Fast-forward to mid-September and all eyes will be on the maiden few weeks of the 2016-17 Premier League season. Leicester City may well be in the early stages of an improbable title defence, Pep Guardiola will be adapting to life at Manchester City, while the Spaniard’s long-time rival Jose Mourinho may well be in the opposing dugout when City face rival Manchester United.
One man who will be watching the action from afar during the last two weeks of September will be Southampton chair Ralph Krueger, who will be managing Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. It might seem like a strange endeavor for a Premier League chair at such an important stage of the season, but Krueger doesn’t really do convention.
The World Cup of Hockey is returning after a 12-year hiatus and Krueger – who had a successful career in the sport – will lead of group of European National Hockey League (NHL) players from nations such as Switzerland, Germany and Norway, who will not take part in the tournament with their home nations.
Before joining Southampton in March 2014 the German Canadian had no previous experience in football and had devoted the majority of his life to ice hockey, helping Canada win gold at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
During his first summer transfer window with Southampton, the south-coast club lost its young and innovative head coach Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham Hotspur, as well as a number of key players including Adam Lallana to Liverpool, Luke Shaw to Manchester United and Calum Chambers to Arsenal. Many pundits thought the writing was on the wall and that relegation beckoned.
However, Southampton brought in respected Dutch coach Ronald Koeman, and under his and Krueger’s watch the club was steered towards European football via a seventh-placed finish and remains on course to repeat the feat this season. Following a number of seasons of Premier League stability, Krueger is keen to push Southampton on and build its brand globally.
“Right now we’re a local brand,” he says. “If we’re realistic about where we’re positioned there are clubs in the relegation zone (Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Sunderland) that are way bigger than us. That is the reality of it and we want to become a bigger club and be able to compete regularly.”
After signing the club’s “biggest ever commercial deal” with Under Armour (see page 16), Krueger is planning to use the capabilities of both organisations to open football schools in the US and in China. Krueger says he sees Southampton as a “teacher of football” and will employ coaches to work in international markets. It’s new partner, Under Armour has 200 grassroots partners in the US.
“We’re just starting to have conversations in China,” he reveals. “It’s just the beginning and there’s so much opportunity in the way countries like China and India would like to learn to develop football players.”
Despite being candid about Southampton’s global ambitions, the chair is cautious about not “losing the eye on the ball here at home”. He believes that Leicester’s incredible exploits this season – which has the club on the brink of winning its first-ever league title against all the odds – can act as inspiration for Southampton when taking on the traditional big boys such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
“We feel proud that we broke down some barriers last year by staying in the Champions League spots until January, but Leicester has taken things to a whole new level,” say Krueger with a chuckle. “We are happy for them. Of course it helps the situation that there’s parity in the league now.”
Krueger reckons that they’ll be even more twists and turns next season, once the league’s record £5.1bn (US$7.2bn, €6.4bn) domestic television rights deal kicks in, bringing some “crazy players” to England during the summer.
The increase in money for Premier League teams also ramps up clubs’ responsibility in investing in its local community, according to Krueger. The deal with Under Armour will see the growing sportswear firm denote 5,000 kits to deprived children in the surrounding community. In addition, Southampton will maintain its investment in community programmes such as the 20,000 hours of football training it gave to children over the past year and its work with local people in drug rehabilitation centres.
“We will never take our eye off that [supporting the local community],” he explains. “We’re going to stay humble with our feet on the ground.”