Built on Saints
Back from the brink: The summer of 2009
Whilst the 2010s turned into one of Southampton’s most successful eras for a generation, the previous decade ended in chaos.
Such was the uncertainty in summer 2009, the club’s future was hanging by a thread. Aspirations of a return to the Premier League seemed about as likely as competing in Europe and reaching a major cup final.
As it transpired, all three of those seemingly impossible feats materialised within eight years of Saints’ darkest hour.
Relegation in 2005 brought down the curtain on 27 consecutive seasons in England’s top division, as financial turmoil set in.
The club came close to a rapid return, losing in the Championship play-offs to Derby two years later, but two years after that, disaster struck, as Saints dropped into the third tier for the first time since 1960.
With two games to go there was still a chance of survival, but soaring debts sent the club into administration, and the threat of a 10-point deduction sealed their fate.
Goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, voted the club’s Player of the Year that season, picks up the story.
“I can still remember coming into the café where John and Dave used to make the bread rolls and heat up the food for lunch with the TV on in the back room,” he recalls.
“There it was on the ticker tape running across the screen: ‘Saints deducted 10 points.’ You knew then this wasn’t going to finish well, which it didn’t.
“I specifically remember asking John where the boiled eggs were, and he said ‘we can’t afford them, mate.’
“That was a bit of an eye-opener; a clear message of what the situation was like. The administrators were in and everything had to be accounted for, and eggs were firmly off the menu. Obviously, every penny counted.”
As it happened, Saints’ tally of 45 points was not enough to survive even without the deduction, which meant the 10 points would be stripped from their 2009/10 total instead – a season in which the club, and its 32,000 all-seater stadium, would be hosting League One football.
“Unless you go through that experience, you don’t really realise what the true fanbase is like,” Davis continues.
“I remember going into my local chip shop with my dad on the way home from a game, and there was a ‘Save the Saints’ bucket.
“People were popping their change in the bucket after they ordered their fish and chips. I found that quite odd – I was buying fish and chips for my dad and there was a bucket there to pay my wages.
“It was certainly a time when everyone came together. I had experienced that before in my time at Wimbledon; you do really find out who the people are around you who really do it for the love of football.
“We speak a lot about fans – not just at our club but at all clubs, and the role they play. To have that kind of response from the fanbase was pretty special.”
Ros Wheeler has been employed by Saints for 32 years, having started work in the Ticket Office, and was already in her current role as Club Secretary at crisis point.
“When we went into administration I was really shocked,” she said. “The football club as an entity was strong – it wasn’t the football club that was put into administration, it was the group, it was Leisure Holdings.
“It was used as a way of getting new ownership. The Leisure Holdings ownership, because of all the stakeholders, was putting new buyers off.
“By putting the group into administration it was felt that the club would be a more saleable asset. They also thought we wouldn’t get the 10-point deduction, but of course that happened anyway. It was done for the right reasons, and the rest snowballed from there.”
“It had got to a stage where the football club was insolvent,” administrator Mark Fry explained at the time. “It couldn’t meet its liabilities as and when they fell due and the bank weren’t prepared to fund it to the extent that was needed.
“An administration for the football club was considered, but the accountants concerned, when they looked at it, weren’t prepared to take the appointment.
“Their reason was that the football club just didn’t have the financial capability to make it to the end of the season. Bearing in mind they had been involved for some time, that was quite a shock to the board and to the bank.”
Fry was subsequently appointed as administrator of the holding company, while Rupert Lowe stood down as chairman.
“The football club would continue to trade for as long as it could,” he continued. “The key part of the strategy was getting the gate numbers up, as you were getting an average at that time of around 15,000.
“And it was by being very cautious around spending and getting creditor buy-in and it was around donations from fans.
“We felt by adopting that strategy we could probably generate the extra cash needed to get to the end of the season. Bear in mind, at that point, there was an expected shortfall of about £1million.”
Fry’s preferred buyer was the Pinnacle consortium, backed by Saints legend Matt Le Tissier, for whom former club chairman Leon Crouch funded a period of exclusivity and contributed a significant amount of money to cover staff wages.
Crouch’s actions, along with the summer sales of Nathan Dyer, David McGoldrick and Andrew Surman for a combined £2.6m, were “absolutely critical” to the club’s survival, according to Wheeler.
But when the Pinnacle takeover collapsed, a proposed rival bid from a Swiss consortium led by Markus Liebherr also came under threat.
“I was aware there was foreign interest, but I didn’t know it was Markus,” Wheeler says. “When the payment was made, that delayed that interest from Markus because they paid for the exclusivity, which gave them a three-week exclusivity period on the sale.
“Markus and the group had to take a step back so they almost walked away, but when that exclusivity period ended and it was proved the other group didn’t have the funds, they stepped back in.
“It was emotional, it was worrying, but in the back of your head you still felt that we’d come through it. There were some difficult times though.”
Light at the end of the tunnel finally arrived when Liebherr completed the deal two months after the club had been placed in administration.
“It was July 8th,” Wheeler remembers. “I got the phone call to say Markus had bought the club and that Nicola (Cortese) would be coming in, just initially, to run the club on behalf of Markus. It was a massive relief.
“It’s in the manifesto: we’ve been to the abyss and we’ve built our way back up. That’s actually how it was – it wasn’t a story, we lived it.”
A key figure in Saints’ ensuing resurrection was Davis, who captained the club through the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy triumph at Wembley eight months later, and the subsequent promotions, in consecutive seasons, back to the Premier League.
The recovery was remarkable, as Saints defied the odds as only they can, but their inspirational goalkeeper – who made more than 300 appearances for the club and still works as a coach today – was moments away from missing it all.
“Sometimes these stories can get fantasised a little bit, but the absolute truth of it was that I was out of contract, I’d spoken to Rupert Lowe before the end of the season and he’d shown his intentions that if he was around he’d like to extend the contract,” Davis recalls.
“He was quite adamant it wouldn’t be on the level I was on at the time. I understood that, because it was a time that everybody would have to cut their cloth, and if you wanted to be here you had to accept that.
“I was on the back of one of the best seasons in my career in terms of the way I felt, the way I was at home, the kids had started school and I felt completely settled – like Southampton Football Club was my club and I was meant to be here.
“I think that was strengthened by having a year at Sunderland and not feeling that way, experiencing the other side of football – not being happy, not wanting to leave the house to go to training.
“That was probably my most difficult time in football, so I think once you experience that, you know what it is that makes you feel good, what life is meant to be like and how you want it to be. I wanted to give it every opportunity to be here and stay at Saints.
“I remember a call from my agent. The club was still in administration, I’d had lots of calls from Ros on a daily basis with lots of updates.
“It was an honest conversation. I just said, ‘look, I’ve got a family to feed, mortgages to pay, bills to pay, and there’s an opportunity for me at West Ham.’ A couple of other clubs had shown interest, but they were the standout. I’d agreed a two-year contract.”
However reluctant he may have been, Davis’s mind was made up. But there was a twist in the tale.
“I trained for two days with West Ham, but on the second day I still hadn’t signed, because the guy who did the contracts at the time was an Italian guy who wasn’t in the country,” he says, smiling at how the stars aligned.
“Then I had a phone call from Ros in the hotel between sessions. She said, ‘have you signed yet?’ I said, ‘no, the guy’s not in.’ She said, ‘we’re in a position to offer you a contract now’.
“It was quite interesting, because loyalty is one of my core values. I’d agreed with the manager and with the club, so it was going to be very difficult for me to ‘unagree’ that.
“I drove back to the training ground, knocked on the manager’s door, which was Gianfranco Zola at the time. I remember sitting there for 10 or 15 minutes when I just continued to talk the whole time, saying, ‘this is what I want, but I know what I’ve agreed.’
“He just stopped me and said, ‘Kelvin, I want my players to be happy. If you’re going to be happier at Southampton, you need to go and do that.’
“That says so much for him, and how he was as a manager and as a person, because I’m not sure every manager would’ve come back with that response.
“It just never ever felt right to be leaving. We often talk about fate and ‘it wasn’t meant to be,’ but the guy not being there to sign the contract, the club getting taken over at the 11th hour…
“It was a really interesting period and one of those stories that’s great to tell when I’m looking out of a building that’s cost £40-odd million to build!”
Nowadays, as Davis points out, the club is thriving with its state-of-the-art training ground as it embarks on its tenth consecutive season back in the big time.
“I felt I was duty-bound to remind every new signing we made that they wouldn’t be earning that contract if it wasn’t for us guys getting us out of League One!” he jokes, only slightly tongue in cheek.
“I used to take some enjoyment out of that… I wanted to remind people in the dressing room – that was important, because there was a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get us in that position. I wanted people to appreciate that.”