Martin’s Swansea to Southampton switch has become a row about money and principle
Russell Martin’s appointment as Southampton manager had felt inevitable for more than a month.
For many at St Mary’s and Swansea City — the club he would be leaving — it was a case of when not if.
Following the eventual confirmation of his appointment on Wednesday, the two Championship teams are locked in a bitter row over money and principle, with both showing little willingness to give an inch. The possibility of a legal battle is real, with the stand-off showing no signs of being resolved.
Swansea’s 104-word statement confirming Martin’s departure suggested the 37-year-old had left of his own accord after two seasons in charge — likely leaving the two clubs to contest the compensation figure in a tribunal — and doubled down on their long-standing viewpoint that they are still owed “full compensation”.
“Swansea City can confirm head coach Russell Martin has left the club to join Southampton,” the statement read. “Martin had a little over 12 months remaining on the three-year deal he signed upon arriving at the Swansea.com Stadium in August 2021.
“The club also stands firm in our belief that we are owed full compensation for Russell and we will continue working diligently and strategically to protect the best interests of the club. Swansea City would like to place on record its thanks to Russell for his work during his time in SA1. The club will update supporters regarding a new first-team coaching staff in due course.”
Southampton’s own statement made waves on social media for not mentioning Swansea by name and instead referring to them as “the Welsh club”. However, they insist missing out “Swansea City” was a typo in the copy.
The row centres around the difference in what both clubs believe the proper amount of compensation to be.
Martin’s contract at Swansea contained fixed buyout clauses that allowed clubs, dependent on what division they were in, to extract him from his deal in south Wales. Swansea felt entitled to the stipulated compensation figure from a Premier League side, which Southampton were last season, which worked out at £1.25million ($1.58m).
Southampton’s counter-argument is they had been relegated following a 2-0 defeat by Fulham with two games of the season left and should have, in theory, been viewed as a Championship club. This would have meant they would only be required to pay £750,000. Separate negotiations were running concurrently to allow Martin’s backroom staff from Swansea to go to Southampton with him, so they would still have had to pay an additional £400,000.
The managerial search was led by majority stakeholders Sport Republic and incoming director of football Jason Wilcox, who has joined from Manchester City, with Southampton settling on Martin in early May.
Martin was viewed as an up-and-coming, tactically sophisticated coach whose football philosophy chimed with Southampton’s intentions to move to a possession-based style, signalling a dramatic gear change from the high-pressing focus forged under Ralph Hasenhuttl, their manager from December 2018 until last November.
Sport Republic have put their faith in Martin – his appointment has to work for Southampton
The 37-year-old Martin was not Southampton’s first choice; that was Manchester City assistant Enzo Maresca. The Italian was offered the job in part because Wilcox — through the pair’s shared background at City — possessed deep-seated knowledge of his coaching acumen and character.
But once Maresca decided to stay at City to help their successful bid to win the treble and then joined fellow relegated side Leicester, Martin became the clear favourite. On May 19, with two games left of Southampton’s bleak campaign but relegation already confirmed, The Athletic reported he was set to be appointed as their next manager.
Martin had been scheduled to fly to Washington DC for talks with Swansea’s majority owners Steve Kaplan, Jason Levien and Jake Silverstein at the conclusion of the Championship season early last month. It was anticipated to be a discussion that centred on outlining plans for 2023-24 and, with Martin entering the final 12 months of his contract, getting clarity over his future.
By that stage, Martin was under consideration for the vacancies at both Southampton and Leicester City. He never did fly out to the U.S. capital. While no formal approach had been made by Southampton, interest in him had accelerated.
Internally at Southampton, there was a shared notion their dire end-of-season form (they finished last, six points adrift of second-bottom Leeds United) meant they had the strange luxury of being able to steal a march on whoever the Premier League’s other two casualties would turn out to be.
Southampton had been sleepwalking towards the drop, which put Sport Republic in a position to begin preparations for life back in the Championship after 11 straight seasons of top-flight football. Making enquires about Martin’s availability was indicative of that school of thought.
This was then further illustrated in the transformation of the hierarchy, such as Darren Mowbray joining from Aberdeen of the Scottish Premiership as their new head of recruitment and chief executive Martin Semmens leaving. Other appointments will include an academy director and should be rubber-stamped in the coming weeks, which will align with Southampton’s new ball-dominant approach.
As The Athletic reported, Martin verbally agreed on May 21, two days after our story ran, to join Southampton. But within the two boardrooms, tensions were escalating.
Holding informal discussions with managers and players without permission is not within the rules but is commonplace within football.
Swansea’s American owners were not prepared to accept the unwritten status quo of informal discussions and were convinced Southampton had approached Martin without their permission while they were still a Premier League club.
Goalkeeping coach Andrew Sparkes left after Southampton’s final game of the season against Liverpool on May 28, with the expectation that Dean Thornton, who had the same job on Martin’s backroom staff, would replace him. For large parts of negotiations, Swansea’s assistant coaches were kept in the dark as to the progress of the deal and when/if the move would be confirmed.
Discussions to extract Martin from his contract were held between Sport Republic co-founder Rasmus Ankersen and Paul Watson, who is still on gardening leave from his job as chief operating officer at Luton Town until July 1 but has approval to work behind the scenes and lead the negotiations for Swansea. Lawyers were involved as both sides attempted to find an agreement.
Although the difference in the Premier League and Championship compensation figures for Martin is minimal to Southampton compared to their typical outlay on players during their time in the top flight — they paid a club-record £22million for winger Kamaldeen Sulemana in January, for example — the negotiations with Swansea increasingly served as a matter of principle. And both ownership groups refused to budge.
The backdrop to all of this, though, was the closing window of time in which to get Martin appointed.
Southampton’s players, some of whom are looking to leave following relegation, were scheduled to report back for pre-season at the end of this month, with the EFL season kicking off on the first weekend in August, yet Martin and his coaching staff were still not able to officially start work, even if transfer targets and agents of players already at the club were in no doubt he would be the next manager.
Once Southampton officially lost their status as a Premier League club on June 14, they returned to Swansea and offered to negotiate the Championship compensation amount stipulated in Martin’s contract. Tellingly, Wednesday’s announcement of Martin’s arrival came without assurances over his backroom team, as negotiations continue.
It remains to be seen whether Swansea, who met Michael Duff’s release clause at last season’s League One play-off finalists Barnsley and appointed him their new head coach, would countenance selling a player to Southampton.
Joel Piroe, for example, has only 12 months left on his contract and is expected to leave Swansea this summer after scoring 20 goals for them for the second season running. Their captain, Matt Grimes, had been viewed as an option for Southampton having been a key influence in Martin being able to drive through his philosophy at the Welsh club — he has described the midfielder as an “incredible” footballer.
Martin’s move may have finally gone through, but there is still no love lost between two clubs who could now face one another in court.
Next season’s fixtures were released this week and Southampton host Swansea on Boxing Day — will the season of goodwill extend to the St Mary’s Stadium boardroom?
(Top photo: Athena Pictures/Getty Images)