Soccer | PREMIER REPORT

Model club Southampton hoping to claim silverware

by Christopher Davies

Some clubs change managers regularly and most still don’t get it right.

Aston Villa has had seven in the past six years and has tumbled from Premier League safety to a Championship relegation battle.

On the other hand, in Roman Abramovich’s 14-year watch at Chelsea there have been 12 different managers, though thanks to the billionaire’s backing, Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto di Matteo and Rafa Benitez have brought 13 major honors to Stamford Bridge.

It took Manchester United three attempts to find a manager not overawed by the Alex Ferguson era, yet since 2010, Southampton has become the blueprint for how a middle-class Premier League club should be run. On Sunday, United and Southampton meet in the League Cup final at Wembley in what promises to be an intriguing tactical battle between Mourinho and Claude Puel.

Like the Euro 2016 final, it’s Portugal against France. Though United is the clear favorite in the League Cup final, the match, like the Euro final, which Portugal won after extra time, may be closer than the bookmakers believe.

Southampton’s recent managerial history has seen it make unpopular — at the time — decisions to sack those in charge while appointing equally unpopular — again, at the time — successors. Every decision has turned out to be beneficial to the club, continuing its progress as an established Premier League force.

In March 2010, Alan Pardew led Southampton to the Football League Trophy final at Wembley, where it beat Carlisle 4-1, giving the club its first trophy since 1976. Despite a 10-point deduction after going into administration, Southampton finished a respectable seventh in League One. Five months later, Pardew was dismissed in the wake of reports of low staff morale and conflicts between the manager and executive chairman Nicola Cortese.

A local newspaper poll showed only 13 percent of Saints fans backed the decision and roughly the same were in favor of Nigel Adkins of Scunthorpe taking over.

However, in May 2011, Adkins guided Saints to promotion to the Championship and a year later became the first Southampton manager to gain back-to-back promotions. After a poor start in the Premier League, Southampton was in 15th position in January 2012, so it was a shock when the popular Adkins was relieved of his duties.

“This decision has been made with the long-term ambitions of Southampton Football Club in mind,” said Cortese, though supporters thought Adkins was doing an excellent job.

If the sacking of Adkins was a surprise, the immediate appointment of Mauricio Pochettino left Saints fans bemused. Mauricio who? He’d had three average years with Espanyol, he was virtually unknown and he didn’t even speak English.

Yet once again Southampton got it right and in 16 months before Tottenham came knocking, the Argentine had led the team to an eighth-place finish, its best since 1990 while recording its highest points tally since the Premier League began in 1992.

Pochettino’s successor in June 2014 was at least a familiar name because Ronald Koeman was one of the most famous Dutch players of his generation. He’d had a solid managerial career with Ajax, Benfica, Valencia, AZ and Feyenoord and carried on the fine work put in by his predecessors before joining Everton last summer.

Who next? It was back to Google for Saints supporters with another relatively unknown, though Claude Puel had won the French League with Monaco and at Nice he gained a reputation for giving youth its chance, which appealed to Southampton, which traditionally has enjoyed a successful production line from its academy.

As a midfielder, Puel played under Arsene Wenger at Monaco and said: “Before signing at Southampton, I spoke with him about the possibilities about going to England. He was my trainer for seven years at Monaco and he’s an example for other coaches.”

Southampton has been inconsistent this season, though the arrival of Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli has also boosted Saints, with the Italian striker scoring in his debut against West Ham and bagging a brace in its 4-0 triumph at Sunderland.

Mourinho will have to consider replacements for the influential duo Michael Carrick and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who have injuries. Southampton will likely start with three central midfielders in James Ward-Prowse, Steven Davis and Oriol Romeu, which could mean Mourinho recalling the combative Bastian Schweinsteiger who came on for Carrick in Wednesday’s 1-0 Europa League win over Saint-Etienne.

The Portuguese has lost only one of the 11 finals in which he has been a manager. United was ruthless in beating Saint-Etienne home and away and in Zlatan Ibrahimovic it has a striker who, since joining Ajax from Malmo, has won 20 major club honors. The 35-year-old seems destined to have the final word at Wembley on Sunday.

Rooney staying put: Wayne Rooney is staying with Manchester United. He said so on Thursday just hours after Paul Stretford, his agent, was reported to be in China “to engineer a lucrative move to the Chinese Super League.”

We were told that unnamed Chinese clubs were willing to offer Rooney £600,000 ($750,000) a week. Unnamed clubs, but a named salary. How the salary is known and not the clubs I am unsure.

Fabio Cannavaro, coach of Tianjin Quanjian, a man who obviously has no idea about what constitutes an illegal approach, claimed he had spoken to Rooney, but talks stalled after he decided the England international did not suit his team’s style of play. Why approach him in the first place?

Stretford is a director of Red Lantern Digital Media, a company that provides content to the Chinese market. Could that have been the reason for him being in the Far East rather than trying to see what CSL clubs have to offer? Which, sorry to labor the point, without United’s permission, is against FIFA regulations.

Rooney, who hopes to be fit for the League Cup final after a hamstring injury, confirmed he is staying with United and said: “I hope I will play a full part in helping the team in its fight for success on four fronts. It’s an exciting time for the club and I want to remain part of it.”

He did not say for how long, but at least until the summer so the speculation will continue.

Many believe Rooney must leave United if he wishes to continue his England career because he is not playing regularly, though the CSL would hardly help his cause. While not a regular starter for United, Rooney has played in 33 matches for club and country this season so he is hardly out in the cold. His total compares favorably with Harry Kane (26), Jamie Vardy (35), Raheem Sterling (36), Adam Lallana (30) and Dele Alli (36).

He has 18 months of an (allegedly) £300,000-a-week contract to run with United. Few, if any, European clubs would match that for a 31-year-old. The potential salaries of CSL clubs are wildly optimistic and Rooney seems unlikely to want to uproot (or leave, temporarily) his young family for very unfamiliar pastures new.

Rooney needs seven caps to beat Peter Shilton’s England record of 125. This, more than anything, may be Rooney’s deciding factor this summer. If he is happy to be a squad player at United, he should get enough playing time to remain on the England squad.

Also, he is a multimillionaire who earns another million every month — how rich do you want to be?

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.