Mark it in your calendars. The 2016/17 summer transfer window is where the “selling club” stereotype of Southampton breathes its last breath.
Most of you are probably looking at that and thinking I’m a bit daft. You can be forgiven for thinking so. Suggesting that Southampton might finally have turned the corner on its sell-happy ways is a bit daft when you consider our summer so far.
This summer, we’ve seen 29 year old Graziano Pelle go to China for £13 million, becoming the sixth-highest paid player in the world in the process.
We’ve seen Victor Wanyama, whom Spurs have long had eyes for, reunite with his old boss for about the same price.
We’ve seen Sadio Mane, our co-leading scorer, become the latest passenger on the seemingly-annual St. Mary’s-to-Anfield one-way express train.
And of course, as I pointed out last week, there’s the Fonte story that refuses to die. So yes, I can understand why you might think that nothing has really changed at Southampton. Why we’re still the “selling club” or the “feeder club.”
You might think that, but you’d be wrong, and here’s why.
What is a “Selling Club?”
The term “selling club” is one of those phrases that everyone in the Premier League knows the meaning of but can never really explain. Taken literally, it’s a meaningless statement: everyone, after all, sells to somebody. Such is football. It’s only when you look deeper into it that the meaning becomes more clear. To say that Southampton are a selling club is to say that the club’s sales aren’t by choice, or at least not entirely-so. Departures from St. Mary’s, the narrative goes, fall into one of two categories.
The first is the player that doesn’t want to stay.
He’s better than an upper-midtable club, and he knows it. His natural talents belong on the likes of a Man United or a Barcelona. A big stage, where he can truly shine. He is the opposite of a Matt Le Tissier; the idea of being a one-club man, the big fish in the small pond, is laughable. Maybe he thinks Southampton lack “ambition,” however he might quantify that trait.
He’ll play out his contract, for the most part, enough to puff up his stats, and when the right suitor comes calling, he’ll leave. The club won’t put up more than a token resistance against his departure. It’d be foolish to. Given the choice between a decent profit and a sulking, striking player, it’s easy to pick. At the appointed hour, he leaves. Platitudes are exchanged, the club cashes in another profitable deal, and the player finds his greener pastures. Life marches on.
The second is the player whose sale is due for financial reasons. Maybe he wants to stay, or at least, isn’t as vocal in wanting to leave, but the club can’t (or won’t) pay him what he’s worth. This was the case of the transfers of yesteryear, when Saints were forced to sell Gareth Bale and others to balance the books.
It may well have been the case, in part, behind the famous “mass exodus” of the 2013-14 offseason, when 5 players, team manager Mauricio Pochettino and chairman Nicola Cortese all departed. The extent to which recent departures are attributable to financials is debatable, but the stereotype of cash-strapped Southampton fighting the good fight but flogging off its players to stay solvent persists.
The Top Flight
Method to the Madness
Absent from all of this is the thought that Southampton might just possess some agency over its actions in any given summer. Those who are determined to see the club as a perpetual feeder, and their own clubs’ feeding upon Saints’ best as a birthright, fail to see the method behind the madness.
The Southampton Board of Directors understand, as well as anyone else, how they stack up in the world. Southampton has neither the population of London nor the global brand of the Manchester clubs, United and City both. The club is not flush with unlimited reserves of oil-based wealth, American billionaire money or East Asian investment-group capital. Its ownership, the Liebherr family, will invest their own capital but expect their venture to make money of its own.
The Southampton Stock Market
To do that, the team must play good football on the pitch and shrewd business off of it. Keeping a constant supply of quality players must be balanced against the financial constraints of paying those players. In this backdrop, the Board plays the transfer game like a grossly simplified version of the stock market: buy low, sell high.
Buy a relative unknown, maybe an early-to-mid 20s player with a halfway-decent track record, minus a bad year here or an injury there. A top club’s promising academy player who never quite made it in. A standout from a lower league, looking to prove his worth on the big stage. The types of players who don’t cost that much, who rarely make headlines, who’re seen by most as a low financial risk with an equally low reward.
After you buy him, develop him, over a few years, into a Premier League-worthy product. When he hits his peak, sell him. Wash, rinse, repeat, profit. There will always be new players, the logic goes. More opportunities to rise higher, yes, but more opportunities to keep the Southampton machine self-sustainable.
School Is In Session
But of course, transfer fees are always going to cost money. Much cheaper, though more labour-intense, is growing your own talent. Here, Southampton have excelled; the Staplewood academy grounds were the first priority of late owner Markus Liebherr. While he never lived to see their renovation completed, the camp’s main pavilion bears his name as a testament to his vision. Far beyond passion, Liebherr’s and the Board’s focus on the youth system was born of a shrewd recognition of the long-term benefits to home-growing. Why buy one Gareth Bale, Alan Shearer or Matt Le Tissier when you could develop 10, at a fraction of the cost?
The academy that made all of the above has been just as active of late; this year alone thirteen signed professional contracts at U18 level. Whether any of them prove to be the stars of tomorrow, the sheer volume of signing proves that developing the youth is key to Southampton’s way of doing football and business.
Turning the Corner
Reading all this, you might be tempted to say: “so what?” So Southampton have a business plan, big whoop. They still sell their best, whenever someone comes calling for the right price. The fact that they’ve so far managed to make the plan work doesn’t make them not a selling club, just a shrewd one.
If it weren’t for the activity this summer, you’d be correct. This summer, though, Saints have been doing a lot less selling and a lot more spending. Beyond the new transfers—Redmond, Hojbjerg, McCarthy, Pied on a free—the team have renewed the contracts of seven of their starting XI. Dusan Tadic, Shane Long, Fraser Forster, Virgil Van Dijk, Steven Davis, Ryan Bertrand and James Ward-Prowse have all committed their long-term futures to playing in St. Mary’s Stadium. Euro-winning defender Cédric is currently in talks with the club for a new contract, possibly extending his tenure beyond 2019; compatriot and captain Jose Fonte is rumoured to be in negotiations for a pay rise as well.
All of this can be taken as a statement of intent. With 7, and possibly 9 of the starting XI locked down for long-term deals, the message is clear: effective immediately, Southampton is not for sale.