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Ideas & Observations

A sum of its parts

If Rishi Sunak is – as he claims – a big Southampton Football Club fan, then he knows all about the value of creating a team larger than the sum of its parts.

The Saints, after all, made a habit of surviving on a shoestring in the new money of the Premier League across the 1990s and early 2000s, its star remaining bright in a cosmos of larger, more fashionable sides.

But when you’re punching above your weight, you’re eventually going to receive one too many body blows.

Southampton were knocked down in 2005, relegated from the Premier League in a tumultuous campaign that saw the club burn through three managers, undergo a major turnover in personnel and suffer the further ignominy of dropping another division as the chaos fully played out.

Sound familiar?

During those darker years, the club used the period to usher through new talent like Gareth Bale, in a bid to kickstart a (successful) renaissance.

And its journey across the B-roads of the footballing map provides an interesting parallel for where the new Prime Minister finds himself today.

That the Saints survived for so long was due, in no small part, to the mercurial talent of midfielder (and Sunak’s boyhood favourite player) Matt Le Tissier, who regularly pepped up stuttering performances with moments of brilliance.

That the Tories retained power in 2019 with such a rush was, in no small part, down to Boris Johnson’s showmanship.

But when Le Tissier – known as Le God to supporters – retired, and the momentum he left behind began to fade, the Saints’ grip on the top table of power slipped.

Similarly, with Johnson – heralded as a deity-like figure among many Tories – shoved to the margins after one trick too many, the party, like Southampton a decade ago, stands without a guiding, and defining, figurehead to dig it out of another situation.

And the new Prime Minister’s first team selection has done nothing to suggest its fortunes are about to change.

The best managers succeed because they surround themselves with a good team, a trusted circle that guides tactics and in-match play, and moulds future success on the training ground.

Sunak, however, appears to have missed the memo.

Brian Clough famously had Peter Taylor on his shoulder.

Taylor was the quiet man, the one who worked fastidiously behind the scenes to keep the cogs turning as his Middlesbrough-born dugout partner did the boasting and blustering.

Admittedly, the pair fell out, their relationship acrimonious by the end – but their successes together still stand up today, and professional doesn’t always have to marry with the personal, just look at politics.

The new Prime Minister, however, hasn’t got such a reliable second-in-command.

He’s opted for Dominic Raab, he who gets spooked and sweaty at all times of the year, not just Halloween, when given anything but a nice half-volley to kick back in media calls.

It gets worse.

In today’s ever-increasingly obscene Premier League world, where money swills and supporters freely ignore its source, keeping a handle on the finances isn’t a worry for many.

And it seems the trait has filtered down to Sunak, who has retained Jeremy Hunt – previously involved in a row over a £44,000, taxpayer-funded office toilet and bathroom – as Chancellor.

Elsewhere, he’s given the title of Business Secretary to Grant Shapps, who, in football parlance, has yet to discover his best position.

He’s returned Michael Gove to the role of Levelling Up Secretary, despite him holding a number of places on the political pitch and never excelling in any, and – in an apparent case of better the devil you know – handed bench spots to Boris Johnson sycophants James Cleverly and Nadhim Zahawi.

And then there’s Suella Braverman.

A week after being forced to resign as Home Secretary following alleged serious security violations, she returned in the same role – welcomed back by colleagues spouting nonsense about lessons having been learned – in a move that feels like a put-upon manager being forced to pick a player, regardless of ability, form or class.

All in, it is far from a vintage cabinet.

In fact, it almost looks like Sunak has taken a leaf out of Le Tissier’s book and chosen to surround himself with lesser lights to ensure his glow burns brightest.

When Southampton suffered Premier League relegation, the club was forced to hit a reset button, one that allowed it to rewrite on-field tactics and fix a disconnect with fans.

And, with a spell down a division on the cards (Sunak is slick, but even he can’t replace the colossal amount of goodwill lost among the electorate) the Tories should start thinking about doing the same.

Because, at the moment, the Government’s front bench and the nous spread among it, is akin to watching the Southampton of yore labour in the present-day Premier League.

And no amount of Le Tissier-inspired moments from the new Prime Minister are likely to save the party’s fate.

Words by Steven Hugill, views his own.