Lowe pressure

Paul Sturrock and many in the St Mary's stands may disagree, but Southampton fan Dave Juson finds much for which to thank the club's widely reviled chairman

“What’s going on?” – give an expletive or two – is the question everyone in Southampton is asking as another manager heads metaphorically west.

The statement on the Southampton website on Mon­day, August 23, following Saturday’s 3-2 defeat of Blackburn, read: “Following discussions over the week­end Paul Sturrock will be leaving Southampton Football Club, by mutual agreement, with immediate effect.” Which leaves a lot of room for speculation – and there has been no shortage of that.

There are juicy rumours and just plain boring ones, and the truth regarding Paul Sturrock’s departure is almost certainly more mundane than the media would like. For instance, it’s doubtful “player power” was responsible – “player apathy” may be nearer the mark. The team lacked motivation on the pitch late last season, the situation hadn’t im­proved in August and, apparently, Rupert Lowe – accus­­tomed to the intense and athletic regimes of Glenn Hoddle and Gordon Strachan – was getting progressively less impressed by what he witnessed at the training ground. Added to that, Sturrock was a bit of a slob, and Lowe is allegedly rather old fashioned with regards to sartorial standards. He won’t kick you out of the boardroom for not wearing a tie, but he won’t let it go unremarked, either.

Which begs the question: is Lowe any good as a football club chairman? His desire to bring back the perfidious Hoddle last season did not go down well with diehard supporters, who just cannot see Lowe as a Saints or a football man. And they have a point: he was headhunted from the City by the old board to over­see the old limited company’s transformation into a plc, get them a new ground and keep them in the Premiership. The first game of professional foot­ball he ever saw was a Coca-Cola Cup tie against Lin­coln at The Dell in October 1996.

But speaking as someone who retains misgivings over the stock-mar­ket flotation, I have to admit that Lowe has done one hell of a job: Saints are in a new stadium, playing in front of the largest crowds in their 119-year history and were back in Europe last season. Bear in mind, too, that this has been done against a background almost as unpromising as that facing Charlton Athletic before they returned to The Valley.

In short, before Heysel, the Saints were regularly in Europe and playing to 25,000 crowds. Once Lord Justice Taylor’s Hillsborough Report was in force, we had a ground that held 15,000 and no realistic chance of retaining top-flight status – unless Matt Le Tissier stayed – never mind getting back into Europe, while councils around Southampton were fighting tooth and nail to stop the club relocating. The Saints then had two very lucky breaks (not counting Le Tissier’s reluctance to leave): the city council came up with a deal to secure the decommissioned Northam gasworks site and Rupert Lowe came up with the financial packages to buy it and build the stadium without mortgaging the club into oblivion, as almost happened to Leicester City in very similar circumstances.

As for Lowe’s standing: he and the directors were certainly getting a hammering from the fans at the Northam end during the recent home defeat against Bolton. “Sack the board!” was a popular chant and the Southampton Echo bulges with letters on his stewardship of the club, many of them calling for his resignation, or at least for him to butt out of team affairs (on the assumption he is too involved). Others take a more sympathetic view and, ironically, even critical letters are suggesting that a return of Hoddle might not be such a bad idea. The near universal complaint is the lack of “big name” players, but, as the Echo and many supporters have observed, the lower leagues are full of destitute clubs that had those – ask Leeds fans.

From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month