Southampton's path to becoming a Premier League side and impressing viewers from all quarters with their ability to adapt and compete has been a remarkably short—and happy—one, but fans received dire news on Wednesday.
BBC Sport's Ben Smith reports that chairman Nicola Cortese, the man credited by many for orchestrating the club's rise from the third tier of English football to its top nine teams, has departed the club after handing in his resignation, effective immediately.
While the removing of a figurehead at a club is nothing new, for Southampton in particular it's a move which could easily spark a downturn in fortunes after a period of such success, leaving them with a number of both short- and long-term problems to take care of.
Saints' Improvement under Cortese
When Cortese joined Southampton in 2009 they were way down in League One, but since then they have risen back to the top flight with successive promotions in 2011 and 2012. They also claimed the Johnstone's Paint Trophy in 2010.
A season of stability and survival might have been uppermost in most clubs' thoughts at that point, joining England's elite in the Premier League, but partway through last season Cortese opted to change manager Nigel Adkins for Mauricio Pochettino.
That alteration has since seen Southampton finish 14th last season and rise into the top half this term, where they currently sit ninth—but with a handsome seven-point buffer down to the teams below them.
Long-term Sustainable Strategy
As an executive chairman, Cortese naturally had a huge role in the running of the club and it is fair to say that the modern-day look of Southampton Football Club was largely sculpted, planned and created in his image.
Cortese was involved in everything from the output and focus of the club's successful academy—responsible for the likes of current first-teamers Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse—to the style of play demanded of the managers at first-team level and the establishment of top-level training facilities enjoyed by all at the club.
Not only that, but the scouting and identification of transfer targets also fell at least part under Cortese's remit, work which saw Southampton sign the likes of Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren in the summer.
All of these key aspects of the club are now in the hands, temporarily at least, of club owner Katharina Liebherr (until a chief executive is appointed).
It seems extremely unlikely that any January transfers may now be completed by the Saints—but what of the longer-term targets already identified for summer?
It's possible a new CEO could want to subtly alter the direction that the academy takes, or has less of an appreciative eye as to what justifies the best bargain to be had while bringing genuine quality to Southampton's team.
Cortese has carried Southampton from League One to the Premier League's top half and his work was to be an even longer-term process, challenging for the title itself in due course. That now falls to someone else—someone who will not have four years and the anonymity of League One football to protect them and their decisions.
More Immediate Issues at Stake?
Before even the end of the season, perhaps, there are two key issues to address.
The first involves the players, many of whom may have been sold the idea of a sustainable Southampton, reliable and mapped out with a future to look forward to. Will some—including some of the most promising youngsters—be tempted to look elsewhere?
The best seniors might well also be considering jumping ship, especially if now that Cortese has departed, a different set of instructions—namely, maximise income—are handed down from above to the manager or chief executive.
Secondly, there is also manager Mauricio Pochettino to consider.
The Argentine has gone on record previously, as per BBC Sport, as stating he would leave the club if Cortese was to depart, as the chairman was the sole reason he had joined in the Southampton project.
Whether this still holds true a year after joining and enjoying some notable success on the pitch remains to be seen, but Pochettino will certainly demand assurances that his own part of the project is not going to be unduly harmed by Cortese's departure.
Southampton will barely have any time to absorb this news before they have to focus their immediate attentions on Sunderland in the Premier League, Yeovil in the FA Cup and then Arsenal in a league clash.
Past the halfway point in the season, there is every reason to suspect they should seal a top-half finish this season, no mean feat in just their second campaign, wherein all reputations would be boosted. Then, it is conceivable, more departures might be considered.
Southampton have been on an incredible journey over the past four years, but Cortese's absence will mark a critical period for the club. They simply must get his replacement right to avoid the wheels coming off in a big way, undoing all the hard work which has gone on to get the Saints back into the big time and with a future to look forward to.
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