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Neil Humphreys
Friday, Aug 1, 2014

Sports

Saints' fire sale burns EPL soul

The New Paper | Neil Humphreys | Friday, Aug 1, 2014

England defender Luke Shaw kicks the ball during the friendly match between England and Ecuador at Miami Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on June 4, 2014.

Southampton have set the benchmark for every side outside the top six before a competitive ball has been kicked.

Their seasons are effectively over before they’ve even started.

Delusions of grandeur are not advised in the English Premier League. Smaller clubs may harbour dreams of toppling Goliath’s chequebooks, but there are just not enough catapults to go around.

As the Saints go marching out of St Mary’s, there is no trumpeting among the minnows. No one is getting ideas above their station.

The Premier League’s bully boys are ruthlessly policing their territory once more, smashing the ambitions of lesser lights with their brutish truncheons.

England is no country for hopeful men.

Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert and Calum Chambers’ swift departures to bright lights, big cities and fat wallets could yet be emulated by Daniel Osvaldo, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jay Rodriguez and Jose Fonte before the transfer window closes.

The Saints may be nine good men down by Sept 1. That’s not a seasonal adjustment of playing stocks. That’s systematic annihilation; they have been disembowelled, their soul ripped out with all the loving care of Jack the Ripper’s blade.

Any hackneyed notion of a talented prospect inevitably progressing to a more lucrative, prestigious workplace spectacularly misses the point.

Exodus bad for England

Gareth Bale leaving Tottenham for Real Madrid or even Luis Suarez swopping Anfield for the Nou Camp fits that criterion, along with Shaw heading to Manchester United or any of his former team-mates jumping a listing Southampton ship.

On a case-by-case basis, there are few complaints.

Taken collectively, however, the mass exodus is as depressing as it is destabilising for the club, the league and England’s national game itself.

Smaller clubs always sell to bigger clubs — Southampton’s remarkable youth academy reared and sold Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Bale in the past — but a fire sale of this magnitude cuts to the very core of a club’s psyche.

Southampton owner Katharina Liebherr, who inherited the club from her late father and has shown little interest in the family heirloom in the past, has hinted that the almost £100 million ($210m) will be reinvested in Ronald Koeman’s depleted squad, but the Saints have unwittingly marked their own card.

They are now a selling club; no more, no less. They are a selling club with £100m kicking around, admittedly, but perception is often reality.

At a stroke, the Saints have ruled themselves out of the bidding for proven competitors capable of replacing Lallana, Shaw and Lovren. Koeman is consigned to shopping in the bargain basement for the discounted items and anything of quality with a limited use-by date; he’s a millionaire waving a fistful of dollars at a pasar malam, all cashed up and no one to buy.

Silverware contenders do not join selling clubs.

Whatever the circumstances, Southampton’s flurry of sudden departures underlines the position of their kindred spirits in the EPL.

Anyone outside the top six is under no illusion about their status.

They incubate and nurture their fledgling talents, enjoy a solid season, flog the lot and spend subsequent seasons flirting with — or succumbing to — relegation.

Southampton are predictably promising to write a brave new chapter in their precarious narrative, but Fulham, Middlesbrough, Bolton, Blackburn, Charlton and Birmingham already know how this story ends.

As for Lallana, Shaw, Lovren, Lambert and Chambers and possibly Schneiderlin, Rodriguez and Fonte (Osvaldo is such a loose cannon he doesn’t count), how many of them are guaranteed first-team starters next season?

Bale is proving to be the complete Southampton success story; the little boy who made it at Real. But he’s a rarity. The Premier League is littered with the broken promises of Scott Sinclair and the bruised egos of James Milner.

Big fish drowning in bigger, congested pools is a more common tale.

Southampton combined a terrific scouting network and youth academy, with the tactical boldness of Mauricio Pochettino, to design a fresh attacking template.

Built on a solid defensive formation, the Saints swaggered with their high pressing, swift counter-attacking game.

Like Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the Saints had the makings of a distinct playing style, carefully cultivated through their youth ranks. The Southampton way was bristling with potential — both for club and country.

It’s been ruthlessly ripped apart in a single transfer window.

The Saints are firmly back among the also-rans. Their former creative forces are now scattered among the big boys, either jostling for playing time or collecting bench splinters.

And the Three Lions will plod through Euro 2016 qualification wondering again why they can’t play like those pesky Dutch or Germans. Normal service has resumed.

The minnows once dared to dream down at St Mary’s. And that’s not really allowed in the English Premier League.

This article was published on July 30 in The New Paper.

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