Ian Branfoot’s first act, just about, on replacing Chris Nicholl was to cancel Jimmy Case’s contract. It was an inauspicious opening gambit to win over a doubtful supporter base. Branfoot was the former manager of Reading and was known to have a penchant for “the long ball game”.
The system, refined to a science by FA Director of Coaching Charles Hughes, had been used successfully at a number of clubs in the lower divisions, where athleticism could be used to counter skill. It is not an entertaining style of football. However, and here was the board’s dilemma, following the publication of the final Taylor Report into the Hillsborough Disaster in 1990 The Dell would have to become an all-seater stadium, which would result in having to invest a fortune for modernisations that would reduce the capacity to 15,000.
Even though the directors at this time, now under the chairmanship of Guy Askham, had exceeded all but the most insanely unrealistic expectations by keeping the Club solvent – never mind solvent and in the top flight – the situation was a sobering one.
Had Branfoot’s hoof-ball tactics brought results he might have got an easier ride, but by October ‘93 many Dellites were mutinous. In January ‘94 Lawrie McMenemy returned to The Dell as a director and Branfoot made way for Alan Ball.
Cliché warning! The momentum of Southampton’s managerial merry-go-round has not slackened since.
Bally departed in the summer of ’95; to be replaced by Dave Merrington; who was replaced in the summer of ’96 by Graeme Souness; who was replaced by Dave Jones in the summer of ’97. Lawrie McMenemy resignation followed that of Souness. Both exits were widely blamed on new chairman Rupert Lowe. Lowe had been brought in to navigate Saints’ transformation from Limited Liability Company to a Public Limited Company and, fingers crossed, out of The Dell and into a new stadium.
Managers continued to turnover at a bemusing rate, but progress elsewhere was dramatic. In 1998 it was confirmed that Saints, following an offer from Southampton City Council, would be kicking-off the 2001-02 season at a new stadium to be situated at the decommissioned Northam Gasworks. This followed eight years of futile negotiations with Hampshire County Council over a site at Stoneham.
Meanwhile, Staplewood, widely regarded as one of English soccer’s top training grounds in the late ’90s, was radically modernised and expanded and the youth development system, which Souness had effectively scrapped, was re-born as an Academy, re-prioritised and revolutionised.
Saints got off to a shaky start in their new home – The Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium – but form improved under new manager Gordon Strachan. He would steer the Saints to the 2003 FA Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. But managerial instability was proving endemic. By the time George Burley had replaced Harry Redknapp in December 2005 Saints had been through 12 managers in 11 years (it’s worth bearing in mind that there had been four managers in the six seasons before Rupert had joined the board) and were in the Championship. A large proportion of the faithful were becoming increasingly critical of and incensed by Rupert Lowe’s administration.
As Saints’ first season back in the second tier was played out a “saviour” emerged in the shape of Jersey based businessman Michael Wilde. Wilde was heavily championed by the Echo, which trumpeted, daily, that Wilde and his “magnificent 7” of prospective directors were going to revolutionise the Saints. On July 8 2006 Adam Leitch disclosed: “The Daily Echo understands there are TEN wealthy individuals prepared to pump money into Saints” – all that was standing in the way, apparently, was Rupert Lowe.
This was nothing new, the anti-Lowe propaganda had been relentless since Gordon Strachan’s resignation in February 2004; while boardroom meetings had been getting increasingly fractious, it appears, since Rupert had recruited Strachan in October 2001. Southampton was not a happy club.
Rupert Lowe resigned of Friday 30 June 2006. Michael Wilde’s tenure as chairman lasted seven months. The investment the Echo insisted would be forthcoming never materialised and the NEW ERA proved a two season long debacle.
Saints ended the 2007-08 season escaping relegation by two points and confronted by financial oblivion. Rupert Lowe and Michael Wilde returned to attempt a salvage in May 2008.
There was a tangible lack of enthusiasm among many of the faithful at this turn of events, especially when experienced players were transfer listed and new coach Jan Poortvliet re-built the team around Academy graduates. There were plenty of gallant performances but not enough points.
On 2 April 2009, with the team looking cert’s for relegation, Saints’ holding company Southampton Leisure Holdings PLC, was placed in administration by Barclays Bank for a reported debt of £6-million. On Thursday 23 April the Football League imposed a ten point penalty, to be applied at the end of the season if it would guarantee relegation and in 2009-10 if it didn’t.
One last walk up Milton Road as 103 years of football ends at The Dell
The truly ironic consequence of moving to St Mary’s was the metamorphose of Saints supporter base from 15,000 odd managers to 30,000 even odder chairmen.
Rupertless, Saints scraped into the 2006-07 playoffs; thanks in the main to the remarkable form of Academician Gareth Bale. Derby County eliminated Saints on penalties. Bale departed for Tottenham Hotspur during the summer.
Saints performances in ’07-08, reflected the boardroom politics.
Rupert Lowe’s return was far from being universally unpopular. There were plenty of supporters who realised that he and his staff had kept the Saints solvent while developing St Mary’s Stadium, modernising and enlarging the training ground beyond the dreams of Arsenal (almost) and establishing the Academy that had delivered Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and others. He is seen here chatting to Saints fans after the pre-season friendly at Winchester City in July 2008.