When Nicola met Niccolo; Machiavelli’s tips for running a successful football club


Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ may have a whiff of infamy about it, but I’ve actually heard it be said before that it’s a pretty darn good guide to managing a modern organisation. But does it have any tips for running a football club? It would certainly seem so, and none other than Southampton Chairman Nicola Cortese appears to be the biggest proponent of bringing a little bit of Machiavelli to his daily dealings…

“Weaken those which are strong”

Firstly Machiavelli advises his Prince to “weaken those which are strong”. In Southampton there can be no figure bigger than Matthew Le Tissier whose on pitch exploits earned him legendary status amongst the fans. Le Tissier had also been the focal point of a rival bid for the club,  being lined up as club Chairman should the bid succeed. Incidentally since Cortese’s arrival  Le Tissier has accused Cortese of making life difficult at the club, in effect marginalising the man once known to fans as ‘Le God’ .  Alleged incidents have included a row over the clubs lack of response relating to the purchase of tickets for a cup game in 2011, refusing entry to a person who had borrowed Le Tissier’s season ticket and accusations that two security guards were posted outside a corporate box Le Tissier was invited to with an apparent brief  to ensure Le Tissier went nowhere but apart for the toilet.

On generosity:

An area where Cortese has drawn some very public criticism is in the lack of generosity extended by the club to former players, such as complimentary matchday tickets and associated hospitality with Cortese going on record to criticise a ‘culture of freebies’ inspiring this rant from Jeff Stelling:

Whilst Stelling may seem to have a point in that the likes of Le Tissier and McMenemy have been good servants to the club in the past when it comes to the subject of whether, or not a prince should  be generous Machiavelli advises

I say it would be splendid if one had a reputation for generosity; none the less if you do in fact earn a reputation for generosity you will come to grief

Machivelli’s reasoning is that generosity can often often go unnoticed and to maintain a reputation for genourosity requires ever increasing lavishness. A prince should not fear being called a miser, says Machiavelli, as in not practicing such genorousity, Machiavelli argues the prince will become seen as generous as…

because of his parsimony his existing revenues are enough for him, he can defend himself against an aggressor, and he can embark on campaigns without burdening the people. So he proves himself generous to all those from whom he takes nothing, and they are innumerable, and miserly towards all those he gives nothing, and they are few

Perhaps Machiavelli has a point, as one comment made under a story relating to the debate on the Southern Daily Echo website reads

…what would we rather a team that is able to put paying supporter into seats or free loaders. If the club is not run like a business we will be in debt very quickly again.

Better to be feared than loved?

Machiavelli’s ponders the question  of “whether it is better to be loved than feared.” Cortese’s approach to this question can be seen in direct contrast to one of his predecessors, Rupert Lowe. Whether it was giving interviews to the local media, or gamely donning football kit and stepping out onto the pitch for Jason Dodd’s testimonial Lowe,  it seemed, wanted to be loved. Sadly for the erstwhile Chairman it was ultimately in vain, as despite delivering the new St. Mary’s Stadium – for which he did enjoy a  brief spell of popularity – and helping forge the youth system which produced Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale Lowe is regarded by many as something of a folk-devil.

On the other hand little about Cortese’s actions suggest he is a man actively seeking to be loved; Cortese’s treatment of the local press points to his different approach; rather than courting the media Cortese has banned the local paper, The Echo, over a seemingly innocuous story about a redevelopment of the clubs training ground. In another case a fan, Nick Illingsworth was refused a season ticket without being given a reason. The case was referred to the Independent Football Ombudsman (IFO) who concluded

..it can only be the complainant’s roles as chair of the Trust and prominent supporter activist which have caused him to be singled out for this special treatment. Perhaps this is to set an example and to deter other critics of the Club’s management.

And indeed, there have been suggestions that this tactic has worked in silencing previous vociferous sections of the support, certainly whilst Lowe experienced trials such as 30 pieces of silver being flung at him in one stunt-it seems unlikely that this sort of treatment would be meted out to Cortese. Machiavelli who concluded that “Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared” would no doubt look on and nod approvingly.

The importance of choosing a minister:

For Machiavelli one of the prince’s most important choices is that of their minister, Machiavelli says

The first opinion that is formed of a rulers intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him. When they are competent and loyal he can always be considered wise, because he has been able to recognize their competence and to keep them loyal

As it is with princes so the club Chairman’s most important appointment is that of their first-team manager. This is another area in which Cortese’s record contrasts with his predecessor Lowe’s.

Lowe was routinely criticised for the number of managers who served under him, with managers displaying both incompetence and disloyalty.  Among these Steve Wigley, Stuart Gray and Paul Sturrock were regarded as out of their depth. Glenn Hoddle who appered to be a more successful appointment would leave for Tottenham following the rehabilitation of his reputation he enjoyed at the club and of  Harry Redknapp Lowe himself would remark  on the former’s duplicity that “in retrospect, it is now clear that what Harry said to one’s face wasn’’t necessarily what he was saying to the media.” Lowe had also experienced an early taste of managerial disloyalty when Graeme Souness and Lawrie McMenemy both exited the club soon after his appointment as Chairman with Souness pointedly commenting “You tell me if there is anyone else in football by the name of Rupert?” – a comment which firmly ensured the new Chairman did not experience any honeymoon period with the fans.

When Cortese sacked Pardew, the man who had delivered the clubs first piece of silverware in decades the sentiment amongst the fan base was firmly behind the manager. Having just secured a 4-0 away victory at  Bristol Rovers it seemed, early in the season, a curious time – though the reasons for the sacking seemed to have been in part due to events off the field with “staff morale” being cited. The man chosen to succeed Pardew, Nigel Adkins however, delivered back-to-back promotions acquitting Cortese’s judgement and Pardew was soon forgotten. Adkins would in turn find himself dispatched, but again if fans had any misgivings, or there was any fall-out for the ruthlessness shown, these were soon salved by the new man, Mauricio Pochettino’s performance in steering the club to safety. and not only have Cortese’s appointments been successful in terms of on-the-pitch, they have also been loyal with the Pochettino losing no time in declaring his loyalty to his Chairman who had he said, shown faith in him – and whose own contract was up for discussion – by threatening to quit the club if Cortese were to leave stating simply; “Basically, my future in Southampton has to be with Nicola.”

The importance of appearance:

Keeping up appearances are crucial for a prince says Machiavelli who counsels that

To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and a religious man

Cortese has generally kept a low media profile, but when he has made comments in public he has been scrupulously careful to maintain dignity in all his public dealings, most notably in his spat with Le Tissier. At one point the club issuing a statement where Cortese captured the moral high-ground by highlighting his good faith and integrity in the following passage:

Mr Cortese wishes to reiterate that he will not make comment about somebody he does not know personally – and that includes Mr Le Tissier.

Though Le Tissier has himself called this into question, claiming to have met Cortese and whilst there have been mutterings of staff turnover and even some cases going to tribunal at the club, as Machiavelli points out, this is of little concern as though  “everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”


Ultimately Machiavelli’s most important piece of advice for any would-be football club chairman is on the topic of results with Machiavelli arguing that so long as the ends are achieved the means can be forgiven…

In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court of appeal, one judges by the result. So let a prince set about the task of conquering and maintaining his state; his methods will always be judged  honorable and will be universally praised. The common people are always impressed by appearances and results. In this context, there are only common people, and there is no leeway for the few when many are firmly sustained.

In a recent poll of Southampton fans  94.29% wanted Cortese to stay on as Chairman. Certainly Lowe,  or indeed many other football club bosses can only look enviously at such levels of approval from the fans, but few perhaps are as well acquainted with the works of one Niccolo Machiavelli.


Niccolo Machiavelli (2004) The Prince London: Penguin Books (originally published 1531-2)


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