The Neutral’s Guide to Falling In Love With… Southampton
In our latest Neutral's Guide we head for the crisp sea air of the south coast, home to what many consider to be the best-run club in the Premier League.
Nickname: The Saints
Concise Summary: Well-run south coast underdogs whose past includes the odd flirtation with oblivion
Famous Fans: Craig David, Chris Packham, Ed Chamberlin, one of Coldplay (not the singer, a different one)
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While searching for the names of a few famous Southampton fans to fill the section above, it quickly became clear that the Saints are not a club closely associated with celebrity. Famous fan number one is Craig David, who while beloved of nostalgic 29-year-olds across the land is not exactly at the cutting edge of modern culture. There's also smartly coiffured nature presenter Chris Packham, former Sky Sports football presenter Ed Chamberlin, and the drummer from Coldplay.
While the rank and file of their fans possess rather more excitement than the average Coldplay song, it is fair to say that Southampton are not an especially glamorous club. Though there are presumably some outliers, the Saints supporters we have met seem to be exclusively nice, reasonable people with realistic views on football and its importance relative to, say, the NHS.
Indeed, the club itself possesses a very un-football-like air of normality. This is not a bad thing at all. In the 24/7 hyper-drama of the modern Premier League it can sometimes feel that everything must be of epic proportions: every game a must-see, every transfer a record-breaker. Running counter to this, Southampton have gone about things in their own fairly restrained manner and, from a modest starting point, been richly rewarded. The club is functional, well run, and reasonable in its expectations. In a nation that is wholly lacking in stability, despite repeatedly being told how badly we need it, Southampton's sane football operation is a beacon of success. Realistic success, of course.
Their ground is emblematic of this. 16 years after they left the cramped, among-the-houses charm of the Dell, Southampton should now feel very much at home within the more roomy concrete surrounds of the identikit St. Mary's, despite the stadium's distinctly un-homey setting amid a disused gas works overlooking the river Itchen.
The Saints fanbase includes VICE's very own Mike Diver, who works from the UK office as senior editor for our gaming channel, Waypoint. Asked about St. Mary's, Mike described "a very 'polite' stadium. Everything's where you need it to be, getting in and out is quite easy. It's not particularly salubrious, but once you're inside it's the standard-issue concrete breeze blocks, expensive beer..."
Remembering visits to the Dell, a much-missed stadium that is ultimately best left in the past, Mike says: "You felt so close to the pitch. When you watch it back now you can see how close those old Draper Tools hoardings were to the back of the net. You felt like you were on top of the players."
Another Saints fan we spoke to at St. Mary's, Jake Hughes, remembers the Dell as "absolutely tiny. A lot of people I speak to, my dad included, miss the Dell for its quirkiness. There was no other ground like it, but the trade-off is that our club probably wouldn't be in the position it is today if it wasn't for the new stadium."
"[St. Mary's] feels like 'us' because of where it is and who goes," adds Mike, "but not in terms of being an iconic ground. I don't think it will ever be that."
Mike, Jake and the other Southampton fans we spoke to have watched the Saints' fortunes fluctuate wildly in recent years. They remember nineties-era Southampton, which was both the stage upon which Matt Le Tissier expressed his genius and a club that danced the line between survival and relegation with a frequency that almost suggested they enjoyed the danger of it all.
They have a longstanding reputation as a finishing school for incredible talents – from Alan Shearer to Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott – with more emerging from their Saints Academy each year. There is something unfashionable about the club, yet their current status as punchy Premier League underdogs makes them sellable to new markets in Asia and America. They are not overblown and prone to disappointment like United or Arsenal, but nor are they forgotten giants like Leeds or Nottingham Forest. "In the big money world of elite European football, Southampton are a genuine underdog story," says Mike. "We were meant to go down in our first season, but we didn't. Since that we've had four top-10 finishes, a European run, a cup final, and we've produced some brilliant players."
But Southampton's current status is nothing new. They first played top-tier football in 1966-67 and were among the elite for all but four of the seasons between then and the turn of the millennium. They were founding members of the Premier League and thanks to Le Tissier the Saints gave the newly formed competition a set of highlights it could build its billion-pound brand around.
It was little surprise that the club's fortunes waned shortly after Le Tiss called it a day in 2002. Having frequently flirted with relegation during the nineties they threw themselves into its arms with abandon in 2004-05, finishing bottom of the Premier League even after summoning Harry Redknapp to a doomed and hugely unpopular south coast rescue job.
There was no immediate bounce back up and, as is often the case, the rot set in. In 2007-08 they were 20th in the Championship, their misery compounded by the fact that their hated local rivals Portsmouth had just won the FA Cup and finished eighth in the Premier League. Worse was to come the following season, when Southampton were relegated to the third tier for the first time in 49 years.
In one of those "we all do crazy shit after we've had our hearts broken" moments, Southampton appointed Alan Pardew as their new manager. Pards couldn't quite banter his way into the League 1 play-offs but did provide what has come to be seen as the first green shoot of Southampton's revival: winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
To some, lifting the 'Paint Pot' was confirmation of how far Southampton had fallen from their FA Cup win of 1976, finishing as top-tier runners-up in 1983-84, and Le Tissier's nineties goalscoring heroics.
But cast an eye over their line-up that day and you'll see a group of players who would go on to play Premier League football for the Saints just a few years later, including future internationals Adam Lallana, Jose Fonte and Rickie Lambert. "It's amazing to look back at the League 1 and Championship days," says Mike. "You've got Ward-Prowse getting a run, Lallana, Lambert, other great players who've long since disappeared."
The club had embarked on a new chapter. Ahead of their first season in League 1 the Saints had been purchased by Markus Liebherr, a construction machinery magnate who, among other things, funded the unglamorous but wildly successful singing of Lambert.
A lower-league goal machine and former beetroot factory worker, Lambert's rapid rise to the Premier League and a World Cup berth in 2014 was emblematic of the club's resurrection. Yet there was also a degree of ruthlessness. Nigel Adkins took over from Pardew and guided the Saints to successive promotions, both times as runners-up. The club were surviving, albeit not thriving, in the Premier League when they decided to ditch the functional Adkins and hire the more dynamic Mauricio Pochettino, a young manager whose name you knew but couldn't quite remember why. Poch's tremendous success – they were superb on their way to eighth in 2013–14 – saw him depart for Spurs, while his team was broken up and scattered, largely between North London and Merseyside, for considerable profit.
The arrival of Ronald Koeman was seen as having the potential to cause instability. But the solid behind-the-scenes setup – headed by vice-chairman of football Les Reed and backed by a vast crew of executives, scouts, coaches and analysts – meant that the Dutchman could fit seamlessly into the role. Koeman improved further by taking 7th and then a 30-year high of 6th before departing for Everton.
It is this that makes Southampton stand out among their mid-table rivals. The modern Premier League extolls the cult of the individual – superstar players and mangers who are bigger than the clubs they represent. Though this was arguably the case in Le Tiss' day, it is not the vibe at St. Mary's circa 2017. Players come and go, managers change every season or so, but the ship sails onwards, seemingly untroubled by the winds of change. It's an approach that fans can relate to: after all, they will outlast the players and the managers themselves.
Perhaps the most instructive example of this is Cladue Puel. The Frenchman did not really work out at St. Mary's, departing after a single season, but oversaw a campaign in which the club finished 8th and contested the League Cup Final. Only eight years earlier Southampton had been slipping into what seemed like the abyss. They will begin the new season under Argentine boss Mauricio Pellegrino and, while it's hard to guess just how this will work out, a continuation of their behind-the-scenes stability should be enough to keep the club on course.
A Southampton fan aged between their mid twenties and thirties has already seen a remarkable amount during their time following the club. From a humble childhood lit up by the genius of Le Tiss, to troubled teenage years where the worst seemed possible, to a sense of security and renewed purpose in adulthood. The question now is whether fans will become restless in middle-age and begin wandering what more there is to life – whether Southampton could reach the top four, play Champions League football, or even conquer the Premier League.
But on the whole they are more reasoned than this. Robert Leedham, another fan who spoke to, expressed a contentment with Southampton's current situation: "We play great football and we've got four England internationals in our squad. For a team which was on the brink of non-existence eight or nine years ago, that's phenomenal."
"We're not going to chasing the league, but we're not going to contend with relegation," adds Mike. "That sounds like mid-table mundanity, but you can always guarantee something will happen with us – we'll spank a big team, or put eight past someone."
Southampton are unlikely to risk it all on an unlikely push for the title, as there is currently a very sound policy of selling players when their value is high and replacing them for considerably less. In recent weeks Mike's standard question for the VICE Sports desk has morphed from "Do you think Virgil van Dijk will leave?" to "Who do you think Virgil will leave us for?", or sometimes "How much do you think we'll get for Virgil?" There is a pragmatism, and a knowledge that players can be replaced but that stability is something that takes considerable time to rebuild.
A Chinese takeover has been rumoured – truly a modern football cliche par excellence – but many prefer the stable Southampton that exists under the ownership of Katharina Liebherr, who took the reigns following her father's death in 2010. It is worth remembering that not only have Southampton endured a tumble down the leagues within the past decade, they have also witnessed the nuclear-grade disaster suffered by local rivals Portsmouth. While most Saints supporters have enjoyed Pompey's decline with the brand of schadenfreude football does so well, many also understand that there but for the grace of a construction machinery magnate goes their own club.