It’s that time of year when the latest batch of sports tomes stack up like Jurgen Klopp celebratory memes on a Twitter feed so it’s unlikely that Michelle Obama’s latest literary offering, Becoming, will be afforded much time here. What has caught our eye, though, was the former First Lady’s appearance in London this week, writes Brendan O'Brien.
Speaking at the Southbank Centre to a crowd of about 3,000 people, Mrs Obama confirmed what pretty much all of us knew or, at the very least, suspected for a long, long time: that the world’s emperors stand more or less naked as a colony of nudists in high summer. “Here’s the secret: they’re not that smart,” she explained of the globe’s political elite.
Not exactly revelatory at a time when Donald Trump has moved into her old digs and Brexit is still dishing out its daily diet of jaw-dropping idiocy, delusion and toxic self-harm. But then, anyone who has ever paid a blind bit of notice to football would have always suspected that those in positions of power aren’t necessarily pillars of smart thinking.
The club’s decision to relieve Mark Hughes of his touchline roaming rights and initialled tracksuits this week brought to three the number of managers dispensed with inside just 18 months. The estimated cost to the Premier League outfit in that spell in terms of compensation has been estimated at an ulcer-inducing £30m.
Arsenal spent that on bringing Lucas Torreira in from Sampdoria.
Now consider some of the people behind all this. Saints owner Gao Jisheng, with his $1bn fortune made in energy sales and residential property development. Minority shareholder (and former owner) Katharina Liebherr, whose grandfather founded a construction company that has mushroomed into one of Europe’s biggest business dynasties.
Successful people. Powerful people. Business people.
Add to it the chairman Ralph Krueger. The Saints were on a steep upward curve and held up as a bastion of modern thinking when the former ice hockey player and coach transitioned to football four years ago. On his CV would have been a line about his membership of something called the Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
Among Krueger’s colleagues on it were a lecturer at MIT in Boston and a venture capitalist. The World Economic Forum said of the group: “The New Models of Leadership Council was established in the 2011-2012 term to respond to a series of evolving factors that are affecting the way companies and public organizations operate, as well as how leaders of those institutions are equipping themselves to respond to those changing parameters”.
Slipping into the relegation zone probably isn’t what they had in mind.
So far, though, the only person to pay for the club’s slide with his job, apart from Hughes, has been Les Reed. Once the holder of the record for shortest stint as a Premier League manager — 41 days at Charlton Athletic in 2006 — he is also a former Technical Director at the FA and was Southampton vice-chairman of football until this week.
It’s only three years since Gary Neville lauded him and Southampton for their progressiveness. For so long a critic of the technical or sporting director concept, Southampton’s turnaround from the low of League One and the administration of its parent company in 2009 to top-flight return and consolidation had prompted a complete conversion.
Reed told Neville about the joined-up, linear thinking from U7s all the way up to the first team and the club’s ‘Black Box’. That would be the room full of integrated technology where they ran the rule over possible recruits. He compared it to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and made sure to point out how the club made future planning central to its approach towards managers as well.
“I’m always tracking managers and coaches,” Reed told Neville. “What’s their style of play, how successful are they, what’s their personality like — so you can be ahead of the game. So I’m always looking at five or six potential managers who have already impressed me. It’s made it quicker. We’re not having off-the-wall discussions.”
None of which squares with the fact that Claude Puel was given just under a year in charge, Mauricio Pellegrino nine months and Hughes — who had been sacked by Stoke City two months before his hiring on the south coast — eight. And the real shame in all this is that Southampton did actually tease us with the prospect that they could be different. Better. Business-like. They called it ‘the Southampton Way’ and it seemed for a while to be impervious to the storms that habitually hit clubs of their stature. They survived the losses of Maurico Pocchettino and Ronald Koeman to Tottenham Hotspur and Everton. And the sales of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk to other big clubs.
This is the club that finished seventh in the Premier League four seasons ago, just 10 months after Koeman tweeted a picture of an empty training ground. When the Dutchman and Reed and a few others identified over 20 new players from amidst the codes and footage and stats they mined from their vaunted ‘Black Box’.