The series of poor decisions that sent Saints marching out of Premier League | Southampton

They say fortune favours the brave. Not always, as Southampton have discovered to their detriment. Relegation to the Championship ends a largely positive 11-year stay in the Premier League and erases their image as a model club, though in truth that was beginning to be scrubbed away a few years ago.

From radically overhauling the squad with an influx of youngsters to replacing Ralph Hasenhüttl mid-season with Nathan Jones, untested at the elite level, on the merit of metrics and then giving Rubén Sellés the job until the end of the season on the back of a surprise win at Chelsea, a series of bold decisions by the club’s owner, Sport Republic, have badly backfired.

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“We have no problem admitting mistakes,” Rasmus Ankersen, the Sport Republic chief executive and former co-director of football at Brentford, said this year. There might be a few to cover off in the close season.

Southampton’s captain, James Ward-Prowse, recently acknowledged how the shift in approach has contributed to their decline. “We all know the changes that happened at the start of the season have had an impact,” he said.

Armel Bella-Kotchap, who was part of Germany’s squad at the World Cup, and Roméo Lavia have burnished their reputations but too many signings have not worked. Theo Walcott, now 34, has been one of Southampton’s best performers in recent weeks.

The data, Ankersen said, suggested Jones would improve Southampton’s record at defending set pieces and deliver more clean sheets. With two games left to play, the numbers make grim reading: Southampton have kept a league-low four clean sheets from 36 matches and only three teams have a worse defensive record at set pieces. They have won once at home in the league since August and lost seven of their past eight matches, with relegation confirmed after defeat against Fulham.

Southampton supporters knew this was coming, long before Saturday’s result. They were dipping into their diaries as soon as the English Football League confirmed key dates for next season on Wednesday. Many would argue the writing was on the wall after they won one of their final 13 matches last season to stumble to 15th.

Southampton debated sacking Hasenhüttl last summer but stuck with him and instead revamped his staff, with the former goalkeeper Kelvin Davis among those replaced. Most feared the worst after they failed to sign a proven striker for the new season, after moves for Cody Gakpo and Gonçalo Ramos, among others, did not materialise. The burden on Ché Adams was always likely to be too great.

There were various warning signs throughout the season, too. Victory at Bournemouth in October, Hasenhüttl’s last win in charge, papered over the cracks that were exposed two weeks later in a 4-1 hammering at home to Newcastle that cost the Austrian his job. Southampton supporters were incandescent by the end of Jones’s reign and wide-eyed when the 49-year-old, who worked wonders across two spells at Luton, was hired as Hasenhüttl’s replacement last November.

Things looked ominous for Jones from the moment Southampton squeaked past Lincoln in the Carabao Cup, his first home game. They lost the following three matches, the last of which was to Nottingham Forest, whose sole league away win to date came at St Mary’s. Last month Southampton lacked gumption as they slipped to a 2-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace. A home defeat by Grimsby of League Two in the FA Cup in March was another alarming episode.

Nathan Jones
Nathan Jones lasted just three months as manager. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Galling for fans – and doubtless Sport Republic – is that the one time Southampton have significantly invested in their squad in recent years, things have ended in tears. The club have spent £127m across the past two transfer windows, more than Liverpool, twice Fulham’s outlay and triple Palace’s. But such cash was misspent, especially in January.

Mislav Orsic, part of the Croatia team that finished third in Qatar, has been conspicuous by his absence, playing just six minutes in the league since signing from Dinamo Zagreb. Kamaldeen Sulemana and Carlos Alcaraz have shown flashes of talent, while Paul Onuachu, a 6ft 7in striker signed on deadline day, has barely featured. The arrival of James Bree, a full-back Jones knew from Luton who cost £750,000, peanuts by Premier League standards, is indicative of Southampton’s disjointed thinking. Seventeen days later Jones was sacked. Bree has played once since.

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A raft of key figures have trickled out of the door over the course of a miserable season. Joe Shields, who joined as head of recruitment last summer and was influential in the arrivals of Gavin Bazunu, Juan Larios and Samuel Edozie from Manchester City, where Shields worked previously, joined Chelsea in October. Matt Crocker, the club’s director of football, is joining the US Soccer federation as sporting director. Toby Steele, the managing director, is working his notice period. The former chief commercial officer David Thomas was replaced by Charlie Boss in January. Other high-profile exits are expected behind the scenes across what will be another summer of change.

Southampton’s relegation will invariably raise concerns but the club are on a sound financial footing and have owners who have pledged their support. “If the worst happens and we end up getting relegated we are fully committed to the club, it’s a long-term investment for all of us involved,” Ankersen said at a fans’ forum in February. “We believe in the club and will do everything we can to come back as quickly as possible.”

The expected departures of Ward-Prowse, Lavia, Adams, Bella-Kotchap and Kyle Walker-Peters could feasibly collect more than £100m.

James Ward-Prowse of Southampton after their relegation was confirmed.
James Ward-Prowse of Southampton after their relegation was confirmed. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

It is easy to catastrophise Southampton’s predicament but at the end of last season, midway through his final commentary for BBC Radio Solent at St Mary’s, the former Southampton manager Dave Merrington gave an impassioned half-time speech on the pitch that should be ringing in the ears of supporters as they face up to a first relegation since dropping into League One in 2009, when a 10-point penalty for entering administration sealed their fate.

Three years later they were back in the big time. Merrington took charge of the mic, his message booming over the stadium speakers. “These boys are tomorrow’s future, the future of the club,” Merrington said last May.

“But just remember this, you,” he said, pointing to the fans. “You are the heartbeat of this club.”

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