There is a danger that Southampton will come to stand as a fable for modern football: this is what happens if you dare to dream. Fly too close to the sun, start talking – even in private as Nicola Cortese, the former executive chairman apparently did – of qualifying for the Champions League, and your best players will be plucked away, leaving you to plummet to earth.
Perhaps the money Southampton has raised from its summer of sales will be wisely reinvested, perhaps in five years the sense of panic this offseason has induced will seem absurd, but even if that is the case, there is a horrible feeling of loss. Clubs have held fire sales in the past, of course, offloading players to stay afloat after relegation, the departure of a sugar daddy or some other financial catastrophe. But it’s hard to remember another occasion when a team that has just enjoyed its best season in three decades, that is seemingly solvent, has moved on such a collection of talent.
Mauricio Pochettino, the manager, gone to Tottenham. Luke Shaw, gone to Manchester United for £33 million. Adam Lallana, gone to Liverpool for £27 million. Dejan Lovren, gone to Liverpool for £22 million. Calum Chambers, gone to Arsenal for £18 million. Rickie Lambert, gone to Liverpool for £5 million.
There is a human factor here too: the players who have left are not just commodities; fans had an emotional investment in them. Shaw, Lallana and Chambers were developed by Southampton’s academy (not unlike previous sold commodities Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain).
Lallana and Lambert played from Southampton in League One. They can’t be blamed for wanting to move on and better themselves, but equally Southampton fans can’t be blamed if the attitude towards the team is slightly less warm next season. There is pressure for a good start, because if frustration sets in quickly, the atmosphere at St. Mary’s could soon turn poisonous.
That doesn’t just apply to fans. There are also the players who have been left behind to consider. What of Morgan Schneiderlin, one of the stars of last season, who has been told that, when half his teammates have left, he must ignore the possibility of a move to Tottenham to join his former boss? It will be argued that he is a professional, that he has a contract and that he should do as his employers ask, but he is also human and an element of dissatisfaction is only natural.
The first suggestion that all was not well came in January as Cortese quit. After a long period of skepticism – most notably when he sacked Nigel Adkins, the manager who had won two promotions, to bring in Pochettino in January 2013 – he had come to be seen as a ruthless but effective, even a visionary, chairman. He had quit, he said, because he could no longer work with Katharina Liebherr, the club’s owner.
Cortese had helped to buy Saints for her father, Markus, in 2009, and after he had died following a heart attack in August 2010, his daughter took control. She is a secretive figure, believed to be worth around £3 billion, and apparently doesn’t particularly like football. It’s understood that the final straw for Cortese came when she demanded to be more involved in the day-to-day running of the club, and it doesn’t take a particularly suspicious mind to wonder whether this summer of sales has been prompted by her desire to cut the club’s losses.
The coming season was always likely to be difficult for Southampton. Pochettino had clearly been a key to its success, and his replacement, Ronald Koeman, has a mixed reputation. On the one hand he has won three Dutch titles – two with Ajax and one with PSV Eindhoven – as well as a Copa del Rey with Valencia, but on the other, he has repeatedly left clubs amid a sense of disappointment.
He has now been placed in the extremely awkward position of handling the expectations raised by last season’s eighth-place finish while adapting to English football and rebuilding the squad.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that alongside the sales there have also been signings, though. Dusan Tadic, the technically gifted Serbian winger, has joined from Twente for £12 million, while Fraser Forster, challenging Joe Hart to be England's No. 1 goalkeeper, has come from Celtic for £11 million. To fill the hole left by Lambert, Koeman has bought Italian forward Graziano Pelie from his former club Feyenoord for £8 million. The 29-year-old is tall and awkward but banged in 50 league goals over the last two seasons.
“Still the club has the ambition to continue or even make it better,” Koeman said. “It’s a new ambition, a new feeling. It’s no problem if you bring quality in. It’s the story of football. Players come. Players go.”
The pattern of Southampton is the pattern he is used to in the Netherlands, the endless cycle of replacing talent, even if it’s rare so much leaves in one go. But when a club has recouped over £70 million more than it has spent, when five key players and the manager have left, when there is uncertainty as to the intentions of the owner, it seems improbable to suppose Southampton can come close to matching last season’s finish.
This is the problem of modern football: dazzle too much and your brightest talents will be picked off by wealthier predators.