Nicola Cortese chose to leave Southampton and was not forced out, insist club
Owner Katharina Liebherr wanted former chairman to stay at St Mary's while introducing corporate safeguards over how the club was run
The Southampton owner, Katharina Liebherr, has reacted with surprise to the notion that former chairman Nicola Cortese was forced out, the club having offered him a new salary package last year and requested minor changes in the way the club was run.
The daughter of the late Markus Liebherr, who saved Southampton from administration in 2009, wished to keep Cortese in charge, sources close to the owner have indicated, but wanted him to implement measures that meant he was not answerable solely to himself. Although he was regarded as an able administrator who oversaw the club's rise from League One to the Premier League with back-to-back promotion, it was his decision to leave.
The manager, Mauricio Pochettino, confirmed that, despite suggestions in some quarters, he would not be quitting the club this month. The Argentine met with Liebherr herself over the last two days and gained the reassurances he needed.
Cortese tendered his resignation in October after what the Liebherr camp say was the breakdown in negotiations over his salary package and changes to the way the club was run. Liebherr wanted a degree of oversight and accountability for Cortese's running of the club, although that did not extend to blocking signings and the minutiae of the daily business.
The owner felt she had made him a "generous offer" and there were further attempts to persuade him to stay before Wednesday's announcement that he would be leaving the club. Those close to Liebherr said that she was not the type who desired to wrest day-to-day control of Southampton from its previous chairman, simply that she wanted basic corporate practice implemented. Cortese was the sole registered director of the club, which gave him great freedom of action.
The club are already seeking to appoint a chief executive to take over Cortese's role, a highly prized job, given Southampton's status as a Premier League club just outside the relegation battle unfolding in the lower half of the table. While it is correct that Liebherr has little interest in football and inherited the club after her father's unexpected death in 2010, that does not mean that she wishes to preside over its demise, sources have indicated.
A private woman, who lives in Zurich, she is now legally installed as Southampton chairman and spoke to staff there in the company of her advisers. Her key aim will be to appoint an executive capable of overseeing the club's affairs, with the indication that there have already been many enquiries.
It was Liebherr's intention that Cortese would stay. Whether his departure plunges the club into crisis remains to be seen, although there was no suggestion that the players are about to agitate en masse to leave in protest.
As for the future of the club's prize assets, including the £20m-rated left-back Luke Shaw, it was always likely he would be the target of bids from the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea this summer regardless of who was running the club. His value is protected by the five-year contract he signed in July.
The Liebherrs founded the huge Swiss-German industrial group that has interests in plant machinery, mining and domestic appliances, among others. While there is no connection between the club and the current Liebherr Group, in 2009 Markus Liebherr bought Southampton, paid off around £12m of debts and began the investment that now stands at around £30m. He also recruited Cortese to run the club on his behalf.
That arrangement had not changed after Markus's death and while it is not impossible the club could be sold at some time in the future, Katharina is said to be keen that the value of the asset is protected. She is the club's only shareholder and remains what her advisers are quite prepared to accept, the accidental owner of a Premier League football club.
The next step will be the appointment of a chief executive when the club will be able to outline their plans for the future. However, Southampton were still fielding calls from agents inquiring about clients and potential transfer deals, in spite of Cortese's departure. Liebherr's advisers have engaged the services of a City of London public relations company.
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