Paul Newman: Southampton pay tribute to the best of foreign owners

The Football League Column

British football fans can treat foreign owners with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Many Liverpool supporters are longing to see the back of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, while the Glazer family are about as popular among some of the Old Trafford faithful as Wayne Rooney is at Goodison Park.

When Markus Liebherr, a German-born billionaire who had had no previous association with Southampton, bought the club last summer, some might have wondered what he was letting himself in for. However, following his death a fortnight ago, the 62-year-old industrialist has been given the sort of farewell fans usually reserve for their most famous former players.

Saturday's 1-1 draw at home to Leyton Orient was Southampton's first League One fixture since Liebherr's death. The cover of the match programme was devoted to a photograph of him, while flowers, inscribed shirts and other memorabilia were left by supporters outside St Mary's Stadium. Earlier in the week, fans had queued to sign a book of condolence and hundreds attended a memorial service.

Saints supporters see Liebherr not only as the man who saved Southampton from extinction but as one who has put their club on the road back to the Premier League. They have been assured, moreover, that his ambition to see the club return to the top flight will not die with him.

Contrary to speculation elsewhere, the company that owns the football club – and which had been funded by Liebherr himself – is not part of the Mali Group, his Swiss-based hi-tech engineering conglomerate. Liebherr and Nicola Cortese, the club chairman, were the only directors of the football company.

The Liebherr fortune, including the football club, is being passed on to his family – his only child is a daughter, Katharina – and he made it clear before his death that he wanted them to carry on with his work on the south coast.

Liebherr attended most of Southampton's home matches and there was no prouder man at Wembley in March when 44,000 Saints fans – as well as the thousands who had been unable to buy tickets – watched the club claim their first significant trophy for 34 years when they won the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.

With a fortune estimated at more than £2bn, Liebherr was one of English football's richest owners. If sentiment played a major part in his purchase (for a reported £13m) he was also a man who could see the business sense in the deal. Liebherr bought a club with a modern stadium, good training facilities, property interests and a large fanbase.

Southampton were relegated from the Premier League in 2005 following 27 successive seasons in the top flight, dropped another division four years later and were in danger of going out of business when Liebherr made an offer within hours of visiting St Mary's for the first time last summer.

Liebherr backed his initial investment with cash for Alan Pardew, the manager, to bring in players. Southampton paid £401,248 to agents alone last season – more than any other club in League One – and an estimated £3m-plus in transfer fees. The club have brought in only three new players so far this summer, but Pardew is expected to make more signings this week.

While the Saints were never realistic contenders for promotion last season, it is unlikely that anything other than a return to the Championship will satisfy the club this year. One point from their first two matches is not the best of starts and Pardew said after Saturday's draw: "We have to be strong enough to handle pressure."

A tribute to Liebherr on a Southampton shirt left outside the stadium summed up the affection Saints fans feel for their saviour, but it also underlined their expectations. "Markus – gone but never forgotten," the message read. "Your legacy here has only just started."

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