Saint or sinner, Nicola Cortese drives Southampton on

He divides opinion but there can be little doubt that chairman’s ruthless approach has been successful, writes Glenn Moore

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.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage