Right on cue, the muffled sound of drilling drifted through the walls. "Still some work in progress," announced Paul Blanchard, marketing manager of Southampton FC, which laid early claim to being the understatement of the new season. A posse of journalists, lured to the south coast by first-class train travel and the promise of a decent lunch, picked their way gingerly through the debris of corporate suites named in honour of past Saints greats, the Mick Channon Suite, the Terry Paine Suite. The press were housed in the Matt Le Tissier Suite for the day, which proved that the club's sense of irony has survived the journey across the city intact, as the man himself predictably refused to be interviewed.
The official launch of the Friends Provident St Mary's Stadium last week was a deeply confusing affair, as symbolic as any spiralling transfer fee of the prevailing shift in football's economy. Manchester United spent £47m on two players – Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy – to perpetuate their domination; Southampton have spent £32m on building the stadium which the directors and fans hope will buttress their position among the also-rans. Staying in touch is no less desperate a pursuit than staying ahead.
"For 23 years, we have been the smallest club in the top league in terms of revenue, but we've always had a big heart, we've always outpunched our weight," says Rupert Lowe, the Southampton chairman. "Manchester United, Leeds, Arsenal, clubs of that size will always have an advantage on us, but we've put ourselves within that group of 10 or 12 clubs behind them who are fairly equal in terms of their ability to compete. Survival is no longer the main ambition for this club. Don't forget that Ipswich, Charlton and ourselves all finished in the top 10 last season."
When the new Premiership season starts on Saturday, the real scrap will not be for the title or lucrative places in the Champions' League – most of those are already spoken for – but for comforting sanctuary in mid-division. The unspoken nightmare is that, like Coventry, whose new stadium is under construction, or Wolves, Southampton will be swallowed up by their own ambition, in possession of a fine stadium but no team. And the even greater fear for the rest is that the door to the promised land is closing fast.
"The big are getting bigger and the small smaller," says Michael Fiddy, managing director of newly promoted Fulham. "If you have ambitions to get to the top, as we do, the message is that the sooner you get there, the better because it's becoming increasingly expensive to bridge the gap." Punching above your weight, as Lowe puts it, will no longer be a viable option. The divisions in the League are being drawn uncomfortably close to the lines on the balance sheet.
For most of their history, Southampton have bumbled along quite happily, charmingly devoid of ambition or pretension, touching the forelock with one hand, routinely pickpocketing richer neighbours with the other. That was their style, what made the club different from the rest. But bumbling is no longer permissible in the modern Premier League, and Southampton, like a fusty old family firm, have been forced to confront the future. Derby County and Bolton Wanderers have already taken up residence in football's executive estate, but Southampton's journey from the backstreet terraces to the land of corporate boxes and business plans seems a much bigger leap of faith, for the club and for football. Rumours of Oliver Bierhoff's imminent arrival only added to the air of newly-plastered make-believe.
The St Mary's Stadium is not just twice the size of the Dell, with a capacity of 32,251 (the extra seat from the planned 32,250 was an unexpected bonus), but has the facility to feed 1,500 corporate stomachs on match days as opposed to a mere 180 at the Dell. The club also hope to generate steady revenue from non-footballing functions, but the obvious risk is that precious resources have been channelled into the brickwork not the team and that, under the management of the unproven Stuart Gray, Southampton will struggle to hang on to their Premier League status this season.
"History shows that sometimes you have to lose the odd battle along the way, but the important thing is to win the war," adds Lowe. "We know there are risks, but the club had no choice. Our resources are now in line with some of the bigger clubs in the League and that has to be the right way forward."
In geographic terms, far from deserting their roots at the old Dell, Southampton have come back home, to the St Mary's district of the city where the club was founded in 1885. With a view of the grain silo obscuring the directors' view of the River Itchen and almost no room for cars, the site is marginally less suitable for Premier League football than the dear old Dell. But it was the only one the local council were prepared to sanction and South-ampton, aware that time was tight, were desperate. So St Mary's it is and good luck to Saints fans who, provided they have managed to penetrate the erratic telephone system to purchase tickets, had better set off for the inaugural Premier League fixture against Chelsea, on 25 August, a couple of days early.
Fulham, like Southampton, a club of style and character, have wider ambitions for their first season back in the top division since 1968. "Wherever we finish this season will only be a stepping stone to where we want to be," says Fiddy. "Our intention is not just to stabilise ourselves in the Premier League, but to get to the top. We are a friendly club, stylish, progressive. We have the first professional women's team, we were the first club to have a £100-a-week player way back and those sort of values are very much at the heart of the whole Fulham project. We want Fulham to be a global brand within three years."
Before then, Fulham face some serious obstacles. By luck more than judgement, the club have slipped through the regulatory net so that their ageing terraces have been sanctioned by the Premier League. Unless the authorities change their minds on the future of terracing, Craven Cottage will be the first and last ground in the Premier League to be allowed standing room. For the season 2002-3, though, while the ground is developed into a 30,000 all-seater stadium (sadly, without the original Cottage), Fulham will have to share a ground, with QPR, Charlton or, possibly, Reading. Establishing Fulham as a global brand might take some doing when the club is effectively homeless, but Fiddy seems undaunted by the task.
"The commercial considerations are secondary to the footballing factors," he says. "If you play away from your home ground, you don't play as well, though no one has actually been able to analyse the reasons for that. As long as you are winning, television, supporters, merchandising will follow."
Though Fiddy says that until this season Fulham's expenditure on players has not been out of the ordinary, it is the potential of the chairman's bounty which initially attracted Jean Tigana out of retirement in France and, presumably, allowed a relatively unknown west London club to bid successfully for an established international like Edwin van der Sar. But Fiddy is aware that while Mohamed al Fayed's millions have bought Fulham a precious shy at the coconut, the patronage of a single benefactor is no recipe for long-term financial stability.
"In that sense, we are similar to a club like Southampton," says Fiddy. "We want to create an environment in which Fulham can be financially independent. In the meantime if there are any changes in the structure of the game at the top – Premier League One and Two or whatever – we need to be there.
"As the manager says, we've got 33 years of catching up to do, but we don't see why Fulham can't be bracketed with Arsenal or Manchester United because it's not just about buying an experienced first team, it's about having a good manager, a good buying strategy, about developing good young players and having top- class facilities. There's no reason why we can't be up there at the very top."
This season, the stakes will be higher than ever. Southampton are as ready as they will ever be to face the future. Fulham are rolling the dice and, last Thursday, Marian Pahars, whose goals could prove the most valuable furnishings in Southampton's de luxe des res, was wandering round trying to find the way out. "Have you seen the stairs?" he asked. Certainly. Up or down?