Southampton are back in the Premier League after a seven year absence, and it still hasn’t really sunk in yet. Emotional scenes at St. Mary’s yesterday as Nigel Adkins and his players got the reward they justly deserved for 19 months of hard work.
I’ve followed this club through all the downs and all the ups, and days like yesterday make everything worthwhile.
The Premier League is going to bring a whole set of new challenges and that we can worry about in August, for now we can focus on the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal etc. coming to St. Mary’s. It should also see the first return to St. Mary’s of a certain former Saints manager currently residing in North London. A warm welcome will be in store for Mr. Redknapp no doubt.
In recent weeks, as the race to seal the second automatic promotion spot seemed to get closer and closer it felt a little bit like it wasn’t going to happen for us, our confidence looked low and we were soon abandoning our style. Something was different yesterday. We looked every bit the side we did in the earlier stages of the season. The interchanges between Lallana, Guly (dare I say, he was my man of the match?) and Schneiderlin in particular highlighting the level of ability we have in the squad.
Don’t get me wrong the Premier League is as tough as it gets, but this squad has the ability and undoubtedly the spirit.
“Well, if they can keep with us, maybe.” – Nigel Adkins 23rd November 2010, having been asked if Saints and Brighton would be battling it out for promotion come the end of the season.
Brighton were eight points clear of Saints at the time.
“They play the same kind of football as Dagenham and Redbridge. The only difference is they’ve got (Rickie) Lambert. If you gave Dagenham and Redbridge (Lee) Barnard and Lambert they would be in the top six.” – Gus Poyet speaking on the 23rd April 2011 after Saints 2-1 victory at the Withdean ended Brighton’s undefeated home run.
Southampton were being praised from all corners of the media and opposition fans for their attractive flowing football under Adkins.
Last season something funny happened between the respective prides of Hampshire and Sussex. Almost as a sub-plot to the season, a rivalry (many fans will insist that it wasn’t a rivalry , but it was) developed between two of League One’s South coast clubs. Saints fans had never really cared about Brighton (and vice-versa I am sure), in fact I’ve always kind of liked them, but the events of last season brought about a new outlook on each other, that was fuelled mainly by the quoted comments above.
The great thing about rivalries is that they are the added to spice to any season, and last season’s campaign saw both teams without games against their real rivals. In fact both had been starved of regular derby games for a few years, so when a side reasonably local becomes your main promotion challenger things are likely to hot up. Add to that a sprinkling of former Brighton players now turning out for Saints and there was already enough reasons to see some full blooded encounters between the two.
The fanning of the flames though, didn’t come from the terraces, but from the clubs respective managers.
Nigel Adkins comments, following the 0-0 draw at St. Mary’s were unwise to say the least. Perhaps said tongue in cheek, as we all know Adkins likes a little joke with interviewers, but when you are eight points behind, it was enough ammunition to make the Saints boss a figure of hate for the Seagulls faithful. The disdain from the Saints fans point of view came from events on the pitch in that game. I was never a fan of Poyet as a player, and what I saw that night was a team very much influenced by their manager. Time wasting, play acting and imaginary card waving seemed to be the order of the day from the team in blue and white and incensed the Saints fans.
So the scene was set for the rest of the season.
The build up to the return match at the Withdean was almost comical, mainly because despite the months of ‘banter’ between the two sets of fans, both claimed to not really care about the other. The banners made especially for Nigel Adkins by the Brighton fans and the wild celebrations of the Saints fan after Jose Fonte’s winner would suggest nothing could be further from the truth. Another incident surrounding this match, that was blown out of proportion was the non-guard of honour. A contentious issue no doubt, but one that was spoken about far more because of the bad blood that had already built up between the clubs. Brighton were deserved champions, and under any other circumstances I am sure that Saints would have obliged, but I backed Adkins decision then, and I do now. Guards of honour are usually provided by teams with nothing left to play for in a season, and when the game means nothing to either side. That certainly wasn’t the case for a Saints team still chasing automatic promotion and the game clearly did mean a lot to both teams, managers and fans.
If Saints fans had cringed in November when Adkins had made his vocal faux pas, it was time for the Brighton fans to put their fingers in their ears, as a clearly disappointed Poyet came out with his uninformed and factually incorrect rant after the game. A man who had also claimed that the game wasn’t important to him, but had withdrew the ball boys with twenty minutes to go when 1-0 up, Poyet’s South American passion had clearly got the better of him.
The comments may have been fair had they been aimed at Saints under Alan Pardew, who did like to go the direct route often, but it was now a weapon that was used only rarely by Adkins, albeit effectively to seal a last minute winner at the Withdean. The most insulting thing about it though was the disrespect to the Saints squad, dismissed as pawns for Lambert by Poyet. Many Saints fans (myself included) have since take glee from the reports of opposition fans in Brighton’s last few games, which suggest that since the signing of Billy Paynter, Poyet himself has mixed it up a bit with some punts to the big man, style is one thing, adapting to situations is another…..
So where does it leave us this season? As Saints and Brighton prepare to face off for the first time in the new campaign, things have very much died down. Brighton have found the step up slightly tougher than Saints, but neither has looked out of their depth. We both have our ‘real’ rivals to worry about now.
Saturday will have some needle though, there is no doubt about that. Poyet won the war last year, but didn’t win any battles and that will hurt him. Nigel Adkins and the Saints players will be fuelled by the Dagenham and Redbridge comments, and both sides will be looking at a possible reverse of the unbeaten home record situation.
It will be a good game, of that I am sure, and a little bit of rivalry and friendly banter never hurt anybody. We will rib Gus, and the Seagulls fans will rib Nigel, but I expect it will all be done with an undertone of begrudging respect for the fantastic jobs both men have done.
Both teams play nice football, and there are some great players in both sides. The additions to Brighton’s squad this season, particularly Mackail-Smith and Vicente are impressive and this could be Saints toughest home game so far. Let’s hope that the talking points all come from the pitch though, and not the post match interviews.
I for one can say honestly, that I have enjoyed the online battle of wills with the Brighton fans, and found it to be humour filled and fun, and long may it continue. Can you keep up?
Spare a thought for poor old Dagenham & Redbridge though. Staring non-league football in the face, but for a Rickie Lambert they would be on the brink of the Premier League….