Mauricio Pochettino is staying at Southampton, and so are his players. That was the reassuring message to Southampton fans from their manager as the Premier League club reeled from the departure of chief executive Nicola Cortese. But the odds are the Argentine will quit at the end of the season.
Pochettino, who was hired by Cortese and said eight months ago if the Swiss left so would he, will be in the dug-out for Saturday's match at Sunderland. He said he was “100 per cent decided to staying until the end of the season”, adding, “if the owners want me”. Beyond that, however, is up in the air.
“The commitment is to get to a good point at the end of the season, then we will see what happens,” he said. “Logically, after the decision will be: a signed contract, a new board at the club, and we will assess whether I am set to stay another season.”
By then he will know whether he can work with Katharina Liebherr, the club's reluctant and reclusive Swiss owner, who Pochettino met for only the second time. The first occasion was at an end-of-season meal arranged, as has been everything else at Southampton for the last five years, by Cortese.
Of the meeting Pochettino said: “We just spoke for five minutes, it was a quick hello and goodbye, and her transmitting to me her full trust and support to me and my staff. We have not spoken about anything else.”
This did not quite square with reports of the timings of their respective arrivals at the ground, which would have enabled them to speak for an hour or more, but meant he was able to say they had not had time to discuss transfer policy, the club's aims going forward, or, indeed, anything of note.
Pochettino did, though, make clear that as far as he was concerned no player would be leaving without his agreement. That negotiations are already under way to sell Ricky Lambert to West Ham suggests the England striker is surplus to requirements, the likes of Luke Shaw, however are definitely not.
One problem for any club hoping to prise away the teenaged left-back, or other talents such as James Ward-Prowse, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez, is that such is the power vacuum left by Cortese there is no-one to take their call. With a largely disinterested absentee owner Cortese was the most powerful executive in the Premier League, a status magnified by his autocratic nature. Very little happened at St Mary's, or the well-appointed training ground on the fringe of the New Forest, without Cortese ordering it to.
Thus the immediate priority for Liebherr is to appoint a new chief executive. That may be someone with the brief to sell a club she inherited upon the death of her father, Markus, but they will have to run it in the interim. Christian Purslow, who was managing director of Liverpool in 2009-10 and oversaw the club's sale to its current owners, is in the frame.
Whoever it is will have to forge a working relationship with a manager who began the press conference by paying tribute to Cortese and described his departure as a 'body blow'. Nevertheless Pochettino insisted the situation was 'different' to when he threatened to resign eight months ago, when Cortese first skirmished with Liebherr.
Speaking in a room emblazoned with photos of Southampton players under the phrases 'Our time is now' and 'Our dream is real' he said:“Then we were at the end of the season, we were starting a new project and there was no point me staying if he left. Now is completely different, we are in the middle of the season. It makes no sense for me to leave. Nobody would understand it, and I am sure Nicola would not understand either. The loyalty and commitment to the staff, the players, the fans, the people, the club is important. It is not the moment. I have a lot of responsibility.”
Pochettino stressed he was a 'loyal and legal man' but the way he corrected a suggestion he had 18 months to run on his contract - “it is 17”, he said - hinted he was counting the days. He admitted he only decided to stay after a sleepless night and a conversation with Cortese.
It is rare that the departure of a football club's chief executive results in a media scrum for the following day's managerial press conference, but as a tweet lamenting his departure by Shaw illustrated, Cortese was an unusual chief.
Pochettino said it was now 'important' Liebherr was 'visible' to the fans, which is unlikely to please this occasional visitor to the south coast. Southampton FC, after all, is only a very small part of a business empire that turns over €9bn a year.