There's a saying in life, "Its better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"
Any football fan will tell you, in an industry that sees ever-changing personnel, falling in love should be widely avoided.
Owners come and go. Managers come and go. Players come and go.
In some of those instances, they can't go quickly enough!
In others, you wish they could stay forever.
So, as someone who is old enough to know better, it seems very naïve of me to have ignored all the advice and fallen in love with a certain Austrian - Ralph Hasenhüttl!
I'll be completely honest, when a close contact said to me in early December 2018 "let me put it this way, if I had £1 I'd be putting it on Ralph Hasenhüttl to be the next Saints manager", the 53-year-old wasn't someone I'd previously heard much about.
Saints fans eventually caught a first glimpse of him in the stands at Wembley, ahead of a 3-1 defeat by Spurs (5th December 2018).
It was just two days after Mark Hughes had been sacked by the Club - with the Welshman only three months into a 3-year contract!
Flanked by the likes of Katharina Liebherr, Ralph Krueger and Ross Wilson, Hasenhüttl had the look of a determined professional, keen to try his hand at management in the Premier League.
It wasn't long before the Austrian was confirmed as the new St. Mary's boss and unveiled to the media.
While clearly excited about the opportunity to test himself at the highest level in England, Hasenhüttl made it abundantly obvious why he'd agreed to join Saints.
“I want to put my footprints in the snow. It is my goal to get my name known here in the Premier League", he said.
Few Saints fans could really quibble at that comment.
As a Club that had become very successful at producing talent, either through Academy development or purchasing from other Clubs - and then selling them on for considerable transfer fees - a manager wanting to come in and 'prove himself' would surely only benefit Saints, as that meant having to win football matches.
However, with only 9 points from 15 Premier League games when officially taking control, it sure looked like a tough task.
Alongside the clear ambition of a man that had finished 2nd in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig, there were early signs of the personality and charisma recent Saints managers (Hughes, Pellegrino, Puel etc.) had lacked.
"I was laughing about his explaining of my name", Hasenhüttl said when the inevitable links to Jurgen Klopp came up, "'Hasen' meaning rabbit and 'huttl' meaning a small hut. But, yes, it's a small hut for rabbits, if you want!"
Instantly there was a feeling across the fan base that this guy was different to his immediate predecessors, and it didn't take long for that infectious personality to rub off on the Saints team either.
After a disappointing first game down at Cardiff City where, after only a couple of days working with a deflated squad, Jannik Vestergaard's underhit backpass had cost Saints a 1-0 defeat, St. Mary's witnessed a pulsating 3-2 win against Arsenal, thanks to Charlie Austin's late header.
The scenes at the end of the match, with Hasenhüttl and his then assistant, Danny Röhl, dancing around on the pitch, made it clear how much they wanted success.
While Röhl moved on the following summer, Hasenhüttl's reputation has continued to grow in the Premier League ever since - despite one or two (or n*ne!) bumps along the way.
And that brings us to today....
Over the past 18 months Hasenhüttl has worked tirelessly to help rebuild our Club from top-to-bottom.
Assisted by a number of hard-working colleagues, such as Martin Semmens (CEO) and Toby Steele (Managing Director), the charismatic Austrian has gone about his work in a truly committed manner.
Whether its the 'SFC Playbook' created during lockdown, which will eventually see a philosophy instilled from Academy to First-Team on four phases of the game - with the ball; against the ball; and playing and using the ball - scouting potential transfer targets, watching Academy games, actively supporting and attending Saints Foundation events or speaking at Fan Forums, Hasenhüttl has shown nothing but 100% determination in attempting to make Southampton great again - short, medium and long-term.
The relative fresh-face that we saw in December 2018 has now been replaced by a more battle-scarred version (no-one ever said managing our Football Club was easy), complete with, as is all the rage in this modern era, a well-established and trendy beard!
Hasenhüttl is often seen rubbing that growth while pondering his next answer in pre-match press conferences.
It's become a part of him which, having initially said he wouldn't shave off because he felt it was bringing Saints some good luck on the pitch, now almost epitomises his time at the Club.
Like the rings of a tree being counted to determine its age, the ongoing establishment of Hasenhüttl's beard - alongside his overall Saints journey - could be treated in much the same way.
I've been very grateful to the Club for inviting me to the pre-match press conferences this season.
Ultimately, as a fan who likes to dabble in producing 'journalistic content' - be that via written or audio means - its given me a chance to really understand and appreciate his personality a bit more.
All undertaken via Zoom, due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, you're often met initially by a steely-faced individual, focussed on the range of media questions he's about to be asked.
However, unlike some football managers, it never takes the Austrian long to relax and seemingly enjoy himself.
"I told my chef I would be ready for lunch by now" he recently commented, as a member of the media (thankfully not yours truly!) struggled to unmute themselves, despite several attempts.
While some may have got frustrated and/or bored by the situation, Hasenhüttl, in his normal demeanor, staring straight at the floundering journalist, said "Its ok, we make sure you go first next week!" (Narrator: Sadly, despite Ralph's welcoming approach, that individual hasn't been seen (or heard from!) at the press conferences since...)
Dan Sheldon, friend of Total Saints, asked Ralph about Danny Ings ahead of the Everton game.
With 4 goals in his previous five appearances against The Toffees, Dan was interested to find out if Hasenhüttl, an ex-striker himself, felt players often had a 'feeling' they'd score against certain Clubs, or whether it wasn't as scientific as that.
Once the question had been answered, Dan couldn't resist asking him "if he ever had a team he enjoyed scoring against....or whether he preferred to spread them out a bit more?".
**Cue a rub of the beard from Ralph.....and a giggle**
""Er.....a lot! [Laughing] I can't remember all the Clubs I liked scoring against! [more laughing]"
By taking the question in the light-hearted manner it was meant, not only did Hasenhüttl experience some unexpected humour, but so did the nearby Saints media team and all of us in attendance!
For the record, Ralph scored 119 goals in 450 senior appearances as a player, so there were clearly a few sides that suffered from his prowess in front of goal.
Anyway, it reiterated the natural personality and positivity he oozes.
Whether its the general dialogue he undertakes with journalists, or simply putting his well-known glasses on for a closer look at any face and/or voice he doesn't recognise, Hasenhüttl rarely leaves you with anything other than a smile at the end.
On a personal note, while plucking up the courage to ask a couple of questions during those press-conferences, I've been lucky enough to have interviewed Ralph twice in person now. Once at his office in Staplewood (May 2019) and then at the start of this season (alongside TSP compadre Glen, via Zoom).
Despite knowing you'll more than likely be met by someone who is keen to take each question seriously - and treat you with respect (whatever your level of journalistic experience) - you always make sure you're prepared, because you know Ralph will be!
"I run a podcast dedicated to Saints" I said, when we first sat down in Hasenhüttl's office. "Yes, Jordan [Sibley] told me about you", was his response.
By the end of that conversation - only 20 minutes or so later - I was confident he could tell I'd prepared properly and respected me for that.
Having overseen 400+ Club games now, its abundantly clear just how important preparation is in his day-to-day, managerial life.
With rumours last week that James Rodriguez may be unavailable for Everton's trip to St. Mary's, Hasenhüttl was asked how positive that omission could be for Saints.
"We always prepare for the best opposition team" was the instant response.
It was a line that, as a fan, made me further appreciate the vast experience he's gained.
When James was included in Everton's starting XI, there wouldn't have been any panic in the home dressing room.
"How do we defend against him?"; "Who is picking him up?"; "You said he wasn't playing!";
None of that!
Why? Because Saints were ready for James!
They'd trained all week on the understanding he'd play.
As it turned out, that preparation was spot on. From start-to-finish, the Colombian was largely anonymous!
Just like the 'never say die' attitude installed at Saints over the past 18 months, its the team's readiness for every single game, and every single opposition player, that truly makes you appreciate what Hasenhüttl delivers as our manager.
But he's not the finished article - and understands that.
The Austrian's made it clear that the 'we win or we learn' mantra applies as much to him as it does his players.
One key learning he's had is the desire to innovate and progress a little too quickly on occasions.
Having played four-at-the-back throughout pre-season 2019, Saints arrived at Burnley on the opening day.....with five defenders!
Despite a 3-0, second-half capitulation, Hasenhüttl (almost ignorantly) stuck with it for a couple of months - seemingly determined to show it worked - before 'that result' against Leicester City brought about a much needed return, post-International break, to the tried and tested back-four.
Quelle surprise, Saints flew through the second half of last season to finish in 11th position!
This time around, he tried to play a 'higher line' in the initial two games of the season.
The strategy, having not really been tested by Crystal Palace, spectacularly back-fired after half-time against Spurs, with Saints losing 5-2 in the end.
Thankfully, having decided to change tactics (and certain personnel) a lot sooner than he did last year, prior to visiting Aston Villa, Saints are on a current run of three wins and a draw in their last 4 Premier League fixtures.
Its further testament to the work Hasenhüttl has put in on the training ground that, against Everton last weekend - 12 months to the day since that Leicester capitulation - 8 of his starting 11 from the ill-fated Friday night kicked off against Ancelotti's league leaders.
The turnaround over the past 12 months is even more staggering given Hasenhüttl hasn't had millions of pounds to buy a completely new team. He's not been able to 'rip things up and start again'.
Instead he's had to work with all those players, rebuild their confidence from scratch, fine-tune their technical ability, organise them structurally and make them believe they can deliver in the Premier League.
Arguably he's had to do the same with himself.
No easy feat!
Those that haven't bought into the strategy - and/or shown the required mindset and dedication needed - have seen themselves shipped out, leaving the Austrian with a squad that adore him and his approach.
Even players like Ryan Bertrand, who'd seemingly lost his way at Saints, have looked refreshed and re-energised.
Just last week, Bertrand was quoted as saying "Since then [the Leicester loss], we've gone from strength to strength. It's a testament to the manager and the club. We've really come together."
"He's very passionate, very clear in the type of football he wants to achieve. To have someone that passionate about his job is fantastic for a player to be a part of."
If the team can remain inspired by Hasenhüttl and, maybe more importantly, the Club continue to back his various ideas and requests, then its hard not to get too carried away (as a fan) on where Saints can eventually go under his stewardship.
He's a manager who kicks every single ball on the touchline and expects - sorry, demands - 100% effort from his players day in, day out.
The sooner fans can get back into St Mary's, and reap the rewards of all his hard work, the better.
Thanks largely to Ralph, Saints are a Club on the up again. These are times we simply have to treasure.
Ultimately, I thought the guys at Southampton Page summed it up perfectly earlier this week:
While it doesn't bear thinking about right now, we will indeed lose Ralph one day.
With every step forward that his reputation takes, another potential suitor rises to the surface.
So, until that moment inevitably comes, I'm (foolishly) going to love and cherish our passionate Austrian, every step of the way!
Article by Ben Stanfield
(Photos via Southampton FC, Saints Foundation, Sky Sports and Southampton Page)