He is engaged in a bitter dispute with Southampton’s greatest footballer, embroiled in litigation with another former player, has fired two popular managers, banned the local paper, sacked long-serving programme-sellers and increased ticket prices. So, what was the result when Southampton fans were polled for their opinion on executive chairman Nicola Cortese? Ninety per cent backed him.
Few people in football are as divisive as Cortese, a 44-year-old Italian banker who has been running Southampton since masterminding the Liebherr family’s takeover in 2009. Even that poll cannot be taken at face value as two of the main fans forums, The Ugly Inside and rival website It’s Beautiful Outside, seem to have diametrically opposed views of him.
According to some he is “cowardly”, “not a very nice man”, has “a bit of an ego problem” and is a “blatant liar”. Actually, all those comments are from Matt Le Tissier, a Saints legend because he was a superb player, and he resisted advances by bigger clubs.
Le Tissier also backed a rival consortium in 2009, one which was revealed to be run by a 30-something letting agent living with his parents in London. Cortese’s camp regard his subsequent attitude to be that of a sore loser, exacerbated by the fact Le Tissier’s close friend and former team-mate Francis Benali is in dispute with the club. After the most recent spat a clear-the-air meeting was agreed, only to be cancelled by Cortese after Le Tissier made this public in the Southampton Daily Echo – which has long been banned by the club.
Other people describe Cortese as someone “up for a laugh” and “good company” who knows everyone’s name from the Under-18s upwards. However, since they tend to be employed by him they are also partisan.
So who is the real man? That is not easy to establish because if Cortese does have an ego problem it does not manifest itself by him adopting a high profile. When he first took charge he gave interviews in which he talked of turning Southampton into a Premier League force. Since they were in League One and fresh out of administration at the time this was ridiculed. Cortese has kept his own counsel since, aside for briefly responding to the furore over the sacking of Nigel Adkins when he said: “Maybe I need to sacrifice my popularity to get the right decision. If that’s the case I’m happy.”
He is certainly committed to the job. It was Cortese who persuaded Markus Liebherr to buy the Saints, which the Swiss billionaire industrialist agreed to do on condition Cortese ran it for him. He has moved his family (he has two primary-school age children) to Hampshire and continues to run the club with the blessing of the Liebherr estate following the owner’s death.
Some aspects of his character are beyond doubt. Cortese is smart, ambitious, forward-thinking and driven, describing himself as a “perfectionist”. He expects his staff to be equally hard-working which makes him, even his backers admit, a “demanding” boss.
This is one reason for a high turnover of staff with some departures leading to industrial tribunal cases. There are those who feel that demanding perfection and working all hours is fair enough when earning big money, but football clubs are unusual businesses in that a lot of people work for them voluntarily, or for low salaries as they love the club. Introducing a hard-edged banking culture inevitably jars. Others argue that Cortese had to clear out the dead wood left behind as Saints slid through the divisions.
What is left is a staff who feel a need to be “on their toes” as Cortese strives for “innovation and perfection” in all areas. While it is excessive to suggest there is a climate of fear at St Mary’s there is clearly a wariness about offending the top man.
What is undeniable is that, in football terms, his approach works. Saints have gone from heading towards oblivion to aiming for Europe. Cortese is not afraid to invest serious money with Southampton among the highest spenders in the summer transfer window as £17m went on Gaston Ramirez and Jay Rodriguez alone. His impatience explains Saints’ vote against the financial restraints introduced by the Premier League this week, not that this will bother other clubs, several of whom are unhappy at his hard bargaining.
Recruitment is understood to be a joint enterprise between the manager, Cortese (who has contacts in Italy) and a scouting department which reports to former Charlton manager and ex-Football Association technical director Les Reed. Adkins was not in the loop on the £4m acquisition of Vegard Forren, a deal completed the day he was fired.
Reed, whose work in youth development is widely admired and was hired by Cortese, operates out of the new £15m Football Development and Support Centre at Staplewood, the club’s long-owned training ground on the other side of Southampton Water. When completed this will house a top class-academy, the U18, U21 and first team, plus departments devoted to scouting, sports science, medicine, fitness and tactics.
It is at the centre of Cortese’s long-term plan to make a club that has required huge injections of cash by the Liebherr family in recent years – most then converted to equity – self-sustaining through youth development. Mauricio Pochettino’s experience in bringing through young players at Espanyol was said to be significant in his replacing Adkins last month.
Adkins’ axing, especially the brutal manner of it, was deeply unpopular, but few hailed his arrival in place of Alan Pardew in 2010 and the success of that move has persuaded most Saints fans to reserve judgement. Similarly, while many are disenchanted at such measures as asking blind fans to pay for tickets they previously received for free, introducing parking charges on the club forecourt, and administration charges when buying tickets, they like the results of Cortese’s ruthless approach. The supportive “Cortese Song” was even briefly aired in the match after Adkins’ sacking.
As one fan said: “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”