Monday, 28 July 2008

The Future's bright, the Future's Orange (Hopefully)

Even sports bloggers need holidays- especially when they choose to write about a club whose affairs contain more twists and turns than the Middle-Eastern Peace Process. The situation is worsened when the writer is lumbered with a lifelong support for the club in question. Lets be honest, the last year has not been a pleasurable one for supporters of Southampton Football Club. It has seen the departure of George Burley, a long and exhausting relegation dog-fight, allegations of burglary against two players, the club’s worst ever set of financial figures and the second coming of one of the South Coast’s most hated men to St Marys. I thought I needed a break.

Rupert Lowe: The Second Coming

Over two months have passed since the return of Rupert Lowe, and what a frenzied two months they have been, even by Saints’ standards. I thought it would be best to analyse these recent developments through the prism of my expectations when he first rejoined the club. Upon his return I set him a list of five golden rules, criteria that, in my opinion, he had to meet in order to bring success back to St Marys:

1) Keep Nigel Pearson
2) Sort out finances
3) Communicate with the fans
4) Rebuild the club’s academy
5) Attract Investment.

Going through each in turn I can hopefully offer a good overview of the events of the past two months, while giving a good analysis of Lowe and Wilde’s performance thus far.

Dutch Revolution on the South Coast? Really?

As was generally expected, Lowe’s return was quickly followed by the end of Nigel Pearson’s tenure as Saints manager. As the news broke, there was widespread anger amongst fans that Lowe had not listened and had failed to learn his lessons. His reputation as the ultimate chopper-and-changer of managers was intact, as he unfurled his new, unknown Dutch management team of Head Coach Jan Poortvliet and Mark Wotte. While the official website waxed lyrical about the Dutch Revolution hitting St Marys and spoke – amazingly, without jest – of Saints teams playing football to rival the Dutch teams of the 1980s, there was a widespread feeling of incredulity amongst Saints fans. With respect, Jermaine Wright is not Marco Van Basten. How could Lowe justify the sacking of a successful manager in Nigel Pearson and risk the future of the club on a couple of foreign unknowns and a pipedream?

Financial Reality Bites

It emerged shortly after Pearson’s sacking that Lowe and Wilde had been willing to keep him on as manager but only if he took a significant pay cut and that the new management team are on a far lower combined salary. It is a massive blow to lose a manager as promising as Pearson, who many now back to succeed at Leicester, but can be justified (reluctantly) in terms of the clubs financial situation, which is unmistakeably dire. This year, the club’s accounts have recorded a loss of £5 million, after £12 million of player sales. Without players to sell, the club would have made be making an annual £17 million loss and be swiftly heading the same way as Luton. It is a situation that Lowe has been gradually fixing, with a trimming of the wage budget and corners of the ground shut in an effort to cut back. The sacking of Pearson may mean Lowe has broken the first golden rule, but only as a result of attempting to stick to the second rule. As even Prime Ministers can discover, Golden Rules sometimes have to be modified . However, we should not give Rupert too much of a free-run. It emerged he has attempted to import Dutch Revolution to St Mary’s before; the financial situation has merely given him an excuse to do so.

“You’ll never win anything with kids”

Cynics of the new Lowe regime have branded the new Dutch Revolution as a P.R exercise. Talk of beautiful, flowing football is there to mask the cold reality that we have no money to afford new, experienced players and will be relying upon academy youth this season. And it is true, the rebuilding of the club’s academy is central to Lowe’s plans. To be fair to him, it has worked well in the past, at least as a significant cash-cow. Without money from the sales of Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott the club would be in much trickier financial waters. But however good the new management team is (and that remains in doubt), it is doubtful how far the current crop of academy youngsters can take the club. Promotion certainly looks a distant dream at present. Despite some surprisingly positive media coverage of the new developments, it has been an uninspiring pre-season so far, with the return after four years of Michael “Killer” Svensson providing a rare highlight.

Killer! Killer!

While Killer’s return has given all cause for hope, pre-season wins at Salisbury and Basingstoke have hardly set the world alight. It is questionable how much can be learnt from visits to places such as Winchester FC, where one opponent was a guy I played against at secondary school. It was certainly a shock seeing the mighty Saints play against my hometown, just five years after an F.A Cup final. Andrew Davies’ call for more experience in the squad must be heeded if a bottom-half finish or lower is to be averted.

Verdict on the Second Coming: Passed, but could do better

It is fair to say that Lowe was not totally at fault for sacking Pearson and that the financial situation is being addressed, particularly through a long term vision for the club’s academy. But while a recent interview with Rupert Lowe is indicative of the improved level of communication with the fans since his comeback, there must be amelioration on the field if the club is to have serious promotion hopes. And I think we have all given up on hopes of outside investment. So with respect to the golden rules, he has not done badly, but such form must be maintained for the club to progress. While it is certainly orange, it remains to be seen just how bright the future turns out to be for Saints fans.


Which team will fill the third relegation spot?

Four games left. Will Saints survive?

Would you be in favour of a return for Rupert?