IS attempting to break into the Premier League’s top six really worth the effort?
Saints fans can be forgiven for asking that question in the wake of the departures of Mauricio Pochettino and Rickie Lambert – and the likelihood that many more players will join the exodus out of St Mary’s.
With Adam Lallana about to follow Lambert to Anfield, Luke Shaw seemingly destined for Manchester United and other players also linked elsewhere, it is hard to recall many clubs being more victimised by their own success than Saints this summer.
They have dared to dream and look what it has got them; the break-up of one of the best teams in the club’s history, one that had the potential to become its greatest XI, is being torn asunder.
Apparently, the long-term aim remains – to continue the push for Europe next season – and if the monies from these player sales are re-invested wisely in the team by whoever replaces Pochettino, that is possible.
But, realistically, Saints’ best chance to make the Premier League’s top six has gone. It is thirty years since the club’s highest-ever league placing, runners-up to a great Liverpool side under Lawrie McMenemy.
But these days there are three leagues within the Premier League and Saints have been up there with the best of the top flight’s ‘second division’ this year, as they did when finishing eighth under Gordon Strachan in 2003.
Plenty of other ‘unfashionable’ clubs have finished in the top eight since then. Fulham have done so twice and Bolton Wanderers did it four seasons on the trot from 2004-07, finishing as high as sixth in 2005, with Middlesbrough just behind them – and look where those clubs are now.
West Brom were nearly relegated after struggling to repeat their eighth place of the previous season and Aston Villa are unrecognisable from the team that achieved three successive top-six finishes from 2008-10.
Then there is Pompey, whose fall from eighth place six years ago has been the most spectacular.
But Saints are unique among those clubs – and especially Pompey – in that they had a foundation and a long-term plan in place that could well have seen them shake up the elite by using this season as a launch pad.
Professional sport is nothing without ambition but it needs to be tempered by realism. Saints have hit a glass ceiling, as Charlton Athletic did before Alan Curbishley was forced out by Addicks fans not content with several mid-table finishes.
Last year, Tony Pulis was wise enough to realise he had taken Stoke City as far as he could and now has Crystal Palace batting well above their average.
But where Saints differ from these clubs is its structure and its assets, most notably the academy.
There will be another wave of graduates coming through to join Sam Gallagher, Calum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse soon enough.
But it is a truism that the nearer Saints get to the fringes of the Premier League’s elite, the greater the chance their best players will leave – with England manager Roy Hodgson, when talking of Lambert’s Kop move, saying “there are always big fish in the sea and it’s hard to keep those fish away”.
Saints were in the Championship when Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott were sold, but the reality is that, even as a top-eight outfit, they are a selling club.