At the end of last season, neutrals could be forgiven for thinking Southampton supporters were strangely optimistic considering the club had only narrowly avoided relegation. But optimistic we were; we had a great manager, one who had steered an unfashionable club to second place in the Bundesliga and turned our season around, plus players and a style that matched the club’s sense of self.
It can seem slightly spurious to talk about a club’s ‘identity’, not least because almost every support base tends to think its identity is ‘playing good football’. In this sense, pre-Wenger Arsenal fans, their “One-nil to the Arsenal” song a winking acknowledgement that George Graham’s side were good if rather dull, seem almost quaint in their self-awareness.
Saints fans (some, anyway) are probably more realistic than most, in that they are fairly comfortable with an identity that has tended to involve an unusually high number of home victories over the top clubs (Southampton had three consecutive home wins over Manchester United during the 90s and a very respectable record against Liverpool at The Dell during the 80s), producing players who go on to become household names at bigger clubs (Alan Shearer, Gareth Bale) and an admirable commitment to losing games 3-2.
Put simply, in May 2019, we knew we weren’t very good, but we were happy and hopeful. Five months on - after a farcical, embarrassing, frankly surreal 9 (NINE)-0 home defeat against not Liverpool or Manchester City but a Leicester side who are obviously very good, but equally obviously not Barcelona 2010/11 - we are neither.
Faith in Ralph Hasenhüttl, who relatively recently was being hailed as the next elite coach, seems to have all but evaporated, and fans are turning on each other, with a ‘culture war’ having erupted (largely, it must be said, on social media) over a supposed lack of atmosphere (i.e. singing and chanting) at games. This does speak to another particularity of Southampton supporters; we tend, for some reason, not to blame the board.
Amid the inevitable boos at the final whistle of the Leicester game, there wasn’t a single shout of “sack the board”, and none of the subsequent invective on Twitter was directed at owner and chairman Jisheng Gao or CEO Martin Semmens. Why not? Ultimately, they, along with their predecessors, are responsible for the state we’re in. This irregular column has already expressed grave concerns over Gao and former chairman Ralph Krueger (yes, he’s gone now, but Thatcherism didn’t end when Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street).
I won’t rehash all that here, but let me add some thoughts on Semmens.
At a recent ‘fans forum’, Semmens dismissed a suggestion from the floor that there should be a cap on transfer fees by shrugging and saying “I’m a capitalist!”, before suggesting that he’d be more interested in a salary cap. Fair enough, it’s certainly not my bag but capitalism is, undeniably, the paradigm we live in, the name for the way society is organised around the creation of private profit.
I’d argue that it isn’t really an ideology, but what Semmens presumably meant is that he believes in free markets, individual private property and the like; i.e. economic liberalism. What I would question, then, is why, during an era in which it’s pretty much impossible to compete on the pitch without a billionaire financing enormous transfer fees and salaries, Saints fans are so sanguine about a guy like that running our club in pretty much the same way he’d run any other value-producing business?
I suppose it’s necessary to do so given that when the aforementioned Krueger was tasked with finding a buyer for the club by former owner Katharina Liebherr (who retains a significant stake), it seems he somehow managed to find the only billionaire in the world who doesn’t actually have any money. But in that case, why aren’t we protesting about the ownership? We were pretty vociferous about Rupert Lowe during those dark, dark days between 2005 and 2009. Perhaps we’ve internalised the endless snide, unoriginal barbs about being ‘just Liverpool’s feeder club’ and simply given up on expecting anything better.
In the past I’ve suggested that Southampton Football Club is run like a luxury car showroom, in that rather than buying players purely to improve our team, we seem to just buy on the basis of whether a player can massively increase his value before being sold for a huge profit. It’s an approach that has allowed the club to turn a profit (Saints making a profit of £29m while finishing 17th in 2017/18 seems a very good argument for Karl Marx’s claim that profits are unpaid wages), but has also resulted in three successive relegation battles.
It goes without saying that should they lose this latest fight against the drop, they’re unlikely to turn a profit for much longer. What we’d do if that happens, I have no idea. If Semmens’s wage cap idea is anything to go by, the club could end up being run less like a car dealership and more like a branch of Asda (I do wonder what players and their agents might have thought, had they heard their employer openly fantasising about lower wages). In 2016/17, Saints generated 78% of their revenue from broadcasting. If Semmens thinks the wage bill looks a bit flabby now, imagine how he’ll feel if he’s still trying to find someone to take Wesley Hoedt on loan and in we’re in the Championship, minus most of that lovely TV money.
To avoid this dystopian future, Saints must surely adopt a different strategy. In the summer, everyone knew we were short of quality in the centre of defence, yet season after season of speculative transfer business meant that we had a load of extremely well-paid players who no one wanted to take off our hands because they’d underperformed.
Yet the club, in their wisdom, decided to spend what little money they had on two forwards, finally bringing in an inexperienced 20-year-old centre back the day after the transfer window closed. This sort of thing simply HAS to stop. No one should be advocating the sort of panic buy the club indulged in when they signed the hapless Guido Carrillo in January 2018 (presumably at the behest of the equally hapless Mauricio Pellegrino, who they then sacked a few months later), but the time has come for pragmatism. Yes, it is a perfectly pragmatic, legitimate position to say that Saints should look to buy players who have a good resale value, but pragmatism has turned to dogmatism in recent years. We can’t expect players to increase their market value if they’re playing poorly in a struggling team, or worse, in English football’s second tier.
The time has come to plug the all-too-obvious gaps with players of proven quality. If that entails buying a player who’s unlikely to be sold on for three times what we pay, fine. If it means paying a premium rather than scouring the leagues for rougher, cheaper diamonds, so be it. If it means Mr Gao putting his hand in his pocket, good. The club belatedly found the money to hire a good coach in Hasenhüttl, but he’s not an alchemist, and his current central defensive options don’t look too far removed from those available to poor Jan Poortvliet when we were in the Championship and going bust; too old, too young, mentally shot or just not good enough.
Adam Leitch, who covers Saints for the local paper, suggested when Gao arrived that the businessman’s plan was to enjoy being a club owner for a few years before selling up and making a tidy profit. He won’t be able to do that if the club drops out of the Premier League.
After Saints narrowly avoided relegation in 2017/18, Gao boasted to a conference in China that while everyone else was panicking he was “able to think more creatively”. Well good for him, but it’s not creative thinking that Saints need now. It’s investment.
To quote someone I will always despise, but who Martin Semmens probably regards as a hero; “there is no alternative”.