This might seem like an odd way to open a piece about the departure of Southampton Football Club’s director of football, but stick with it. From 2010, schools have suffered from brutal austerity cuts and muddled policymaking from a series of education secretaries who all had different ideas about how education should be managed. Now, there is a crisis in Britain’s schools, with demoralised teachers leaving the profession in their droves and children deprived of the help they need. All the while, we’ve been told that our schools are in good health, even though our lived experience - and that of our children - tells us this is just propaganda. People are justifiably angry, but sometimes the anger is misdirected. Although the cuts have been well documented, that doesn’t stop some parents berating head teachers.
Saints used to be a football club that was run like a school. Not, I’ll grant you, the sort of school most kids go to. This was an elite school that was well-funded, where every effort was made to give the coaches, scholars and professional players the facilities, the resources and the support staff they needed to be successful. Unfortunately though, the same fate ultimately awaited Saints and - arguably - the cause was the same. Just as the global financial crisis which preceded austerity was caused by irresponsible bankers, it transpired that Saints chairman Nicola Cortese - a former banker himself - had taken out the football equivalent of Wonga same day loans which would need to be repaid.
Katharina Liebherr, who had inherited the club from her father, loaned it some money, but by the end of the summer of 2014, it was clear that there had been a major change in the running of the club. The infamous player exodus of that pre-season was never quite repeated, but it did set a pattern: the club would generally part company with its top performers each year.
At first, something happened that seemed quite bizarre. The team’s performances didn’t dip. In fact, in concrete terms (i.e. final league position), they got better and in two consecutive seasons. I’ve dealt with how in an earlier piece. Through shrewd recruitment, Saints were effectively getting richer clubs to pay for improvements to their squad.
Despite its early success though, there was a problem with the post-Cortese, post-2014 strategy of buy low, sell high - it necessitated frequent forays into the transfer market. Saints came to pride themselves on recruitment, but the football transfer market is one of the most inefficient markets imaginable. The more deals you involve yourself in, the more likely you are to make costly mistakes. Saints’ initial success in this area - which the club attributed to the use of a sophisticated scouting database nicknamed “The Black Box” - led to head of recruitment Paul Mitchell being headhunted by Tottenham Hotspur.
Mitchell has been canonised in his absence by some fans - a trait that has developed among a section of the club’s support in recent years has been a tendency towards ahistorical assessments of former employees’ worth, more on that later, but in truth he oversaw the purchase of his fair share of duffers. For example; the acquisition of piratical madman Dani Osvaldo, who kicked a member of Newcastle’s coaching staff in the testicles before finally having his contract terminated for assaulting team captain Jose Fonte, is mysteriously airbrushed from history in many accounts of Mitchell’s time at Southampton. Osvaldo was thought to cost the club a total in the region of £25 million.
It seems fair to say that the club’s recruitment focus has altered somewhat since Mitchell’s departure, although it’s impossible to know whether this is down to his successor, Ross Wilson, or at the behest of his paymasters. Where Saints once simply looked to plug gaps in their squad, they now seem preoccupied with identifying potentially bankable stars, regardless of whether they’re likely to improve the team; young goalkeeper Angus Gunn being a case in point.
This, along with the gradual abandonment of the club’s much-vaunted “Pathway” from academy to first team, has seen Saints go from being a football university to a sporting version of The X Factor. Rather than spending years preparing young players to play in a clearly defined style for our first team, the club now simply gambles money from TV rights and player sales on buying in talent from all over the world. Gone are the days of employing a coach like Mauricio Pochettino or even Claude Puel, whose reputations have been built on sculpting lumps of unfired clay into world-beaters. Gone, perhaps, are the days of coaches like that being attracted to Southampton - a teacher-manager requires, as much as anything, time to work with and develop players. These days if a Southampton manager succeeded in turning an 18-year-old into a world-beater, the player would be sold long before fulfilling his potential, and if, in the meantime, results were poor, the manager would receive his P45 in the post before the end of June.
It wasn’t just the potential world-beaters who justified Southampton’s pre-2014 emphasis on youth, though. The academy has produced solid, functional, team players too, saving the club millions in the process, yet at the start of this season the likes of James Ward-Prowse and Jack Stephens found themselves behind new signings, before eventually being brought back after their expensively recruited colleagues had failed to achieve anything of note.
If this seems like madness, we need to at least try to work out why it has happened, and who has been driving it, because it seems a massive reach to conclude that it could have been just Les Reed. Look at some of his past statements:
”From a player development point of view, I don’t understand the logic of investing significant sums of money in resources and facilities and in trying to attract the best possible staff and then sending out your best prospects to somebody else who hasn’t done that. They have to be accepted with the first team, and once they are, then the only way is up. Everybody on the staff, from the first team coach right through, has to believe in that and drive it through.”
”Clubs choose to carry lots of players. If they choose to carry lots of players, then what they are choosing is to go down a route where there’s going to be lots of failure. Because they know that that number of players is never going to come through their first team. So, I think those clubs, rather than just parking players elsewhere, and then those players ending up playing in the Football League, not in the Premier League…. Great for the players… It’s great for them to develop their careers, but should they be at those clubs in the first place? If they haven’t got the potential to be Premier League players, why are those clubs carrying such large squads of players? I think they need to be more selective, and they need to work harder with smaller pools of players and then develop them into their first teams.”
”I understand why some Premier League managers would like somewhere to park their players, rather than play them in their team or work with them on the training ground, I just don’t believe in either of those two arguments”
”What’s the point in developing a player for eight years in your academy then a new manager coming in and going ‘We’re not doing it that way any more’?”
”We use through our academy 4-3-3 as a basic structure in terms of the style of play, not because it’s the winning formula but because to play 4-3-3 properly you have to develop a whole range of things that you don’t have to develop if you play 4-4-2, where the team is very straight and structured and up and down. 4-3-3 requires rotation in midfield, it requires full backs to push on, it requires centre backs to be able to split and have plenty of the ball.”
Despite all these on-the-record remarks from their Vice Chairman of Football, here in 2018 Saints are currently playing 4-4-2 having tried pretty much every system under the sun, haven’t had a homegrown youngster establish himself in years, and have sent many of their best youngsters on loan to the lower leagues.
I can only hypothesise that Ralph Krueger et al feel that while developing players to fit a certain way of playing may help them win, it comes with a risk, and the players this approach yields aren’t always eye-catching enough to become household names. Better to pack the squad with players who can be found on YouTube performing ostentatious tricks and scoring the occasional outrageous goal. They might not fit into our team especially well, but you have to run the club as a business, right?
Wrong. Let’s return to the analogy I began with. Just as attempting to run a school as if it’s a business is zealous lunacy, attempting to turn a football club into a luxury car showroom is doomed to failure. Whatever the Gao family want to use Southampton FC promote, whether it’s a chain of soccer schools or just themselves, I doubt it will work especially well if the product - the first team - is the subject of perpetual angst and scorn.
This is the predicament the club has created for itself. In making it apparent that it has neither aspiration for on-field success nor the patience to make managing Saints attractive to anyone in their right mind, the club has given itself a huge problem. Krueger clearly thinks of himself as having a gift for PR, but effectively telling fans players, managers and prospective hires that staying in the Premier League is the best we can hope for has resulted in a demoralised fan base and a demotivated staff.
Many fans blame Reed for this, but in light of his previous statements and his work at the FA, is it likely that Reed has driven the abandonment of ‘The Southampton Way’, and the abandonment of any ambition to be anything more than a brand built on the reputations of its alumni? No. The Southampton Way was informed by Reed’s previous work. He was recruited by Cortese - those who uncritically support the Swiss banker while blaming Reed for everything bad that has happened to Saints since his arrival conveniently overlook this undeniable fact - and Markus Liebherr to help make the late Swiss billionaire’s dream, of Saints being secure in the Premier League with half their team made up of academy graduates, a reality. Look back over Reed’s past statements about ‘The Pathway’, the value of 4-3-3, his dislike of sending young players on loan, and ask yourself if this man underwent a Damascene conversion, or whether he was simply overruled by know-nothings in pursuit of short-term gains.
Assuming Reed has signed a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting him from discussing his departure, the only way to find out is to wait and see what happens now he’s gone, but given their track record, there doesn’t seem to be any basis for confidence in the ownership and remaining upper management appointing a successor who will allow the team to move forward. Perhaps I’m being overly suspicious when it comes to the intentions of the Gao family towards our club, but I feel it’s understandable, for one simple reason: they have at no point made no attempt to tell us their intentions, and Krueger has told us outright that we have no right to know. All the while, they fail to treat fans even as customers, much less stakeholders, instead seeming to see us more than anything as tenants who can be milked for unearned income.
Les Reed wasn’t perfect. While none of his decisions will have been made unilaterally or in a vacuum, and will have been subject to budget restraints, market forces, structural problems of football and the whims of his superiors, he presided more than one dreadful appointment and some disastrous transfers in his last few years at the club. But Reed doesn’t deserve the kicking he’s endured over the years. Sacking the head of a school isn’t going to make much difference if the same financial and ideological pressures are brought to bear on their replacement, and the removal of the final link to Markus Leibherr’s Saints, which re-prioritised investment in both infrastructure and people, should chill us to our core.
If your kid’s school is shit, don’t blame the head teacher. Blame a venal, pernicious government and the amoral, avaricious elite whose interests they serve. If your football club is shit…