Bob Riley once said that ‘hard times don’t create heroes; it is during the hard times when the hero within us is revealed’ − a quote that perfectly sums up the past several months for Saints manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl, who has just committed to a further four-years down on the south coast.
I’ve witnessed many record-breaking moments as a Southampton fan. Whether it be Sadio Mane scoring the Premier League’s quickest ever hat-trick, Shane Long scoring the Premier League’s quickest ever goal, or on the complete other side of the spectrum; that dark Friday night in October of last year. Standing out in the numbing cold for ninety minutes, watching Leicester nestle our net a total of nine-times to equal the 24-year-old record of the biggest ever Premier League defeat. I remember that night all too vividly, and really don’t want to revisit those memories that I have spent nearly eight-months trying to etch from my brain.
After the 9-0 drumming, Hasenhuttl - the ‘Alpine Klopp’ - accepted full responsibility in the post-match interview, looking devoid of any confidence and utterly shell-shocked. Little did he know that it was that result, looking back on it, that would act as a much-needed kick up the backside for both Hasenhuttl and his drastically underperforming squad.
A sensational upturn in form followed, which the Austrian attributes to a supportive text message from legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, following the Leicester mauling. With quality displays and victories against the likes of Chelsea and Spurs, Hasenhuttl managed to steady the ship and guide a once-was relegation-threatened Southampton, towards a more comfortable potential mid-table finish. Where they currently find themselves in 14th place, with a nine-point cushion from the relegation zone.
Fast-forward to present day, news of the Austrian extending his stay at the club until 2024 has been met by such untenable glee and relief from the Saints fanbase. No one more so than I, with the Ralph Express getting re-fuelled for when English top-flight football returns on June 17.
Hasenhuttl is the most forward-thinking manager that the club has had since the glory days of Dutch icon Ronald Koeman, who guided a Saints squad enriched with the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Graziano Pelle to a European stage for two consecutive seasons. He has done his best to implement an attractive pressing and attacking system into the club, with some stellar performances throughout his around 500 days at the helm. With the perfect example of ‘Ralphball’ being the late Christmas present of a technically sound team goal against Chelsea on Boxing Day, that ended with a rejuvenated Nathan Redmond lobbing Kepa in a phase of play that left me rubbing my eyes so I could make sure I had not been watching prime Barcelona.
Hasenhuttl wants his Saints to, figuratively, ‘go to war’ for him, battle tooth and nail, run towards and press every opposition touch. There’s no wonder why he has gained such rapport with the club’s supporters with October’s 4-0 humiliation of local rivals, Portsmouth, in their own backyard, fresh in the minds of the Saints faithful. ‘
The former Leipzig boss is the perfect man to push the club forward, with this contract extension being just another signifier of how committed he is to the project at hand. Take the recent coronavirus lockdown for instance, where most people have been binge-watching Netflix for days-on-end, Hasenhuttl has been dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on his revolutionary plan for the club. Devising a method that brings all levels of the club’s storied academy system up to the first team under a shared ethos− which makes you think that maybe, just maybe, he is here for the long haul. Best not forget that the 52-year-old has never stayed at a club beyond three years previously in his career, and if he remains in his role towards the end of next year, Hasenhuttl will become the clubs longest-serving manager of the Premier League era.
As happy as I am with the Austrian signing on the dotted line to remain at the club, certain factors could definitely provide a roadblock to further success. First-off, and the most obvious, is that he MUST get proper and sufficient financial backing from the Southampton higher-ups, of which include the widely unfavourable Gao Jisheng. The Chinese businessmen, who bought an 80% stake in the club worth £210 million in 2017, has invested more or less nothing in the club that has seen the Saints near the very bottom of net-spend tables. The current squad in terms of quality is the worst that the south-coast club has had since returning to the English top-flight in 2012, and with expensive deadwood such as Guido Carillo and Fraser Forster wasting away on loan, the club is not in the best place financially. But money needs to be spent to utilise the managerial quality of Ralph Hasenhuttl and to stop the club from plummeting towards the Sky Bet Championship.
Secondly, the manager himself needs to go back to the drawing board every so often and learn from past mistakes that have been made during his time at the club. My mind ticks back to instances such as West Ham United away – on my birthday, nonetheless – when Hasenhuttl reacted to his side going 3-1 down to the ‘Hammers’ by bringing on centre-back Jannik Vestegaard and defensive midfielder Oriol Romeu. Questionable decisions like those, along with an obvious lack of a plan B, leaves me hoping that he learns from these mistakes incredibly soon as it can cost him points that, these days, the Saints just can’t afford to lose. Though in trying not to bang the same drum again and again, it may all come down to investment. That he isn’t entirely confident with the eleven that he orders out on the field every weekend, and with new signings comes further and a higher quality depth and team overall.
Nevertheless, Southampton Football Club is lucky to have one of the sleeping giants in football managers, quite literally with the Austrian standing at a near six-foot-and-five-inches, leading the club forward. Despite what will likely end up as the biggest defeat of his managerial career, Hasenhuttl has turned the table with his Saints, with only the leagues’ very best in Manchester City and Liverpool winning more Premier League games this calendar year. Working alongside promising board members such as CEO Martin Semmens, it is pivotal that the board act on what is at their very fingertips to make sure that in a few years’ time, they are not left wondering; what if?
This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk.