Saints seek inspiration from former glories

Jan Poortvliet has had a tough start at Southampton, but, he tells Jason Burt, taking on Manchester United could yet prove a turning point
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The Independent Football

Cup memories swirl around Southampton – of 1976 and Bobby Stokes, winning the trophy against tomorrow's third round opponents Manchester United, of 2003 and the gutsy run to the final that was let down by an inhibited performance at the Millennium Stadium.

But no-one can quite compete with the cup recollections of the club's present head coach, Jan Poortvliet who, rather than shy away from the memories of playing for the Netherlands in that charged, evocative 1978 World Cup final against Argentina, just nine months after making his international debut, embraces them.

"It's good you say that," Poortvliet states when reminded of the scenes in Buenos Aires, the sense of loss for a golden generation of Dutch footballers that summer and throughout the 70s, of Total Football, that has never quite been processed. "I talk with my players and now they all talk about money and I think they should talk about titles, about what you want in your life, about challenges.

"To go through in the FA Cup against Manchester United, or going to the final, or you win the Championship. That's what football is about, the direction it has to go in. Money is, for now, the happiness of most of the players and I would love that they go out onto the pitch to prove themselves in another way and to enjoy that because that's what people want to see, players with passion. And I love to see that."

Even at Southampton, cash-strapped, debt-ridden, 23rd in the Championship – after a rapid fall from grace from eighth place in the Premier League just five years ago — the currency is, for some, hard cash. "Even with our players, when they are earning £1,000-a-week, they want £4,000-a-week and they are busy with that," Poortvliet, in his heavily-accented, rapid-fire English, says.

"But when he earns £4,000, he doesn't bring more than when he earned £1,000. He's not more motivated. When you play well, and go on and on and then £1,000-a-week will become £5,000. Sometimes though you are happy with only money but I will be happy only when we stay in the league or are in the play-offs."

Or also when his first conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson is after tomorrow afternoon's match and, Poortvliet says, "he says 'congratulations'." The 53-year-old has a phrase for what he is driving at. "Normally," he says, "you should have a sport heart and that means you go for the highest possible and that's what I mean by the money. I should do everything to win, it's a culture and you want to bring it to the football."

He certainly believes that Ferguson has a 'sport heart', adding: "I have a great admiration for him because with all the titles he's won, he still looks very hungry. He doesn't want to stop and for a coach that's amazing. When you are so long in the business and want to go on."

And this comes from a self-confessed Liverpool supporter who followed the club during their amazing European exploits in the 70s and early 80s. Poortvliet was there in Rome in 1977, was there at Wembley a year later but also switched some of his attention to United when they signed his friend Jaap Stam. Naturally the 1999 Champions League final – "a very big evening, I was there in Barcelona" – is another rich memory as he watched the match as a guest of another friend, the former United goalkeeper, Raymond van der Gouw.

It is all a long, long way from what Poortvliet, a former defender with PSV Eindhoven who spent most of his coaching career in the Dutch lower leagues, winning six titles before last May spending £60,000 to buy himself out of his contract with his previous club, Helmond Sport, now faces. Since taking over at St Mary's last summer – an appointment not too well-received by some fans who dubbed him and fellow countryman Mark Wotte the 'Dutch Donkeys' when they succeeded Nigel Pearson – he has won just seven matches, from 29, and is on a run of eight games without a victory.

Southampton play good football, very good football, among the most attractive in the division, but relegation to League One, unthinkable according to one of their few senior players, the veteran defender Chris Perry, is a real prospect and with it the meltdown of the club's finances, which has not been helped by the continuing acrimony between some shareholders, would accelerate.

The club has had to sell players such as Theo Walcott, Kenwyne Jones and Gareth Bale just to stay afloat and, even then, still has debts of more than £20m, mainly through the building of its stadium, which means others, principally Andrew Surman, are also set to leave. Higher earners including Stern John, Grzegorz Rasiak and Marek Saganowski have been sent out on loan, although the latter is now back but has not received international clearance in time to play tomorrow.

Despite having a team whose average age hovers around 22, and is sometimes lower, Poortvliet is unfazed. He has built his reputation on developing young talent and is optimistic. "It can change our season," he says of the tie, the first time United have visited St Mary's since 2005, when they won in Southampton's send-off from the Premier League. "We are so close to winning games and we believe that when it happens once it can happen a lot of times. I'm sure this team is capable of beating everyone in the league we play in."

It does not help when players are suddenly taken away from him – such as Jack Cork, on-loan from Chelsea who has suddenly moved to Watford. Poortvliet's hands were tied. "He was part of our team and now he's gone," he says. "And that was a question of money. We have a problem with that but hopefully the rest of the boys will stay." That final bit is said without too much conviction.

"I came here and saw the quality and thought 'with this quality you have to do something special this year'," Poortvliet says of what he inherited at Southampton. "And then you start and you say 'ooh, this is a very heavy competition with a lot of physical teams, good playing teams, strong everywhere'. Now it's harder to achieve what you want. But we have the belief. We have to play with just young players and they have to do it together. Normally you have one or two young players in the team but we have to do it all at once. It needs time and it needs winning games."