Cortese departure puts Saints in a spin
Exit of chairman after bust-up with Swiss owner rankles Southampton just as the feel-good factor was kicking in
Emblazoned along the sides of St Mary's stadium are oversized posters of Southampton's team badge and the slogan "It's Happening …"
The question on the lips of most supporters of the south coast Premier League club this weekend is exactly what is happening after the architect of the team's success, Nicola Cortese, suddenly departed after a power struggle with club owner and multi-billionaire Katharina Liebherr.
Over a roller-coaster 24 hours midweek, the 128-year-old club faced another uncertain future and supporters were plunged into a fit of despair and disbelief.
We are all thinking: here we go again. The humiliation of administration and League One football remain very fresh in the memory.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino entered his weekly press conference with the haunting look of a man about to face an unwanted inquisition. Eight months ago, he said he would leave if the man who recruited him, Cortese, departed.
Would he stay true to his words? "I did say that … the situation now is completely different. We're in the middle of our process and our project. It would make no sense to leave in the middle of our path," he said through his translator, a perfect disarmer to the Fleet Street pack hunting for a headline with their probing questions.
Pochettino said he had not slept because of the shock of Cortese's exit. But a collective sigh of relief rippled across the Solent when he said he would remain "100 per cent" committed to the club until the end of the season and that stability ahead of Saturday's game away to Sunderland was his focus.
Despite his commitment, the club's future looks uncertain and in footballing terms, that usually heralds disaster. No sooner had the short-term dread of a mass exodus of a much-admired manager and his small, but bright constellation of stars dissipated, a new dread surfaced.
What now would be the plans of the owner, the reclusive Liebherr, who after wresting power from her chief executive, installed herself as chairman? Liebherr inherited the club after her father, Markus, died suddenly in 2010. She reportedly has no interest in the club and little knowledge of football.
It is widely acknowledged the bust-up between her and Cortese was not over the usual issues that divide boardrooms and dressing rooms, such as transfer funds, wages or investment, but because she wants to sell the club.
Cortese was apparently in agreement, but advocated a two- to three-year exit strategy, whereas Liebherr wants the club on the market immediately.
Why would she want to run a club, located hundreds of kilometres from her native Switzerland - and which was bought by her father for around £14 million (HK$178.5 million) - when she can sell to the highest bidder and likely obtain over £100 million?
Surely her business advisers are pointing out that the club is likely at its peak value. She could invest another £100 million plus to try to get to the next stage - domestic trophies and European football - but money does not guarantee you glory.
The only thing her advisers might not have reckoned upon is that the value could go down if problems arise from the instability left by Cortese's departure.
Some of Southampton's players are said to be furious and a number of the prominent one are considering their positions, including England stalwarts Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez.
Some fear the club will be sold to an unknown entity, to an egocentric owner - another Vincent Tan of Cardiff or Assem Allam of Hull.
Rumours abound of course, more so with Cortese and the owner hiding behind a wall of silence.
One theory is Cortese told Pochettino to stay put because he is now busy trying to assemble a consortium to buy out Liebherr. He still has plans, the optimists claim. After all, last April, he gave a presentation to the players during which he did not ask if Southampton can win the Premier League, but how can they win it.
So could all the drama, the distant, elitist boardroom battle of egos, be nothing more than a ruse?
The first casualty of an EPL club on the verge of a crisis is, of course, the truth.
What is fact is that this week has been surreal. Any departure of a respected, revered manager justifiability causes grief among supporters who crave nothing but loyalty, more wins than losses and stability.
But the exit of a chairman? A few months ago Saints fans were pinching themselves during another three-point performance. It was not so much they were victorious and their halo illuminating the top four EPL slots, it was the great football that was winning over neutrals and admirers around the world.
Not since 1976 and the FA Cup final win over Manchester United or the heady days of Mick Channon and Kevin Keegan in the 1980s, nor Matt Le Tissier's wonder clinchers in the 1990s, had the feeling around the club felt so positive.
We fans could indulge in the dreams being sold to us. Now we're looking up at those big posters that tell us, "It's Happening", and we mutter bitterly: "You mean this?"