Saints fans can be forgiven for saying that they don’t owe much to former chairman Rupert Lowe, but on the 27th June 2008, Lowe made one of his wisest decisions.
Lowe agreed to pay a small fee (with possible rises to £1.2 million) to RC Strasbourg for 18 year old French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. Although the name may have been alien to fans in English football, Schneiderlin was a young man turning the heads of several clubs.
From the Alsace region of northern France, one of the smallest, and more famed for it’s skiers than it’s footballers, Schneiderlin was already making a presence on the international scene having represented France at every level up to U18 when Saints came calling.
This was after countryman Georges Prost’s time at Saints, but you can’t help but think that the legendary French youth development coach may have had a hand it. With Chelsea and Arsenal both interested in Schneiderlin it eventually came down to a straight choice. Premier League Portsmouth or Championship Southampton, thankfully for us, Morgan chose club size, potential and facilities over temporary league superiority and joined Saints when perhaps they were at their lowest ebb.
To say it was a risky move for both the club and Schneiderlin would be an understatement. With the club in a difficult period financially and having just survived a Championship relegation battle on the final day of the season, this might not have been the best place for a young foreigner to take the next step in his career.
2008/09 was an even more difficult season. Off the field Saints were unravelling and on the pitch the amount of playing time Schneiderlin was getting in the first team would be a telling tale as to the quality on offer. In what was a very poor side, Schneiderlin, being young, in a foreign country and far from the finished article looked seriously exposed. Saints finished second from bottom and the fans weren’t sold on their new French midfielder. The strength of feeling can be seen in a thread from the most populated Saints internet forum ‘Saintsweb’ – ‘Schneiderlin – The biggest waste of cash ever?’ narrowly beating English lower league plodder Paul Wotton as the best option for central midfield.
I won’t lie, I also thought Schneiderlin was poor and not cut out to take part in a League One campaign. The phrase ‘lightweight French ponce’ was said to me by a friend and I can’t say I disagreed.
If we are being fair though that was a hideously poor Saints team, and Schneiderlin would have done well to shine in it. Rupert Lowe’s disastrous Dutch experiment with Jan Poortvliet at the helm, coupled with bad financial decisions meant that this was a difficult time to be a Southampton player. For many Schneiderlin was a write off, a waste of money and not good enough. Saints had had a brief upturn under Mark Wotte, and the former Saints coach had this to say about Schneiderlin ‘Intelligent player great basic skills,cool composed passer,perfect sitting and passing midfielder,could be a bit more dominant’.
‘Quand on a le droit de se tromper impunément, on est toujours sûr de réussir.’
The 2009/10 season was the start of Saints new dawn, and the same could be said for Schneiderlin. As Saints lived through an uncertain summer in administration it might have been a good time for Morgan Schneiderlin to make his escape, but whether it was down to a lack of interest (everyone was for sale) or a lack of enthusiasm on Morgan’s part the Frenchman was still a Saints player when the club was rescued by Markus Liebherr. Under new boss Alan Pardew Saints looked a much better prospect and Schneiderlin started to show his worth.
In a season that ended with a trophy (sadly Schneiderlin missed the Johnstones Paint Trophy final with a hamstring injury) and Saints just missing out on the playoffs despite a -10 point penalty, it was clear the club was embarking on a bright new period, and Schneiderlin was very much a part of it. The fans had started to see a different side of the player as his confidence started to blossom, both the good and the bad. As well as showing a calmness on the ball, so associated with the continental players, he also showed his combative side, losing his temper and picking up bookings and being sent off twice.
If fans weren’t sold on him at this point. The subsequent two seasons would complete his turnaround. Flourishing under Nigel Adkins, while the club continuously changed personell around him to plan for the Championship, Schneiderlin was a mainstay. As Saints pushed for promotion Schneiderlin was coming into his own in central midfield and was becoming one of the most vocal and passionate Saints players, often leading the chat in the pre-match huddle.
Saints made an impressive return to the Championship with Schneiderlin now one of the first names on the teamsheet playing in a defensive midfield role alongside Jack Cork. He had earned himself a new contract in the summer and now Saints fans were celebrating his stay rather than bemoaning it. Saints made it back to back promotions and the Premier League beckoned.
The Premier League has been the great leveller for many a player that has been ‘rated’ in the lower leagues. Saints were now three years into a five year plan to build a side to compete in the Premier League and Schneiderlin was still very much a part of that. Like his other top division shy teammates from the lesser tier era Jack Cork, Jose Fonte, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert he hasn’t failed to impress. The Frenchman, now an old stager and part of the furniture at St. Mary’s has been fantastic, mixing it up with some of the best in the world. Having perhaps been Saints best kept secret while his team mates are linked with moves elsewhere, people have started to sit up and take notice.
His progress since 2008 has been almost immeasurable, and it is hard to imagine Saints lining up without Schneiderlin in that anchor role between defence and attack, they would certainly be the weaker for it. The French often have a philosophical way with words, and when Eric Cantona described French captain Didier Deschamps as ‘nothing more than a water carrier’, Deschamps rightly retorted that ‘every team needs water carriers’ and that is undoubtedly true. To compare Schneiderlin to Deschamps would be frivolous at this stage of his career, but he certainly adds that sense of calm and consistency to Saints midfield. Breaking up play, taking control of the ball and moving it on productively. If I can be so bold, I would say that Schneiderlin is 50% Deschamps in style, and 50% that of another successful countryman Claude Makélélé. Again perhaps I am being a little over zealous but to date this season Schneiderlin has made 162 tackles and interceptions, more than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Couple that with an 85% pass success rate you can see that this is a man in control of midfield, despite facing the best there is.
Having become a key player for Saints, and a man that the media and pundits are starting to talk about, it seems crazy that he is just 23 years old, and has already amassed 172 first team appearances for the club.
It has been an up and down relationship between Morgan and Saints, who has suffered the recent lows and enjoyed the recent highs. He is now very much a part of Saints folklore. He has blossomed at the club and grown as the club has grown, and alongside Kelvin Davis is all that is left of the dark days of 2008. The sky really is the limit now for Morgan, and I for one would not be surprised to see Didier Deschamps give him a chance in his revamped French squad, he would certainly have deserved it.
As Saints are now in another exciting new era, Schneiderlin epitomises everything that ‘The Southampton Way’ is about, young, talented and growing from an 18 year old rough around the edges to leading the first team out as captain against the European champions. With Mauricio Pochettino coming in as head coach and renowned in Spain for working with and improving young players it will be interesting to see how good Schneiderlin can become. He himself was quoted this week saying about the new setup “I believe he will make us better players. He has a lot of new ideas.”.
The shared journey of Southampton and Schneiderlin is hopefully far from over. Saints are insistent that they are no longer a club who develops talent then moves them on for a profit. Statistically he is currently one of the best defensive midfield players in the Premier League. That £1.2 million isn’t looking too bad now is it….