Southampton’s chairman Ralph Krueger is ready to do whatever it takes to take his club to the next step.
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That includes holding on to their top talent, searching for significant new investment and striving to take the “Southampton Way” to each corner of the globe.
ProSoccerTalk spoke exclusively to Krueger ahead of Saints’ final two games of the season, the first of which is at home against Manchester United on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), and the former NHL coach was eager to point out that the club does not have to sell any players this summer.
After the likes of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Sadio Mane and others moved on in recent summers, Virgil Van Dijk has been linked with a $65 million transfer to Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. The Dutch international defender only signed a new six-year deal last summer and Southampton has no plans to sell their team captain despite daily reports suggesting he is on his way.
“I don’t get frustrated by those kind of reports. There might be some disrespect in those reports,” Krueger explained. “To take you back to the 2013-14 season when this present management team started changing the way the club was being operated, the team had come up very, very quickly. Everything was done up until that date very well but there was only a maximum of 15 high-level Premier League players in the team. We ended up in three summers worth of transfer markets, where we needed to net in players where we needed in increase our depth charts. I think that phase of the club ended last summer.
“We would sell five, buy eight. Sell six, buy nine and so on all the way through those three years. We had made a commitment to ownership to live within our means, which we have been doing. Now, we have every position doubled up and we have at least 25 players. More important than anything we have 18 players on contract with three years or more. In that first season, one of the weaknesses of the club was how short all of the contracts were. There was just a handful of players locked in beyond two years. Now we have 18 players locked in. We have 12 players actually with 49 months or more and two with 61 months.”
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Krueger explained clearly that Southampton do not need to sell Van Dijk, or anyone else, this summer.
“We do not need to sell a player this summer,” Krueger said. “Any transfer in and out now will be to increase the quality of the squad and do what is best for the club. I have to tell you, straight up, we do not have to sell anybody. We will do our best to retain the core, solidify the core and move with some synergy into next season.”
Assessing their season so far, Krueger was asked if he believed Saints have almost become a victim of their own success after finishing sixth and seventh in each of the past two seasons, qualifying for Europe on both occasions and handling key exits admirably.
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Some fans are frustrated with the brand of play under new manager Claude Puel and inconsistent displays, despite reaching a first major final since 2003 and coming within one goal of making the Europa League knockout stages.
Still, Saints can finish in eighth place in the PL this season which would be their fourth-straight campaign of finishing in the top eight of the PL. They’ve only been back in the top-flight for five seasons, so has the fact that the club established themselves as a top half of the table team so quickly hurt them?
Krueger welcomes the criticism from fans and pointed to the fact that this is a young team — Saints’ starting lineup has the second youngest average age in the PL — which will improve.
“We are probably a victim of our own hunger to always continually evolve and grow. I think what our fans have shown is okay and as chairman I actually see that as a hunger that stops us from being complacent and actually pushes us forward,” Krueger said. “It is fine. It is part of the natural evolution of a winning team. So you go from 8th to 7th to 6th and the 8th place three years ago was a celebration and a huge party and here we are having a chance of eighth or ninth at the end of the season and fans may say that’s not enough. It shows that we are now an established Premier League team with a fanbase that wants to see that.
“Overall, the EFL Cup final was an amazing experience, being in Wembley with our fans who were absolute world champions on that day with the love for the club you could feel through that stadium. The performance of the team, it was disappointing with the loss, but it was still encouraging as to what is possible on a given day with our team. Europe, we would have liked to have seen that gone on a little further but it didn’t, and the Premier League if we do finish in single digits we have to say it’s another good year for Southampton. We feel that it was a year of development and growth of our young squad and there is so much excitement going into 2017-18 that we are ready to go at it on May 22 already. We want to start the process. Overall it was another fascinating year of growth for our club.”
With plenty of speculation regarding manager Claude Puel and him potentially being fired at the end of this season, his first-ever in England, Krueger refused to talk about whether the Frenchman will be shown the exit door at St Mary’s.
“With the importance of these two final home games in five days, we leave it to the football people at the club. My past is hockey. My job here is to lead the club on a cultural and political level and be the connection and representative of ownership, so I leave the football side to do that,” Krueger said. “Next week, like every year, they will do a complete debrief and they decompose the whole season and look at it from every angle. They will be very transparent in how we need to move forward. I trust the people we have there, with Les Reed and Ross Wilson we have really good people at the lead.
“Claude has been a part of everything that has happened this year. It is really going to be the players or however else, it is up to football to give us the final grade and then we will see how we go forward.”
When it comes to pushing forward, Krueger confirmed that talks have been ongoing regarding potential investment in the club as Chinese investment group Lander Sports has been in talks with regards to providing extra funds to help current owner Katharina Liebherr (her later father, Markus, saved Southampton from extinction in the third-tier in 2008) take the club to the next level.
Talks about new investment remains ongoing, and will continue to do so, but Krueger confirmed that any investment will only happen if certain conditions are met.
“Katharina did release a statement in January and that hasn’t changed in so far as we’ve been multiple months now into a process of looking into potential investment under a few clear parameters,” Krueger explained. “One of them is that Katharina stays involved and the other one is that the investor definitely brings in the qualities that will help us get to another level and that will empower the club. Even though the process was initially new, we have become extremely comfortable that we’ve set up our strategy and we are finalizing now and will be done at the beginning of next week, that strategy is not connected to potential investment or not.
“With the status quo, Katharina staying and us not finding the proper partner to move forward, or the same way as if a partner entered. The only way the partner will enter here is with the acceptance of our present culture, with the management team staying intact and continually moving on the strategy we are on and the culture we have. That is a given and a guaranteed step going forward.
“It could happen and long term if it does happen it will give us growth and if doesn’t happen in the next few months we are going to continue with that process. It is just part of the maturing of the club and strengthening of the club. It is normal. In North America it is a normal business development that happens within the club structure and here the fans are just getting used to this process. We feel really strongly positioned going forward right now.”
Such is his belief in Saints’ project, Krueger revealed that he turned down two jobs in the NHL over the postseason as the man who led Team Europe to an unlikely World Cup of Hockey final in September 2016 against Canada still believes there is plenty left for Saints to achieve under his leadership.
“It was nice and honorable that I was offered two NHL jobs post-season and I was happy they didn’t forget about me but I turned them down,” Krueger said. “It just feels like we’ve only just got started here and especially with the management re-organization we just did, there is kind of like there’s something here where we are going to take it to another level.
“I still love the game and I have lots of friends still in the playoffs, I am keeping a close eye on them. My son is playing at the World Ice Hockey Championships for Germany right now in Germany and all of that… but it is Southampton. At the moment this is doing it. I don’t think you ever close the door on anything in your life but I love being here.”
Krueger confirmed that Saints will not be going on a tour of the U.S. anytime soon (the squad went on a brief trip to Baltimore last summer to visit their partners Under Armour) but they continue their growth in the U.S. with the ‘Southampton Cup’ youth tournament being set up in December in Baltimore and he admitted their image overseas is changing all the time.
“We are continuing to develop our teaching arm of the club and we have multiple clubs and development academies we are partnering with in the U.S. and we are looking at some in Canada,” Krueger said. “It is the teaching arm of the club which can help our growth worldwide at the moment. Until we get some trophies in our cabinet, on a worldwide basis we have respect for the ability to develop players and teach the game.
“We are also looking at opportunities in Africa, India and China. Our growth in the U.S. with the ‘Southampton Cup’ here in and then in December in Baltimore with over 100 clubs competing, those kind of platforms are what we are all about. We are an authentic brand living within our means and building in a small market, kind of like the Green Bay Packers environment. That gives us a romance.
“I was just speaking to someone the other day and our name, Southampton, being in the top half of the table for over four years, where only six teams have been, it is something that is helping our brand grow and evolve around the world. You can feel it changing. There is a shift in the last 12 months to the respect that we get when we go outside the country. It is nice but now we would like to, on the pitch, push back into Europe next season and we think if we can keep our team together we have a good shot at doing that.”
Krueger also confirmed that Saints’ “next dream is some face-lifting and upgrading” of St Mary’s and that the size of the stadium will remain the same for the time being, while he also lauded their commercial growth.
“The partnerships with Under Armour, Virgin Media, SportPesa, the international side of it, I have to say it is very exciting to look at our numbers. We have almost quadrupled our commercial revenue here in the last four years,” Krueger said. “That should continue to accelerate, what is interesting is that through this teaching arm in the we are going to build some commercial partnerships too which will help our final product on the pitch of course.”
Everything at Southampton, from the youth development, commercial growth and potential investment in the club seems to be incredibly healthy.
Now, as Krueger said, the most important thing is the product on the pitch. When the PL season finishes on May 21, everyone at Saints will already be preparing for next season. That means navigating yet another summer of speculation and figuring out how they can continue to punch above their weight.
“We are driving all of our different departments forward and on May 22, I swear, it is right back at it,” Krueger laughed. “With the teams that are coming up from the Championship it is going to be extremely competitive again next year. Nobody is going to give us any points anywhere and we have to add five percent everywhere just to keep the status quo. So to go beyond that we have to add 10 percent.
“It’s wherever I can help… but it seems like something new pops up every week that you don’t expect! That’s the nature of the Premier League and especially summer transfers windows which are always exciting but we’d like to be a little bit of the sideshow this year instead of a main stage. We are ready for everything and we are strongly positioned for this one.”