Four years after sliding into the English third tier and veering dangerously close to bankruptcy, Southampton are riding high in fifth place in the Premier League following a stunning transformation.
Saturday’s 2-0 win at home to Fulham meant that the modest club from England’s south coast have enjoyed the best start to a top-flight season in their 127-year history.
Not even the team that finished runners-up to Liverpool in the 1983 to 1984 season made such a searing start and the achievement is rendered all the more remarkable by the travails the Saints have endured in recent years.
In April 2009, with Southampton languishing in the second-tier Championship, the club’s parent company went into administration, triggering an automatic 10-point deduction that saw them relegated to League One.
It was the first time they had played in the third division since 1960 and came just six years after they finished eighth in the Premier League and lost 1-0 to Arsenal in the FA Cup final.
As staff wages went unpaid, a consortium backed by former Southampton great Matt Le Tissier failed with a bid to buy the club, but salvation arrived in the form of a Switzerland-based, Germany-born entrepreneur called Markus Liebherr.
Liebherr had no previous experience of working in soccer and promptly sacked head coach Mark Wotte after buying the club, yet his arrival marked a sea change at St Mary’s Stadium.
A year later, Southampton won the Football League Trophy and, after securing back-to-back promotions, they returned to the Premier League last year.
Liebherr died after a period of illness in August 2010, but he had installed Nicola Cortese as executive chairman in 2009 and the Italy-born Swiss kept the club firmly on the rails.
Cortese has made controversial decisions, sacking managers Alan Pardew shortly after Liebherr’s death and Nigel Adkins in January, despite Adkins having masterminded the club’s rise from League One.
However, Adkins’ successor, Mauricio Pochettino, has proven to be a revelation and Cortese said he has no qualms about making difficult decisions in the interests of the club.
“I think, to be honest, looking at those two scenarios, if one day I was in a similar situation again, I would do it the same way again,” Cortese told the Leaders in Football conference earlier this month. “You have to make the decision, whether it is popular or unpopular.”
With Cortese’s backing, Southampton have broken their transfer record four times in a little longer than a year, seeing off interest from some of Europe’s leading clubs to sign Gaston Ramirez, Victor Wanyama and ￡15 million (US$24.1 million) record-signing Dani Osvaldo, who worked with Pochettino at RCD Espanyol.
The club’s well-regarded academy also continues to bear fruit, with 18-year-olds Luke Shaw and James Warde-Prowse the latest starlets to tumble off a production line that previously produced Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Meanwhile, 31-year-old centerforward Rickie Lambert, who signed from Bristol Rovers in 2009, is now an England international, having scored with his first touch on his debut against Scotland in August.
Central to Southampton’s success this season has been an asphyxiating high-pressing game that has yielded a 1-0 win at Liverpool and a 1-1 draw at Manchester United, as well as a record of just three goals conceded in nine league games.
“It’s enjoyable because the hunger is there, which comes from the pressing and working hard,” said English forward Jay Rodriguez, another former record signing. “We all enjoy the pressing when we’re creating chances, but the main thing for us is keeping clean sheets.”
With United reconstructing and the English top flight in a state of flux, there are opportunities for teams looking to upset the traditional hierarchy and Pochettino is not ruling out a tilt at a European place.
“I have been saying for a couple of weeks now that the sky is the limit,” said the Argentine, who led Southampton to a 14th-place finish last season. “We don’t set ourselves any limits.”