Football Cities: Southampton

Posted by on Nov 12, 2015 in Football Cities | No Comments
Football Cities: Southampton

For the ninth part of our now long running Football Cities series, we are pleased to welcome Nick Roberts, trading by the moniker @Nick7_Roberts on twitter and possessor of a Southampton FC blog, The Itchen Perspective. Here, Nick shows how football club, city and community have intertwined in one of Britain’s major ports.

Upon reading BenWoolhead’s piece about Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, I was inspired to highlight another one club city in Southampton. Having only gained city status in 1964, Southampton struggled throughout the second half of the twentieth century; unlike its football club which has continually punched above its weight.

The conurbation’s significant position on the south coast of England has proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Trade and commercial revenue from the city’s port have naturally been fundamental to its economy and wellbeing but its strategic location made it a target during World War Two. The city was ravaged by bombing, and was poorly rebuilt in haste in the aftermath of the war – something that is still plainly obvious today. One bomb which did miss its mark landed far north of the docks, on the penalty spot at The Dell in 1940.

Despite all this, the stadium survived and stood until 2001 when Saints moved home to St Mary’s. This is one example of how the club has managed to be a beacon of light for a city that finds it challenging to overcome its modest reputation. This article will outline how Southampton Football Club has evolved since that stadium move through the good and the bad, and to what extent it has interacted with the local area and its people in that time.

Transition Period

The Dell was to be Saints’ first permanent home after it opened in 1898. Previously, St Mary’s Young Men’s Association (as the club were founded), played a number of their matches on the city’s largest green space – The Common; but after changing their name, claiming a Southern League title and becoming a limited company, they opted to rent the newly built Dell at the end of the nineteenth century, before buying the ground a few years later.

Fast forward a century, and new chairman Rupert Lowe stated his wish to find a modern stadium. The Dell could only house just over 15,000 fans, and as such, it was necessary that the club found a new abode. The stadium was an awkward place for visiting teams to come to, as fans were almost on top of the pitch, but with the Premier League rapidly advancing, it was imperative that Southampton found a home which would generate more revenue in order to extend Saints’ stay in the top tier.

Lowe, along with director Andrew Cowen, strove to find a new ground, but this search was not without difficulty. During the mid-1990s, they identified a piece of land near to Junction 5 on the M27 at Stoneham, but despite support from Southampton City Council, the adjacent Eastleigh Borough Council and Hampshire County Council were unsure – claiming that the space acted as a vital link between Eastleigh and Southampton; therefore not sparing it for a newly planned 25,000 seater arena.

The Saints directors claimed that a glut of community facilities would surround the ground in an attempt to gain trust, and eventually they received the green light, only to hit the buffers as alterations were made to initial plans. Those community facilities started to disappear while commercial ventures such as a multiplex cinema were suggested, only for that also to fail to gain approval. The situation was threatening to turn into a soap saga, with a daily slot reserved on South Today.

At this point, Southampton opted to abandon the Stoneham plan, and to consider another site within a stone’s throw of the city centre – the club’s historic birthplace in St Mary’s. Not only would this stadium seat 32,000 supporters, it would offer much needed regeneration to a deprived area of the town and return the club to the place to which they were so intrinsically attached. At the end of Northam Road, a home for boarded up antique dealers and sex shops, a brand new, shiny stadium would transform the site of an obsolete gasworks.

Although a vastly cheaper option than the previous site, it would still require the princely sum of £30 million – a small fraction of which was covered by the sale of The Dell land to property developers. Within ten years, the club would have to pay off a loan to Norwich Union totalling £17 million. In an unpopular move, it was also decided that the ground would officially be named the Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium, in order to drum up some more cash. While these words were splashed across the top of the Itchen Stand exterior, only the match day announcer gave its full name over the tannoy – the result being that the Saints received money from the life insurance organisation despite the fact that everyone would plainly refer to the new stadium as St Mary’s. This added a vital tinge of identity to a fairly standard bowl design that undoubtedly lacked the character that coursed through The Dell.

Clearly, this was a welcome addition for the city of Southampton. It would add footfall on a weekend, with 15,000 more people coming in, and as the stadium was to open only a year after the shopping centre, WestQuay, the city’s revenue would inevitably increase.

Yet at the same time, the more aesthetically pleasing mixed development, Gunwharf Quays opened in rival city Portsmouth – a project which rejuvenated the harbour and still looks unique today, constantly flooded with eager shoppers. Now overlooking the site is the Spinnaker Tower which has attracted over two million visitors in ten years – not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps, but a memorable structure that you would immediately associate with Portsmouth the city. This is in stark contrast to WestQuay which can be added to a bracket of bog standard shopping centres opened in the early 2000s.

WestQuay can therefore be viewed as something of a missed opportunity for the city in creating a legacy which now looks somewhat tired 15 years on. They have since attempted to bridge that gap, with the creation of a Cultural Quarter although it remains inadequate to really challenge Portsmouth’s offering. The focal point of this area is the Guildhall Square, unsurprisingly faced by the impressive Guildhall which currently acts as a live music venue; but the other three sides fall short of that grandeur. New buildings they may be, but a Nando’s restaurant and a chain cocktail bar do not qualify as anything vaguely cultural in my book.

The quarter only has value because of the classic buildings that lie within its borders such as the Guildhall and the Mayflower Theatre. The exception to this is the relatively new SeaCity Museum which chronicles the history of the Titanic superbly. However, this is under advertised and slightly out of people’s way. Put simply, the city has not reaped the benefits of a full stadium on a Saturday afternoon.

Lowe Tolerance

One man particularly keen on filling the ground to stave off Norwich Union was the chairman, but he was far from popular with fans. As one-time Saints manager Graeme Souness once commented, “You tell me if there is anyone else in football by the name of Rupert?” In a very short space of time, a club usually run by football people was now being controlled by a man who had only attended his first match just months before completing a reverse takeover, and eventually forming the company, Southampton Leisure Holdings plc.

Of course, no person should be discriminated against because of their background, and the fact that he was an independent school boy had no bearing on his ability to be a chairman of a football club. Yet Lowe did not warm himself to fans as he appeared to have a superiority complex, and gradually became a pariah amongst supporters as he took an extremely business orientated approach to running the club. This was, nontheless deemed savvy by some, especially when he attempted to safeguard the club’s future through establishing canny deals when players departed – making sure that Southampton would secure a hefty slice of any future transfer fees when that player sought pastures new once again.

Lowe also installed a legacy at the club though the academy which generates a huge amount of pride for the club as well as the city. Despite the chairman insisting that he established the academy, Saints had always produced quality youth players, but the club showed foresight in creating various satellite academies in Bath, Slough and Newcastle.

Alan Shearer was one notable alumnus before Lowe had even set eyes on The Dell. Yet the chairman put a structure in place that would see Southampton transcend their status and build for the future. He ploughed money into something that would stand the test of time, with strong personnel in the scouting network, scouring far and wide for the youngsters that would help build  a successful team with a nonetheless strong focus on the local talent pool.

This became a genuine source of satisfaction for fans as home nurtured players represented their city on the pitch. James Ward-Prowse, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gareth Bale and others have all taken advantage of superior facilities, and a programme which concentrates on development as a person and a player; leading to a generation of well-rounded graduates.

Despite this, matters were to come to a head for Lowe in 2006. Staring at another season in the Championship, fans were frustrated – illustrated by chants suggesting that he should be thrown from the Itchen Bridge which looms high over the Solent. The chairman gave in to those baying for blood, and it was the turn of property developer, Michael Wilde to take the reins. Clearly, this was a popular move from a fans’ perspective, and there were even t-shirts bearing the slogan “Saints Go Wilde” for sale in the club shop. Yet, Wilde jumped ship after offering extraordinarily large wages to players, and the inexperienced Leon Crouch replaced him.

Crouch had the club’s best interests at heart, but was naïve and out of his depth, as Southampton only just staved off relegation to the third tier in 2008. That summer, an unlikely team of Wilde and Lowe formed to cut costs as stadium debts and unnecessary wage bills piled up. A particularly dour season followed, as a young, inexperienced team were bullied to relegation, and the club slipped into administration. Southampton City Council were asked to stump up some cash to aid Saints, however they were supposedly unable to help the club in its time of need. The city did come together in various attempts to fundraise, but the amounts raised were a mere drop in the £30 million ocean. Step up Swiss saviour, Markus Liebherr.

Brave New World

The son of Hans Liebherr who established the famous construction business, Markus bought the club before sadly dying a year later, missing much of its success. Adored by many in the city for saving Saints, his chosen chairman divided opinion. Nicola Cortese was a banker who had a reputation for being ruthless, but he oversaw great success at the club as they trampolined up to the Premier League within three years.

One matter that irked the community was the chairman’s supposed reluctance to connect with independent, local businesses; as commented on at a recent fans’ forum. Saints do have a history of reaching out to such enterprises; for example, Draper Tools, who once were the team’s shirt sponsors, and have had a constant link with the club, are based in Chandler’s Ford. Yet Cortese also brought in several lucrative deals with companies a little further afield such as the Swiss watch maker, Eterna; new players being asked to brandish their wrists to display gleaming new appendages when signing their contracts.

Nevertheless, Cortese committed to a three year shirt sponsorship deal with local IT services and recruitment company, aap3 in 2011 – by the time the club reached the Premier League, they could have found a partnership that would have yielded far more profit, but the chairman preferred to stick with a business that was within closer geographical proximity.

There were other alterations that bemused fans. In 2003, Ted Bates, known as Mr Southampton for his 66 years spent at the club, as he went from player to manager to president, passed away. In his honour, Saints played an exhibition game against Europe’s finest – usually as their showpiece pre-season friendly. The last Ted Bates Trophy match took place in 2009 and for a couple of years after that, a Markus Liebherr mini tournament was held before it too faded into memory.

Both great men are commemorated in different ways instead of these games – Liebherr through a state-of-the-art pavilion at Southampton’s Staplewood training ground, and Bates by a majestic statue outside St Mary’s. Last summer, there was chaos at the club with an exodus of players taking place shortly after the 2014 World Cup; while ahead of this campaign, the team had Europa League qualifying fixtures to honour. It’s therefore understandable that there was no tournament which could involve the whole squad and only two pre-season friendlies when the Ted Bates Trophy could have been awarded.

This would have been instigated by those who have been in charge since Cortese’s departure; new chairman Ralph Krueger, and owner Katharina Liebherr – daughter of Markus. While Krueger – a former ice hockey coach – struggled massively when others demanded answers about how the side would continue to succeed when players were falling over each other to get out of the door, his democratic style of leadership exudes positivity and there is an attempt to give a voice to everyone at St Mary’s.

He expressed this at the recent fans’ forum mentioned above, and although he stated that he wishes to expand Saints’ global commercial impact, the chairman candidly declared that “you can never forget where you come from” when asked whether the club would interact with local businesses. This community spirit is also exemplified by the club’s official charity, Saints Foundation that reaches out to over 25,000 people yearly with a manner of different projects including Saints-Ability – a programme for people with disabilities to play football.

Evidently, the club has been enjoying a meteoric rise after the turmoil that very nearly destroyed it six years ago, but the city can also revel in such success. While maintaining their existing links and establishing new ones with local people, as well as expanding globally, the club’s prosperity should filter through to the surrounding community.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League

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