On the 8th July 2009, Saints were rescued by Markus Liebherr, we started the 2009/10 season at the foot of the League One table on -10 points. Just three years later we await our return to the Premier League this coming season.
In what a was a first of its kind in terms of format, Southampton Football Club paid tribute to their late saviour Markus Liebherr by playing in a triangular tournament of forty five minute games against some of the cream of European football.
Athletic Bilbao and Werder Bremen would provide some stern tests for Nigel Adkins men. The Spaniards whose red & white striped shirts, legend has it were inspired by the Saints own, came armed with World cup winners Llorente and Martinez, while the Germans came fresh off the back of some impressive Champions League performances last season.
It was the Germans that got things under way against the hosts (sporting their return to stripes), and were taken by surprise by the underdogs. Goals from Connolly, Guly and Lallana saw the Saints get a shock opening win in the tournament, the Grün-Weißen (Green & Whites) looked shell shocked as the home side passed the ball round neatly and took control of the game.
There was no respite for the Bundesliga side, after a short break they were back on the St. Mary’s pitch to face their Spanish counterparts. It was a better showing from Werder, but Athletic’s class shone through. A thirty yard freekick by Gabilondo and a tap in from Toquero were scored either side of Bargfrede’s volley.
So it meant that the final game between Saints and Athletic would be a “winner takes all” encounter. Southampton emerged from the tunnel in their new Brazil colours away strip but couldn’t find any samba inspiration. Igor Martinez put Los Leones (the lions) in front and the Spanish side never looked back. Susaeta hit a wonder strike to suit any occasion in the dying seconds to ensure Bilbao were the first name on the Markus Liebherr trophy.
Athletic Bilbao: Fernandez, Iraola, Ustaritz, San Jose, Ocio, Iturrapse, Susaeta, DeMarcos (De Galarreta 43), Martinez, Saborit, Gomez.
A fitting end to a nice day, personally I am more of a fan of permanent physical tributes than friendly matches, but Saints also had this covered opening the new “Markus Liebherr Lounge” at the tournament. One thing that was guaranteed was the wonderful impression our club gave to the visiting fans and players from Spain and Germany.
I was lucky enough to catch up with German football journalist Tim Röhn, editor for top German newspaper Bild who was at the tournament. Here is what he had to say about his St. Mary’s experience:-
“Just an insignificant tournament. I did not have big expectations when I took my flight to London to watch the “Memorial Cup” in Southampton. I am an editor for Germany’s biggest newspaper BILD and most of the time I write about Werder Bremen. So it was me that was chosen to see the club in the UK.
When I arrived at St. Mary’s Stadium, ninety minutes before the first match I was really surprised. What an awesome ground! The stands so close to the pitch, no fences – it is not like as it is in the German Bundesliga. There were not many supporters at this time, but when the Saints started against Werder there were probably around 9000 people. And they made noise like there were three times that many!
It was amazing. They supported the team like many German second division teams could only dream of being supported even in championship games. The whole stadium (the part that was crowded) was singing after the first goal. I really liked the atmosphere – and the way the Saints play as well. So fast from the defence to the attack. Great! The 3:0 win was well-deserved.
I talked to some spectators after the first match. Nice guys! Emotional guys! Fair guys! Even after I told them that I was German ;). Red and white are the perfect colours for football clubs – I am biased though because I am a big fan of Fortuna Düsseldorf (2nd division, Germany) and they wear the same colours.
I am thinking about coming back to see Southampton in the Championship. I want more – undoubtedly!”
The Saints players are once again in Switzerland for their pre-season preparations, and will be hoping for things to go slightly better this time…
Much was made of last years pre-season efforts, that were followed by a poor start to the season, injuries and accusations of bad practice. The likes of Rickie Lambert took a while to fire, and new boy Frazer Richardson was one of the high profile to suffer injury setbacks, as Saints “favourites” tag looked to be way off as they stuttered to 22nd place after the first five games. So how important are these pre-season trips?
Nigel Adkins says “Vital”. And I agree.
It isn’t just about fitness of course, the need to for any successful team to have a good spirit and camaraderie is as, if not more important. Nigel Adkins looks like he thinks the same, and black sheep Jason Puncheon hasn’t travelled with the squad, for fear of disruption.
So what did Alan Pardew do so wrong? And what will Adkins do differently? Well for a start do we actually know that Pardew did wrong? Let’s face it, had we gone unbeaten in the first five games last season, there would have been no questioning of Pardew’s methods. There were several comments in some of the early season defeats of lethargic looking players. Frazer Richardson was injured on the pre-season tour of 2010, as was Rickie Lambert, who uncharacteristically scored just two goals in the first twelve games, remarkable then that he would go on to be the clubs top scorer with twenty one by the end of the season. Fitness was clearly an issue, something Lambert has talked about himself since.
When Nigel Adkins took over, he was quick to mention fitness and the lack thereof after overseeing a drab 0-2 defeat at MK Dons, and by this point in the season, Saints were gaining a reputation for starting games well and taking control before succumbing to defeat. As Adkins influence became more apparent, the side became more resilient and control became victories.
Adkins, comes from the opposite side of the coaching spectrum to Pardew, the “new breed” if you will, his previous employment as a Physiotherapist is well documented, and he is obsessed with sports psychology, so it is natural to assume that this time round the Swiss trip should produce fitter players, less injuries and even a squad that is better prepared mentally.
Saints will officially start their pre-season tomorrow evening in the Gurzelen Stadion to take on Swiss Challenge League (Championship equivalent) side FC Biel-Bienne, before heading to the AFG Arena to face recently relegated Super League side St. Gallen on Saturday. Returning new boy Jack Cork, somewhat of a coup signing will get his first run out back in a Saints shirt during these games, while it will also be a chance for returning loanees Ryan Doble and Joseph Mills to stake a claim.
The purpose of the Swiss tour and games, may be more about physical shape, team building and even some commercial links than it is about results, but the squad will be truly tested on their return to the South coast. A week of training will be followed by the inaugral “Markus Liebherr Memorial Tournament” and two forty five minute games against European heavy weights Atletico Bilbao from La Liga and Werder Bremen from the Bundesliga. The squad will get to mix it up with World Cup winners and Champions League regulars in the round robin format and against that level of ability any fitness issues will be sorely punished. The technical ability of the likes of Javi Martinez will be difficult enough to deal with, without chasing their shadows.
West Brom and Yeovil Town will make up the rest of pre-season opposition for the first team before the season opens live on Sky (again) against Leeds United at St. Mary’s on the 6th August.
All we can hope is that the lessons of last season’s start have been learnt. We came from the back of the pack to secure promotion last season, despite the less than perfect preparations and the woeful opening run of results. The Championship will not be so forgiving. Every season this is a league that looks more difficult to get out of, and with the likes of Birmingham City and West Ham amongst the Premier League relegated, it is almost impossible to predict an outcome. A lack of preperation and a slow start could be disasterous, and missing out on promotion could be the least of of our worries…..
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