The astonishing coverage of the Southampton story since Nicola Cortese left may suggest the football world on the south coast is about to collapse. I cannot recall another occasion when the departure of a managing director of a club has resulted in such media exposure. However much of it has been so hysterical and over the top that it is clear that the world of football has not changed, only the public perception of it.
Let us draw back a bit from the hubbub and examine what has happened. A paid employee of a football club, who was not a player or the manager, has left the club. This is not to deny that Cortese has played an important role in Southampton emerging from League One to Premiership. He can claim he took a club worth £14 million and has made it one that would probably fetch excess of £100 million and that in a few years is not bad going.
But credit for that also goes to Alan Pardew and Nigel Adkins, both of whom were sacked ruthlessly by the Italian, and at that time there was little said about Cortese that was complimentary. It must also be considered that his reputation amongst his fellow chief executives in the business is not high, one of whom described the Italian to me as remote and autocratic. As Matt Le Tissier put it in his Daily Mail article: “Nicola is a complex personality and could treat people very differently.” And let us recall before all this erupted his standing amongst the Saints fans was not high. None of them were singing ‘there is only one Nicola’ unless the chants were highly ironic.
At the end of the day for all the success he presided over he was using other people’s money. Yes money well used, but as the latest accounts for the holding company show, it has meant losses of £12 million for 2011-12, a million more than previous years with the club getting loans of £38 million which has been converted into equity.
And where has the money come from? The owner Katharina Liebherr or rather the money she inherited from her father Markus.
But despite giving such money poor Katharina is under fire for having met the manager only twice and once at an end of season party in the Four Seasons hotel. So the charge is as owner she does not care about football and in particular Southampton.
What’s wrong with that? We know nothing of young Liebherr. For all I know she has immense knowledge of football but she believes that having appointed a managing director, a man who had been her father’s adviser, he should be allowed to get on with it. It is not clear why she has now fallen out with this managing director. One report has it he wanted more money, one that he did not want a family member on the board of the football club. If it is the latter then I can see why the owner would take umbrage. Would you invest millions and be told by your employee that you cannot sit on the board of the company you own? I would not and I doubt if most people would.
The criticism of Katharina also reflects the double standards of the critics. Let us roll back to 1991. Alan Sugar has just taken over Tottenham in partnership with Terry Venables. I go to White Hart Lane to interview him and ask him whether his interest in Spurs started because of Tottenham’s 1961 double season. Before Tottenham achieved the feat this had been considered impossible and Tottenham was the first club in the 20th century to do it. Sugar’s response was to ask me whether the Double was something from the 50s?
I wish I had copyrighted the quote so often has it been used since then to pillory Sugar. For many it was a terrible indictment of the new owner. How could he not know of an event that defined the club? And after that when Sugar made pronouncements on football he was ridiculed as a man of money who knew nothing about the game, which was not only unfair but grotesque.
Yet now Katharina is being pilloried for not knowing anything about football. Would it be better if she came into the dressing room after every match? Or buttonholed Mauricio Pochettino for playing Luke Shaw out of position? How would that go down?
As for Cortese’s replacement Katharina should find no problems. There are any number of people all of whom have managed clubs who I am sure even at his stage are emailing their cvs to her. And even if Pochettino should go, there will be many managers on the phone within minutes to the Swiss-based owner.
The only person to appreciate all this has been Matt Le Tissier, arguably the Saints most cherished player. In his article in the Daily Mail he put it well when he wrote, “I think Nicola Cortese’s departure has been blown out of proportion. He was just the chairman at the end of the day, spending Liebherr family’s money. If they had said they were walking away then the club might have been in trouble. I don’t think there will be a mass exodus of players.”
Indeed I doubt if most players knew much about Cortese or care that a managing director has gone. And after praising Cortese Tissier remarks, “there are ways he could have done it better. The club has been very closed, with little communication. Perhaps this is a new dawn of more openness.” Let us hope so.
Reading that also makes me think that should the Liebherr family walk away then Le Tisser and some of his rich football pals could get together and buy the club. Indeed the whole media blitz about Southampton does raise the question: why do not rich football players buy clubs? David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi even, I suspect, Wayne Rooney could easily afford one, certainly an aspiring Premiership club like Southampton. Indeed with the Liebherr family paying £14 million for Southampton why, even the parents of Neymar, who received some £40 million on their son’s transfer to Barcelona, could have bought it.
But ex-players, with the exception of Beckham, have not contemplated such a radical step. This is because, despite the fact that football is a business where high money and high stakes are part of everyday discourse, we are still caught up in the thinking of a vanished world when players earned £10 a week and clubs were owned by the local butcher, candlestick maker whose great pleasure in life was parking his Rolls in the space that had a sign ‘Reserved for Chairman’ and who loved spending Saturday afternoons drinking champagne in the boardroom as the match went on.
That world has long gone and if players owned clubs perhaps they could lay down standards of management which reflect the modern world of football. This should spare us the ridiculous agonising over the departure of a managing director that we have had to suffer in the last few days.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose