If you were to tell a Southampton fan in April 2009 that in just 5 seasons they would have risen from their new (and unwanted) home in League One to challenge for Champions League qualification, with a club-wide management system and financial bedrock that was the envy of Europe’s finest, then they would have no doubt laughed in your face.
Yet here they are. A handful of games remain in the 2014/15 season and Saints are 6 points off the top 4, sitting between Liverpool and Tottenham in 6th place. Whilst they will probably not be playing Champions League football on the south coast next year, they will have every reason to celebrate.
It has not been easy for the Saints. 2009’s relegation was partly due to the the club’s parent company slipping into administration, and the 10 point deduction that was doled out in response. Only the arrival of Markus Liebherr – a man who now holds exalted status on the south coast – could drag them out of the sorry financial state they found themselves in. More than the money, the Liebherr era brought a holistic strategy to Southampton both on and off the field. The focus shifted to stability, sustainability and the youth.
Liebherr would unfortunately never see the ascension of his new club. His passing in 2010 was followed by the miraculous: newly appointed Nigel Adkins achieved promotion to the Championship, and the next year the Premier League. The Saints were back, and, as it would transpire, better than ever.
Top flight status finally allowed the Southampton academy the attention it deserved. The Southampton youth system already did have a great reputation amongst certain crowds: the likes of Alan Shearer, Matthew Le Tissier and Mick Shannon are all household names in football, but the newly formed Saints Academy was a step above the legacy. The jewel in the Saints crown, the academy has churned out international-standard footballers with inspiring consistency, and now these players are playing from a young age to a Premier League audience that is increasingly taking note.
The reputation of the academy peaked at the end of last season, when Saints ended the term with one of the best transfer balances in the league: Luke Shaw went to Manchester United for £30m, Adam Lallana went to Liverpool for £25m along with Dejan Lovren for £20m and Callum Chambers went to Arsenal for £16m. In one transfer period, the Saints made £91m from players that had cost them a fraction of that price.
At the start of the following season the newly appointed Ronald Koeman tweeted the above photo. His challenge was clear: a mass exodus of staff and star players had left the team looking remarkably skeletal. The club was arguably on a knife edge, and the sustainability of the model was about to be put under serious duress.
From the outside, it seemed as though the Dutch manager faced an unenviable task. In reality, he achieved one of the best starts to a Premier League season in the club’s history. The model works: Southampton have invested in the future, and it is paying dividends. With the enormous influx of capital to the Premier League, the clubs of the top-flight should take note. Invest well, and you will reap the rewards.