguably the league’s strongest midfield options last year, to the perceived calmness over Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman’s situation before they left for Spurs and Everton respectively; it is fair to say fans were expecting the worst after Reed’s comments.
Their fears would have heightened when it was leaked by the Merseyside press pack that Virgil Van Dijk was going to Liverpool. With reportedly heavy interest in Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares, not to mention a highly controversial and protracted takeover, it was looking like one of those summers was on the cards once again.
Yet as the clock ticked 11pm on August 31st, Les Reed’s bold claim was proven somewhat right. Wesley Hoedt and Mario Lemina arrived from Serie A to bolster the centre-back and centre-midfielder spots that needed surgery, plus the purchase of the highly-rated prospect Jan Bednarek from Lech Poznan for a Ekstraklasa record sale.
Even with the reported interest in several of Southampton’s best players, the only first teamers to depart were Jordy Clasie and Jay Rodriguez who both needed a fresh start to their careers. In terms of incomings and outgoings, there was minimal change to the senior squad.
But more important than Reed being proved correct, the club showed to their fans and to the footballing world that they were not going to be messed around with. Liverpool’s self congratulation in signing Van Dijk not only got their fans excited, but it infuriated the Southampton hierarchy.
The press involved with all matters at St Mary’s reported the club’s real anger at the Merseysiders arrogance, at the claims their ‘feeder club’ would once again bow down and just let their star player leave. It all had a distasteful feel of Liverpool and their fans feeling that Southampton should be thankful for them lavishing them with whatever fee those at Anfield decided was best.
The fightback came in some style. The threat of reporting Liverpool for tapping up their captain culminating in a rather pathetic apology on their club’s own website showed Saints had teeth; they stood toe to toe with one of England’s biggest clubs and did not back down one iota.
Liverpool’s ex-players (over 30 at last count) could all go on about how Van Dijk should go to Anfield , the Dutchman and his advisers could try every trick in the book to force a move, but Saints held all the cards, there was no bid for fear of repercussions from the Premier League and the deadline passed with the captain still tied to his contract with five years left to run.
The question of whether Van Dijk would be a Southampton player now had a club other than Liverpool come in with a bid north of £70m is a valid one, and had Van Dijk not been out of action since January there may have been a different outcome.
But now Saints have shown if someone wants to come in for a player, they need to go through the right channels to do it and they can expect to pay a premium. If the club say Player X is not for sale, other clubs and the fans may be more inclined to believe it.
What happens now after the deadline is in some ways more interesting. Van Dijk’s stance of not being in the right frame of mind to play and having to train on his own now becomes a game of whether he will back down; if not, he has another four months of solitary confinement and virtually no chance of regaining his national team spot.
The club have not got it easy, either. They have an asset worth at the very least £60m who needs reintegration; depending on what has happened behind the scenes, getting back into the group of players could be tricky, but presumably not half as awkward as rebuilding torched bridges with the fans, should he even want to.
But the stance was worth it. It shows the club does have ambition by keeping hold of an arguably world class player and alongside Hoedt it means Saints have one of the strongest back six outside the bigger clubs. The fans after three summers of worry have breathed a sigh of relief, and the team has not needed stopgaps but augmented with real quality. An attacking player could have been added, but every club in the Premier League has areas needing attention and Southampton are no different.
The quiet summer that was promised has been delivered, and perhaps Reed could have a well deserved holiday. Anywhere but Liverpool, presumably.