Matt Crocker exit leaves Southampton with three key roles unfilled – so what next?


Sport Republic is nearing its first anniversary as Southampton’s majority stakeholder.

The year can be split into two.

The first six months centred on carrying out internal assessments within the club, something which is par for the course for both Sport Republic’s co-founders Henrik Kraft and Rasmus Ankersen. Kraft’s commercial investment background means his strengths lie in managing budgets and finding ways of mitigating any sense of risk, while Ankersen’s work in football operations focuses on implementing structures and processes at clubs.

From the first day they walked into Southampton, Ankersen and Kraft noted an openness from staff, who seemed to share a refreshing appetite for the change of ownership. While they recognised the club did not need root-and-branch reform — Ankersen was impressed by the correlation between departments at Staplewood — changes naturally had to be made.

The second six months, with the summer window retrospectively serving as the harbinger for what was to come, were about putting plans into action. Sport Republic made bold and sweeping changes, signing 10 players and removing a considerable chunk of the old guard.

“We’ve done our deep assessment and that phase is over,” Kraft told The Athletic in November. “The next phase will take several years of improving and moving forward. We’re still full of ideas.”

The day-to-day running of Southampton has changed, too. It is a more collaborative process, in contrast to how the club functioned under previous owner Gao Jisheng, who left chief executive Martin Semmens and managing director Toby Steele to run the business, by and large, by themselves. They were granted total autonomy relative to the constraints they worked under.



Matt Crocker to leave Southampton at end of season

Kraft’s governance in ensuring Southampton had a “functional board” — something he said the club did not have before Sport Republic’s arrival — provided him with a platform to monitor finances and, as he says, constantly push for higher standards.

Establishing normal board governance was therefore a priority upon arrival, working with Semmens, Steele and other senior directors to ensure what was described as “a more normal corporate governance structure”. This was when key decisions got reviewed, challenged and ultimately taken. 

The presence of two central figures in Kraft and Ankersen meant Southampton’s board dynamics would shift, somewhat. Ankersen has a high level of contacts within football circles and the overarching say from a sporting point of view. While it is stressed that all transfer decisions remain collaborative, where every member involved takes joint accountability on signings, Ankersen has the deciding say.

Sport Republic places a heavy reliance on “alignment” — a buzzword frequently mentioned and at the very core of its framework. The purpose is for every player, manager and, you suspect, staff member, to align with the long-term strategy of Southampton. That way, Sport Republic can attempt to drive through its vision of being a successful and fully-functioning multi-club model, with Southampton its flagship club.

From the outset, the incoming owners were keen for their work and foresight to demonstrate substance, as opposed to empty gestures. They wanted to be judged on long-term results and instigated change. It might have been assumed that any fork in the road would likely come from those who did not align with their modus operandi.

Director of football Matt Crocker rejoined Southampton at the start of 2020 and, along with former manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, was an influential figure in the design of the ‘SFC Playbook’ — a document which ensured the age groups below the first team mirrored the same training sessions and principles of play.

Crocker’s role prior to Sport Republic’s arrival was to oversee the development of every aspect of Southampton’s football operations, including the academy and the women’s team. He was not involved in Southampton’s summer transfer business and, as The Athletic revealed on Friday, will leave his post at the end of the season.

Chief commercial officer David Thomas will also depart. Thomas has been at Southampton since 2015 and was formerly a member of the board. His remit included the commercial growth of Southampton, looking for different financial conduits such as sponsorships, partnerships and brand developments.

Intriguingly, this was an area Kraft singled out as an area of improvement in the exclusive interview with The Athletic, insisting Southampton needed “to work harder, be smarter and be more street-smart” because certain aspects of potential growth were, in his view, sub-par.

“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,” Kraft said.

The departures of Crocker and Thomas now mean Southampton are without a director of football, a chief commercial officer and, following the short-lived appointment of Joe Shields, a head of recruitment. Three senior and integral positions will all need to be filled.

Still, the nature of the widespread changes on and off the pitch is an example of the ownership further shaping the club in its image and ensuring alignment from top to bottom. The plan is for this to bring about a consistent approach within different departments at Southampton but also across all the teams in its multi-club model.

Southampton were Sport Republic’s first acquisition but it has since bought a controlling stake in Turkish second-division side Goztepe. They now intend to purchase more teams in Europe.

Crocker’s departure is symbolic of Southampton transitioning from one era to another, with key figures departing and, as is customary with incoming owners, the fabric of the club’s operations changing. From Ankersen and Kraft’s point of view, the search for alignment is in the pursuit of success.

(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)


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