Southampton Football Club has been a pillar of my existence since I was a child. Supporting Saints isn’t just a part of my identity - it’s a part of my way of life and an intrinsic aspect of my relationship with my father. At the moment though, and for the first time in over thirty years, I simply couldn’t bring myself to renew my Saints season ticket.
It’s not because we nearly got relegated last year or because the football was bad. I’ve seen plenty of relegation battles and countless poor performances over the years. What seems different now though is that it seems Southampton Football Club’s priority is no longer football.
The club’s owner, Jisheng Gao, is “planning to build about six soccer schools, 70 soccer fields, and institutions training soccer coaches, umpires, and managers”. We know this because he told China Daily - he hasn’t bothered to tell local Saints fans anything much about his intentions with the club. This is probably quite a sensible policy if his intention, as seems likely, is simply to use our club as a template for what he wants to achieve in China and build his brand. Rupert Lowe was, in my view, a charlatan, parasite and idiot, but at least he wasn’t, to my knowledge, just using Saints as a way to advertise some other product.
Speaking of products, what is it that Southampton are trying to produce now? It used to be entertaining football, whereas now the plan seems to be to buy players, turn them into big stars, then sell them for a vast profit. Southampton chairman Ralph Krueger talked at the end of last season about a return to ‘The Southampton Way’, but he wasn’t talking about fast-tracking academy players into a team playing exciting football. He was talking, by the sound of it with saliva dripping from his vampiric jaws, about Sadio Mané, who Saints bought for about £10M and sold for around £30M. Krueger spoke in glowing terms about Mané’s naked ambition:
“When Sadio Mané came and he told us he wanted to be the best football player in the world and he truly believed that. He came and played his two years and he went and now he’s playing in the Champions League final. We allowed that pathway and we were an important part of that and we should be proud of that but we got away from that.”
Mané, who played for us for two years and was not homegrown Gareth Bale or Adam Lallana, is now apparently the avatar for what the club do: buy low, sell high, hopefully growing its reputation as a talent factory in the process. This, running a football club like a luxury car showroom, seems counter-intuitive when you’re launching a chain of soccer schools, but presumably Gao & co. are hoping the parents don’t notice that the club is now simply trading talent, rather than producing it.
Actually developing outstanding players is, of course, hard. But do all academy graduates have to be stars? Under Mauricio Pochettino and even the seldom-lauded Claude Puel, Saints defeated teams with plenty of stars thanks in part to solid performances from homegrown players who were simply doing what they’d done for the age group teams. The argument made by some fans (and presumably by managers behind closed doors) that ‘they’re just not good enough’ overlooks the fact that Saints’ run to 2017’s League Cup final was launched by Jake Hesketh’s dismantling of Crystal Palace in the third round and confirmed by Josh Sims’ exhilarating box-to-box dribble to set up Shane Long’s goal against Liverpool and send us to Wembley. Hesketh and Sims have barely been seen since, which feeds into the sense that having a good team is less important to the club than having bankable stars.
Possibly the best example of the club’s approach is the signing of Angus Gunn. Alex McCarthy was rewarded for his heroics in last season’s relegation run-in with a new contract, then, a few days later, Gunn was signed for a significant sum anyway. The goalkeeper position was probably the last area in which Saints needed to strengthen, but they bought Gunn anyway. Why? Because they reckon they can flog him for big money a few years down the line.
Krueger said a few years ago that he sees Saints as analogous with the Green Bay Packers. Perhaps this was more telling than it initially seemed. I have no interest in American Football but I believe NFL franchises simply draft players trained elsewhere rather than developing them themselves. Attempting to ape that model in a sport with a completely different infrastructure seems bizarre, especially when Saints have spent millions on the academy. The old ‘Southampton Way’ - getting players through our academy and into our first team - allowed us to compete with wealthier teams, either on the pitch with those talented youngsters in the team, or in the transfer market once we’d sold them. The new, Kruegernomics-based Southampton Way doesn’t just seem cynical to me; it seems shortsighted, incoherent and and frankly stupid.
The club now seems to just be an advertising vehicle for Chinese capital, with the team itself treated as an afterthought and fans treated like tenants who must line the pockets of their landlord just so they’ve got somewhere to go (it may be no coincidence that Gao made a lot of money in property).
If having a decent team isn’t a priority for the owners, I don’t see why spending my money on going to St. Mary’s should be a priority for me, and I know many others who feel the same. I’ll be delighted if Saints prove me wrong and have a great season, but if they don’t, and other fans also stay away, I hope it forces the club to have a major rethink.