For Saints fans Rupert Lowe is one name which is guaranteed to generate controversy – in fact it’s so controversial I’ve thought hard about hard whether to post this at all. But is Rupert’s reputation as the man who took the club to the brink deserved, or is it now time to reappraise Rupert?
For Southampton fans it’s something of an unusual situation to find their club winning plaudits, the clubs last decent run of league success being back in the early 1980s. The reason for this new-found success according to many is the success of the academy in producing home-grown talent, but for saints fans this means an uncomfortable truth, crediting the man who many still hold to be the clubs greatest villain, a man who they feel took the club the brink of extinction.
Rupert Lowe was almost from the very start a bogeyman for Saints fans. No sooner than he arrived than popular manager Graeme Souness and club stalwart Lawrie McMenemy made for the exit; Souness muttering ‘You tell me if there is anyone else in football by the name of Rupert? ‘. The accusation that someone named ‘Rupert’, a hockey playing rugby-loving public-school boy had no place in football was devastating in sewing the seeds of mistrust and denying the new chairman anything approaching a honeymoon period.
The inauspicious start must have seemed far away as during long-serving full-back Jason Dodd’s testimonial Lowe prepared to take a penalty kick in front of a packed Dell crowd. Souness’s would surely be choking on his words too as the ball, kicked by the rugby loving Rupert, embarked on a goalkeeper evading trajectory.
Appearing in full-kit alongside Dean Gaffney and Michael Greco – better known as Robbie and Beppe from Eastenders – was Lowe’s finest hour. Saints biggest priority – aside from a voiding relegation – was a new stadium. Following conversion to all-seater the Dell was left with a capacity of just over 15 000, a figure which was, in the midst of a stadia construction boom, becoming more inadequate by the day. To keep their seat at the top table a new ground was needed and fast, particularly as time had already been wasted with an aborted attempt to build a ground on green-field site to the north of the city.
The ‘keeper beaten Lowe’s penalty clipped the post, however the spectre of the moustacioed Souness was still banished the crowd still cheered, drunk on anticipation; The testimonial would be the penultimate game at the ground before a move to the new 36 000 seater home that Lowe had secured funding for and delivered.
Lowe basked in the adulation, however it was to be short-lived. Just a few years on Lowe would be one of the most vilified figures in the history of the club. There was still an FA Cup final to come, but a widely remarked upon high-turnover of managers – partly as the result of a number of poor-appointments – the relegation of the club from the Premier League and failing to secure a swift return ensured frustration with Lowe’s tenure grew to breaking-point among fans and insiders alike. Things came to a head when a boardroom battle left Lowe with little option but to resign his position in June 2006.
A remarkable set of circumstances saw Lowe return to the club, which had in his absence been beset by boardroom disharmony following a failure to secure required investment, in May 2008, but despite claiming to have returned for the love of the club few viewed Lowe as a saviour. In one indignity a handful of coins representing thirty pieces of silver were thrown at Lowe during a stormy AGM, whilst other fans took vocal protests into the town centre.
Far from saving the club, within less than a year the club were in serious trouble. On the pitch manager Jan Poortvliet had watched his young team struggle, sinking towards the bottom of the Championship resulting in the Dutchman – who had no prior experience of English football prior to his appointment by Lowe – offering his resignation. Attendances also slumped and by the start of April the club finally succumbed; the parent company entering administration with debts in the region of £30 million. Lowe pointed the finger at the previous regime who had he had earlier accused of allowing the wage bill to rise to 81% of turnover, though other factors included the ending of parachute payments and the financing for St. Marys itself . In any case many fans looked no further than the man at the helm of the ship at the time when it went down.
This is how Lowe finds himself remembered. But a few years on one aspect of his spell in charge has risen to prominence; The academy. If bigger clubs can only envy Southampton’s academy – hailed as the best in the league – then it’s in no small part thanks to the vision and enthusiasm of Lowe. It was Lowe who was responsible for many of the key appointments, for setting it’s continental philosophy with the appointment of Frenchman Georges Prost and for directing investment towards it’s facilities, including the satellite site in Bath which was initially attended by Gareth Bale. The aim of the academy Lowe later remarked was to produce players who were not just technically good, but decent people too. Uniquely too players were recruited based not on footballing ability, but intelligence and athleticism. The output, in many ways, speaks for itself, players like; Bale, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Lallana. It may be difficult for many to acknowledge but at least some of the clubs current success is thanks to Rupert Lowe.