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Southampton's identity and the similarities with Theseus' paradox

Happier Times: A (short-lived) memory of a team that truly was the sum of its parts

"The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

—Plutarch, Theseus

The ship of Theseus paradox poses a fundamentally provoking thought of our understanding & grasp on the concept of identity. Without going into painstaking (and tedious) detail, Theseus’ paradox raises the question of identity and persistence. The Athenians replaced each plank in the original ship of Theseus as it decayed, thereby keeping it in good shape. Eventually, there was not a single plank left of the original ship.

So, did the Athenians still have the same ship that used to belong to Theseus? At what point does the identity of an entity subjected to continuous change persist? In a sport where contracts are rendered meaningless and loyalty is traded faster than one can say Cesc Fabregas, how true does the clichéd “No player is bigger than the club” adage hold, especially when some clubs succeed on the merits of their players.

St. Mary’s sets sail

The case of Southampton in particular, could be chosen as an example to apply the paradoxical thought. Not a summer ago, the Saints were embarking on a lavish (for a side recently back in the Premier League) revamp of their side having survived their first season back in the top flight with not-so-thrilling football. Embracing the attacking, flowing footballing philosophy of manager Mauricio Pochettino, the Saints finished the season with their best ever position of 8th.

For all of football’s dependence and emphasis on tactical discipline, the fabric of the sport is woven by the players out on the pitch. And the Saints flourished with a young, determined core of players that had the perfect balance of youth promoted through the ranks of the famed Saints academy; and some astute moves in the transfer market. Southampton FC were the flavor of the season. It would be difficult to pick one standout performer from the squad.

Try picking one among the young brigade of Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse, Jay Rodriguez, club captain Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jack Cork, Nathaniel Clyne or the veterans Rickie Lambert, Steven Davis and Jose Fonte. No, this was truly a team effort where moments of individual inspiration and brilliance were the exception, not the norm.

The strong English core of the side was also the cause of envy of the clubs with money to spend, who were struggling to fill their rosters with enough Englishmen to satisy the fair play rules. Risk sanctions or pay over-the-odds for a local lad. We all know the story of Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair but I digress. With academy products Shaw, Chambers, Harrisson Reed, Sam Gallagher, Jordan Turnbull and (the not-so-young) Adam Lallana, this was arguably the closest that a group of talented youngsters came to the legendary Class of ‘92. You got the impression that this bunch would make the most of this unique opportunity to create something truly special, something English football hadn’t seen for a while now.

Alan Hansen probably wouldn’t have made the same mistake if asked for his opinion on last year’s Saints side. Indeed, the contingent of Lambert, Lallana, Shaw and Rodriguez that represented the club for England inspired belief in the side. Southampton are by no means the biggest club in England and the regular selection of the foursome for the national team must have been a huge boost for not just the club and its supporters but also the youngsters in the side.

It was a message that you did not have to be playing for the big clubs to leave your mark in English football. Of the group itself, Chambers said: “I think every young group of players our age dreams to be like the ‘Class of ‘92. That is everyone’s aim. Obviously, we are aspiring to be like that. Hopefully, we will come through. That is our ambition, we are trying to fulfil that.” That was to be a short-lived dream, for the Southampton supporters.

The Step Up: The Saints contingent in the English national team

Taking the ship apart, piece by piece

Fast forward to this summer and the romance, optimism and feel-good factor that surrounded the club have given way to desperation and an exodus of talent that beggars disbelief. Pochettino was the first to depart, moving to White Hart Lane, for a club that only just finished a couple places above the Saints. Perhaps the largesse of Daniel Levy’s coffers and the lure of managing a side in Europe, even if only the second tier of continental football proved to be too much for the manager. Or perhaps there is some merit to the boardroom rumblings about a cutback in budgets for transfers and wages, or the whispers of overachievement and the feeling that his project might have been completed.

He might be forgiven, since after all, managers have proven to be a replaceable asset, with Sir Alex, Arsene Wenger, and the Moyes of Everton proving to be the only exceptions in an attrition-driven manager market. The players on the other hand, with perhaps the exception of Lambert who moved back to his boyhood club Liverpool, can certainly be accused of having their heads turned by those wads of money waved at them by the larger clubs.

The vultures were circling the club not long after the end of the season. With Lallana and later, Lovren, openly courted by the Anfield side, their subsequent refusal to return to Southampton at the start of the season, and the club backed into a corner, it was perhaps best for all parties involved. And with the money that was exchanged for player rights, you could perhaps claim, on the basis of one season’s performance, that the Saints came out on the better side of the deal. Then came the transfer that could be termed as the biggest coup of the season.

With the ridiculously priced Shaw moving to Old Trafford, Southampton fans will certainly feel delighted if the money was reinvested in the side. And with Matt Targett waiting in the wings behind Shaw, the club have an equally impressive in-house replacement for the left-back. Chambers was next, Arsenal contributing heavily as well to the St. Mary’s redevelopment fund. With Schneiderlin refusing to play for the club, (and you wouldn’t blame him either!) and Rodriguez targeted by Pochettino at Tottenham, one can expect further departures. Especially given how the club categorically refused to sell their players earlier in the summer. Look how that worked out the first five times.

A change of course at the St. Mary’s

There has been a new appointment in Ronald Koeman, with replacements in the form of Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic. Hardly inspiring signings but Saints fans will be hoping to see an upturn in fortunes. There is certainly money in the bank to buy a decent squad but, just as Spurs exemplified it last year, buying a lot of good players can sometimes not equal the quality of one world-class footballer. And having lost their entire core, Southampton would be prudent in rebuilding with restraint in the market. And with their academy churning out talents on a regular basis, you could perhaps be optimistic about their future.

Build or Rebuild?: Ronald Koeman needs to make sure the team pushes on from last season’ success

Which then brings us back to the question posed earlier, has the identity of the club in any way changed this season? With its core, pardon the pun, shipped out player by player, is the identity of the club that took the league by surprise still the same? Or is identity a dynamic concept, defined with respect to a temporal scale? In a world where kits, names and even insignia are subject to change, how then do we define the identity of the club. Is it through its history, its evolution and its philosophy or the players that shaped that legacy?

After all, when it comes to it, we could simplify it down to this: If by some freak happenstance, the players on your favorite team were swapped with your rivals’ squad, who would you then support if they went head to head? Just a little food for thought before the new season finally gets underway!

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Edited by Staff Editor
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