Thursday, March 13, 2014

Worlds are colliding in Southampton

When you live in a major city and tend to run in the same social circles, it's far from unusual for you to run into people you know or find peculiar social connections with complete strangers. I am used to this phenomenon after several years of walking the streets of New York City and coming to the conclusion that, as I often say, upper-middle class 20-somethings that went to name universities live in a small world. If you've ever done online dating, you'll often find that the world is even smaller than you thought.

Sports, however, are supposed to be an escape from these types of bizarre life events.

They aren't completely free from them, of course. Various sports leagues have their fair bit of crossover, whether it be basketball and hockey teams sharing arenas or baseball and football teams dwelling in the same stadium or at least the same complex. Slate, earlier this year, ran an extremely addictive game exploiting this called "Six Degrees of Kevin Garnett", an encyclopedic generator that attempts to connect any two athletes that have ever played in the four major North American sports leagues. It's amazingly good. For instance, it can connect Hall-of-fame baseball racist Cap Anson, who died in 1922 with former Canadian-Barbadian hockey player Anson Carter, who debuted in the NHL in 1996, in just nine steps.

Those connections, however internecine and unexpected, however, are at least on the same continent. Yesterday my sports world was tumbled upside down with a peculiar announcement that will be of absolutely zero interest to anyone reading this blog who isn't me, but you're about to (maybe) read about it anyway. As a naive 17-year-old in 2002, I made a decision to jump full bore into rooting for an English soccer team, and at the behest of a one-time co-counselor at Fairview Lake, I went with the lovable Kansas City Royals-esque Southampton FC. I have written about this before.

Many of you probably don't know, though, that Southampton has a bit of a history of managerial instability. The Saints have had so many managers since I began following the team that while I'm pretty sure I can name most of them offhand (Gordan Strachen, Harry Redknapp, Glenn Hoddle, Alan Pardew, Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pocchettino, etc) I would be hard-pressed to name all of them. The team has also had a remarkably tumultuous tenure above the field managers, with two relegations, two promotions, multiple chairmen and multiple owners -- one of whom actually died shortly after rescuing the team from financial administration.

The trend continued in January when current owner Katharina Liebherr won a power struggle with club chairman Nicola Cortese, who resigned despite being the man many credit from turning Southampton from a middling third-tier club into a regular in the top half of the table of the Premier League. Not everyone seems super happy about this, but the next obvious task to maintain any stability with the club was to hire a new chairman to fill Cortese's sizable shoes.

Here's why I'm even bothering to write about this.

Picking someone to replace Cortese would require the kind of bold choice that could rustle feathers and perhaps surprise. But at the very least -- at the very least -- you'd think they should be someone with at least a modicum of experience in top tier professional football. This is why Liebherr and the Southampton board settled on a man with tremendous championship and inarguable bona fides. This is why the new chairman of the Southampton Football Club is ....

Former Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger?

As you all know, I am an avid follower of the NHL for reasons both personal and professional, and as such I probably have a deeper knowledge of hockey than anyone I know that I don't work with. Krueger, a man who has spent most of his career coaching professional teams in Europe or national teams in Switzerland, is a name I know, but not one that is particularly remarkable or memorable in any way. After all, I don't pay much attention to hockey across the pond and Krueger's tenure in Edmonton lasted a grand total of one lockout-shortened 48-game season. So when I awoke yesterday morning to see that Ralph Krueger had been named the chairman of Southampton my first thought was, "Surely, that can't be the same Ralph Krueger," followed about a nanosecond after the realization that is was by, "Huh?" and then seconds later by this.

But surely there was just something I didn't know about Krueger. After all, I'm hardly an expert on the man. Occasionally sports management crossovers work just fine, as was the case when former Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy took over as president of the Green Bay Packers and promptly won a Super Bowl. Perhaps Krueger not only understood the European professional sports market and had an expertise in professional sports leadership, but maybe was also thoroughly versed in the language, structure and coaching strategies endemic to European football.



Then I read this: 'Katharina is a woman of such strong values, and she has a fresh and interesting perspective to sports,’ said Krueger, who has never had any previous association with football.

Well that just fills you with confidence when you read it, right?

What seems far more likely is that Krueger is friends with Liebherr because of her Swiss heritage and his long-time association with Swiss hockey, and that she may or may not have decided to staff the executive management with people loyal to her rather than people who are, you know, "qualified." That doesn't mean this crazy experiment isn't going to work out, of course, but it makes me wonder on some level just how it would. The best-case scenario is that Krueger takes a reserved role and continues spinning the wheels set in motion by Cortese while allowing Pochettino to continue coaching with no interference. There are some implications that that is, in fact, going to be the case, and if it is, well, no harm no foul.

Part of me, however, is skeptical that management will give that kind of free reign to its subordinates, and that part also fears seeing Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana or James Ward-Prowse in Manchester or Liverpool next season. Or even worse, seeing Southampton back in the second tier after a collapse-induced relegation. That seems unlikely as most reports indicate that former-owner Markus Liebherr left all levels of the club on solid footing before passing away in 2009, but with this club one never knows.

It seems all too possible to me that Southampton's management turmoil might ended up killing independent Dave, so to speak.

If that happens at least I can find other ways to entertain myself. Anyone know how many degrees of separation there are between former Duluth Eskimos fullback Ernie Nevers and former Los Angeles Lakers point guard Smush Parker? Only eight, huh? I could do this all day.

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