Simon Tovey reflects on a south coast revival and questions how much more there is to come.
It’s very likely that Southampton supporters are walking around this week with broad grins on their faces after an extremely promising weekend with the record signing of £15 million striker Pablo Osvaldo following hot on the heels of an opening day away win over West Brom. The Italian international was confirmed as having agreed a 4 year contract on Sunday evening and was introduced to the media on Monday afternoon. The talented ex-Roma forward is an extremely exciting acquisition and joins a rapidly improving and seriously impressive Saints squad. His arrival, alongside powerful midfielder Victor Wanyama and defender Dejan Lovren has tongues wagging and many may now ask the question of whether Southampton can really look to dine at the top table of English football in pushing bigger sides for a European spot.
It may be unlikely this season perhaps, but look closely and the club is ready for a tilt sooner rather than later and it could be argued that it would be richly deserved for Southampton fans after so long in the wilderness. It’s been a remarkable time for them and not always for good reasons, there haven’t been many situations or instances in English football that have been quite as up-and-down or well-documented as they have at the south coast club.
A mainstay in the top-flight during the 90s, though more often than not seemingly fighting relegation, they managed to cement a solid, if generally unspectacular, reputation as they typically gave much bigger sides a bloody nose at The Dell, their somewhat rustic home before they moved to shiny St Mary’s in 2001. Through the struggles though the mercurial likes of Egil Ostenstad, Marian Pahars, Eyal Berkovic and, of course, local legend Matt Le Tissier time and again produced moments of magic which always did just about enough to fire Southampton away from danger and ensure another season in the top flight. Indeed, as the millennium dawned, Southampton even began to improve on this under then manager Gordon Strachan, an FA Cup final was studded amongst seasons of relative stability and mid-table finishes.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last and finally in 2005, under the short-lived and controversial tenure of Harry Redknapp, the club; an original founding member of the league back in 1992, was relegated for the first time in its era. What was to follow however was to essentially cripple the proud club, four seasons of Championship football were played out to a backdrop of boardroom struggles, constant managerial changes and mounting financial problems which culminated in a further drop down to League One after the club were deducted ten points in 2009 for going into administration. These problems even went so far as the club having to be bailed out by a Le Tissier backed consortium in order for staff to be paid. It wasn’t until the club was bought by the late Markus Liebherr and run by Nicola Cortese did things get better with successive promotions under the guidance of then manager Nigel Adkins.
The situation the club finds themselves in now is a far cry from that turmoil, a genuinely talented squad with an intriguing blend of home-grown players such as captain Adam Lallana, loyal bedrocks like Morgan Schneiderlin and Rickie Lambert and exciting flair players the likes of Osvaldo and Gaston Ramirez is a mouth-watering prospect. When you weigh this up with the fact current manager Mauricio Pochettino has at his disposal arguably the best and most prolific academy in Britain that has produced a veritable who’s who of talent including Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana; it certainly seems the situation is very rosy indeed. The emergence of James Ward-Prowse and the brilliant Luke Shaw merely strengthens this opinion.
Under the stewardship of Cortese, there have been controversies; namely the sacking of Adkins last season, but football fans looking on can only see a club led by him that is having real investment pumped into it both on and off the pitch. It is a club with a very clear vision and is developing an exciting brand of football that looks set to continue reaping rewards with its philosophy of mixing talented academy products and exciting established stars. Will that reward be mixing it with names on the continent one day soon? One thing is crystal clear, Southampton fans have never had it so good and the club has everything in place to emerge as a serious contender.