Back from the brink - Southampton think big
Southampton executive chairman Nicola Cortese does not like walking past the trophy cabinet at St Mary's Stadium.
"I saw a beautiful samurai sword in there and asked how we had won it," Cortese told me. "I was told it was to commemorate a game. I said we need real trophies."
Given the club's recent history of uncertainty and failure, when survival not silverware was the prime concern, Southampton's battered and bruised fans could be forgiven for wondering just what planet Cortese is from.
Liebherr (left) and Cortese have ambitiousplans for the League One club
After all, when German-born billionaire Markus Liebherr's takeover of the club was completed in July, Saints were days from going out of business and, after an unspectacular start to the current campaign, are still on minus points following a deduction imposed last season.
The takeover had been Cortese's idea. Intelligent, hard working and happy with his career, the 40-year-old was a successful banker in Switzerland and Liebherr was one of his clients.
Southampton had first appeared on Cortese's radar in 2007 when he read stories linking Microsoft's Paul Allen with the club, but it wasn't until he received an e-mail in April that he seriously considered the club as an investment.
He thought it would be an interesting private purchase for somebody looking for something a little bit different. Liebherr came to mind.
Cortese initially floated the idea to Liebherr in late May in his office in Zurich and a day later they were standing in the centre circle of St Mary's.
"Markus is into culture and history and had quickly made himself aware of the background of the club. An hour later we were ready to make an offer," said Cortese.
The purchase proved to be complicated, though, with what Cortese describes as "obstacles" delaying the process. One of these obstacles was the exclusivity agreement signed by the rival Pinnacle consortium fronted by Matt Le Tissier. Their bid subsequently collapsed.
Liebherr eventually completed his takeover on 8 July and continued familiarising himself with the club. Liebherr, a big fan of German football, has enthusiastically been watching DVD after DVD of previous Saints teams in action and I'm told he has derived a lot of pleasure so far from his purchase of the club.
"People who know him from business would not recognise him," added Cortese.
Liebherr may be the owner but it is Cortese who runs the League One club.
After the club's pre-season match against Ajax, Liebherr told his trusted advisor that he wanted him to stay on full-time at the club.
"I was giving up a career that had made me very comfortable in all senses," said Cortese. "But Markus said that he needed somebody he could completely trust and talk with about money."
Cortese discussed the situation with his wife, who understood how much time her husband had put into completing the takeover. The executive chairman dryly observed that his wife was prepared to move the family to England but had previously refused to relocate from Zurich to Geneva.
During my conversation with Cortese it became clear the man is calm and controlled. He looked at ease in the surroundings of his luxury hotel. It was easy to imagine why people trust him with their money.
Yet running a football club is a very different proposition to the world of Swiss banking. Cortese wakes up at 5am on the Saturday of a home match and is so nervous that he cannot eat until half-time. His job as a banker was demanding but at least he had weekends off.
Even so, he appears to be relishing his role.
"There is no more internal politics and the club has no debts - nobody dictates our business anymore, we do that," said the executive chairman.
The watchwords from our conversation were stability and discretion. Southampton used to be something of a leaky ship but Cortese is adamant the holes have been plugged. His surprise appointment of Alan Pardew as manager is a case in point.
A lot of Cortese's time at the moment is spent creating a long-term structure for success. There are plans to rejuvenate an Academy that until recently had a proven track record of producing players, redevelop the training ground and empower the club's non-football staff.
Cortese found a workforce understandably suffering from low morale while many staff had multiple duties and more than one line manager. He is carrying out what he terms a "deep analysis".
"People need guidance - and it cannot be three people giving guidance to one person because it is confusing," he said. "People here can add great value but that has not been recognised."
"I told him we wanted to win the league," replied Cortese. "He was about to take a sip of wine but put his glass down without drinking any."
Cortese's plan is for the club to win promotion from League One in two seasons and reach the Premier League in five years. He does not expect Liebherr to enjoy a return on his investment until the club returns to the top flight but reckons Saints can break even in the Championship. In the meantime, there are funds available for Pardew to mould his squad.
Saints boss Pardew is working hard to make his team competitive
A few hours after interviewing Cortese, I watched Pardew working with his players at the club's training ground. As the late summer sun blazed down, the Saints boss constantly interrupted the game in progress to instil in his players how he wanted them to play. It was fascinating to watch him explain in great detail his ideas for how every attack should unfold - what options his players should take and when.
Cortese appointed Pardew after taking advice from a source whose name he will not reveal. Pardew, who had been out of work since he parted company with Charlton late last year, was unsure at first and had to be convinced that taking over at Saints was the right move.
"They were starting the season on minus 10 and some of the best players had left a team that had been relegated - that worried me," the former Reading, West Ham and Charlton boss told me.
Cortese and chief operations officer Andy Oldknow convinced him he would be given the time to build a new squad. The likes of Dan Harding, Radhi Jaidi, Graeme Murty and Rickie Lambert, who cost £1m, have joined the playing staff, while Pardew has bolstered his coaching team with the arrival of such experienced men as former Brentford boss Wally Downes and ex-Brighton manager Dean Wilkins.
Neverthless, I think Pardew has a tough job at Southampton. Yes, plenty of managers would like to be at a debt-free club with money to spend and playing in a top-class stadium - but with that comes big expectations.
Pardew is under no illusions that Liebherr and Cortese want success, and he reckons his experience of managing expectations could prove vital. He talks with Cortese just about every day and is happy with their working relationship.
"The people here have big plans for this club and I am going to be asked to deliver fairly quickly," said Pardew. "Being debt-free is a nice feeling but my over-riding emotion at the moment is that the team needs to improve."
Pardew has noticed a lack of what he calls "nuts and bolts of football". He is talking about good technical players lacking the work ethic and discipline to succeed.
"Just recently I did a talk to the players, I told them they must play like every game is their last. Potentially it is - one injury, one really bad performance and they may not play for the club again," he said.
He wants the Academy to deliver players with steel as well as skill and is, in the interim, prepared to bring in players with the experience and desire to help Saints win promotion.
There is money to spend but Pardew wants to win promotion in a "fair and honourable way" and, in his words, "not be large". Southampton are unlikely to emerge as the Manchester City of League One.
Saints lost 3-2 at home to Bristol Rovers on Tuesday in what I'm told was a thrilling game. Liebherr came over to watch.
The means Saints have still only won one league match all season and remain bottom of the division. Pardew says promotion is not "off the agenda" this year but admits that his team have a lot more growing to do.
I imagine that many Southampton supporters are just glad that they still have a club to support. As for silverware - the League One trophy would do for starters.