Jim White

Asset stripping at Saints shows ruthless nature of modern game

Jim White

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It has not been a good week for followers of Southampton. There they were, the summer after one of the best seasons in their supporting lives, a time when they should be thinking ahead to progress and prospects new, when news comes through that their club is being picked off systematically by the big boys once again.

Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain: the locals have got used to watching talent grow up on the south coast and then move on before they have achieved their best. But this week has been grim even by the standards of evisceration they are used to.

First Mauricio Pochettino ups sticks for Tottenham, the latest of Daniel Levy’s whim purchases, the latest to attempt to satisfy the chairman’s lurching employment policy. The Argentine has done a superb job at St Mary’s since he arrived 18 months ago, moulding a group of hungry young players, persuading them to play in a fashion which has electrified the Premier League. He bought well too, bringing in a couple of summer purchases last year which shamed grander buying institutions (naming no names, Manchester United). Watching Southampton under his stewardship was an exhilarating thing. His team played with a pace and exuberance that was rarely less than thrilling. When not in possession they tore at their opponents like a pack of hungry wolves, sprinting as they chased down the ball, exhausting themselves in its pursuit. When they had the ball they then attacked with verve, swooshing past static defences like they were cones on the training ground.

You wonder, though, whether the manager will be able to pull off the same trick at Tottenham. On the south coast he found a bunch of players keen to learn and advance. At Spurs he is taking on a dressing room of those who think they know what to do. At St Mary’s the team ethic was everything. At White Hart Lane the ego holds sway. It will be a huge transition for the manager, a real test of his man management. He will have his work cut out, not least in persuading his chairman that it might take a little time to affect the required change in attitude he will need to give his system a chance of working. And time has never been something Levy is keen on extending to his employees.

As if the architect’s departure wasn’t bad enough, this week it appears the players are following his route out of town. Ricky Lambert, the dead eyed penalty king and the man whose deft control and ball keeping ability was the well spring of so many Southampton counter attacks, is heading to Liverpool. What a magnificent tale it would be if he does – as is suggested – sign for the club after completing his England duties. A Liverpool fan from childhood, rejected as a boy, here he is returning home as a marquee signing. It is – as footballers are always prone to say – a dream come true.

Lambert won’t be the last. Luke Shaw seems already to be measuring himself up for a Manchester United tracksuit, Adam Lallana is also being pursued by Liverpool, as is the towering centre back Dejan Lovren. And that is before Pochettino comes shopping – perhaps for Rodriguez, maybe for Schneiderlin - seeking out familiar allies to fill the Tottenham dressing room. Last season’s magnificent team faces being totally dismantled, its best picked off by avaricious – and far better financed - rivals.

This is always the problem for the smaller club that succeeds in the Premier League: they get their staff cherry picked. Managers – Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and now Pochettino – as much as players – Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, James McCarthy – are hoovered up by the big teams. Clubs like Southampton, Swansea and Wigan are used as research and development centres, taking the risks on personnel the top outfits cannot afford to entertain, breeding talent to be absorbed in the name of ambition.

But rarely has the asset stripping been as relentless as that about to rain down on Southampton this summer. Their manager and their best half dozen players: that is some price to pay for having a good season. What will have depressed their followers is that there appears to be scant resistance being put up to the fire sale. Where leadership is required from the boardroom, where a pair of heels of Levy-esque proportions are necessary to dig in against the onslaught, instead there is silence. Football, the most ruthless of enterprises, always senses weakness, exploiting it with determination. Southampton’s lack of direction at the top is being relentlessly manipulated. The only thing that appears to worry those apparently in charge at St Mary’s is whether they can monetise their assets. Get rich quick is their motivation, not building for the long term. These are worrying days in the old port.

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