Mauricio Pochettino probably thought he had left Spanish football behind when he was announced as Southampton manager on Friday, two months after being sacked by Espanyol. But he will find that the traditional sign in Spain of fans' displeasure, the waving of white handkerchiefs, has followed him when he takes charge of the team against Everton tomorrow evening.
Southampton supporters have described as "farcical", "embarrassing" and much more the dismissal by chairman Nicola Cortese of Nigel Adkins, who led the club to successive promotions and 15th place in the Premier League, and whose name they sang at every game this season.
"It seems an appropriate way to protest at Nicola Cortese's ruthless treatment of Nigel Adkins," Perry McMillan of the Southampton Independent Supporters' Association said. "As this match is live on TV and will be seen throughout Europe, it's a great opportunity to show how we feel." Pochettino, who said on Friday that "football has an international language", will understand that Cortese is the target. But the adverse effects on a team of a dissatisfied crowd have been seen this season at Chelsea, and the new manager will have to hit the ground running, with visits to Manchester United and Wigan and home games against Manchester City and QPR in the offing. That means winning over the players quickly, even though he speaks little English. "You always have to convince players," he admitted.
Much has been made by the fans of the fact that Adkins was sacked with Southampton in 15th place, but they are only three points above the relegation zone. Espanyol finished Pochettino's first season 10th in La Liga after being in relegation trouble when he took over, and he delivered three more mid-table finishes before player sales eventually took their toll last November and he was sacked with the team in bottom place.
That coincided with Southampton hitting their lowest ebb since promotion, and it was only when Adkins gave Luke Shaw, the most promising academy graduate, his debut in the same month that the defence steadied and results improved. Adkins had always supported Cortese's vision of the academy driving the club's fortunes, but Shaw's instant impact may, paradoxically, have persuaded Cortese that Adkins was not promoting its products fast enough.
That is Pochettino's strength, with 20 youth-team graduates given first-team debuts in his four years at Espanyol, but he has more immediate concerns, including getting the best out of his fellow South American Gaston Ramirez, the club's record signing. "The biggest challenge is to win the games that are ahead of us," he said. "In the background is a project and we'll keep on growing as a club, with one of the best academies in the country."
The Argentinian is expected to bring in Espanyol goalkeeper Cristian Alvarez and midfielder Joan Verdu, and he will also need a backroom staff. Assistant manager Dean Wilkins, who filled the same role under Adkins's predecessor, Alan Pardew, and was instrumental in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's first-team breakthrough, has also left, along with coaches Andy Crosby and Jim Stannard.
Although the sackings came as a surprise to supporters as well as Adkins and his staff, Spain's TV3 channel reported on Wednesday afternoon – well before kick-off in Saints' 2-2 draw at Chelsea – that Pochettino was within hours of joining Southampton. Adkins was doomed even if he had won, but the result was still the team's best this season. It will strengthen Adkins's appeal to chairmen of ambitious Championship clubs and be a benchmark by which the new man will be judged.
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