NICOLA Cortese enjoyed four and a half years of almost non-stop success as chairman of Saints. Yet the Swiss-Italian businessman often rubbed sections of the fanbase up the wrong way. He was never afraid to make unpopular decisions, and as a result was the St Mary’s equivalent of Marmite. You either loved him or hated him. Here, ADAM LEITCH looks back at the highs and the lows of Cortese’s incredible reign ...
Cortese - a Saint
Let’s take a quick look at the bare bones of Cortese’s time in charge of Saints.
The club was just days away from potential liquidation when he and Markus Liebherr arrived with their takeover.
They clear all the debt and appoint Alan Pardew as manager, somehow convincing him to join a club in League One that is starting the season on minus ten points.
They spend £1m on Rickie Lambert and a host of other players as Saints blitz the division.
They don’t quite get a play-off place, but are closer than most people would have imagined possible at the start of the season. They also go to Wembley and have a brilliant day as they win the JPT.
The second season, and with Liebherr having passed away, Cortese gets rid of Pardew and replaces him with Nigel Adkins, while better players continue to arrive.
Adkins leads the team to League One promotion as runners-up to Brighton.
Far from targeting a season of Championship consolidation, Cortese was not prepared to settle. He was keen to push the club forward.
Again, better players arrived and it worked as Saints went straight through the Championship and into the Premier League.
Forget the five-year plan devised when Cortese arrived, this was top-flight football achieved in just three seasons.
But was he prepared to settle now for a season of targeting fourth from bottom?
Indeed, rumour has it that it was a presentation from Adkins in the summer before they kicked off the Premier League campaign targeting avoiding relegation that sowed the seeds of doubt in Cortese’s mind about his manager. His ambitions were far greater.
After a dodgy start was turned around Adkins was dismissed and immediately replaced by Mauricio Pochettino.
It seemed harsh, callous, cold and calculating, and the backlash was inevitable. But it worked – and how.
Pochettino has taken the club to another level, and his hopes and ambitions and drive matched Cortese’s.
Add to that the fact Cortese has grown the club massively in terms of finances and infrastructure, not to mention staffing numbers boosting employment in the region, and the added benefit the whole city gets from Premier League football and you have a big achiever.
The training ground is being redeveloped to be one of the best in Europe, the academy is thriving and top players being recruited for big money and starting to view Saints as one of the happening clubs to be at.
All right, Cortese had his run-ins and fall-outs, sometimes he did things that raised a few eyebrows, but that is the cut and thrust of a successful businessman. You get nowhere in life if you don’t ruffle a few feathers when it’s needed. And, in a results business, you cannot argue with his results.
Cortese - a sinner
Football is a unique business.
It isn’t one that just relies on the black and white of results and normal business practice.
It is an emotional and passionate pastime for millions of fans around the world, and a very unique business.
To be really successful, to be loved, you have to take account of that and embrace it.
Cortese never really got it.
It’s amazing that a man who led the club to such massive success on the pitch made enemies as quickly as friends.
Cortese was never really a man of the people. He seemed a little aloof.
His stance towards and spats with pillars of the club such as former players and managers like Matt Le Tissier and Francis Benali, the latter even ending up taking legal action, this newspaper – who were banned for two and a half years – and various members of staff who ended up in employment tribunals was really disappointing.
All good logic and normal business sense might have backed up the reasons he pursued some of these causes.
But this is football and it doesn’t work like that.
A respect for history and tradition is important. Though there is no sensible reason why people who got paid for playing for or managing the club years ago should be given free handouts and red carpet treatment, it’s what fans want to see.
Football is an irrational and illogical passion.
Problems with contractors at the training ground have delayed its development while there has always been a slightly odd relationship with the fans.
They loved the joy the team under Cortese brought them, but not losing their beloved red and white striped shirts, charging for parking at the ground, sacking programme sellers or removing free entry from supporters with serious sight problems.
On top of that he never seemed to make an effort to integrate with the city or the supporters, shunning his possible role as a real leader of the community, and doing away with traditional fans’ forums in favour of occasional dinner invites for handpicked supporters.
His treatment of his managers did work out, but was also harsh. It seemed he couldn’t manage to sustain a relationship with them for a long-term period.
Pardew was doing a good job before he was replaced, as was Adkins.
There is no arguing about the results that were achieved, nobody could ultimately knock Cortese for that and, perhaps, in football that is the most important thing.
But the game is about so much more than that.
It has a massive place in our communities and the hearts of the generations of fans who love it and the heroes they worship down the years.
It never felt like Cortese really got it.