Around this time of every season, you will often hear journalists and pundits alike joke about how certain clubs are doing everything they can to avoid qualifying for the Europa League.
I never thought Southampton would be one of them.
Everybody knows the pitfalls of playing in the competition that frankly has too many games and includes far too many teams, but surely for an outfit like Saints, both the novelty and the fact that it would be the next point of progression for the club it would be worth the risk?
Everyone associated with the club keeps saying that Europe is the aim, yet performances on the pitch over the last month or so would suggest that it is anything but. Lacklustre, lethargic and largely lamentable, Saints ambled around the pitch in Leicester like a…
We are almost at that historic day. The day we find out whether the euro-sceptic blues can keep themselves in the big house, or whether the Red’s can complete a dramatic turnaround from also-rans to trailblazers!
Election you say? No, I’m talking about Leicester City against Southampton.
There may not be a more pivotal fixture in the Premier League this weekend, as the Foxes can all but secure their miraculous recovery, while Saints must win to keep alive any hopes of an amazing fanfare finish to their season and secure European football.
If you had asked me six months ago what the result of this game might be I’d have confidently predicted a comfortable Southampton victory, but while former Saints boss Nigel Pearson has overseen a revival as good as any of our Premier League ‘Great Escapes’…
Just before Saints went down 3-2 to Leicester at the King Power Stadium at the end of August I looked at the ex-Saints among their squad (check it out here), playing staff wise not a lot has changed. Matt Oakley has had a loan spell with Exeter City, while Matt Mills has been a regular as the Foxes who have been in indifferent form.
It was perhaps this indifferent form that saw manager Sven Goran Eriksson leave the club by mutual consent at the end of October.
This saw the return of another ex-Saint to Leicester, in the shape of former boss Nigel Pearson.
Pearson joined Saints in February 2008 after the side had suffered poor form under the caretakership of John Gorman following George Burely’s defection to the Scottish national team.
Coming in off the back of just one full time managerial role at Carlisle United in the late nineties, many fans were sceptical about his appointment.
He arrived at St. Mary’s when the job was somewhat of a poisoned chalice. Saints were 18th in the Championship and the soon-to-be well publicised financial issues were bubbling under behind the scenes.
The former England U-21 coach got off to a shaky start, not winning in his first five games, although only one of those (his first in charge) ended in defeat. His first victory, came rather ironically, at home to Leicester City. Stern John scoring an acrobatic volley from Mario Licka’s flick to get a precious three points against their fellow strugglers.
Saints would only go on to win twice more that season, but the supporters were encouraged by the battling performances that Pearson’s rejuvenated men were putting in.
Saints went into the final day of the 2007/08 season in 22nd place, and staring relegation to League One in the face. Needing to both win at home to Sheffield United (who could grab themselves a play off place) and hope that at least one other above them slipped up.
Saints came from behind to lead 2-1 before being pegged back again, but it was Stern John who converted the winner and Leicester’s stalemate at Stoke meant Pearson had escaped the drop.
After a truly dreadful season, Saints fans were optimistic that with a transfer window at his disposal, and the encouraging performances at the end of 2008 that Pearson would be capable of building a decent side at St. Mary’s. That wasn’t to be though and at the end of May that year Rupert Lowe sacked Pearson and replaced him with Dutchman Jan Poortvliet, a move that would be proved to be both purely financial and ultimately disastrous.
Pearson was appointed manager of Leicester City and led them to the League One title, while Saints car crash couple of seasons spiralled out of control.
Saints welcome back Pearson to St. Mary’s, now in his second spell at Leicester City on Monday night.
Saints head to the King Power Stadium this Saturday to take on high spending Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City.
The former England manager has made nice use of the summer transfer window, bringing a virtually whole new team in, a clear statement of intent from the Swede, that promotion is the Foxes only goal this season.
Amongst the plethora of talent that Eriksson has assembled, two former Saints with differing fortunes on the South Coast could be in line to face their old club.
A product of the Southampton Academy, Oakley is fondly remembered at St. Mary’s. The central midfielder made his debut for the Saints aged just eighteen in 1995 and went on to play over three hundred times for the club.
In his career highlight, Oakley was named in Gordon Strachan’s starting lineup for the 2003 FA Cup final, somewhere we might never have been had it not been for his Extra Time winner at the Den in a Fifth Round Replay. During this period of his career he was also touted for an England chance by many (of course it was Sven who didn’t pick him).
Having established himself over the years as a first choice and dependable midfielder, comfortable at playing the holding role as well as getting forward and creating attacks, it is no surprise to me that Southampton’s Premier League demise coincided with long term injury woes for Oakley, he played just seven times in the 2004/05 relegation season.
Oakley’s twelve year service at the club ended in 2006 after he rejected a new contract before signing for Derby County. It has always been a mystery to me why Oakley was never granted a testimonial with the club, although, it was rumoured that he was to have one in the 2006/07 season had he not moved on.
Oakley went on to captain the Rams in their promotion season, before heading off to Leicester City in January 2008, exchanging a Premier League relegation battle for a Championship one. The Foxes lost that battle, dropping to League One amongst the final day drama that saw Saints survive.
Oakley was named captain for the following season as Leicester romped their way to the League One title and remained a regular in the side during last season’s campaign. Whether or not he can fight off Sven’s new guard and retain it this season remains to be seen…
“Some Leicester fans have just never got on with Matt Oakley. He’s never been the most exciting player but on his day he can still pull the strings in midfield (although one Guardian reporter’s description of him as ‘the Xavi of the Championship’ was perhaps overdoing it).
Oakley’s first team appearances have been limited to the Carling Cup so far this season, and with the wealth of midfield talent in the Leicester ranks it’s difficult to see how the former Saint will be able to force his way back into Sven’s plans. With one year remaining on his contract, we can expect Matt to be looking for another club next summer.”
In contrast to Matt Oakley’s Saints career his namesake Mills spent very little time on the South Coast. Another product of the Academy, centre half Mills showed massive potential in loan spells at Coventry City and Bournemouth, and also in the few Championship appearances he made for the club. On the verge of establishing himself in the Saints first team, Mills’ head was turned by Manchester City in January 2006, former Saints boss Steve Wigley, alerting his new club to the young defender.
Having played for the Southampton first team just six times, the youngster headed off to Eastlands and the Premier League. Mills found first team appearances hard to come by with City though, and had to settle for loan spells at Colchester United and Doncaster Rovers (ironically dropping to a level below Saints) to get games. He eventually joined the Yorkshire club permanently in 2008 after securing promotion to the Championship.
He was to spend just one more season with Rovers though, before signing for Reading in the summer of 2009. This is where Mills really started to catch the eye, establishing himself as a solid central defender, and playing a major role in the Royals campaign last season that saw them reach the playoff final.
Sven was impressed enough with Mills to part with £5.5 million for him this summer.
Mike gives us his thoughts on Mills:-
“It’s fair to say the jury is still out on Matt Mills. The huge fee Leicester payed Reading for the centre-half was beginning to look like an albatross around his neck. An (unfortunate) own goal against Rotherham in the League Cup and a poor performance against his former employers led Sven to drop his new captain to the bench after just two league games. A more assured display at Nottingham Forest, coupled with much less erratic distribution has calmed some fans nerves and hopefully Mills’ own.
Mills is part of a back five in which only Sol Bamba has survived the summer unscathed, so uncertainty at this stage of the season is understandable. Eventually Mills will need to take command and cajole his new colleagues into keeping more clean sheets, something Leicester have only managed against a toothless Coventry City so far. But if results don’t improve in the medium term expect a few reactionaries to point to his price tag and wonder why the defence isn’t producing the goods.”
What can we expect from your club this season? Hard working, resilient, high spirited performances with the determination to prove our doubters wrong (hopefully).
Who is your most important player? Every single player at our club is important. However, the most important man at our club at present is manager, Andy Thorn.
Your predicted finishing position? Difficult to say, mid-table obscurity at best.
Who might win the Championship? It pains me to say, but both Birmingham and Leicester are clear favourites although my outsiders will be Hull and Ipswich to be up there.
Who definitely won’t? We definitely won’t.
Most anticipated fixture? First game of the season against Leicester and pretty much every fixture after that.
Most anticipated fixture that doesn’t involve your club? I’ll be interested to see how Blackpool do this season following relegation, so let’s say Holloway going back to Leicester to pick his wits against Sven.
If you could take one player from someone else’s club (Championship only), who would it be? I could give you a list as long as my arm but I think us City fans are still bitter about the Marlon King scenario so if we could turn back time and make him stay that would be nice. Although I also think Jonathan Greening will be a big signing for Forest this season.
You find yourself stuck in the King Power Stadium (formerly Walkers Stadium), Leicester. How do you escape unnoticed? I would dress up as a £20 note and sneak out without anybody noticing, the amount of money going out of that club surely nobody will notice an extra £20?
What can we expect from your club this season? Expect us to be a surprise package this season. We’ve been written off by the bookies already to go down and from other team’s message boards, it seems like we’ll be hovering the bottom quarter of the league again. We’ve signed three internationals and one of League One’s top scorers last season so far. Although I’m not saying we will win the league, or even finish in the top half, I’m saying that I think we will be an improvement to the team that won one game away from home all season.
Who is your most important player? Our most important player is Nathaniel Clyne. The young full back has sparked interest from a lot of Premier League clubs lately. He’s an England U19 international and it’s only a matter of time before he’s called up the U21s. The lad has bags of quality and kept a lot of high profile players quiet including Gradel and Bellamy. His pace plus his great defensive work makes him my most important player.
Your predicted finishing position? I predict we will finish 15th this season. The last two seasons we have survived by the skin of our teeth, and from the outside they may see a young amateur manager with some young players, but with a legend having the best interests of the club at heart and one of the country’s top academies, I think we will succeed in our goal of mid table mediocrity.
Who might win the Championship? No idea who will win the Championship, that’s what makes this league great. Look at the three teams that came down last season, none of them went back up. Blackpool were relegation favourites at the start of 2009/10 and they got promoted too. Leicester have got a great team coming together, but as Cardiff, Middlesbrough (and us, to an extent) can tell you, you can’t buy this league. I’m going to have a guess at West Ham as they have Parker and Nolan. That is a great combination.
Who definitely won’t? Cardiff will not. Their financial problems off the field seem too much. They relied heavily on getting promoted last season and pretty much threw away the clubs financial security to reach the Prem ala Portsmouth with the FA Cup. I can’t see Cardiff finishing top half this season.
Most anticipated fixture? Obviously for me I’m looking forward to Brighton v Palace at their new wonky stadium as it’s been a few years since we played them and they’re looking a lot stronger this time around (as much as it pains me to say it).
Most anticipated fixture that doesn’t involve your club? West Ham v Millwall has to be the most anticipated fixture due to the history between them. Both very working class clubs with similar fans, and there is nothing but pure hatred between them. You only have to look at the Carling Cup tie to see what an entertaining fixture this will be.
If you could take one player from someone else’s club (Championship only), who would it be? If I could take one club’s player it would be Scott Parker. The guy is a machine and really passionate about playing football. If West Ham stayed up last season, Scott Parker would have done it on his own. The team around him were not very good at all compared to him. I’d be surprised if he played in the NPC this season.
What can we expect from your club this season? Modest investment in players is not enough to guarantee a play-off spot in an increasingly competitive division. Despite the club’s stated aim of a top six finish, mid-table is probably about as far as the current squad can go. A poor start to the season may well trigger serious unrest amongst the supporters and it’s conceivable that Nigel Clough could be sacked before the end of 2011/12, the final season of his current contract. A meaningful improvement on the embarrassments of last season is required to see off Clough’s detractors and earn him an extension from our American owners.
Who is your most important player? Weirdly, it could be the former Notts Forest forward Nathan Tyson. I say weirdly because a fair percentage of Rams fans would rather Tyson was anywhere but Pride Park, due to that infamous afternoon in August 2009 when he taunted us with a Forest corner flag at the City Ground. Many fans will get behind him regardless of the corner flag incident. However, if Tyson has a bad start to the season, it could get a bit hot for him at Pride Park, where the fans have previous for rejecting ex-Forest strikers (Stern John was basically booed out of the club in 2005). On the other hand, if the undeniably fleet-footed frontman gets off to a flying start, he has the potential to become the most unlikely of Derby County cult heroes.
Your predicted finishing position? 12th.
Who might win the Championship? West Ham United. They’ve made a canny managerial appointment in Sam Allardyce – would Matt Taylor and Kevin Nolan have dropped into the Championship for anyone else?
Who definitely won’t? Coventry City are amongst my favourites for relegation this season. They are owned by SISU, a hedge fund who tried to buy Derby from since-disgraced fraudsters ‘The Three Amigos’ in 2006. Anybody tainted by association with the criminal Amigos is probably best avoided. Coventry have lost three key players this summer without signing any replacements and, under an unproven manager, are seemingly set for a season of struggle.
Most anticipated fixtures? Forest home and away. Both Leeds United games, but especially at home on Boxing Day. This season, West Ham United away also takes on added significance – probably the last chance to visit Upton Park before the Hammers move to an athletics stadium…
Most anticipated fixture that doesn’t involve your club? The play-off final, probably.
If you could take one player from someone else’s club (Championship only), who would it be? Billy Sharp from Doncaster Rovers. We haven’t had a talismanic striker for a long time and the fans would love him. Unfortunately, the board aren’t putting in the sort of money that would buy us a player of that calibre.
You find yourself stuck in the City Ground. How do you escape unnoticed? That’s simple. Just put up my brolly, whistle ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ and have a quick promenade in front of the dugouts, before disappearing down the tunnel at full time. They’ll think I’m the manager…
What can we expect from your club this season? A better season than last time. Hopefully we’ll have better luck with far less injuries. Despite being the bookies favourite for relegation I think we’re going to prove them wrong yet again.
Who is your most important player? There’s two in our squad really. I’d have to say the obvious Billy Sharp as well as James Coppinger. Both had spells out last year through injury and it’s clear how much we missed them.
Your predicted finishing position? I think mid table so around 14th but if we can improve our squad even more, and we’re luckier with injuries there is a possibility of pushing for the play offs. I don’t think that can ever be ruled out. But we’ll definitely be safe by May.
Who might win the Championship? I think there’s the obvious like West Ham but with the money being spent throughout the Championship it’s quite open. I know Southampton have made some big changes so you definitely can’t rule them out.
Who definitely won’t? Crystal Palace have struggled in the past couple of seasons and with an inexperienced manager it seems very unlikely. Peterborough struggled last time they were here too so I’d have to rule them out too.
Most anticipated fixture? Our opener away at Brighton is one we’re all looking forward to because of the history between the clubs and also the new surroundings. Leeds is always one of the first to look for when the fixtures are released too so that should be an exciting encounter.
Most anticipated fixture that doesn’t involve your club? Millwall against West Ham will be a huge game definitely anticipated by both sets of fans. I’m not sure when they last faced each other so that could definitely be a tasty one!
If you could take one player from someone else’s club (Championship only), who would it be? Jason Shackell. He was a great addition when on loan here and was missed when he’d left. Signing for Barnsley made it even worse for us Donny fans and we still haven’t found anyone as good.
You find yourself stuck in Oakwell. How do you escape unnoticed? With great difficulty! Keep your head down and maybe add a limp lol. I’m not one for offending the opposition so that’s as far as I’ll go, I bet they say worse about us!
What can we expect from your club this season? After watching them in pre-season friendlies some nice flowing football… Manchester United style!!! Also hopefully plenty of goals and a push for promotion.
Who is your most important player? Cameron Stewart as he is quick and terrorised defences last season. He will be cruicial in open play for assists.
Your predicted finishing position? 4th.
Who might win the Championship? It’ll be a close one between West Ham United or Leicster City as they both have very good players.
Who definitely won’t? Birmingham, even though they have a very good and experienced squad I think they will struggle.
Most anticipated fixture? Most probably a Yorkshire derby however with both West Ham and Hull pushing for promotion back into the Premier League the last game of the season (West Ham v Hull) will be cruicial depending on points.
Most anticipated fixture that doesn’t involve your club? Either West Ham v Milwall or Southampton v Portsmouth. Both have very big rivalries.
If you could take one player from someone else’s club (Championship only), who would it be? Scott Parker as he is a strong midfielder and has the experience.
You find yourself stuck in Elland Road . How do you escape unnoticed? There is no where to get stuck in Elland Road as the ground is falling down, there is probably a hole you can escape through!!!!
Part Three featuring Ipswich Town, Leeds, Leicester, Middlesbrough, Millwall and Nottingham Forest coming soon…
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