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The Italian's ruthless methods did not always rub fans up the right way but, with a sale of the club now likely, his departure probably sees their lofty ambitions go with him

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By George Ankers

Stability? At Southampton? So much for that. Just when the Saints looked to be establishing themselves in an opportune position to aim higher than ever before, the resignation of Nicola Cortese looks set to throw everything into chaos once again.

The Italian has always been divisive during his spell as chairman but his bottom line was always the results – and what incredible results they were.

Yes, the late Markus Liebherr provided the funds and yes, three managers have played significant parts, but Cortese's steely ambition has been a huge factor behind Southampton's rapid rise from the doldrums of League One. Regardless of how much he will be missed, the south-coast side will suffer for his absence.

END OF THE RUN?

SAINTS' RISE UNDER CORTESE
2009-10: LEAGUE ONE
2010-11: LEAGUE ONE
2011-12: CHAMPIONSHIP
2012-13: PREMIER LEAGUE
2013-14: PREMIER LEAGUE
7th
2nd
2nd
14th
9th*
The Saints' statement on Wednesday night declared that it is "business as usual" at St Mary's Stadium, and while that is not strictly accurate, it is more true than a cynic might assume.

Part of Cortese's work, for example, has been to compartmentalise much of the club's operation. Head coach Mauricio Pochettino - though clearly doing excellent work - has previously been described as just a "department head", only one part of the puzzle rather than an all-powerful manager figure. If, as looks likely, he leaves in solidarity after Saturday's game against Sunderland, he can be replaced without necessarily altering the grand plan.

The problem, though, is that the grand plan – the steady build towards a genuine Champions League push in which everybody around the club really did believe – will probably not last much longer than the Italian.

Katherina Liebherr, daughter of the Swiss billionaire who saved Southampton from the brink of oblivion, has taken over as non-executive chairman and reports claim that her intention is to sell the club, despite her father's intention to continue to provide for the Saints after his passing.

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If that happens, all bets are off. Uncomfortable memories of the previous ownership, Rupert Lowe's hideously mismanaged tenure and the slow-motion financial car-crash that followed his departure, come flooding back.

Despite the success, there is reason enough why some fans will shed no tears for Cortese's exit. He is ambitious almost to a fault – though objectively the right decision, the heartless sacking of Nigel Adkins nearly exactly one year ago laid bare the sheer ruthlessness underpinning his regime.

The rather insidious transition from red-and-white stripes to almost entirely red on the home shirt also leaves a bad taste in the mouth, a mini-Cardiff City sneaked in with a disappointing lack of protest.

Cardiff, though, is an apt comparison. The true fear from Cortese's departure and the therefore likely future of a sale to persons unknown is that, despite his nasty streak, one only has to look elsewhere in the Premier League (or, ominously, to the likes of Blackburn in the Championship) to know that whoever comes in next could easily be so much worse.

Whoever takes charge at Southampton has an awful lot of potential on their hands: A near-unrivalled youth academy, a fine stadium and a squad growing in confidence. Cortese's exit, though, creates worries anew about the bad old days of having those youngsters poached at the first sight of maturity.

Saints could achieve their lofty ambitions of turning all that into Champions League football, but the strong suspicion is that Cortese is one of the only men around who had the spine to actually do so.

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