The last time we played Watford, it was very much a game of mixed emotions.
Saints under Mark Wotte were struggling, the end of our Championship life seemed nigh. A far cry from our days as a Premier League mainstay, this once great club stood a shadow of it’s former self the amongst the mist and the cold of Vicarage Road on a Tuesday night. Yet two thousand and thirty two hardy souls, me amongst them, had made the trip from the South Coast, still clinging to the hope that survival was possible.
Without a win in six, Wotte’s men were picking up draws, but not converting those points into vital wins. Saints were 23rd in the Championship and crying out for a saviour.
An unlikely one emerged in Hertfordshire. Dutchman Jan-Paul Saeijs.
The centre half had been signed on loan in the previous January by countryman Wotte, Saeijs had come with no reputation to speak of, unheard of by the Saints fans when he arrived from JC Roda, but he soon proved himself to be the kind of player you would want on your side in a dogfight. Strong and determined the Dutchman would get stuck in, and was good in the air, shame the same can’t be said for a lot of his teammates.
With the crowd in full voice, it was Saeijs who opened the scoring at Watford. Rising above Scott Loach in the home side’s goal, he nodded the ball into the back of the net for his first goal in English football. Sadly, as was commonplace with Saints at the time, the lead wasn’t to last long. Just eight minutes in fact.
Saints battled with their hosts, Ryan Smith, having his best game for the club as I recall it, but inevitably after spurning several chances themselves, they fell behind. Former and now born again Saint Jack Cork flicking the ball on for Tamas Priskin to give the away support that same sinking feeling they seemed to have every week.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and what followed I would usually not condone. In the dying seconds of the game, Saeijs made an uncharacteristic maizy run towards the Watford box, he was tackled, but went down pretty easily. The whistle blew, two thousand and thirty two mouths sighed collectively. There was no need for it, and the chance was gone. But wait. The referee had been suitably fooled. Freek kick Southampton. Proverbial last throw of the dice. Who would take it? Skacel? Lallana? Surman? Nope. The dutchman was dusting himself down and hovering over the ball. I don’t know what it was that made me feel so confident. Perhaps it was his confidence emanating on to me, perhaps it was nine months of emotional withdrawal and the final step into delusion, but I knew he would score.
The crowd bemoaned the ridiculousness of letting the centre back take it. Many were eyeing the exit, already, the quiet contemplation of the M25 in their minds. Another away trip, another defeat, another step closer to the dreaded trapdoor and third tier football. Saeijs kicked the ball. Silence. It sailed, bending majestically towards the top right corner. The keeper couldn’t get to it, I’m not sure he moved. I cared, neither then or indeed now. Goal. The cacophony and collective euphoria that accompanies a last minute goal will never be equalled by any moment watching any other sport. The embracing of strangers and the general outpouring of relief would be hard to explain to an alien.
We only had a point. In reality it wasn’t enough, but it still gave us hope. For that moment we were still alive, and still fighting.
Saeijs left the club in the summer and returned to Roda before becoming a teammate of Steve de Ridder’s at de Graafschap where he still plays. Saints face Watford again on Saturday. Top of the Championship.