A day deciphering the Southampton, Bournemouth rivalry

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SOUTHAMPTON — Donning my black winter jacket and hopping on a train down from London for 90 minutes to the South Coast, this weekend was all about deciphering if the Premier League’s newest derby was even a rivalry.

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Leading up to the first-ever clash between Southampton and Bournemouth in the Premier League there has been much talk about whether this is a “derby” or a “rivalry” as the two South Coast settlements sit just 30 miles apart and are separated by a national park, The New Forest, but historically they haven’t been deemed major rivals.

That notion sparked my latest piece on NBC SportsWorld, trying to describe what this rivalry has been for many years and what it can become. Growing up on England’s South Coast, I can  say it’s a peculiar derby where fans of Bournemouth want it to be a full blown rivalry but fans of Southampton only have a rivalry with South Coast rivals Portsmouth, based 17 miles to their east.

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Below is my account of “derby day” after starting the journey in a small town equidistant between Southampton and Bournemouth, deep in the New Forest.

NO MAN’S LAND

Waking up in the idyllic New Forest in a town called Brockenhurst, which is located 15 miles from both Southampton and Bournemouth, on Sunday it was hard to believe a big game between two Premier League sides was taking place a 15-minute train ride away. Ponies strolled the streets. A hastily assembled river blocked my way on a walk after heavy morning rainfall created it. There was no indication that this sleepy, beautiful national park in Southern England sits between two settlements set to square off on the pitch and in the stands in the most popular soccer league in the world on Sunday.

The intertwining of Southampton and Bournemouth is peculiar. As I wrote for SportsWorld, this is not a true derby. Not like Liverpool vs. Manchester United or Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur. These clubs usually play preseason friendlies against each other. Both sets of fans mingle amicably and generally get a long in day-to-day life. It is a friendly rivalry. Well, it always has been. When these two teams were slugging it out in the third tier in 2010, something more was brewing. Checking out of my hotel, the receptionist revealed he was a Bournemouth fan. “My Grandad was a big Cherries fan, so it is just a family thing really,” he explained. “I just hope we don’t get embarrassed today.”

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Jumping into a cab to the train station, the taxi driver was a Saints fan. “The thing is, it is not really a rivalry. There is no hatred,” Mike said as he drove past a few ponies and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Some have dubbed this rivalry “The New Forest derby” but it is so embryonic that the tag has yet to catch on between fans.

At the train station, fans of both teams mingled on the platform. Friendly banter was chucked back and forth. On the train, the 14-minute journey was packed with fans of both teams heading into Southampton, the banter was getting a little livelier. One Bournemouth fan opened up his can of beer and it started spraying everywhere. “You didn’t miss your mouth did you? Surely not…” said a Saints fans sat down with his son a few seats away. Laughter. Friendliness. Not one of the fiercest rivalries that soccer world has ever seen. Bournemouth fans were asking which pubs were best to go to in Southampton and soon enough, they were about to find out which was the best.

BREWING RIVALRY

Given this is Bournemouth’s first-ever season in the top-flight of English soccer and Saints have spent most of the past 50-years in the top-flight, it’s easy to see why Southampton’s fans don’t deem this is a rivalry. We are talking about a team who they used to loan out plenty of players to when the Cherries were in the third or fourth tier of English soccer and almost see them as a feeder club.

Walking outside a pub in Southampton City Center, troubled flared up momentarily. The pub had been taken over by Bournemouth fans in the top and bottom tiers and a few scuffles broke out between locals and the supporters as the police wadded in with batons and hooked out certain individuals.

“F*** off Southampton, we rule the South Coast!” chanted the Bournemouth fans. A Bournemouth fan was hospitalized in a serious condition after the game after reportedly being attacked by a Southampton fan after the game. The violent undercurrent of a fierce rivalry is brewing.

Saints and Bournemouth met for the first time in the PL on All Saints' Day.
Saints and Bournemouth met for the first time in the PL on All Saints’ Day.

Jumping in another cab towards St Mary’s, the cabbie told me how he had hardly ever seen riot horses and police lined up in the center of the city. There were over 20 horses lining the route from the station to the stadium as violence — a few outbreaks in previous meetings had occurred — was anticipated.

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In and around the stadium, Bournemouth’s young manager Eddie Howe, he played for Portsmouth and once turned down the manager’s job at Saints in 2010, had his players on the pitch nice and early. All the talk was about this rivalry and the fact that if Bournemouth could win a few, then it would truly become something special. Everyone I spoke to, be it Saints or Bournemouth fans, also agreed it would be a case of how many Saints would win by. “I just hope we play well and keep it close,” said the Bournemouth supporting hotel receptionist while printing out my bill in the morning.

The Cherries had not beaten Saints in a competitive game since 1987. That was a League Cup game where Harry Redknapp was in charge of Bournemouth. You have to go back to 1958 for the last time Bournemouth beat Southampton in a league game. Sunday marked only the 22nd time these clubs had met competitively in over 125 years.

THE GAME

“There’s only one South Coast derby” was the song from Saints fans in the opening 10 minutes as they wanted to remind their neighbors just how little they cared about them. Moments later, “We are Southampton, we don’t care about you” rang out.

The South Coast spirit was strong in Bournemouth’s squad. Southampton lad and former Saints academy graduate Andrew Surman started in central midfield. Howe, a Bournemouth man through and through managed the Cherries. Southampton fan Baily Cargill was on the bench for Bournemouth. Throughout the game Bournemouth’s fans burst out with chants of “scummers, scummers” (like Portsmouth, that is their nickname for Southampton supporters) to which Saints fans simply replied once again: “We are Southampton, we don’t care about you” and then in a teasing manner: “Aaaaagain… you’ll never play here again.”

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and A.F.C. Bournemouth at St Mary's Stadium on November 1, 2015 in Southampton, England.
Saints’ players celebrate Davis’ opener in front of the away fans.

They may be right. Saints pummeled Bournemouth early on with Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane going close. Eventually Bournemouth succumbed to sustained pressure in the 27th minute as Ryan Bertrand‘s left flank cross found Steven Davis at the back post and he tapped home. Moments later it was 2-0 as Mane’s cross-field ball found Dusan Tadic and his cross was headed home by Pelle. 2-0 to Southampton and the gulf between these two sides, not just historically, was clear for all to see. Chatting to home fans at half time as I wandered around the Itchen Stand, many I spoke to just said: “I don’t see it as a rivalry, not at all.” Another had a bone to pick with their rivals from down the coast: “These Bournemouth fans have somehow got this idea in their heads we are rivals. I remember back in the day, we took our team down there for a friendly and helped raise money to save their club in their time of need. It’s bizarre.”

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In the second half Saints took their foot off the pedal and the Cherries had plenty of the play. Bournemouth fans sat in and around Southampton fans in the home end, something which is not technically allowed or looked upon kindly in the PL, but they were easy to pick out. As brief moments of hope in and around the box arrived, it saw them rise among the home fans. When Junior Stanislas‘ free kick went narrowly wide, one elderly Bournemouth fan stood up among the Saints fans with his hands on his heads. There was nothing said. The friendliness remained during a few chants between both set of supporters and as the game headed towards a conclusion, it became more jovial in the stands. Acknowledging that tough times will be ahead in their debut season among the big boys with ACL injuries robbing them of key players, Bournemouth’s fans chanted: “Premier League, we’re having a laugh!” Victor Wanyama was sent off 12 minutes from time for two yellows which made things interesting, as tackles flew in and the Cherries gave it their all but came up short as they sit one point and one place above the relegation zone while Saints sit in seventh place, just four points off the top four.

“We are Southampton, the South Coast is ours!” sang the home fans as the final whistle blew to signify the win. So, after all, Saints’ fans did care.

POTENTIAL

What Sunday proved to me was that this rivalry is brewing but may not get the chance to flourish in the Premier League. The hunger for this to become a rivalry and a derby seems to be almost exclusively from Bournemouth’s fans. After years of living in the shadows of Southampton, the Cherries want to challenge the nearest club to them, geographically, and are desperate for this to become something more than it currently is. This rivalry is sometimes friendly, sometimes nasty, but if Bournemouth manage to stave off relegation and remain in the Premier League beyond this season, given the passion and pride on show in the stands, around the region before the game and on the pitch, the league will be a richer place for it.

Report: Salah, Robertson out for Liverpool trip to Crystal Palace

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Liverpool has some significant injury concerns ahead of this weekend’s trip to Crystal Palace, with the international break not serving to give its top players the required rest.

Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson both sat out key international games hoping to be healthy enough for Liverpool’s return to Premier League play, but that has not come to pass. Sky Sports has confirmed that both will miss the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Salah re-aggrivated his persistent ankle injury near the end of Liverpool’s big win over Manchester City just before the break, and while he reported for international duty with the Egypt squad, he did not appear in either of the country’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Kenya or Comoros, both of which ended in draws. He has dealt with this ankle problem for over a month now, since it was injured against Leicester City in early October.

Robertson, meanwhile, has played every minute of the Premier League season to date, but withdrew from international duty with Scotland thanks to an ankle problem of his own. That leaves a gaping hole at left-back for Jurgen Klopp to fill, with backup full-back Nathaniel Clyne also out long-term thanks to an ACL tear. Candidates could include James Milner or even Xherdan Shaqiri, while he could also potentially move one of the center-backs in Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren out wide. Joel Matip is not expected back until the end of the month.

Liverpool kicks off against Crystal Palace at 10:00 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jose Mourinho speaks: ‘I couldn’t be happier’ at Spurs

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Jose Mourinho, speaking to Tottenham Hotspur’s official club channel Spurs TV, gave his first interview as Tottenham manager and speaking for the first time on camera after taking the job earlier Wednesday morning.

The Portuguese boss, who shockingly took over for Mauricio Pochettino, said he “couldn’t be happier” to take charge of the club currently floundering in 14th place in the Premier League table.

“I couldn’t be happier, and if I was not as happy as I am, I wouldn’t be here,” Mourinho said, referring to Spurs emphatically as “my club.”

“In relation to the Premier League, I think we know where we are, and we know that we don’t belong there,” Mourinho said, promising improvement. “We should just play match after match, the next match we want to win, and that’s the same about the next and the next and the next until the last. [At the] end of [the] season, we will see where we are, but I know that we are going to be in a different position than we are now.”

“These are not words of the moment, these are not words of me being the Tottenham head coach,” Mourinho said. “These are words I’ve told and I’ve repeated in the last four or five years, even as an opponent: to play Tottenham at White Hart Lane was always hard but beautiful. It is a place I used to go with passion but also it was also with respect.”

“I really like this squad, and looking to the young players, there is not one manager in the world that doesn’t like to play young players and to help young players develop. There is not one. The problem is sometimes you get into clubs where the work that is below you is not good enough to produce these players, so I look to our history and you see that the academy’s always giving talents that the first team needs.”

Referring to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new ground which Spurs have played in since April, Mourinho did not mince words. “When you say ‘beautiful stadium’ you are too humble. You have to say ‘the best stadium in the world.’ I think that is the reality.”

Mourinho continued to gush, talking about the amenities he has available to work with between matches. “The training ground is second to none. It probably can only be compared with some American football training grounds, you cannot compare with European football at any level, and I’ve been at the majority of the best places.”

He finished by saying, “I look forward for the challenge, for the responsibility to bring happiness to everyone that loves the club.”

Report: AC Milan begins talks for Zlatan return

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According to a report by Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano, AC Milan has begun preliminary talks with Zlatan Ibrahimovic via his longtime agent Mino Raiola.

Ibrahimovic played the last two seasons for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, and lit the U.S. league on fire with 53 goals in 58 games. The Swedish international was his usual lightning rod self throughout his MLS tenure, claiming on multiple occasions that he was the best player to ever play in Major League Soccer.

Romano says that nothing is immediately imminent and that Zlatan will take his time deciding on his future, saying he could know in the “next weeks” where he will head.

While Zlatan did not release his intentions upon leaving the Galaxy, a return to Serie A has been heavily rumored for weeks. He played for AC Milan from 2010-2012, and prior to that spent three seasons with Inter Milan from 2006-2009 as well as two seasons with Juventus from 2004-2006. He won six Serie A titles between the three clubs, including the 2010/11 Scudetto with AC Milan.

There have also been significant reports linking Ibrahimovic to Serie A side Bologna where Zlatan is friends with manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. The Serbian boss has battled leukemia this season but has decided to coach through it, and Zlatan reportedly wishes to show his support by signing up to play for the squad.

Rating the USMNT’s complete 2019 season

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2019 was supposed to be the year that the USMNT put the disaster in Trinidad & Tobago officially behind them. Instead, they flopped and floundered their way to more questions than answers in a year of change and doubt.

The first game of the year was also the first game of the Gregg Berhalter era, and while there were plenty of positive signs early on, it began to fall apart midway through the summer, and by the end of yesterday’s comprehensive win over troubled Cuba, there is plenty of unknown moving forward.

Berhalter began his tenure with friendly wins over Panama and Costa Rica, outscoring those opponents 5-0 and seeing the emergence of fringe players like Djordje Mihailovic, Daniel Lovitz, and Christian Ramirez who had broken out under interim boss Dave Sarachen but were also afforded some time with the main man in charge. It quickly became clear, however, that those players were not the ones to take the U.S. forward as the regulars returned for the win over Ecuador.

Flaws began to slowly emerge in the Ecuador win and the ensuing Chile draw in March, and as Berhalter dug in for the long spring international layoff, he prepared the plan for the Gold Cup summer. Whatever the plan, it did not emerge as expected. Veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned for the summer slog, but they were powerless to stop the train from slowly screeching to a halt. The group stage went well against inferior opponents – including a 6-0 drubbing of Trinidad & Tobago to secure some minor revenge for two years prior – but a 1-0 win over lowly Curacao in the quarterfinals saw bubbles being to rise.

The US managed to get by Jamaica in the semis thanks to Christian Pulisic‘s textbook heroics, but the finals were a different story. A 1-0 loss to Mexico that saw the U.S. thoroughly dominated was the first real coin to drop, followed by a thorough 3-0 butt-whooping by Mexico’s B-side two months later in a friendly on home soil.

It all fell apart from there. They drew 1-1 with Uruguay’s backups a few days later, and then after skating by defection-laden Cuba, the worst result of the slate saw the U.S. stunned in Canada in Nations League play. The result not only proved a humbling reminder of the team’s work to do, but also put their Nations League standing in real jeopardy far earlier than any fan deemed acceptable.

The U.S. rescued its position and secured passage to the next round of the competition, but real problems remain. Berhalter’s coaching and tactical acumen have been questioned on multiple fronts, with many wondering whether his possessional style of play is too ambitious for a country still searching for top talent.

Still, the most pressing issue seems to be the suddenly paper-thin talent pool that currently troubles the nation. Injuries to players like John Brooks, Michael Bradley, and even Pulisic have left the United States forced to deploy players far below World Cup quality in their stead. Formerly promising critical young players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Weston McKennie have seemingly regressed, but with little behind them in terms of depth, Berhalter is forced to toil on hoping they recapture their form of not long ago.

Amid a toilsome year, the capture of Sergino Dest and the true emergence of Jordan Morris are individual success stories that deserve merit. Dest heavily considered his eligibility for the Netherlands but was ultimately swayed by Berhalter’s vision. Morris has returned from a serious knee injury by reinventing himself as an inverted winger, and his style switch has been an unmitigated triumph, transforming from a questionable developmental project to a near-lock in the squad.

In addition, Christian Pulisic’s rise to international stardom must also be considered. Unlike the development of Yedlin and McKennie which have been suddenly put in peril, Pulisic has continued to excel at the club level, moving to Chelsea and bursting onto the Premier League scene after a brief period of uncertainty. He continues to carry the U.S. side as well when given a chance, but as the Gold Cup disappointment shows, he clearly can’t do it on his own.

Still, in a year with few competitive matches against teams of the quality the United States aspires to equal, Berhalter failed the test. The overall body of work was simply not acceptable. He has the full support of U.S. Soccer for now – at least publicly – but there is much to be done as the U.S. moves further into the World Cup cycle and towards a potential return to the big dance. Berhalter must continue to establish his identity, but more importantly he must develop a talent pool that both excels at developing its most important players and finds those who can contribute in positions of its greatest need.

While the small success stories deserve to factor in, the simple fact is Berhalter does not deserve a passing grade, as questions of where the United States fit into the larger world picture suddenly loom large.

OVERALL GRADE: D+

Full 2019 USMNT results

Jan 28 – W 3-0 vs. Panama (friendly)
Feb 2 – W 2-0 vs. Costa Rica (friendly)
Mar 22 – W 1-0 vs. Ecuador (friendly)
Mar 27 – D 1-1 vs. Chile (friendly)
June 6 – L 1-0 vs. Jamaica (friendly)
June 9 – L 3-0 vs. Venezuela (friendly)
June 19 – W 4-0 vs. Guyana (Gold Cup)
June 23 – W 6-0 vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Gold Cup)
July 1 – W 1-0 vs. Curacao (Gold Cup QF)
July 4 – W 3-1 vs. Jamaica (Gold Cup SF)
July 8 – L 1-0 vs. Mexico (Gold Cup Finals)
Sept 7 – L 3-0 vs. Mexico (friendly)
Sept 11 – D 1-1 vs. Uruguay (friendly)
Oct 12 – W 7-0 vs. Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)
Oct 16 – L 2-0 @ Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 16 – W 4-1 vs. Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 19 – W 4-0 @ Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)