Southampton: The Feeder Club That Bit Back

Southampton are on the verge of a unique cup double. If they beat Arsenal in the FA Cup this weekend, then within five days they will have knocked out of the domestic cups the two sides that have done the most to strip them of their best players in recent seasons. If they achieve that feat, they would become the so-called “feeder” club that bit back.

Southampton’s 1-0 defeat of Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday night, giving them a 2-0 aggregate win over the two legs of the League Cup semi=final, is one of the most impressive results by an English team, especially one outside the so-called “Big Six” who currently lead the Premier League table, in recent years.

In the Liverpool side that lost to Southampton at Anfield, there were three former Southampton players: Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne. In addition, Liverpool also signed Ricky Lambert from the Saints in 2014, and of course Southampton would have faced a fourth former player on Wednesday night if Sadio Mané had not been absent at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal.

In total, since 2014 Liverpool have paid Southampton nearly £100 million for five players, but on Wednesday night Southampton were still good enough to defeat Liverpool and reach the club’s first cup final since 2003. For a relatively small club like Southampton to reach a major cup final is impressive enough, but to do so against a team boasting three of its former players is even more impressive.

Fittingly for Southampton, it is Arsenal up next in the FA Cup. It is fitting because Arsenal are second only to Liverpool in their ransacking of Southampton’s players. In addition to Theo Walcott, who famously signed for Arsenal as a 16-year-old in the 2006 January transfer window, Arsenal have also bought Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers from Southampton. Chambers is currently on loan at Middlesbrough, but the other two could well feature in this weekend’s FA Cup fixture.

The players that Southampton have sold to Liverpool and Arsenal alone almost make up a full XI, but they can be added to with the other players that Southampton have sold in the last decade or so, notably Morgan Schneiderlin, who left for Manchester United in 2015, and probably the greatest ex-Saint of all, Gareth Bale, who left the club as a teenager and has gone on to become one of the greatest players in the world.

Despite their success in the League Cup against Liverpool and the prospect of further success in the FA Cup against Arsenal, Southampton fans would not be human if they did not wonder what might have been if they had been able to keep even some of these players. Such team would not just be competing for the cups but would surely challenge for the league title itself.

Unlike most title challengers, however, Southampton seem content to sell their very best players, and indeed managers, to bigger clubs, in the belief that they will somehow find a way to replace them. So far, they have certainly succeeded in this unusual “business model”, to the point that they are now on the brink of winning what would be only the club’s second major piece of silverware ever. But there are two possible threats to the continuation of that success in the future.

The first is the possibility that they could eventually lose the single most important person at the club, who is not current manager Claude Puel or even any of the current players but Les Reed, the “Head of Football Development”. For once, such a grandiose title is justified, because it is arguable that no one at the club has been more responsible for their success in recent years, both on and off the pitch, than Reed.

As shown by the sales of Bale and Walcott, which both happened before Reed’s arrival at Southampton in 2010, Southampton have long been producers of fantastic footballing talent, but that process has undoubtedly accelerated under Reed in recent years. He undoubtedly has one of the keenest eyes for young talent of any scout in England and possibly the world.

Given the importance of finding and developing young players, which can ultimately save a club millions in the transfer market, it is remarkable that so little effort has gone into signing the individuals who are ultimately responsible for identifying and developing that talent. Traditionally, there has not been a “transfer market” for youth and development coaches in the same way that there has been for players and even managers.

Last summer’s “transfer” from Leicester to Everton of Steve Walsh, the man who discovered, among others, Riyad Mahrez, may be a sign of things to come. Certainly, if there ever was a fully-fledged transfer market for youth and development coaches, Les Reed would be the star signing.

The other potential pitfall for Southampton is the change in the club’s ownership that may be about to happen. For nearly the last decade, a period that has coincided not only with Southampton’s stellar development of young players but the club’s rise through the divisions to the Premier League, the club has been owned and largely run by the Swiss Liebherr family, first by Marcus Liebherr and then, after his death, by his daughter Katharina. Now, however, Southampton might be about to become victims of their own success, as Katharina Liebherr confirmed this week in a letter to supporters that she is in talks with a Chinese company, Lander Sports Development, to sell the club.

While Southampton fans will no doubt hope that Chinese ownership might finally allow them to keep their best players and in time compete for a league title, there is also the possibility that a change in the club’s ownership and business operation could disrupt the extraordinarily successful footballing ecosystem that has been developed at the club where, despite the fact they sell their best players to so-called “bigger” clubs, they can still compete with and on occasion beat those bigger clubs with the players they still possess.

For now, though, the focus of Southampton fans will solely be on the FA Cup tie this weekend with Arsenal. If they are able to build on their performance at Anfield and knock the Gunners out, they will become an inspiration to so-called “feeder” or nursery clubs everywhere, who will also hope that they can withstand the sale of their best players and still defeat the very same clubs to whom those players were sold.

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