Tim Springett bids a less-than-fond farewell to former owners, but hopes for signs of recovery under a new regime
When Rupert Lowe invited himself back to Southampton last summer, two years after being ejected by leading shareholder Michael Wilde, there was palpable dismay among Saints supporters. There is no doubt that the finances of the club were in a perilous state – late in 2007 a sale to the SISU hedge fund that later took over Coventry City had been thwarted by Lowe, Wilde and Leon Crouch, a local businessman who also held a large number of Saints shares. Several of the highest earning players subsequently went out on loan and Saints avoided relegation by just one point. Nevertheless, there was a new manager in Nigel Pearson, who had given fans cause for optimism that better times might lie ahead. Then Lowe – aided and abetted by his former adversary Wilde – returned and the mood changed dramatically.
Lowe made no attempt to win the supporters round. Instead, he set about blaming everybody but himself for Saints’ predicament. He also dispensed with Pearson and engaged Dutchman Jan Poortvliet as his replacement on a contract worth £60,000 a year. Poortvliet was a legend in his homeland but his main claim to fame in Britain was as the defender nutmegged by Archie Gemmill on the way to scoring that goal in Argentina 78. Lowe also brought in Mark Wotte, a former Holland Under-21s coach who had been Clive Woodward’s choice to become manager after Harry Redknapp left. A team deprived of experienced players and management was destined for the drop.
Angered as they were, the fans faced a dilemma; Lowe, for all his unpopularity, appeared invincible. He had not only retained his power base after Wilde’s takeover; he now felt able to avoid responsibility for Saints’ financial troubles. Protests within the stadium were therefore of little use and, in any case, would have a negative effect on the players. Hence many felt that their only means of making their point – and enfeebling Lowe – was to boycott matches at St Mary’s. It was a high-risk strategy aimed at forcing administration in the hope that new investors might acquire the club without needing to buy out Lowe and his supporters. However, it led to deep divisions in the fanbase – the stayaway fans criticised those who continued to attend for sucking up to Lowe, while the latter believed that the people who mattered were those in red and white shirts on the pitch and that the boycotters were doing great harm.
The club had actually been insolvent for several weeks before Southampton Leisure Holdings plc was formally put into administration in April. The administrators, when asked to act, quickly realised that Lowe and his fellow directors represented the most serious obstacle to the continuation of the football club and accepted the appointment only on the condition that all the board members quit. The end had finally justified the boycotters’ means – Lowe was gone and the plc was history. Attendances – which had fallen to 15,000 – leapt above 20,000 for the last three home matches.
A club with a 32,000-capacity stadium that was being filled regularly just four years earlier would surely be an attractive proposition to investors – who would also have the opportunity to delist the holding company from the stock market. The early frontrunners were a consortium under the name of Pinnacle, who engaged Matt Le Tissier, no less, to gain credibility and support among the fans and claimed backing from an unnamed individual whose wealth ran into hundreds of millions of pounds. Hopes rose to stratospheric levels as rumours abounded that Kevin Keegan would be appointed as manager once Le Tissier had been installed as chairman. However, even while all this was going on, the bid was dissolving. When a 30-year-old lettings agent who lived with his parents in Barnet claimed to be the wealthy backer, it was clear that the administrators, Le Tiss and the fans had been hoodwinked.
At this point, the prospect of Saints ceasing to exist was uncomfortably real and what might have happened had Markus Liebherr not completed a swift purchase hardly bears contemplating. It is strangely reassuring that, while the new owner is fabulously wealthy, he does not intend to treat his new acquisition as a plaything at which to throw money in vast quantities, à la Manchester City. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy – somewhat troubling even – that, admittedly in the midst of difficult economic times and with banks under unprecedented pressure, no credible home-based bid for the club materialised.
Foreign ownership of English clubs is coming under the microscope from FIFA and UEFA but the apparent “ideal” of benevolent local ownership of clubs is looking increasingly distant. Applying restrictions on foreigners owning clubs would almost certainly be unlawful, although that won’t stop Sepp Blatter discouraging it. But even he must realise that owners with perfect backgrounds and money to burn don’t just appear out of thin air at his command.
From WSC 271 September 2009