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WILSON ON HIS BELOVED SOUTHAMPTON, HASENHUTTL AND LE TISSIER

29 March 2019

Paul Hazlewood
Jeremy Wilson spoke to Nick Szczepanik ahead of Saturday's game.


Rival fans may not agree on much, but Southampton supporter and Daily Telegraph chief sports reporter is in accord with all Brighton folk in one vital area. While much of the rest of the media will be talking about a South Coast or A27 derby (or even ‘El Clasicoast’) when Albion host Saints this weekend, he knows that it is no such thing.

“Southampton fans don’t really consider games against Brighton or Bournemouth as derbies even though Bournemouth is quite close,” he says. “It has always been Portsmouth. It’s all bound up in the history between the clubs. Post war Portsmouth were on top, then Southampton, then Portsmouth had their spell a decade or so ago.

“There are more points of comparison and, when it comes down to it, Brighton is just too far away. If the M27 went a bit further it might be easier. And anyway your rivalry is with Palace.”

You might expect a long-time Saints fan to be somewhat bitter that, after being top dogs in the BBC South region for so long, they are sitting third in the pecking order according to the Premier League table, behind both Bournemouth and the Albion, but no.

“It is a good time for south coast football although Portsmouth have some way to come back. But to have three top-flight clubs can’t have happened before.”

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How does he think it has come about? “I was recently writing something about Swansea for the paper, and they are a good illustration of the fact that below the top six, if a club that size or the size of Southampton or Brighton is really well run and gets its act together and makes good decisions consistently, it can out-perform an Aston Villa or Everton. The Premier League money changes things.

“Bournemouth have been able to get ahead of Southampton at the moment even though they have got a smaller ground, because gate money doesn’t really matter so much in the context of TV income and good management.

“But all these clubs are on a knife edge the whole time. As Swansea have shown, you don’t have to get many decisions wrong to end up out of the Premier League again.

“It’s so hard to keep that up indefinitely. The only club that has really lifted themselves up a level on what looks like a permanent basis is Tottenham, who are now competing in what has become the ‘big six’ when they weren’t quite there before.

“Brighton have obviously been making very good decisions for a while and Southampton did for a period but recently have been stuck in a dangerous cycle a little like the one that Swansea found themselves in: you get into trouble then make managerial appointments and signings based on survival rather than a club policy or vision.

“Mark Hughes was a different sort of appointment from the previous ones but you get sucked into a search for short-term certainties. And you can undo your whole model if you do that. It is such a fine balance.”

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Southampton, he agrees, became victims of their own success in identifying promising managerial material such as Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, both later enticed to so-called ‘bigger’ clubs.

“That was partly what happened with Swansea – first Roberto Martinez and then Brendan Rodgers and it’s hard to keep getting those appointments right. But I think Southampton might have stumbled across someone very good this time in Ralph Hasenhuttl, who can get them pushing back up towards mid-table.

“The squad isn’t what it was and there isn’t load of money but the manager has been impressive. He has a presence and that gives everyone more confidence. He has connected with the fans in a way that Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino never did. It isn’t everything but it gives you a start and a bit of breathing space.

“And what happened in January was really brave. He didn’t put on any pressure to sign anyone, he actually got rid of some quite high-profile players and backed himself to improve what was there. He obviously felt there were too many players around the place and you really don’t get many managers doing that, especially in a relegation fight. It’s not exactly the Harry Redknapp template, but there are plenty of ways to get success.

“I think they will stay up because they have become better and are more confident. They were getting into the lead in lots of games and still drawing or losing under Hughes but now you feel they can hold out. They seem to have overcome a mental block that formed under Pellegrino and Hughes.

“I was at the Tottenham game [a 2-1 Saints win] and there was a different feeling, although we are still in a risky position. Again, I look at Swansea this time last year. Carlos Carvalhal came in and did quite well for them for a while and they looked as if they would be okay.

“But when you are below a certain position, one bad run and that can be it. Saints were lucky last year because Swansea collapsed. Hughes got quite a lot of credit – and he did improve the team -but it wasn’t as if they suddenly went on a great run.”

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Jeremy first watched Saints at one of the high points of their history. “My parents weren’t season ticket holders or anything but I first went from time to time with my dad in the early 80s,” he says.

“It was the time of people like Lawrie McMenemy, Mick Channon and Alan Ball – one of the best periods. My first game was a 3-2 win against the Liverpool team of Souness and Dalglish at the Dell. Nick Holmes scored two.

“Then at school I went with mates from time to time, it was just the start of the Le Tissier era. I remember it was £2 for under-18s at the Milton End at The Dell. We were quite a physical team, with Neil Ruddock, Terry Hurlock, Glenn Cockerill, Iain Dowie and Francis Benali, and managed by Ian Branfoot, but with this one player of real quality.

“Every season seemed to be a relegation battle but while that one jewel was in the team there was always a chance. Le Tissier was such a massive hero in the city. You would always go to a game thinking you might see him score a wonder goal and quite often he actually did. The rest of the football could be fairly basic but there were a real team of strong characters. Le Tissier is a strong character but he was surrounded by men like Benali, Jason Dodd and Claus Lundekvam who also came to embody the club.”

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The Dell, of course, was one of the most distinctive of the old-grounds, while St Mary’s is an identikit modern stadium, although the move made sense back in 2001. “It was inevitable at the time because gate and sponsorship money was limited but now you risk losing more than you gain. The TV money you get these days is so big means that it does not make so much difference to income, again like Bournemouth.

“A tight, intimate ground can be an advantage, as Fratton Park was and is for Portsmouth. I love grounds where you are close to the pitch, and you were at The Dell. The goalkeeper couldn’t get a long run-up for goal kicks because the advertising boards were only a foot or so behind the net at the Milton end. And at that time the cricket was just up the road, literally five minutes away, I would go with my mate to watch Hampshire, then nip along to the Dell to see Saints, then back to the cricket. All for less than a tenner.”

He went into journalism just too late to experience the Dell press box, a dozen or so seats squeezed into what felt like a sawn-off greenhouse at the back of the cramped main stand.

“I started off at the Salisbury Journal newspaper doing news but when I moved to the Echo in Southampton I started covering matches and I was lucky because that was the period when Gordon Strachan was manager.

“Gordon was a manager who didn’t go through press officers. If he had something to say, he might phone the office. He had obviously learned at the feet of Alex Ferguson and had his own version of the hairdryer.

“It was a valuable experience. I got shouted at from time to time, but I really liked him. He made you accountable for what you wrote. Made you think. Made you a bit scared too. He was a very genuine person, underrated as a manager although he could be infuriating. He kept journalists on their toes.

“So it was a baptism of fire and the paper was always falling out with the club, often at a higher level. There had been issues before I arrived. I later found out that not every relationship between a paper and a club is like that or stays like that.

“But it was a good period for the club. I started covering them in Strachan’s second season and they finished eighth and got to the FA Cup final. Journalistically I was lucky. I was at the Echo for three years, two good ones under Strachan and then it all began to unravel.

“And when I moved to national newspapers I still had contacts at the club and there was the whole Harry Redknapp-Rupert Lowe-Clive Woodward dynamic and the nationals were rightly very interested in that.”

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The public-school-educated chairman, Lowe, was not to everyone’s taste – Graeme Souness famously said that he could not work for a chairman named Rupert – but history may have improved his reputation.

“Rupert Lowe could be confrontational too and not all the fans liked him, but he oversaw the new ground and he directed a lot of investment into the academy that paid off so handsomely later on.

“He was very proud of it. The club traditionally had a good youth structure, with the Wallace brothers, Le Tissier, Shearer, Benali, but Rupert really did continue that.

“What they produced was really incredible - Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott, Wayne Bridge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw. I remember seeing Walcott in a reserve game just before he made his debut and he was so fast.

“Nobody really knew Bale and they almost let him go because he had had problems with his growth but he turned out the better of the two. Every club wanted Walcott but Bale only really came to the fore after we’d been relegated.

“Bridge was terrific overlapping down the left and, like Shaw so far, I don’t think he really progressed as a player after he left. I know he won medals at Chelsea but he was never a regular in their team once they signed Ashley Cole.

“He spent too much of his career sitting on the bench. He needed to be match fit and sharp to play at his absolute best, and when he did, he wasn’t far behind Bale as a left-back.

“Rupert Lowe was at the club when they went into administration but I don’t think he deserved the blame. He came back and tried to stabilise things but I think a bank pulled the plug on a loan. If he had been chairman the whole time, I don’t think administration would have happened. The criticism of him was always that he was too careful and wouldn’t take risks in the transfer market.”

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Saints, of course, sank to League One, where the most important arrival was not manager Alan Pardew but new owner Markus Liebherr, the wealthy Swiss businessman whose company supplied many of the cranes in Southampton docks.

“I think somebody would have come along, and because of the situation any new owner didn’t have to pay very much.

“But he not only rescued the club but also put a lot of money into it in the first few years. And he brought Nicola Cortese in as executive chairman, who was very much a Marmite figure, but effective in significant ways.

“The managers he appointed, Alan Pardew and Nigel Adkins, did well. The team that came back up under Adkins and was taken over by Pochettino was one of the best in the club’s history - better than the Cup Final team under Strachan because that was more about maximising a fairly limited squad. The teams of Lambert, Shaw, Lallana, Fonte, Mane, Alderweireld, Wanyama, Pelle, Tadic and Van Dijk, on their day, had the quality to beat anyone.

“But it was underpinned by the Liebherr family money even after Markus died. The new Chinese owners are placing their faith in the board, Ralph Krueger and Les Reed when he was there. I’m sure they approved the sacking of Hughes even if they didn’t drive it, and although they’re not ploughing money into the team, they’re not interfering too much.

“The team has dipped a bit recently but if you take the whole period since Liebherr stepped in, it has been very good for the club. For fans, it is hard sometimes to look beyond the most recent bad result. That will happen to Brighton one day.”

‘One day?’ Have you read the Albion message boards after a defeat? Let’s hope they are not melting down after this match. How does he see it going?

“There’s a chance of Saints getting above Brighton before the end of the season because they have a reasonably kind run-in, but I think a draw would be a decent-enough result.

“Although the way Southampton played against Tottenham and against Manchester United they might think they can win it. Whatever happens, I think Brighton will be all right.”


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