Goodbye to you my trusted friend. We’ve known each other since 2009/10…
When Saints were relegated to the third tier of English football in May 2009, the club was at it’s lowest ebb. Administration, wages not being paid and liquidation a very real possibility.
The rescue of the club by Markus Liebherr was both spectacular in it’s suddenness and an early sign of things to come, especially in terms of how the new owners and chairman conduct their business. In private.
The new regime moved quickly to remove the disastrous Dutch coaching team and install the experienced and somewhat “punching below his weight” Alan Pardew. Suddenly, just as quickly as the club had spiralled downwards, it was growing again, and smiles were seen again around the city. The first season in League One was always going to be interesting. A new division, a new manager and a new team can be uneasy ground at the best of times, but add the points deduction that Saints had suffered as punishment for their financial troubles the previous season and you have a dangerous mix.
As it happened, it was a difficult start for the Saints, and there was an air of “here we go again” in the St. Mary’s stands. It was eight games before they registered a League One win, and ten before they hit “positive” points.
For the first time in a long time, Saints were a scalp. After years of being a weekly underdog, now they were facing life on the opposite side of the fence and it was tough. Smaller clubs desperate to take us down. The opposition League One fans were also hard to please, if a Saints fan suggested promotion they were “arrogant”, but if they suggested otherwise it would be ridiculous for us not to win the league with “our resources”.
But once Pardew’s men got the points deduction monkey off their proverbial backs, there was no stopping them. Showpiece signings like Rickie Lambert and Jose Fonte soon got the team fired up the table, and despite some disappointing results away from home, Saints got themselves to within just seven points of the playoffs, highlighting the true punishment of a deduction. They did make Wembley however and lifted the Johnstones Paint Trophy in front of over fifty thousand of their fans, in what was a truly fantastic day for all concerned.
Saints fans went into the summer, cautiously optimistic, the team looked like it was now equipped to deal with the division, and with no points deduction the possibility of promotion was high. But as Saints fans, we learnt a long time ago to never “expect” anything.
It seemed inconceivable as Saints entered the 2010/11 season that there could be anything but good spirits at the club. Sadly there were undercurrents of mistrust between the manager and the board that spawned rumour after rumour. Coupled with an opening day televised home defeat to Plymouth Argyle and all the optimism of the summer was draining away fast, could it get any worse for Saints fans?
It could. Just three days after the first game of the season, Saints owner and saviour Markus Liebherr passed away. A city in shock, suddenly with it’s future up in the air again, and mourning the man who had brought back their smiles.
It didn’t improve on the pitch. A draw at home to Leyton Orient and grumblings of unfit players and poor pre-season preparation spelled the end for Alan Pardew, dismissed ironically after a 4-0 away win at Bristol Rovers. The next three league games all ended in defeat. Saints were 23rd in League One, their season already looking in tatters.
Enter Nigel Adkins. The Scunthorpe manager brought mixed reaction from the Southampton faithful, many still smarting from the removal of Alan Pardew, but after a losing start, the Saints players under a new regime started to put a good run of form together. The emergence of another Southampton ”teenage sensation” in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the fantastic form of Adam Lallana and a much steadier looking back four made the Saints a tougher prospect and they were soon battling it out at the business end of the table.
It still looked like automatic promotion was going to be a difficult prospect though, and that we would be victims of our own poor start. Runaway leaders Brighton were having a fantastic season, Huddersfield, Bournemouth and a resurgent Peterborough United under Darren Ferguson all looking to take the second spot. A 0-1 defeat away at Walsall and many Saints fans would have been eyeing potential play off matches, but the run the team put together after that was to fire us half way back to where we belong.
The last fifteen games of the season. Thirteen wins. One draw. One defeat. Amongst this remarkable form there were moments of real inspiration, that finally had me, a natural pessimist believing we could do it.
MK Dons at home. 2-0 down and looking like a serious promotion challenge dent. Cue Jonathon Forte, brought on in the 63rd minute, pulled one back in the 66th and equalised in the 67th. I had no doubt in my mind at that point that we would win the game and we did.
Bristol Rovers at home. Having just lost 0-2 at Rochdale, Saints needed to pick themselves up again. I was in Qingdao, China, where nearly all social media is banned. I was sat in my hotel room at 2300 local time watching the text updates on the official site. Saints carved out chance after chance, but couldn’t score. Until the 82nd minute. Guly do Prado, sending at least one of the 1.3 Billion people in China into a state of delirious satisfaction.
Brighton Away. The deserved champions had got a little big for their boots, the snarling and baiting of their fans towards Nigel Adkins leading up to it, gave the game an unhealthy edge. David Connolly got the equaliser and Jose Fonte and Saints deservedly snatched their unbeaten home record in the last minute. The best team in the league statistically, couldn’t keep up.
Saints went into the last three games knowing that two wins was enough. We won all three, and promotion was sealed.
I have often heard our stay in League One described as a nightmare, but it really wasn’t. Of course it is a blow to find yourselves at this level after years of Premier League extravagance, but it was nice to have a period of winning more games than we lost. Having said that, I am glad to be out of it, and hopefully we won’t be back, although there is something rather refreshing about the less commercial League One.
It is a really weird feeling to be elated about going to the Championship. Last time I was devastated…
We had joy, we had fun, we had two seasons in League One…