Henrik Kraft, Southampton’s chairman and co-founder of Sport Republic, is reflecting on 10 months at the south-coast club. The highs, lows and everything in between.
The overarching feeling is positive. “It’s been great,” he says. “We’re really happy with how it’s gone so far. We’ve been accepted into the company and working very well with the team.
“We’ve done our deep assessment and that phase is over. The next phase will take several years of improving and moving forward. We’re still full of ideas.”
Kraft and Rasmus Ankersen acquired a majority stake in the Premier League club at the start of the year. They, along with chief executive Martin Semmens, speak to The Athletic in north west London, a week on from the appointment of Nathan Jones as manager. It is near their base from which they co-ordinate their football and business operations.
In their first public interview since the purchase, Kraft, Ankersen and Semmens discuss a host of topics, including:
- Assessing Sport Republic’s start at Southampton
- Their short and long-term strategy
- The multi-club model and acquiring Goztepe
- Club transfer policy and reflections on the summer window
- Ralph Hasenhuttl’s departure
- Why they hired Jones
Both Kraft and Ankersen are vastly successful businessmen and are in the process of building a multi-club sporting model. In January 2022, Southampton became their first acquisition and they have since bought a controlling stake in Turkish second-division side Goztepe. They intend to purchase further clubs.
Ankersen has an extensive footballing background having started out as a player at FC Midtjylland in Denmark before coaching in their academy and eventually becoming chairman. Then, between 2015 and 2021, he worked as Brentford’s director of football.
Interestingly, Ankersen is also the author of two bestselling books based around talent development — ‘The Gold Mine Effect’ and ‘Hunger in Paradise’. The Dane has been hired by major global brands such as LEGO, Google, IKEA and Facebook to share his research on high performance.
Kraft, meanwhile, has spent over two decades investing in the technology, telecoms and media industry. He previously worked with Southampton’s lead investor Dragan Solak, where roles were reversed as Kraft’s previous firm KKR were the majority shareholder in Solak’s United Group — the leading multi-play telecoms and media provider in south east Europe. Kraft led investment company KKR’s investment in United Group and was on Solak’s board for three years, with the pair maintaining a good relationship in the years after.
Ankersen’s expertise within football means he is naturally more suited to on-pitch operations.
“I look at how to build the right structures within Sport Republic to support Southampton and other clubs we may add,” Ankersen explains. “So if we buy a club, we can plug it in. We need to be clear on the model we want to have. If you can have alignment around your game model, that’s one of the secrets. What often happens is you have a set of players and a new manager that comes in and wants to do things differently, but the players don’t fit that. This is where all the inefficiencies are.”
In his remit as chairman, Kraft has established what he describes as “more of a normal board governance”, with Southampton having not had a “functional board for quite some time” prior to Sport Republic’s arrival. This enables a more cooperative structure to decision-making, where each facet of the club gets reviewed, challenged and decided between Kraft, Ankersen, Semmens and other senior directors.
In addition, with Kraft’s background in commercial investment, he has been overseeing ways in which Southampton can improve its revenue streams.
“Rasmus and I have hugely complementary skill sets,” says Kraft. “I wouldn’t have invested in a football club without having someone like Rasmus with me.
“When you’re at Southampton, compared to top six clubs, there aren’t people queuing up to give us good sponsorship deals. We have to work harder, be smarter and be more street-smart. We have to engage our local community and our local business much better.
“What we see is us investing in the technical platforms. By that, I mean our website and mobile app. That’s the shortest-term priority because, in my view, our digital platforms right now are nowhere near good enough to support the sorts of fan engagement we want to have and the services we want to deliver that will help grow our revenues and fanbase.”
On one side of the table from The Athletic is Ankersen, with Semmens and Kraft on the other. The remaining key figure who is not in the room is Solak. Still spearheading a multi-billion pound media company means the Serbian has other responsibilities, but he does have a seat on Southampton’s board that allows him to have an active voice in crucial decisions.
“He is very engaged,” says Kraft. “He comes along to games and is passionate about the project. We speak to him a lot and I run a lot by him. He’s got great resources internally and is involved in every major judgment we make.”
Ankersen’s omnipresence in Sport Republic’s multi-club model is an all-encompassing one. As well as being on Southampton’s board and deeply entrenched in the football strategy, he is the chairman at Goztepe. While Kraft and Ankersen are reluctant to put a number on how many clubs they hope to purchase, spinning multiple plates will be challenging. However, should the interconnected strategy be executed correctly, Ankersen insists it yields certain advantages.
“I used to say that your emotional life quality drops when you have two clubs,” he smiles. “Because it’s tough to go through a weekend without losing points. But I love it. There is now an opportunity to scale up and build a culture and a central database of intelligence that could benefit multiple clubs.
“I focus a lot on building these structures. We’re not just about buying a portfolio of clubs and then letting them get on with it. We try to build an integrated model where you get synergies and player pathways right. Once that system is operating, it can become a big advantage for those clubs.”
In the summer, Southampton recorded a net spend of £76million — the eighth highest in the Premier League — as Sport Republic started driving through their vision. Recent reports of the club borrowing £80million are explained by Kraft, who says it is purely to do with the refinancing of the existing loan taken out during COVID-19 on a lower interest rate, in turn saving considerable sums of money.
For a club that had been engulfed in a period of stasis under Gao but guided safely by Semmens in the meantime, this year has seen significant regeneration on and off the pitch. Sport Republic’s first full transfer window was Southampton’s busiest in 15 years, signing 10 players and sanctioning 12 departures, either permanently or on loan.
“There were really good foundations to build on,” Ankersen says. “The first six months were about assessing and getting to know people and how they worked. And from the summer, to now, to the next six months, it’s about changing what we need to in order to take the club to the next level.”
“The interaction between the three of us is sometimes up to 20 times a day,” adds Semmens. “For example, Rasmus and I are both doing certain things in the transfer window. You fall flat if you don’t tell each other exactly what you’re doing.
“We have great respect and love for our ex-owner (Gao), but he would be the first to say that he wasn’t as involved as other owners. Some of the decisions we made were of necessity — some things we had to do, like being quite simplistic in the way we played, recruited and developed. It was effective within certain constraints. A lion in a zoo can only do so much. But with Rasmus and Henrik coming in, the walls of the zoo have come down.”
Amendments within the first-team infrastructure were carried out during the summer, including major changes to former boss Ralph Hasenhuttl’s backroom team. The decision to sack three coaches — Dave Watson, Craig Fleming and Kelvin Davis — and replace them with three new members of staff was viewed by some as a diminishment of the power Hasenhuttl had built in the previous three years. Semmens and Kraft, however, dispute that notion.
“When I first started working with Ralph, he said you have to evolve,” says Semmens. “So you either change the manager, coaches or the players. We got to a point where at the end of last season it wasn’t working. We needed to make a change in that environment and there were many paths we could have gone down.
“For clarity, it was Ralph’s decision (to change the backroom team), not ours, and we felt it worked. The change in coaches didn’t undermine him — he actually loved it. But it’s possible that we tried to change the way we play, the way we coached and we probably didn’t get that 100 per cent right.”
“The guys that left in the summer are not people Ralph brought in,” Kraft points out. “They were people he inherited. When you observe the training and when you talk to him, it was clear they weren’t adding much. So he wanted the change and was fully behind it. It was done jointly.”
Southampton’s summer was underpinned by a youthful recruitment drive, with six of the 10 signings under the age of 21. Long-standing players such as Nathan Redmond, Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens were moved on. The new direction of travel represented a bold, potentially rewarding, conduit.
“It’s a risk. It is a bet in a way,” Ankersen accepts. “But we have to think further ahead than just 12 months. That’s how we have a chance to break into the top 10 over time. These young players do amazingly well and you can sell and replace them with players who are good but maybe cheaper. You can create a model where you can compete and punch above your weight.
“So we have to do something else and go in and take players that are undervalued and more ready than people think. We knew if results were bad, it was always going to be used as a stick to beat us with. But if it was going well, it would be a genius move.”
Joe Shields, formerly Manchester City’s head of academy recruitment, joined Southampton in the summer to head up the first team’s recruitment. At 35, Shields was one of the younger talent spotters in the industry but chimed well with Sport Republic’s youthful policy.
Less than three months later, though, Shields decided to leave for Chelsea after being headhunted by their ownership group led by Todd Boehly. Southampton have since placed Shields on gardening leave for six months.
Both Kraft and Semmens expressed their disappointment at losing Shields so soon after arriving and providing him with a platform. But as is Southampton’s modus operandi, they do not want to stand in someone’s way if an opportunity presents itself to go to a higher level. Shields officially started work in July, meaning some of the negotiations for new signings, such as Romeo Lavia and Armel Bella-Kotchap, had already taken place. In that respect, he was not involved in the transfer window as a head of recruitment would ordinarily be.
Within football circles, Ankersen has long been seen as an innovative thinker. He is someone who leans heavily on data to influence decisions and dares to be creative in the pursuit of progress. Even though attempts to build a multi-club brand have been tried before, how Ankersen identifies what clubs suit his model is distinctive.
“It’s like when you scout a player and you identify traits you cannot teach a player,” says Ankersen. “It’s difficult to teach a player to be quicker, you know? It’s a genetic thing. But you can teach them decision-making. So you find clubs that have some of the characteristics that are hard to teach. Goztepe was interesting because it’s in a big city, a big catchment area and a big commercial opportunity. Southampton has a great training ground and a great stadium, which the club owns itself.
“The purpose of a multi-club model is primarily from a player pathway perspective. For example, Goztepe could not attract the players they do if it wasn’t associated with Southampton or Sport Republic. With the Brexit rules, recruiting top European talent is not possible anymore. In a multi-club structure, you will be able to buy these players for other clubs, then if they’re good enough move them through the system. That way, you can still get your hands on top talent earlier.”
Kraft admits they look and speak to other like-minded models, such as the Red Bull or City Football Group. Being progressive in their approach is crucial in ultimately establishing Southampton as a top-10 Premier League side.
That leads us to the elephant in the room. Sport Republic’s start to life at Southampton coincided with a promising set of results on the pitch. Their first two visits to St Mary’s saw the 4-1 demolition of Brentford and a buoyant 1-1 draw against Manchester City. The 3-2 win away to Tottenham Hotspur a month later was regarded as one of Hasenhuttl’s peak managerial performances.
That evening, in retrospect, marked the start of Hasenhuttl’s decline, culminating in the Austrian losing his job earlier this month. Southampton have won just six times in the league since.
“Have we got a clear way of playing? Yes,” says Semmens. “Do we feel that towards the end of last season and this season that eroded a little bit? Yes. We’re not blind, everyone can see it. Ralph did an unbelievable job in difficult circumstances to build something that wasn’t here. We’re massively grateful for that.
“One of the beauties is it came to an end at the right moment for him and us. There’s no bitterness or upset. I spoke to him yesterday and he’s sitting at home with his family knowing he did a great job and is happy. He was caring about what we were going to do next — he’s that type of guy. We didn’t make the change with Ralph based on recent results — the decision was not made that recently — we made it based on what we think we need for the future. There’s not a crack in my mind that doesn’t think it was the right time for Ralph.”
In mitigation, there is a theory that while performances on the pitch brought scrutiny onto Hasenhuttl, he was hamstrung by the club’s failure to sign the desired forward he was hoping for. Southampton were heavily linked to high-calibre attacking players throughout the summer, including PSV’s Cody Gakpo and Benfica’s Goncalo Ramos.
“We tried very hard,” says Kraft. “We were very close and had at least two very high-quality candidates and they agreed personal terms. They were both playing in Champions League qualifiers, which pushed us very late in the window. For various reasons, they just didn’t happen. Then there was very little time to do anything else when that became clear.
“That was disappointing and it might have made a difference going into the season. But when I reflect on the transfer window, my overriding feeling is not one of failure to sign a striker, it’s one of ‘wow, we signed a lot of really good players’.”
Heading into the January window, Sport Republic will spend time with new boss Jones to ascertain his opinion of the current squad and what areas require improvement.
Nevertheless, with Southampton sitting in 19th place during the World Cup break, an increasing school of thought among supporters was that the board should have changed managers in the summer. In light of the major surgery that took place across other areas of the club, it may have made sense to have parted ways with Hasenhuttl then.
“I accept it as an opinion, 100 per cent,” says Semmens. “There were choices we had to make in the summer that were marginal. There were choices to be made six weeks ago and this break, but we feel confident that we made the right decision. There is risk in every decision but in the end, we chose to stay with Ralph because we felt he brings so much.
“If I’m honest, that’s the one regret I’ve got. We probably tried to change the way we played with a lot of new players and that was too complex.”
“We have huge regards for Ralph,” Kraft continues. “He’s a great guy and a very talented coach whose done a lot of good things for the club. We played very well up until the end of February, so it was a very sudden decline in the team’s performance. The decision was to give him a strong backroom staff with elite-level coaching. When you now review that, that’s still a reasonable background for making those decisions. The fact it then didn’t quite work as well as we’d hoped… we knew that could also happen.”
Semmens insists the ‘SFC playbook’, partially designed by Hasenhuttl as a tangible document that aligns the B-team and under-18s with his high-pressing style, will remain. It will, however, “evolve” under the new manager.
Shortly after Hasenhuttl’s departure was confirmed, The Athletic revealed Southampton were considering Luton Town manager Nathan Jones as a successor. The deal to extract Jones from Luton was relatively quick, with the 49-year-old officially confirmed less than three days later. Initial reaction to his appointment was met with surprise from many fans.
Ankersen admits he understands supporter sentiments but believes Jones fits the type of managerial profile conducive to taking Southampton forward.
“I appreciate Nathan is not that big a name,” he says. “There is a good old saying that no one has been fired for buying IBM — the easy decision is not Nathan Jones. It’s not about getting someone that people will think ‘wow what a name’. We needed to do what was best for the club.
“This is an appointment for substance, not for PR. He’s done a great job in his first few days, winning people over because it was always clear to us that there would be initial scepticism. We need someone who can get a lot out of the resources they have because we’re not going to give someone a massive budget. We have someone that can make the players better. That’s our whole model. And what he has done at Luton and the work he’s put in and the environment he has created to develop players in many ways is very impressive.”
“We looked at a lot of people, we looked at the data,” says Kraft. “This was not a knee-jerk reaction. It was a long-term thing.”
One of the chief concerns from supporters stemmed from Jones’ unsuccessful 10-month spell at Stoke City, where he was sacked after winning only six of his 38 games in charge. Although there were several mitigating factors — which Ankersen highlights by mentioning how many other Stoke managers have suffered similar failure — he is not troubled by those experiences.
“I don’t know why it’s a must for a manager not to have failed,” contests Ankersen. “You don’t necessarily want someone that’s just gone from strength to strength throughout their career. You want someone that has had failure, learned and can reflect on it. One thing Nathan has done is reflect on what went wrong and what he could have done better. He’s got a very clear idea about that, which is a good thing.”
In his introductory press conference after being confirmed as Southampton manager, Jones repeated how “metrics” influenced Sport Republic’s decision in appointing him. Data-led decisions are not surprising for those who know Ankersen, with his insistence on utilising deep-seated statistics to cut through emotion and look beyond surface-level results. The goal is for data to cultivate a club infrastructure more profound and less dependent on runs of form.
“You cannot change the manager’s personality,” says Ankersen. “If he wants to play this way but you want to play another way, it’s not going to work. You have to have 80 per cent alignment, then you teach him 10 per cent and he teaches you 10 per cent.
“There’s a stylistic element so that. For example, it makes sense to build on some of the super strengths that Ralph instilled, like aggression, being on the front foot and pressing. So we have to find a coach that believes those things are important. When you look at actual performances, you need to see phases of the game we have to improve. Once you understand and break down certain phases of the game, you can look at the metrics and see what manager is out there to improve them.
“You get to a point where you have a group of managers that would be a good fit. It always gives a manager confidence when a club has done this level of analysis to say ‘this is why we like you, so we don’t want you to be anyone else than who you are’. We want managers to be themselves and do what they’re good at because that will make a difference.”
Approaching a year in charge at Southampton, Sport Republic are certainly making a difference. A brave, young, new world intends to be created.
(Lead picture: Getty Images)