Lowe the realist draws the line at high risk

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The Independent Football

There is a conflict at the heart of every successful football-club chairman that comes flooding to the fore when Rupert Lowe speaks. It is the tension between the realist and the romantic; the financier and the fantasy-maker. And it's all about how those forces are managed. Listen to him on whether clubs - in these challenging times - should be allowed to go out of business. "Going under is a good thing," says the Southampton chairman. "If you manage yourself badly there has to be a penalty for doing that. And if you remove that penalty and remove that moral hazard you are actually asking people to manage themselves badly." To eradicate any doubt, he adds emphatically: "I'm very much a free-market man."

Lowe continues: "Football is a risk business, it's not for the faint-hearted. It will always be difficult to manage because there's a lot of worry. Relegation brings with it the most awful results. But there's a prudent level beyond which you shouldn't go. And people did go beyond there - driven by the media, the fans. Ambition was spending more than you had. It was boring to manage within your own [limits] - it was glamorous not to."

Now listen to him expound his philosophy on winning. "Personally I like the underdog. If there's a contest I'll want him to do well because usually he has fewer resources, less money - but better management if he wins," Lowe explains before choosing what many Saints fans would consider an all-too-raw example. "When we lost in the Uefa Cup - which we were all sad to do - to Steaua Bucharest, then our wage bill, in comparison, looks very large. They have a smaller capital base than us - and they beat us. So that's an achievement," he says.

"Same happened when we got beaten by Tranmere [in the FA Cup two years ago]. We were 3-0 up and lost 4-3. They have fewer resources and had the mental strength to come back. Yes, we were bitterly disappointed, but that's what's great about football." He adds: "The media love to eulogise about the big clubs, berate the little ones. There's a natural system biased towards those that have rather than those that don't have."

And in those vignettes is the essence of what drives an entrepreneurial man who has been in charge of the south-coast club for seven years, supervised the building of a £34m stadium, increased turnover fourfold and made Southampton rampantly successful. Yes, this former City financier believes - with a brutal passion - in "capitalism", but it exists alongside his trust in what fires the average football fan. Otherwise he would have surely answered the next question - about whether it was impossible now to compete with Manchester United or Chelsea - in a different manner.

"You might have said that about Burnley 50 years ago," he says. "Manchester United are a big global brand and it's very difficult to see them tripping up. But life is not a straight line, and sometimes shocks happen and there are changes by revolution rather than evolution. And you don't know what the cause of that will be - a manager who's not very good, players who don't produce the right result. Complacency is the most dangerous state of mind. If you get complacent you're dead."

As for Chelsea, there's an undoubted glint in his eye when he considers the Abramovich millions. "There's so much money that you can probably afford to get it wrong and keep spending until you don't," he says. "But whenever the great provider gets bored, is it an economically stable unit? I don't know, probably not." The trick is to try to provide the dream without - in the manner of Leeds United - chasing it. "It's very dangerous to set yourself up to belong anywhere in the League. Three years ago they would have belonged in that little group [with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea] - where are they today? Football is a transient business, nothing is set in stone."

The philosophy at Southampton is clear, however - to set out each season to do better than the last, but to also prepare for the worst. "We do relegation analysis, so that in a disaster situation we might have an idea of what to do," Lowe admits. "We budget to come effectively just above relegation."

The philosophy for Lowe is also clear - where the twin ambitions of reality and romance meet is in "good management". "It [money] is a bit like a drug - if you become reliant on it and someone takes it away, can you survive? For us, because we're a provincial club we have to rely on good management. Supporters now accept that fact. There's always the lunatic fringe who keep saying, 'Spend, spend, spend' and [think] that spending equals ambition, but I think most of our supporters are pleased that relative to other clubs we're in a good position."

Not that Lowe is wholly comfortable with the spending at Southampton, and frets about the burgeoning wage bill while accepting that a price has to be paid. "You could argue that to some extent we've run ourselves badly, but sometimes you have to if the market goes mad. Otherwise you're out on a limb." He adds ruefully: "The correlation between how much you spend and success is not a very good one."

The economic downturn has had a sobering - and welcome - effect. "The worst excesses are now understood even by those people responsible for driving up wages, etc," Lowe says. "If you kill the goose that laid the golden egg the main loser is the next generation of footballers - there's the investment in youth academies, facilities, stadia. That will all disappear."

Football, he believes, is sorting itself out. Lowe, a member of the Football Association's executive board and a political animal, reacts with horror to any suggestion of the need for a regulator or such devices as a salary or spending cap. "The one thing we don't want is loads of regulators coming in damaging clubs that have managed themselves well in an attempt to help those who damaged themselves by managing themselves badly. We live in a culture where governments believe regulators can solve problems - they've been doing it ever since paper has been printed to cover over cracks."

Which leads on to his thoughts on the Premier League's dispute with the "annoying and irksome" European Commission over the sale of television rights - a row which was only resolved last week after it was agreed some matches would be handed over by BSkyB to a terrestrial broadcaster. Lowe - politically a forthright Eurosceptic - is typically blunt, claiming the wrangle has already cost Premiership clubs £100m and could have cost £500m if it had continued. "It's not clever, logical or sensible, what they [the EC] did," he says. "It's just bad business." And business is something he knows all about.