Southampton: Nicola Cortese at heart of Saints success story

Rickie Lambert has been one of Southampton's success stories

Southampton have become the envy of English football this season, so it has been no surprise to learn of Tottenham's admiration for manager Mauricio Pochettino following the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas.

This progressive young Argentine has been praised for his tactical nous but he will not have given a second thought to swapping Saints for Spurs for one reason and one reason only - executive chairman Nicola Cortese.

Much has been written about the secret of Southampton's success, the reason for the club's rise from the brink of liquidation and the depths of League One in 2009-2010, to the upper echelons of the Premier League.

Former managers and Pochettino have rightly been lauded, as have the club's academy directors after producing a string of bright young English talent. But the players, staff and Pochettino himself speak with one voice when they say Cortese is the one man the club cannot do without.

The Italy-born Swiss has been portrayed as a ruthless megalomaniac. When he sacked Nigel Adkins last January, he was described as "an embarrassment", accused of not understanding the game and questioned by fans and former players alike. The critics have since gone quiet.

Spend a few hours at Southampton's Marchwood training centre and you will form a different view of Cortese, The kit men and the groundsmen know him as Nicola, not Mr Chairman. He knows the names of their wives and family. He sends birthday cards. He actually seems to care.

Is he fiercely ambitious? Yes. Is he incredibly driven? Definitely. But everyone at the club seems to agree there is no great secret behind their success.

Southampton executive chairman Nicola Cortese
Southampton executive chairman Nicola Cortese is fiercely ambitious

Southampton focus on themselves, they play the same way whether they are playing Manchester United away or Hull City at home. They train that way, from the academy through to the first team. Formations are not discussed. Numbers are not used. It is about shape, structure not 4-3-3 or 4-5-1. Under Cortese, this is a slick operation where no detail is overlooked.

Marginal gains are everything at Southampton. Small improvements on and off the field that add up to continued and consistent improvement. The players talk about their chairman as someone who constantly surprises them, challenges them and demands more from them. The new training ground is a case in point.

The first team are expected to move into it next summer but the players are already talking among themselves safe in the knowledge that it will be the best, simply because their chairman has overseen the entire project. Southampton want to create an environment where the players want to stay around after training and want to mix with each other. The main building will resemble a five-star hotel, as will the staff.

The 12 pitches have been built on different levels to avoid creating a large, windswept area. Gardeners will be employed, terracing installed and the playing surfaces will vary from pitch to pitch to replicate the many different types of grass and artificial grass that is woven into Premier League pitches.

The scouting set-up is the envy of the biggest clubs in England; it is focused, structured and unerringly accurate. Targets are identified months in advance. Panic buys are a thing of the past. The development of young English players stems from Cortese's vision - he wants to field a team of them - as does the style of play which Pochettino has realised so brilliantly this season.

Southampton's incredible rise to prominence in recent seasons is not a fluke, it was carefully planned. And the planning is now focusing on new goals.

Last April, the players were shown a film called the "Southampton Way". It charted the development of the team from League One to the Premier League and, at the end, insiders say, asked not if Southampton can win the Premier League, but how.

That is the ultimate target for this project and there is a belief throughout the club that it is attainable and realistic, however impossible those outside might deem it. Many of the players have committed themselves to the club because of their chairman.

They say he encourages them to talk to each other, encourage each other to sign new deals and grow together. Interest in the manager is futile at this stage because he is committed to the Southampton way and committed to Cortese beyond all else. Leading clubs in Italy and Germany have expressed an interest in Southampton's executive chairman.

Were Cortese to leave in the future, Pochettino would follow suit and many of the club's leading players would also question their future. The club's success is the realisation of Cortese's vision. Pochettino would be the first to deflect any suggestions that this season is down to him.

For now, Southampton's project remains very much on course. As long, as the chairman remains at the helm, anything is possible.

So the question now is not whether Southampton can hang on to Pochettino, but whether they can keep Cortese.

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