Southampton fans live in hope, despite a poor season and the sale of Theo Walcott. Will they soon see the back of the chairman? Tim Springett looks at the potential bidders
As far as many Southampton supporters are concerned, dissatisfaction with chairman Rupert Lowe has never been far below the surface. It became a tidal wave on January 21 during a home defeat by Ipswich. Some fans occupying prominent seats opposite the directors’ box unfurled a giant banner with the simple message: “Lowe Out”. This was followed by thunderous applause all around St Mary’s Stadium together with an innovative variation on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (the irony of which would not have been lost on Sir Clive Woodward) suggesting that the hapless chairman be swung from the nearby Itchen Bridge.
In some ways the timing was unfortunate; Saints’ wunderkind Theo Walcott had just left for Arsenal, days after Lowe and Woodward had been seen at the Gunners’ training ground. It meant that Lowe could cite Walcott’s departure as the catalyst for the protests and claim that he could have done nothing to prevent it. While this is probably correct, it masked two important factors. First, Lowe, as a member of the FA Council, was party to the decision to adopt the rules governing young players and their contracts that now rendered him powerless. Second, Saints had themselves exploited these rules to poach Oxford United’s Dexter Blackstock as well as Leon Best and David McGoldrick from Notts County.
This, however, is only a small detail in the case against Lowe. His fatuous remarks about the quality of St Mary’s catering facilities on the day Saints’ relegation from the Premiership was confirmed, the pricing of season tickets that conferred no advantage to holders over those buying tickets for individual matches this season and the failure to release receipts from player sales to sign replacements have all added to the sense of anger at the manner in which Southampton have become a vehicle for the chairman’s pet schemes. To this can be added, of course, the aforementioned Sir Clive.
It is the presence of the country’s most highly paid work-experience student, alongside the apparent obsession with his education, that grates the most. Despite the title of director of football, Woodward’s role is far from clear. He may well have something to offer in terms of sports science (although it has had little impact so far), but whether this justifies his salary and designation is highly questionable. Nevertheless, his comment after Harry Redknapp’s defection back to Portsmouth that he did not consider himself ready yet to take the manager’s job indicated that he expects to do so at an indeterminate future point.
It is tempting, whenever a chairman loses favour with fans, for the latter to consider any alternative as an improvement. This is rarely the reality, as supporters of many clubs know from bitter experience. For this reason, the overtures of one suitor, Andrew Strode-Gibbons, met with little enthusiasm. Strode-Gibbons was reported as saying that he would remove Lowe and Woodward were his takeover bid successful. While most fans cannot wait to see the back of Lowe, there is a feeling that Woodward should not be treated as a scapegoat. More particularly, the decision whether to keep him should rest with George Burley. Strode-Gibbons also gave a less-than-convincing interview on local radio in January.
It was at the same time that rumours abounded, not for the first time in history, that Gavyn Davies, the former deputy-governor of the Bank of England, was on the point of making a pitch. Back in 1996 it had been suggested that Davies, along with David Frost, had shown interest in taking over at Saints before the reverse takeover that led to Lowe riding into town. As on that occasion, however, nothing has materialised.
Now, however, Winchester businessman Michael Wilde has come from nowhere to take the largest individual shareholding in the club, buying out long-serving directors Brian Hunt, a former player, and Keith Wiseman, who several years ago sold part of his holding to Lowe. Wilde’s comments so far have been measured, but he has gone public about his disappointment at not yet having been invited to join the board, as well as the need to make wide-ranging improvements to the executive management of the club, to engage with supporters through the Saints Trust and to prioritise the first team. A takeover bid is beginning to look inevitable – and, so far, it seems popular support for Wilde will be almost universal.
From WSC 231 May 2006. What was happening this month