Both Sunderland and Southampton play in red and white and that is where the similarities end. But why is that? In 2011, Southampton won promotion back to the Championship from League One. That same season, Sunderland finished 10th in the top flight despite a poor end to the campaign. It would later turn out to be the highest placed finish of our ten-year stint in the Premier League. Southampton only returned to the top flight in 2012, halfway through our decade in the Premier League and just the year things started to turn sour for us.
This article was inspired by the ‘Puel Out’ campaign on the south coast last weekend, which caught the public eye in Southampton’s final game of the season against Stoke. They lost 0-1 in a largely tepid affair as both sets of players seemingly had the proverbial flip-flops on. Home supporters had jeered at Claude Puel with chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing”, “you’re getting sacked in the morning”, and “we want Puel out”. I have to admit that this took me by surprise.
Looking from the outside as a Sunderland fan, I didn’t understand how a club – only recently established in the Premier League – could look upon an 8th place finish in the Premier League and a cup final with such disdain. This is a club that consistently turns a profit, selling its best players every summer to the biggest clubs in the division, yet the fans are demanding more.
I tried to put myself in their shoes but I couldn’t. And this is when I realised just how far apart the two clubs were in terms of ambition. Sunderland and Southampton have always been separated by the length of the country – never has the distance between the ambitions of the two clubs looked so great.
To our credit, we have never been an arrogant club – but nor have we been an ambitious one either. I think the blame for this lies predominantly with our chairman. Ellis Short has always demonstrated that the most important thing to him was Premier League survival. He has shown no indication he can plan for the long-term success of the club. This lack of ambition from the chairman has convinced everyone that a 17th placed finish is acceptable; for a club of our size and potential, it shouldn’t be.
In my opinion, the reason behind Southampton’s rise to the top flight and subsequent success as a top ten club is down to one man – Les Reed. The term Director of Football carries with it a lot of negative connotations. Ask a fellow Lads fan what they think about the DoF model and they may well say they don’t like the interference in the first team and that managers should have control over the transfers in and out of the club.
But why is that? In the modern game, managers have an average shelf life of less than two seasons. Pochettino, Koeman, and Puel have all been through the door at Southampton in the past five years but Southampton’s performances haven’t suffered. Les Reed made sure Southampton never breached their long-term plan or philosophy for one manager. And they have delivered results on the pitch no matter who was the manager.
Compare this if you will to our club – David Moyes was the only manager to last an entire season at the club since John O’Shea joined us in 2011. This is pathetic. We constantly ‘rip it all up and start again’ with managers with vastly different philosophies. How can players signed for Poyet’s patient possession game fit into Big Sam’s more direct style? The answer is they can’t. Which is why every summer we have to waste money bringing in players to suit a style of football that will most likely only stick around for half a season.
This became a downward spiral from 2011 that left us with a top ten Premier League wage budget and a group of Championship standard players. And Rodwell. At least relegation will give us a chance to put this right.
Les Reed is ostensibly the Director of Football at Southampton. His official title this season may have changed to Executive Director this season but from 2010-2016 he was the Head of Football Development at the club (a fancy way of saying Director of Football). He oversaw all aspects of football at Southampton, from the tactics of the Under 7s to hiring and firing the first-team managers. He has almost single-handedly turned Southampton into the club they are today.
Southampton are now in a position of financial stability and are rightly considered a top ten Premier League club. And they are only looking up. I wish to god that it was us in this position.
I am strongly in favour of us bringing in a Director of Football as part of our restructure in the Championship. I am confident it would help us plan for long-term success and would leave us far less vulnerable when the next series of managers all leave after half a season.
We should be looking to Southampton as an example of a club who successfully rebuilt below the top division and came back stronger. The word ‘rebuild’ is being bandied around too much at the moment, but Southampton have provided the blue-print for how to do it well.