SOUTHAMPTON – “We are Southampton… we’ve come from League One.”
That was the chant which rang out around St Mary’s moments after Graziano Pelle had put Saints 1-0 up against Vitesse Arnhem in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League third qualifying round match. Saints’ fans wanted to give everyone a reminder of just how far they’ve come in such a short space of time.
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The Premier League club had waited 12 years to get back in European competition, and St Mary’s was packed to the rafters as they beat Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem 3-0 with goals from Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Shane Long sealing their first European win in 34 years. Southampton’s manager Ronald Koeman has won the UEFA Champions League as a player and has coached in the UCL and Europa League as a manager. He has vast experience of European soccer, but as for his players and his club, it’s all new to them.
“It makes it easier for the players if our fans our coming with those numbers to support the team.” Koeman said. “For everyone in the club it is a new situation and they don’t have that experience. We enjoyed that. We will do everything to reach the group stage of the Europa League.”
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For Southampton, qualifying for the Europa League represents the beginning of a new adventure, one their owners always dreamed of, but just over six years ago you’d scarcely believe they’d be in this position. I remember visiting St Mary’s Stadium in 2009 as the club still searched for an owner to save it. The lights were out in the reception area. One lonely receptionist sat wistfully behind a desk as hopes of another takeover attempt were talked of longingly. That takeover bid would fail in the coming days. Those were dark times in Southampton’s 129-year history.
On Thursday, all of the lights were on at St Mary’s. And then some. The game against Vitesse Arnhem was a sell out as over 32,000 took in the first European game in the city since 2003. Four years after being in English soccer’s third-tier, it was a marquee moment for the South Coast club. As the sun beat down on St Mary’s on a late July evening, two first half goals made sure the mood of the home fans matched the weather.
“It is a very good feeling,” Koeman said. “We had a great atmosphere in the stadium. The fans were looking forward to this game tonight and maybe it was one of the reasons we had a bit of a difficult start in the first 10, 15 minutes. After that we controlled the game well.”
The last time Southampton qualified for Europe it was in the old UEFA Cup format of straight knockout in each round. They were paired with Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest, the toughest team they could have faced, and lost 2-1 on aggregate. After 19 years of waiting to play in Europe, Saints’ fans got two games, and that was it. Speaking to club officials before the match — who have been with the team throughout the double relegation’s and back up to the PL again — they were delighted with the return to Europe after 12 years away and this time, unlike their brief fling in 2003, it felt like Saints belong on this stage. Southampton did qualify for Europe three out of four years throughout the early 1980s, and one man who traveled to Norrkoping and Hamburg during those brief flirtations with the European continent was taxi driver and lifelong Saints fan, Steve Rolfe.
“This is a momentous evening. It sounds cliche but this is League One to the Europa League. It’s the end of a five-year plan we were told about at the start, and we’ve actually done it,” Rolfe said. “The idea now is to move on again. Whether that happens now or some time in the future, we will have to wait and see. I went away to Norrkoping in Sweden and Hamburg in Germany. So technically I haven’t missed one of Saints’ European game for over 30 years! But obviously there hasn’t been too many of them. It’s a chance for the away games to go to places you haven’t been, cities you haven’t been, stadiums you haven’t been and it’s a different style of football. It’s all good.”
Before kick off “one Markus Liebherr” was sung by the home fans to thank the businessman who saved them from extinction in 2009. Looking back six years, Saints had just exited administration, were floundering near the bottom of League One (English soccer’s third-tier) and were trying to piece everything together with new players, a new manager and new owners. After back-to-back promotions in 2011 and 2012, Saints returned to the promise land of the Premier League two years ahead of the initial “five-year plan” set out by their ambitious owners. Sadly, Liebherr passed away in 2010 and hasn’t been around for much of their rise but his daughter Katharina has continued to run the club the way her father would have wanted. But returning to the top flight was only the start. Survival wasn’t good enough. Next stop: Europe.
“It was amazing, as always. It is nice to grow up as a team and also with the fans. Last year we had a record number of points in the Premier League and we are reaching the Europe League group stages, hopefully,” striker Pelle said after his goal set Saints on their way. “Today the atmosphere was amazing, a full stadium always behind us and it is what we want. We have to always please them with great performances.”
As I drove into the center of Southampton for the game, kids playing on the street kicked around the official UEFA ball. Tales trickled through to me of Vitesse Arnhem fans in the city for two days in advance of the match, as they mixed and drank in pubs with locals. Walking to the stadium, the home fans mingled with away fans and there were plenty of wistful looks from the locals. Emotions were running high and a European night on the south coast was a big deal.
Other cities in England regularly host Europa League and UEFA Champions League matches. For a bustling port city that is used to welcoming visitors from around the world, Sotonians are desperate for their club to have European nights like this regularly down by the River Itchen. A local band had even produced a song called “Southampton in Europa” to fire everyone up, and it had as many techno-beats as you’d expect as they performed outside the stadium before kick off. But what about the grand dreams of bringing the Champions League to the city? Saints flirted with the top four for most of last season to try and make that a reality. Will the Europa League be a steeping stone?
“I’d rather my club was in the Europa League than the Champions League, largely because the size of our club,” Rolfe said. “We wouldn’t get very far in the Champions League, it would be good fun, but we are more suited to the Europa League as things stand.”
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The fact that Europa League qualification is seen as a reward and is embraced by the people of Southampton, the entire playing and coaching staff and everyone else behind the scenes, is a breath of fresh air. For too long teams have treated the Europa League as an afterthought. It’s the poor man’s Champions League that sees you travel to far flung corners of Europe on a Thursday. For the bigger clubs in European soccer, it’s a nuisance. But for ambitious clubs like Saints, it’s a stepping stone to success and a chance to evaluate their progress against like-minded teams in Europe. The Europa League is scoffed at by many, but it’s a big deal in Southampton.
It was a sell out at St Mary’s as European soccer returned, but one Saints fan, Matt Saunders, didn’t have a ticket. When I caught up with him, he was lingering outside the ticket office before kick off to see if any last minute tickets went on sale
“When we were in League One, I don’t think many people believed we’d make it back to the Premier League, let alone Europe,” Saunders said. “It is phenomenal. Absolutely amazing. If you look around, you can see what it means to the city, the atmosphere. It’s wonderful.”
In terms of Premier League clubs in the Europa League in recent seasons, Chelsea were the last team to win it in 2013 after being knocked out of the Champions League and “demoted” to the Europa. Before them the likes of Middlesbrough and Fulham reached the final against all the odds. I’m not saying Saints will get that far, but clubs of a similar stature who have embraced the competition in the past have reaped the benefits.
“We have come a long way from League One but since 2010 we have been on an amazing journey and today was one of the proudest moments of my career leading the team out in Europe,” said Saints’ skipper, Jose Fonte. “This is a competition we take very seriously and this is a chance for us do well, We are an ambitious group. There will probably be new arrivals. This is a great club with great staff, great players and great fans so it is easy to adapt and fit in.”
There is, of course, a negative side many harp on about when it comes to the Europa League. The travelling and extra games impacts clubs like Saints who have smaller squads and their league form subsequently nosedives. Case in point: Swansea City in 2014, Everton last season and Newcastle in 2013. But is that a myth? Will 8-10 extra games — if Saints get through the final two qualifying rounds and reach the group stages — in the fall tip Koeman’s squad to its breaking point?
It will stretch them to the limits, that’s for sure, but why wouldn’t a team like Southampton go for it and embrace a chance to grow their brand and take their style of play to Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere in Europe?
The lingering doubts of PL form faltering and suddenly being sucked into a relegation battle remain, with every club wary of losing the riches being a PL club brings it. It’s a tricky situation for Saints, and other teams in the PL such as West Ham, Swansea and Stoke, who all aspire to compete in Europe regularly but the threat of relegation would see those teams plunge into a downward spiral.
“We are not in a position to think that the Europa League is not important,” Koeman said. “You look to the crowd, you look at the atmosphere tonight. Everybody likes to be part of Europe and we will do the maximum to reach the Europa League group stage.”
Whatever happens in the rest of Southampton’s Europa League campaign this season, a European dream is being realized and the ambitious club is eager to dine at Europe’s top table. For now the Saints are marching on to Europe, and they’re embracing the new challenge one step at a time.