Soundtrack:- ‘Stay” – Shakespeare’s Sister
‘Something Good’ – Utah Saints
‘It Only Takes A Minute’ – Take That
‘Runaway Train’ – Soul Asylum
‘Stinkin’ Thinkin’’ – Happy Mondays
‘Weirdo’ – The Charlatans
‘Into Tomorrow’ – Paul Weller
‘One Vision’ – Queen
5th December 1992.
Southampton 2 Arsenal 0
If there is one saying I hate, it is ‘I remember it like it was yesterday’. I don’t remember this like it was yesterday. Yesterday was a regular day, a completely forgettable day. Nothing happened yesterday. I remember the 5th December 1992 like it was now.
The English Premier League with all its thrills and fancy was a mere three months old. I was thirteen and about to go to the ‘mainland’ for the first time without my parents (school trips with adult supervision excluded). This was a momentous occasion, and I was completely overwhelmed, not you might think by the prospect of tasting Premier League football for the first time, but by the notion that I would be getting the cross-Solent ferry without any adult in charge.
To this day, I am not sure how I achieved this. The fact that it was just five days before my birthday probably gave me great leverage. I can’t remember the conversation with my parents, but I imagine my dad would have been mainly interested in how much it was going to cost, and my mum would have been worried about how safe it would be. Whatever I said or did certainly worked, and I was given a £10 note for my day out. This would cover everything. £3 for my match ticket, £3 for the ferry and £3 left over for something to eat.
I don’t remember what I was wearing but I would imagine it involved baggy jeans, Adidas Samba trainers and probably a plain grey sweatshirt, but certainly no coat. Despite it being December I never wore a coat, I’m pretty sure the teachers at school thought I was neglected. We got the car ferry from East Cowes at about 10 o’clock that morning. We could have got the Hydrofoil from Cowes, but in the interest of profiting from this trip we’d rather waste the extra 40 minutes on the crossing than the £1.
The benefit of taking the slower travel option was that it gave us an hour to put all of our unlimited football knowledge and experience to the test and analyse the game ahead. We did this for all of about 10 minutes. As the non-Saints fan in the gang I gave the hosts no chance whatsoever. Arsenal were very much one of the best teams in the country and though they trailed runaway Premier League leaders Norwich City by seven points, they were undoubtedly title contenders. If I’m honest, at the time I was more excited about seeing George Graham’s gunners than I was the 16th placed Saints. This was a game that needed little discussion, despite the home side being unbeaten in their previous four games this was an open and shut case, no need for the pools panel, this would be an away win.
“I don’t remember what I was wearing but I would imagine it involved baggy jeans, Adidas Samba trainers and probably a plain grey sweatshirt, but certainly no coat.”
My Southampton supporting counterparts always referred back to one point of reference when optimistically suggesting that they had a chance. Matthew Le Tissier. Was the Saints forward as good as they suggested? I wasn’t so sure, and easily countered them with the names of Paul Merson, Ian Wright and Anders Limpar!
Once we had debated the potential outcome and dissected the tactical intricacies of every possible scenario, we spent the remaining 50 minutes of the crossing doing what any group of 13 year olds without supervision would do, we roamed the ferry, generally loitered and made a nuisance of ourselves. ‘Bloody kids’ was the cry of the steward (at this point I realise, that despite living the majority of my life in the sailing capital of the UK, and having used the cross-Solent ferries on countless occasions, I have no idea what these people are called. First Mate? Anyway I’m sure it isn’t ‘steward’) as we wrestled, hid from each other and committed the ultimate sin ‘running on the top deck’. I’m sure he was as relieved as we were to hear the announcement that we would shortly be arriving in Southampton.
If the ferry crossing had been carefree and very much in our comfort zone, the first obstacle en route to the Dell was less so. Mainland roads. Far busier and more difficult to judge than their Island counterparts. If you ever find yourself crossing the road at Town Quay, you will easily be able to spot the Islanders who have just got off the ferry. Clammy forehead, fast paced shuffling feet and look of terror they break into a sprint to make the final crossing. Thankfully we all survived that day, and made our way through the pedestrianized safety of the city centre. Having been brought up to believe that the Mainland was a wretched hive of scum and villainy I diligently checked my pocket for my wallet approximately once every 30 seconds. Move fast, don’t look anybody directly in the eyes and trust nobody. Rules to live by when venturing through the mean streets of a Hampshire city, but not so good when ordering chips in Ted’s. Handing your money over to the man behind the counter while neither looking at his face or loosening your vice like grip on your wallet is no mean feat and ultimately makes you look strange.
Chips eaten, we made the short walk from Bedford Place to Milton Road, making our approach to the Dell. That walk to the little old stadium in the cold air of a December evening, as darkness started to come in is something that will stay with me forever, and I still treasure the approach to St. Mary’s now. There is nothing quite like it. It’s the anticipation, the tribal nature of thousands of people with the same cause descending on the battlefield, it’s ritualistic, and it’s romantic. At that point before any game the dreams are still alive. Anything can happen.
“If the ferry crossing had been carefree and very much in our comfort zone, the first obstacle en route to the Dell was less so. Mainland roads. Far busier and more difficult to judge than their Island counterparts.”
On arrival at the Dell, our first port of call was the club shop. Now, these were more innocent times. This was the dawn of the Sky Sports era, there was still a level of ‘tinpot’ associated with football, even at Premier League level. Younger readers who weren’t fortunate enough to see Saints in these halcyon days may now be picturing the modern, spacious, eloquently decorated megastores of today. It was anything but. It was tiny, and an afterthought to the stadium itself, I can remember being quite disappointed. Is that it?
If the walk along Milton Road was an eye opener to somebody who had only ever experienced top level football on a television before and the Club shop had been a disappointment the first steps on to the Upper Milton Road terrace were a site to behold and all that I had dreamed of and more. If you are too young to have experienced football on the terraces then you have truly missed out, and the sooner the authorities see sense and allow safe standing, the sooner ticket prices can be realistic, atmospheres will improve and the whole ‘matchday experience’ as they love to call it will be considerably better. Hillsborough was a disaster like no other and a tragic loss of life, but let’s be honest, the terraces didn’t kill anyone, they were the focus of blame, along with lies about the behaviour of the supporters using them to cover up and protect the real killer; Incompetent Policing. Rant over.
We were ridiculously early (naturally), and stood alone on the cold terrace, too young to be in the concourse drinking beer (and why would you want to? This is all about the football*) we quietly read our programme, the cover star Tim Flowers on the front stood with his arm aloft. Programmes are an interesting leveller in football. For my first few years as a regular of games I bought them religiously, I still have a bag full of them in the loft which I sometimes have a flick through when searching for information for a blog post. They stop though at a very particular time, when I became ‘too cool’ to buy programmes and then start again in more recent seasons. The reason for that is a natural progression and is directly linked with beer. At first I was too young, and too eager to be at the ground early so a programme was a nice way of passing the time, then I went through a phase of the whole day being one of drinking, arranged round 90 minutes spent at a football stadium, before more recent times, driving to games, not having the patience to queue up for anything at half time and the programme being a welcome distraction. On this occasion though it was my first ever football programme, so is still the one I hold most dear.
When I talk about the marching band that came on to the pitch it suddenly makes this sound like it was a lot longer ago than a mere 23 years, but that sort of thing was commonplace. Marching bands, dancing troupes and even dog acrobatics entertained the young and the elderly who were in their places early enough back in those days and those with sharp memories may remember the ‘Crazy Gang’ particularly Vinnie Jones taking it in turns to kick the ball over the heads of a marching band while they were warming up, until they inevitably knocked one poor tuba player to the ground.
This kind of sideshow all added to the anticipation though, it wasn’t that it was entertaining, but it acted as a timed marker. The players were now warming up. My most vivid memory of the warm up that day is Glenn Cockerill being serenaded by the Milton Road end with a resounding chorus of ‘CAPTAIN CRAP’ to which he duly applauded. I felt quite sorry for him at the time, but couldn’t help agreeing with the prognosis.
You may have heard the term ‘terrace humour’ bandied about by older fans over the years, and this was perhaps my first introduction to it. My take on terrace humour is that 99% of what is shouted out is abuse centred round swearing, and 1% is genuine comedy genius. Nevertheless there is an odd sense of bonding with the strangers you find yourself packed tightly with and in the heat of the moment, even the crassest of comments can get a laugh. There are definitely ‘Terrace comedians’, blokes who suddenly find they have a captive audience and will entertain thusly, in any other situation their jokes would be met with a wall of silence but this is a team game.
“You may have heard the term ‘terrace humour’ bandied about by older fans over the years, and this was perhaps my first introduction to it. My take on terrace humour is that 99% of what is shouted out is abuse centred round swearing, and 1% is genuine comedy genius.”
The tension was building now, the players had gone back in from their warmup and the terraces were packed to the brim. ‘OH WHEN THE SAINTS….. GO MARCHING IN…. OH WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN, I WANNA BE IN THAT NUMBER… OH WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN!! The noise was deafening, and I could actually feel the anticipation. Right at that moment, nothing was set in stone, the winner of this game was not a foregone conclusion and collectively 17,000 people became part of a group delusion that they were unbeatable.
Then the guitar riff blasted from the PA system. ‘ONE MAN, ONE GOAL…. ONE MISSION. Never has Freddie Mercury sounded so uplifting, battling with the cheers of that many people as the two teams made their way out into the freezing night.
Kenna Hall Monkou Benali
Adams Maddison Cockerill Hurlock
Flatts Parlour Hillier Merson
Morrow Adams Bould Dixon
At this point I would love to give you a blow by blow account of the game, but the fact of the matter is I can’t. I don’t remember the details other than Saints ran out 2-0 winners through goals by Neil Maddison and Iain Dowie, and that much to the delight of those of us in the Milton Road end, Ian Wright missed a penalty for Arsenal. The sense on the terraces that it was only a matter of time before Arsenal turned it around though was one that is all too familiar with me 20 years on, football brings out the most extreme levels of optimism and pessimism at the same time. I remember sitting on the ferry on the way home, mentally drained and pondering what I had just witnessed. This would likely be the turnaround for Southampton. In the trusty hands of Ian Branfoot, who was clearly a tactical genius things could only get better from here. The high of winning against one of the league’s top clubs was fantastic and at that moment I could see nothing but joy from the life as a Saints fan.
What happened in the game doesn’t really matter though. I would have been hooked no matter what the result, the experience was one I would never forget and the start of a journey that has been both spectacular and sad in many ways. This ‘hobby’ was going to affect everything in my life, School, University and Work, nothing was safe. I was now a Saint. That much I knew for certain.
*- This attitude would change somewhat in the coming years.