SOUTHAMPTON — Ronald Koeman‘s departure from Southampton this summer was meant to signal a lack of ambition.
It was supposed to be a sign that Saints would not be marching on any further and their fans were furious that Koeman, who had previously signaled his intent on multiple occasions that he would stay for one more season at least, left them for Everton.
[ MORE: Saints dominate Everton ]
On his first return to St Mary’s there were boos and jeers for Koeman, with Saints’ fans eager to point out his u-turn in their chants but there was soon a lack of intensity in the animosity after Charlie Austin‘s goal after 41 seconds set Saints on their way to a first Premier League win in five games and moved them on to 17 points, just two behind Everton.
After Southampton’s convincing 1-0 win on Sunday at St Mary’s, — don’t let the scoreline deceive you, despite recent up and down displays, Saints deserved this win — they proved that under new manager Claude Puel they’ve moved on and they’ll be just fine without Koeman at the helm. Of course, one win against a former manager doesn’t mean Saints will continue to march on.
[ MORE: How Koeman’s time at Saints unraveled ]
But getting one over their former boss certainly helped. One fan screamed “redemption!” as he walked out of St Mary’s and past the press conference room during Puel’s interview.
Speaking after the game, Koeman was reflective when asked about the home fans’ overall reaction to his return.
“Everybody is free. We live in a social life. Anybody can give his reactions,” Koeman said. “I know from the players of Southampton, how they react today, the staff, in general, of Southampton appreciate a lot what we did together. That is for me the most important. The rest… okay, that’s football. That is life.”
There were no special mentions or thanks for Koeman in the matchday magazine from Southampton. Simply an acknowledgement from both the new manager Puel and captain Jose Fonte that Koeman would be coming back. That was it.
When the Dutchman left in the summer, it was seen as a major letdown by fans, players and many behind-the-scenes. With a two-year contract extension all but agreed, Koeman then changed is agent and soon he was demanding to leave for Everton. He was handed a reported $7.5 million per season deal with the Toffees.
Some Saints fans understand that if that kind of money is being offered up, it must be taken. Koeman led them to the UEFA Europa League and a seventh and sixth place finish in each of the last two seasons, their best-ever finishes in the Premier League. They’ve been on the up for seven-straight seasons since being in the third-tier in 2009 and they have always planned ahead with their own philosophy in mind.
Now is no different.
Plus, it’s not like Southampton hasn’t lost players (Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne) or managers (Mauricio Pochettino) to so-called “bigger clubs” before in the past. They are used to waving goodbye to people and spending the huge profits they’ve made wisely.
Yet, it was the way Koeman went about it which really irked a lot of Southampton supporters. They let Koeman know how they felt but didn’t go overboard. Southampton’s dominance over Koeman’s new side Everton probably helped.
Midway through the first half Koeman sat in his seat with his head slumped downwards and his hands held together. He did that a lot on Sunday.
Then after Everton’s full backs were once again carved apart by Southampton’s wingers, he walked back to his seat shaking his head. The first half was not what he hoped for. At all. It didn’t get much better in the second half either. His team were outplayed and even though they had two or three good chances to score, Saints had many more.
There was also an added layer on his return, which perhaps shed a light on why Saints’ executive director of football Les Reed was finally okay to let Koeman leave in the summer.
19-year-old Josh Sims is the latest to come through. He made his Premier League debut on Sunday and put in a man of the match display, getting a standing ovation as he was subbed out late on. Koeman spoke scathingly about Saints’ academy and about some of the players not being good enough last January when he was still in charge at St Mary’s. That upset many.
Sims spoke about his debut and his display and he’s proof, along with the man who replaced him, Sam McQueen, that there’s plenty more to look forward to from Saints’ famed academy. No matter what Koeman said.
“I’m delighted for how I performed today. I found out I was in the squad just before kick off and as soon as I knew, the lads were just giving me advice, telling me to just do what I do best – the whole thing was a great experience,” Sims said. “It was a mixture of nerves and excitement before starting but It’s everything you wish for as a kid. I’ve come through the academy here so having the fans sing my name and give me a standing ovation on my debut is a dream come true.”
Even some Everton fans at St Mary’s understood why Koeman’s departure from St Mary’s was met with such animosity but agreed that ultimately it was all about one thing: money.
“It is the nature of the beast. Money talks,” said Everton fan Gareth Hughes from Porthmadog, who also rated Southampton’s current squad and manager highly. He thinks they will do just fine without Koeman.
But how would Everton’s fans feel if Koeman left them for a bigger team, say his beloved Barcelona, if things went well at Goodison Park over the next few years?
“Nobody is bigger than the club,” Hughes said.
Alex James, also an Evertonian, agreed with that sentiment.
“The club will always be there. Players and managers come and go. In a few weeks after a few wins, everyone will forget about him,” Hughes added.
This win, and performance, will go a long way to doing that for Southampton’s fans. Koeman is now firmly a part of their past as Saints’ well-oiled machine continues to march on no matter which players or managers are at the club.
Sunday’s display from Southampton proved they have well and truly moved on from Koeman.