Let me begin at the end, if that's not too much of a conundrum. My interview with the Southampton FC chairman, Rupert Lowe, has finished, and he is leading The Independent's photographer, Robert Hallam, and me through a maze of corridors inside St Mary's stadium. He's sorry about rushing us, he says, but he has an important meeting to attend. Then he pauses before a pair of swing doors. "Would either of you like the loo before you go," he asks, with the impeccable solicitude of the upper middle classes.
It is hard to think of anyone else in football who would have expressed such concern for our bladders; hard, indeed, to think of anyone else in football called Rupert (as Graeme Souness pointedly observed). And this is significant because a lot of the media interest in Lowe concerns his poshness, even to the extent of trying to make him seem posher than he is. "It has been widely reported that I'm an Old Etonian," he says. "I'm not. I'm an Old Radleian."
Also widely reported is that he is a hockey-playing toff who wasn't the slightest bit interested in football until he joined the Southampton board. "They still say that I went to a football match for the first time six months before I joined Southampton," he says. "Incorrect. I used to go with friends regularly to watch Ipswich Town, although as a boy I supported West Ham. I played football at the Dragon School in Oxford. And I remember being very keen on my Soccer Stars album. When you bought stuff from the school tuck shop you got the stickers."
That Lowe should cite the Dragon School tuck shop in his counterblast to those who dismiss him as a toff with no pedigree as a football lover seems to me rather sweet. But I wouldn't want to patronise him with inverted snobbery. Besides, far from his public-school background being a handicap, his experience of loneliness and petty cruelties has probably helped him cope.
"I remember being at The Dell one evening when we lost 2-0 to Leeds United. We had one point after 10 games, and the whole stadium was chanting 'Rupert Lowe's a wanker!' That's not nice. I did wake up one night and say to my wife, 'What am I doing this for?' But I am not someone who backs away from a situation."
His stoicism may be tested over the next weeks and months.
Southampton's Premiership status is in greater peril than it has been for years, and however much starch there is publicly in Lowe's upper lip, privately he must be fretting terribly over the implications of relegation. He denies it, of course. "If the worst happens, we have managed it so the club will financially survive. We have a fairly sound formula in place which will serve us well. The key if we do go down is to maintain our squad. But I should add that we have no intention of going down, and I don't think we will, because under Harry Redknapp we have a new-found confidence.
"Things are on the mend. Earlier this season people doubted Peter Crouch; now I hear him being talked about as a possible England player. And our youth set-up is one of the best in the League. However, the truth is that as a club we have outboxed our weight for a long time. When I sat down for my Christmas turkey just over a year ago we were in fourth place. That raised expectations, and when expectations are raised they have further to fall."
Which is indubitably true, but so is the fact that since Lowe became chairman in 1995, the Saints have had nine managers. As a point of comparison, if you go nine managers back at yesterday's opponents, Middlesbrough, you reach John Neal in 1977. So Lowe's tenure has hardly been a model of continuity. On the other hand, he very bullishly hands me the club's annual report to prove that with him at the head of the boardroom table the club has prospered mightily. And sure enough, the report shows that annual turnover, boosted by the move from The Dell to St Mary's, has climbed from £5m to £50m. Moreover, he says, the circumstances that led to most of the managers leaving were beyond his control.
This is fair enough: it is hard, for example, to see what else he could have done in the case of Dave Jones, wrongly accused of child abuse, other than suspend him on full pay while he fought to prove his innocence.
And Gordon Strachan left for "family" reasons. On the other hand, it could be argued that replacing Paul Sturrock (main handicap: no managerial experience at Premiership level) with Steve Wigley (main handicap: no managerial experience at any level) was, at best, naïve. Not that it's an argument Lowe will countenance. "I make no apology for giving people a go," he says. "If you don't give people a go then you end up with an ageing pool of managers, and nobody gaining the experience to take English football forward."
Laudable words, I say, but Southampton aren't a charity. Surely it's not his board's policy to appoint managers for the greater good of English football?
"No, but I believe that Steve Wigley - who is back, incidentally, as director of youth football - could have done it if people, the board and the supporters, had had a greater degree of belief in him."
All the same, Wigley went, whereupon Lowe was all for reappointing Glenn Hoddle, despite Hoddle's "betrayal" of the club when Tottenham Hotspur came calling in 2001. "Yes, he walked out on the club, but I think he realises now that he might have been better staying here than going to Spurs. Everyone makes mistakes; the art is to learn from them. And I have a very high regard for Glenn's coaching. I worked with him for 15 months and found him extremely well-organised. I would have been quite comfortable having him back, but not everyone on the board agreed, and it is better to have a club with togetherness."
So Harry Redknapp was appointed, not that there was togetherness among the fans, some of whom resented a former Portsmouth manager taking charge.
That they have embraced Redknapp is perhaps due not least to the faintly absurd name-calling that persists between him and the Pompey owner, Milan Mandaric. On the very morning I visit Lowe, in fact, the sports pages are full of a fresh set of mutual insults. The chairman is beginning to find it all pretty wearisome.
"It's one of those things," he says, with a sigh. "It's obviously important to both of them and they find it difficult to put it behind them. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that both clubs are in the Premier League is a good thing, and there is quite enough historical rivalry without fanning the flame."
This is clearly an implied criticism of his manager, and I have heard that Lowe and Redknapp do not see eye to eye. After all, when did chalk ever look cheese in the eye? But Lowe insists that they get along fine.
"Public schoolboys and cockneys have always got along pretty well," he says. "On the whole they're just about as thick as each other." I laugh, dutifully. "I work well with Harry and I can see what a big contribution he, and his son Jamie, make to people's self-belief. Also, he's very highly regarded by the media. So instead of negative media every day, which unfortunately was the case under Paul Sturrock, it's mostly positive. That's important, because if enough negative things are written about a football club, they start to be accepted as correct."
I ask him whether Redknapp is likely to be manager next season? After all, there have been suggestions that Lowe has offered Sir Clive Woodward a role in the running of Southampton next season, and I would guess, just to take a wild stab in the dark, that Woodward's arrival might not sit too comfortably with Redknapp and his assistant, Jim Smith.
"Harry's made it quite clear that if we remain in the Premier League, he's keen to stay. He is less keen to stay here if we don't."
Which would open the door, I venture, for Lowe's dream ticket of Glenn Hoddle and Woodward? I wait for a furious rebuttal. Instead, I get a faint smile. "Clive sat next to me at a football match, the next thing I hear is that he's our new manager. But it's public knowledge that he would like to get into football, so who knows what will happen after the Lions tour?"
Maybe you do, I say. Another smile, although laced with irritation.
"Clive is not qualified to be a football manager. But I have no doubt that he has skills that we as a club can learn from. It is not very often England win a World Cup in any sport, beating nations we previously never believed we could beat. Team games are about creating a team ethic, and clearly there are skill sets which will cross over from rugby to football. And vice versa; the reason I got to know Clive was because he came to see how our academy worked.
"Unfortunately, we have this media which puts football on a pedestal, but to say that you cannot transfer skills from rugby or hockey to football is rubbish, as any thinking person knows. If Clive can make a contribution here then I will encourage that. I think he's a great leader and I like him very much. But I'm not prepared to talk about conversations we may have had or not had."
Let us talk, then, about the conversations he has had as a member of the oft-maligned board of the Football Association. He was not, I gather, in favour of Brian Barwick becoming chief executive? "It would be wrong to say that I opposed him. We had a beauty parade, a choice of three people, all of whom made presentations, and the board expressed its views. Whether or not I thought that someone else may have been able to do the job better is not the relevant issue. Brian is there and I will do my best to work with him."
I ask Lowe what he thought of the unseemly Faria Alam business. Here, for the first time in our interview, his customary eloquence deserts him.
"At the end of the day the problems that happened, which were staff-driven, came from a lack of leadership," he says, gnomically. "People clearly made mistakes, and did things which, with the benefit of hindsight, they shouldn't have. Hopefully, everyone will learn from it to avoid that kind of pitfall again."
Which presumably means that Sven Goran Eriksson should try to keep his hands off the office secretary, I say, but Lowe either doesn't hear me, or affects not to hear me. He is not, in truth, the easiest man to interview; most interjections and even some questions tend to get crushed beneath his rather aggressive charm offensive. But on the subject of Eriksson I persevere. Will Lowe admit that the Swede would have been sacked by now were it not prohibitively expensive to pay him off?
"I don't think he's done badly. We haven't quite won anything major yet but he has the support of the players. We must let results be the judge of whether things are right or wrong. As for his contract, whether it should have been extended to 2008 is a matter for debate, but it's a waste of time having that debate now. He is the England manager, we're all on the same side, and public self-doubt helps the opposition. When and if we don't do well in the World Cup, we will reopen the situation."
This, from one of the top dogs at the FA, sounds like remarkably lukewarm support for Eriksson. But there is no time to pursue it further because Lowe's next meeting is imminent, and I want to raise the R-word one more time. With the Championship looming all too large, and the transfer window shut, does he feel powerless?
"Not at all. Look, the key management problem in football is to maintain the same outlook when you're fourth in the table as when you're 18th, 19th or 20th. Otherwise, when you're fourth you make bullish, stupid decisions, and when you're bottom you make panic-related, bad decisions.
"We won't do that, nor will we make the mistake, as some clubs have, of loading all investment on short-term measures. If I spend all our money on this generation of players, how are we going to pay the next generation?"
Now there's a question for me to mull over in the loo.Reuse content