A little over a year after the Friend’s Provident St Mary’s Stadium was completed I found myself swapping drinks with one of the site foremen, down from Barr Construction’s offices in Paisley to inspect this and that – all part of the service. He had a fund of stories about the stadium’s construction, most of which involved Rupert Lowe, who he regarded as quite a character.
One anecdote involved a meeting to discuss the accommodation under the Itchen Stand, the location and size of the hospitality suits, the layout of the offices and so on. The boardroom was early on the agenda. Rupert’s first words: “It’s got to be bigger than Old Trafford’s.”
Whether he got his way under investigation, but I can vouchsafe that the last time I visited it the boardroom was a pleasantly proportioned, well designed, friendly space with a commanding view over the wharves of Northam Harbour, which Rupert’s old schoolmate and fellow director Andrew Cowen took pleasure in drawing to the attention of the Club’s guests.
This is not the place to debate how good or bad Rupert was as Chairman (there are those who will never forgive him for moving us out of The Dell), but there is no gainsaying that he and Andrew were the driving force behind the move from The Dell to St Mary’s Stadium.
Rupert is also the person to credit – or, if you prefer, blame – for laying the foundations of the present Academy and the upgrading of Staplewood from a Wessex League football ground to a world-class training facility. Moreover, all this was achieved while returning a steady 6% interest to the shareholders of the Club’s holding company Southampton Leisure Holdings PLC while the great majority of other Premiership clubs were being run at a loss.
It is now our twelfth season at St Mary’s and, as a result of one short foray into Europe, two relegations and two promotions, we have entertained 79 clubs in competitive fixtures: how long will it take the Emerates and Etihad stadiums to equal that record?
The seven seasons spent in the Football League is the reason for the overflowing visitors’ book, but it did give us the opportunity to show St Mary’s off to the fans of clubs that rarely if ever make it into the top flight and, in fairness, not many were reluctant to declare their admiration for it. Furthermore, we did host some terrific occasions. Who could forget Boxing Day 2009 when a 30,890 people turned up to witness a League One fixture against Exeter City?
That the Grecians attracted such a remarkable crowd that festive season, the largest at St Mary’s for over two years, was an indication of optimism reborn following four seasons of decline. That July the Club had found itself a new owner, a new chairman, a new manager and, by early August, a new idol. Respectively: Markus Liebherr; Nicola Cortese; Alan Pardew; and Rickie Lambert.
The drift of the newspaper articles at the time – all, I would hazard, based on the same press release – was that Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese believed that at £15-million Southampton FC constituted good value – despite the fact they would be kicking-off the 2009-10 season in League One with -10 points, inflicted by the Football League for being taken into Administration.
There has been no hint of how thoroughly Messrs Liebherr and Cortese researched the Club before making their offer, but they would have been aware that, prior to 2006, it had been financially stable for over half a century. Not rich, just sensible. Neither could there be any doubt that in most respects, other than the first team squad, it remained a Premiership set-up in every respect.
And what was St Mary’s Stadium actually worth? To facilitate the sale of the Club Aviva (previously known as the Norwich Union) had written off a large lump of the outstanding mortgage. How much? I do not know anybody who will risk a guesstimate.
Whatever, provided the new owner had the wherewithal to back his original investment with some modest spending in the transfer market the future, from the perspective of the faithful, looked promising. Markus Liebherr soon demonstrated that he not only had the wherewithal, he had the ambition. The team was steadily and intelligently strengthened; and continued to be so after his untimely death in August 2010.
To underline just what good value Southampton FC was, in August 2011 Academy graduate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was, reluctantly, flogged to Arsenal for £12-million. We were very fortunate that the Club did not fall into the hands of asset strippers.
St Mary’s Stadium proved an imposing structure in the Football League, however, it had proved inadequate as a Premier League ground from the off. Saints’ all time attendance record was broken at the opening competitive fixture there, the 2-0 Premiership defeat by Chelsea witnessed by 31,107 on 25 August 2001 – breaking The Dell’s record gate by 53 souls. The ground record was broken on five further occasions during the 2001-02 season. The current record crowd attended the promotion securing 4-0 defeat of Coventry City on the last day of the 2010-11 season, Saturday 28 April, when 32,363 sashayed through the turnstiles.
This is not to suggest that Rupert and company had not done their homework on potential attendances. The Saints’ maximum gate had been restricted to a little over 15,000 for the previous eight seasons and the highest seasonal attendance in the Club’s history had been in 1967-68, with a grand total of 517,970 – the average per game being 24,665.
That figure was over 7,300 short of The Dell’s reputed capacity. Even in ’83-84, when Saints finished the season as runners-up in Division One, crowds rarely rose above 18,000. The reckoning in 1998 was that that the Club could afford to build a 32,000 capacity stadium on the Northam Gasworks site and sustain themselves as a competitive Premier League organisation on average gates of 27,000. That was a bold projection.
Of course, the “New Dell” should have been built at Stoneham, which would have allowed for a proper, more economically efficient facility. The plans were for a “community stadium”, which would have accommodated much more than Southampton Football Club. At Northam the Club had to cough up for extras such as having the gasworks site decontaminated and an archaeological survey. St Mary’s is situated within the environs of the Saxon port of Hamwic; the earliest post-Roman settlement that could be described as a town yet to be uncovered in northern Europe. Patrons of the corner formed by the Northam and Kingsland stands may be tickled by the intelligence that they sit above a seventh century cemetery?
Barr, worked in conjunction with The Miller Partnership, architects, both firms have a reputation for delivering large projects, particularly sporting arena, on time and on budget. One of the most important facets of the project was its flexibility. St Mary’s is designed, ultimately, to accommodate around 42,000 spectators with a minimum of deconstruction work. There is little doubt that had it not been for Saints’ extended exile from the Premier League we would now be supporting them from a substantially larger stadium.
Those wishing to denigrate the Saints – from within as well as without – have observed that St Mary’s is “off the peg”, as if this was a drawback. A lame criticism. It allows a commanding view of a mass spectator sport for people of all ages with commendable facilities for those with disabilities in a safe environment. If you are among those who feel we should have been delivered of a stadium gifting greater architectural kudos I recommend you take a good look at it from the Itchen Bridge or Peartree Green – before all the trees up there come to maturity and block the view. It does cut a dash on the landscape.
A year after the new stadium opened came the publication of a tome that all true Saints supporters should own: The Friends Provident St. Mary’s Stadium: The Story of Southampton FC’s New Sporting Landmark, From it’s [sic] Conception To The End Of A Memorable First Season. Not the most succinct of titles, but it’s stuffed full of delightful statistics. Here, for your delectation, is a selection:
Yes indeed, St Mary’s is stadium built to take the piss – with élan.
President Ted Bates was accorded the honour of cutting the ceremonial ribbon at the grand opening of The Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium, prior to a match with Espanyol. Chairman Rupert Lowe stands by in case of scissor failure.
Andrew Cowen (right) was credited by Rupert Lowe with much of the background work on the new stadium. Rupert noted that Andrew had worked “tirelessly” on the project “and he, and all the staff at the club, deserve enormous credit …”
Photo’s © Southampton FC
A new beginning. A fresh start. Southampton’s saviours Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese (as portrayed in the Saints programme).
Nicola had some strident critics. In the main they are those most prominent in disparaging Rupert Lowe’s chairmanship. There’s a moral there if you care to look for it.
The spire of St Mary’s Church as seen from the corner of the Itchen and Northam stands.
St Mary’s Stadium, as seen from Spear Road on Sunday 16 May 2015 – five pints after the 6-1 defeat of Aston Villa
This seventh century pendant was one of the more decorous finds made by Wessex Archaeology
The visitors’ centre (left) proved popular.
The structure taking shape below is the Itchen Stand