Yesterday, Southampton’s chairman Nicola Cortese resigned. Depending on how long you have been trailing this story, he is either being tempted to take up the chef exec job at struggling Milan, or has found working under owner Katharine Liebharr too much. It’s also possible that Ms Liebharr has insisted on a return on her family’s two rounds of investment in the club and forced his hand.
Five years ago Cortese was a working in Switzerland as a banker and acted on behalf of the now-deceased and father of Katharine, Markus Liebharr. They successfully put a deal together to buy Southampton FC and rescue the club from administration (liquidation is not inevitable, some clubs survive). Cortese had no previous experience in the football industry.
Southampton are a small club who seem cursed to produce incredibly talented youth players, only to see extraordinarily bad executives spurn their bounty. I remember writing about their ‘blood on the boardroom carpet’ six years ago.
A year ago this Saturday, Cortese sacked Nigel Atkins, the manager who won them two successive promotions and put them in a comfortable position on the FA Premier League. Cortese was to 2013 what Vincent Tan is to 2014, the butt of a thousand jokes, but none of us were reading the script.
Cortese’ next move was to appoint Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, the 40-year-old recently sacked manager of Espanyol. Southampton haven’t looked back, despite the words “Hooiveld” and “Fox” regularly featuring on team sheets.
Pochettino is now one of the hottest properties in football but he’s not the story, his former boss is. In appointing a young, low-profile, manager, Cortese tackled square-on the biggest problem in football – the vast risk invested on the shoulders of one man, the manager. A football manager is expected to be a master of tactics, a motivational dressing room speaker, a media communications expert, a scout and pretty much guru of everything.
None of them are good at all of this. As a consequence, clubs invest vast proportions of turnover on player wages and transfers, with haphazard diligence being carried out. The man ultimately responsible for approving this spend is more likely to be a shouty media darling, spending an average of 2.5 years at the club, than someone who has experience of long-term strategic planning.
Cortese figured that what he really needed in a manager was a tactical head, someone who could run a technical team, consulting with scouts, coaches, nutritionists and fitness trainers, and come up with what American football teams call a playbook. You want to play at Old Trafford? This is what worked when small teams visited the Bernabeu last season. Playing teams’ taller/faster/luckier with referees than you? You’ve got to see how these guys are leveling the playing field in Uruguay.
Football clubs need their manager to be Master of Tactics, and if they can concentrate him on this, they’re doing better than 90% of clubs in the game. They don’t need someone ‘connected’ to agents in value markets, this attribute can be recruited easily. They don’t need a good media talker. Despite being able to speak English, Pochettino gives press conferences through an interpreter. Yet the fans love him!
Clubs don’t need someone to play to the galleries, or someone with the ability to induce affinity from his public, most of the time results will keep (most) fans onside.
With his technically-proficient and happy-to-be-working-anywhere manager installed, Cortese had all operations working as he wanted, including the inordinately expensive recruitment process. Sacking a good and successful manager in Atkins was the most ballsy and innovative thing to happen in English football in decades, but he was operating in an industry which is the biggest financial basket case in sport. So, despite his clarity of vision, the Southampton gig was never going to last.
Today’s newspapers predict a mass exodus as Pochettino and Southampton’s gifted players head for the exit, good news for Joos and Danny, perhaps, but you feel for the beleaguered fans, who were shown a glimpse of how things should be done, but for years will wonder, what could have been?
The rest of us can ponder the opportunity available due to entrenched inefficiencies in football.
“You should always have pressure on you”, Stefan Johansen, 15 January 2014. I like this guy already.
Last shout for North America based Celtic fans for the Feile, which starts in Philidelphia tomorrow. Full details of the events can be found here. it’s bound to be a great weekend so get along if you can.
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