Analysis: Katharina Liebherr's ascent to the Southampton helm

Just who is the lady at the forefront of Southampton's controversial past 48 hours? Connor Armstrong looks at the Liebherr era, Cortese's legacy and what the future holds.

The new name on the chairman's door at Southampton is that of Katharina Liebherr.

It was confirmed on Wednesday night that the daughter of the late Markus Liebherr would assume the position, following the resignation of Executive Chairman Nicola Cortese, who has departed the club after four and a half years.

Little to her own knowledge, her path to the top of the club began when her father completed a takeover of the debt-ridden club with the assistance of trusted advisor Nicola Cortese back in July 2009.

Liebherr, then 61 years of age, was estimated to have a net worth in excess of £3bn. He had inherited shares in father Hans Liebherr's family business. It is probably the family's best known business, one of the world's leading manufacturers of heavy duty construction machinery - 'LIEBHERR'.

Markus Liebherr would later return his shares in the family business some time later. He then embarked on the running of his own group of businesses, the MALI group, from 1994 right up until his passing in 2010.

Liebherr's takeover was conducted by Cortese, with the deal estimated to have cost the German-born Swiss businessman in the region of £14m. He acted quickly, naming Cortese as a Director at the football club on August 1st. Liebherr then announced the appointment of Nicola Cortese as Chief Executive.

The debts were cleared, and the financial payment plan over the club's new home, St. Mary's Stadium was addressed. The final clause of the agreement was paid up in the summer of 2012. St. Mary's now has no strings attached.

Liebherr was prepared to take a backseat and enjoy the privilege of supporting the club, as well as offering financial support to the driven Italian, who outlined a five-year plan that would see the club return to the top flight by the end of 2014. 

Cortese soon made his own statement of intent, appointing Alan Pardew as manager of Southampton, then rock-bottom of League One with minus ten points ahead of the start of the 2009/10 season.

This was followed by the arrival of Rickie Lambert, League One's top scorer the previous season, for a fee of £1m.

In his first season in charge of the club, Cortese saw the club finish 7th in League One, narrowly missing out on play-off qualification. Alan Pardew delivered a Johnstone's Paint Trophy win, but it was not enough to appease the ever-demanding Cortese.

The former Italian banker was thought to be unhappy with the club's league performances, particularly after extending the transfer budget in the January transfer window, enabling Pardew to sign the likes of Jose Fonte, Jason Puncheon and Lee Barnard. By the end of January, the club's expenditure on transfers had topped £3m, dwarfing any amount spent by their League One competitors.

What came next probably caught most supporters by surprise.

At the start of the 2010/11 season, club owner Markus Liebherr passed away at the age of 62. The club went through a grieving period. Cortese was personally very close to Liebherr, and his passing saw Cortese take up directorships with companies with the MALI companies that were included in his estate.

His estate included the football club, for whom he had supposedly laid out plans for before his death, indicating an awareness of what was to come.

Southampton supporters now only knew that their club was in the hands of the heir to Liebherr's estate. Just who that was to remain shrouded in mystery for some time yet.

Cortese continued to lead the club from the front. The season saw the exit of Alan Pardew, who was sacked just nineteen days after the upsetting news regarding the club's owner.

After three games under the lead of caretaker Dean Wilkins, Cortese tempted Nigel Adkins away from Championship side Scunthorpe United, installing him as the club's new boss. It was a decision that was treated with caution by many at the time, but Adkins proved that he was not a one-trick pony, recreating the success and style he introduced to Scunthorpe United.

Southampton were promoted that season, finishing as runners-up to a Brighton side managed by Gus Poyet. Adkins was backed as the club entered the Championship. Jos Hooiveld, Danny Fox, Jack Cork and Steve De Ridder all arrived.

With the club having not slipped out of the top two all season, Cortese seized the opportunity and provided Adkins with further acquisitions in the form of Japanese international Tadanari Lee and renowned goal poacher Billy Sharp from Doncaster Rovers.

The Saints were to maintain their record, never falling below 2nd place in the league table. Promotion was secured, but rumours began to swirl that all was not well behind the scenes after the club's 3-1 home defeat to fellow promotion rivals Reading.

It was to prove a result that would decide the destination of the Championship title. It was to be taken to Berkshire and not Hampshire, much to Cortese's anger. Southampton had led the table for much of the campaign, but squandered their opportunity to seal the deal.

Nigel Adkins made what was at the time a confusing, heartfelt and cryptic comment about his future with the club, stating that when he inevitably departed the club, that he hoped things would end in the right manner.

Southampton fans could not understand why the club would be looking at splitting from Adkins, but Cortese had grander plans.

Adkins was always supported, spending circa £36m in transfers. The club broke its club record fee twice, first paying £7m for Jay Rodriguez from Burnley and later, paying £11.8m for Gaston Ramirez.

With the club 15th in the Premier League and on a five game unbeaten run, Cortese removed Adkins from his position as manager, announcing that Mauricio Pochettino would replace Adkins with immediate effect. The move invoked national outrage.

Fans, observers and journalists alike questioned Cortese's decision-making abilities and his prowess, but justification was to soon follow for the controversial Italian. His nature was to be withdrawn, rarely speaking publicly on matters, but always making the decisions. From the biggest matters at the club to the smallest, he was the one calling the shots.

Pochettino, widely-doubted by the media, proved to be a revelation. The Argentine had been sacked by Espanyol just a month previously with the club bottom of La Liga. Faith was invested in the former Argentina international, who came with his own inimitable style.

Pochettino's pressing game quickly won Southampton admirers. High-profile home wins against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool followed as Southampton staved off the remaining threat of relegation.

He has maintained the club's philosophy for providing academy products with first team chances, yet remaining able to be competitive with the very best. Southampton have a label for aggressive, attacking and exciting football that entertains supporters and neutrals alike.

Pochettino this summer added three new faces in the form of Dejan Lovren, Victor Wanyama and Dani Osvaldo. The deal to bring Wanyama to the club saw the club break it's transfer record for the third time in twelve months. The record was not to last much longer. Dani Osvaldo soon followed Wanyama into St. Mary's from AS Roma, in a deal understood to be worth an initial £13.2m.

Southampton found themselves third in October. Things had rarely been so good for the south coast club. But a storm had been brewing, little to the knowledge of the supporters. The summer had seen a quite high-profile stand-off between Cortese and the heir of the Liebherr Estate, now known to be non-executive chairman Katharina Liebherr.

The issues had failed to subside and as both parties failed to see eye-to-eye on the natural conclusion to the matter, Cortese informed Liebherr of his intention to depart the club. It has since emerged that ever since this point, Cortese had simply been serving his notice. His absence from matches in the past two weeks was most out of character. It has now come to light that he was enjoying a skiing holiday in Switzerland, ahead of his expected departure.

The departure remained a secret to anyone beyond Liebherr's office, with club manager Mauricio Pochettino claiming to be entirely unaware of any understanding that the Italian would depart St. Mary's this month.

Katharina Liebherr has been preparing for this moment, however. She has spent much of the past few weeks with her lawyers, Allen & Overy, in London. Her choice of lawyer shows the quality of the advisors which the Liebherr family surround themselves with. Allen & Overy are members of the 'magic circle', and are widely regarded as being among the elite of lawyers around the world.

Until this stage, Liebherr had mirrored her father's relationship with the club. She had ensured the provision of generous funding to empower Cortese to implement his plans from the club.

She was now ready to emerge from the shadows and make herself known to Southampton fans the world over. Previously she had insisted on anonymity. The Liebherr's have always been intensely private. Just 48 hours ago, it was impossible to find a photograph of her on the internet. Now, there are several.

A brief statement was released on the club's official website on Wednesday night, as Liebherr confirmed Cortese's departure and her subsequent appointment.

In most efficient fashion she thanked Mr. Cortese for the "wonderful job" he had done and re-iterated that she "very much wanted him to stay". Her support was offered to those who remained at the club. "Business as usual", she quipped.

Katharina's primary thoughts about the club focus on the need for a new Chief Executive. Her statement revealed that the club is looking to appoint someone with the sufficient skills in the near future.

Accepting that she is not in a position to assume the role of a Chief Executive may prove to be just one indication of the kind of person Saints fans are dealing with. She’s acutely aware of her limitations, but also her wishes for the structure of Southampton Football Club, which will not have matched Cortese’s.

It is thought that she wants to democratise the club. Cortese's tenure with the club may have been successful, but it was autocratic, leading the club to see a high turnover of marketing, catering and other administration staff. Cortese was demanding and obsessive, perhaps too much for some to handle.

Katharina Liebherr is reportedly keen on introducing a board of directors who will make decisions. Whilst they will of course be led by a Chief Executive, accountability is something that she seems to have her heart set on, and rightly so. Southampton may have cost her father just £14m in 2009, but it’s value and profile extends far beyond what it did at the time of purchase.

Despite on-the-field success overseen by Cortese, question marks still remained about the personality of a man who became embroiled in a very public row with club legend Matthew Le Tissier. Clashes with Lawrie McMenemy and the ex-Saints group also upset a section of the club's fan base.

The introduction of 'ticket tax' rankled with many as the ticket office continued to draw criticism. Cortese was striving for excellence in all quarters. Whilst it was most certainly being delivered on the pitch, the extent to which that was implemented off-the-field was questionable.

Cortese was memorably mocked by members of the press for his suggestion that they should pay the club for photographs when he opted to ban external photographers from attending the ground. The Southern Daily Echo were expelled from the club for the best part of four seasons after a run-in with Cortese.

The decision to drop the club's well-known red and white striped shirts came in 2012, when Cortese favoured a red shirt with white pinstripes. This season, the stripes are no more. Some fans found that hard to accept, whilst others were in full recognition that this may well be the price of success.

During his four and a half years as Executive Chairman, Cortese oversaw two promotions, a cup win at Wembley, a climb of fifty-eight league places, four record transfer fees and a new training ground development, estimated to be worth £30m.

What many fans may consider most important though is the shift in attitude at the club. Fans could look forward to life as a Saints fan, no longer dreading a trip to St. Mary's. They could now take pride in supporting their club, with a common belief and understanding of the club's philosophy and direction. They must now hope that Liebherr ensures the core of the club's remarkable resurrection is not lost.

What cannot be ignored however, is that Cortese's job was made all the more easier by the generous financial support of Markus Liebherr's Estate, and namely, Katharina Liebherr. The heiress converted £33m of loans into equity in 2012 as she sought to wipe any debt from the name of the club.

Supporters are now left with two hopes. One is that Katharina intends to continue writing the story that will be her father's legacy. A legacy of success, pride, passion and stability. If it emerges that Liebherr's ambitions for the club do not extend to the mid-term or long-term, they will be hoping that she can oversee a deal to put the club back in safe hands, with a capable and enthusiastic investor.

Cortese's departure, at current, remains shrouded in mystery. Conflicting reports suggest that Katharina Liebherr was either keen to assume a more hands-on role by way of taking a place on the board, or had different plans for the future of the club - and potentially its sale.

Cortese found this hard to accept. The writing had been on the wall since the death of Markus Liebherr in 2010, yet it took until January 2014 for it all to come to a head. Southampton has now lost both Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese.

The media propaganda went into over-drive, as Cortese's trusted reporters Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail and Ben Smith of the BBC brought news of the Italian's intention to resign. Whether it was an act of brinkmanship or whether Cortese simply felt that his time with the club had reached its natural conclusion will remain unclear for as long as the man himself keeps his counsel.

As for the new lady in the limelight, she comes with a certain pedigree, and her actions to-date show that whilst she is not keen on public scrutiny, in the right circumstances she is more than prepared to put her stamp on proceedings.

With the club rapidly approaching the end of the five-year plan, she has recognised that now is the time for a Liebherr to take to the stage and assume a more high-profile role in an asset that has seen it's value and profile continue to rise. It will come as little surprise to see another Liebherr advisor step out of the shadows and enter the footballing world to assume the role of Chief Executive in the coming weeks.

Speaking on Thursday, manager Mauricio Pochettino confirmed that he would be remaining in his role. Katharina Liebherr, it is said, has shown the Argentine her full support and trust.

Pochettino appeared to state that he would remain with Southampton until the summer at least, before reassessing what he referred to as a "process" that is occurring within the club.

For now, the most important thing for Liebherr is to make like her father, and appoint a driven, forward-thinking and efficient appointment to the role as Chief Executive to ensure that the immense momentum gathered by the club is not squandered.

Beyond that, anything is possible.

For now though, as Katharina Liebherr says, it remains "business as usual".

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