A lot can happen in a year, just look at Southampton.
In November last season the Saints were languishing at the bottom of the Premier League table after their promotion from the Championship and had just five points from their opening 11 games.
On November 11 2013, they are third in the PL and have accumulated 22 points. They’re remarkably 17 points better off than they were last season, and there’s no doubt that the management, players and fans at St. Mary’s are dreaming of creating history.
Yes, they haven’t played many of the big teams yet. But they have beaten Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield and outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford in a deserved 1-1 draw. The Saints have comfortably dispatched Crystal Palace, Fulham, Swansea and Hull at home and look the real deal as they surge forward, keep the ball and play an attractive attacking style of soccer that sees Pochettino lauded in his first full-season in charge after controversially replacing Nigel Adkins last season.
What a great decision that looks to be now from Chairman Nicola Cortese. The Saints are marching on.
Following their 4-1 win over Hull City on Saturday, they sealed their best-ever start to a top-flight season. Last week Pochettino picked up the Barclays Premier League Manager of the Month award for October and three of the Argentine’s players were called up to the England squad, as inclusions for Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez marked the first time since 1984 that three Saints players were involved for England at the same time.
The club is going through a golden period. Many fans down on England’s South Coast are rubbing their eyes in disbelief. A top-10 finish this season would have delighted many, now Southampton’s odds to win the title have been slashed to 150-1 after being 3,000-1 in many bookmakers over preseason.
As you can see from the multiple call ups, the benefits for the small club in Southern England succeeding in the PL is also boosting England’s hopes. At all age groups.
A conveyor belt of young English talent is rolling out of the Staplewood training ground as first-team regulars James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw, both teenagers, will play for the England U-21s this week. Three others will play for England’s U-19 side, and the likes of 22-year-old right back Nathaniel Clyne has been mentioned by England manager Roy Hodgson as “someone we’ve been monitoring closely.”
Three Lions boss Hodgson was on hand to see the Saints tear apart Hull in the first half last weekend, as Lambert smashed home a PK and Saints’ 24-year-old captain, and academy graduate, Lallana scored a wonder goal after a mazy run. The England boss couldn’t stop his wide grin growing as the game wore on. A quick chat with Saints Chairman Cortese was caught by the cameras, needless to say Hodgson likes what he sees from the Saints.
Are we surprised? Not really.
Over the years they’ve always been a breeding ground for top talent, with the likes of Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer and Wayne Bridge all developing their skills at Southampton. More recently Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have pushed Saints’ academy further towards the front of people’s minds and with the latest crops of youngsters now knocking on England’s national team door, more is to come.
You can break down their tactics and how they’re outworking and dominating possession against every team they play this season, but the simple fact is that Southampton have continuity and a clear ideology that’s seem them rise from the depths of League One to the top of the Premier League in under three years. A past PL mainstay who went into a tailspin as financial ruin threatened to kill the club off, the Saints have performed one of the greatest rebuilds in recent English soccer history. Corteses and head of development Les Reed traveled around to the best academies in the world, including Barcelona’s La Masia, to see how they could improve Saints’ already impressive school of excellence. In January their new $45 million training complex will be finished and the club will be equipped to keep grinding out international stars of the future.
All those years when they churned out the likes of Walcott, Bale and Chamberlain but had to sell them while they were in the lower leagues are gone. Now the Saints hold on to their best youngsters, and England borrow them occasionally too. We will have to wait and see how long that will last, but the Saints certainly have strength in-depth as Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis, Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez, talented England midfielder Jack Cork and Japanese internationals Tadanari Lee and Maya Yoshida can’t get anywhere near the starting lineup.
Whether they can make a sustained push for the top four, we’ll have to wait and see. But if they’ve got a chance when January rolls around, the Saints will spend big. They’re bankrolled by German construction company Liebherr and they were already the fourth-highest spending PL club during the summer transfer window.
But all of this wonderful youth development, fine PL displays and Champions League talk may stop in a few weeks time as after the international break they face Arsenal at the Emirates — a win for either side could see them top the table — and then Chelsea away the week after. If the Saints can pull off impressive results against those two PL powerhouses, we could even be talking about Pochettino’s youngsters as possible title contenders.
Adam Lallana knows Southampton and its fans better than most.
“When you’re at home and you’ve got a great backing, it’s brilliant. And when you go on the road and you can hear your fans signing it’s what you want as a player. It’s credit to the fans who stuck by us when we were in League One and on the brink of liquidation. It’s good that the fans stuck with us, and now they’re seeing us playing week in, week out, in the Premier League.”
Lallana, 25, is the captain of Saints’ first team. He’s been at the club since the age of 12 and has risen through the academy ranks after being part of Southampton’s painful descent to the foot of England’s third-tier in 2009… and the dramatic rise to fourth place in the Premier League today.
After the first seven games of the 2013-14 PL season, Saints have won four, drawn two and lost one. They have the league’s best defense, conceding just twice, and play an exciting style of high-pressure soccer with a talented group of young players.
Having this PL success so soon after the club’s 125-year plus history was in considerable doubt, is remarkable. The dramatic rebuild has been thanks to a huge cash injection after being saved from liquidation by the Markus Liebherr, who sadly passed away in 2010, and executive chairman Nicola Cortese. The latter has astutely, yet sometimes controversially, put the interests of the club first. Such as replacing the clubs famous red and white stripes with bright red shirts, and other acts that have tinkered with Saints’ traditions.
Despite the ups and downs, the uncertainty and the ecstasy and many thinking Southampton had disappeared from the soccer world for good, the fans, they never disappeared. A feel-good factor is rapidly taking over the City of Southampton on England’s South Coast, and the passionate fans who call the famous Maritime port home are thinking big after the clubs tremendous start to the current PL campaign.
RAPID ASCENT: LEAGUE ONE TO PREMIER LEAGUE IN TWO SEASONS
When Southampton take on Manchester United Saturday at Old Trafford, (10 am ET, watch live on NBCSN or online via NBC Sports Live Extra) the Saints are looking to create a seven-point lead over United and take the top spot in the Premier League. For the record, every Saints fan I spoke to is predicting either a win or draw against United.
But the fact is, Southampton haven’t won at Old Trafford since 1988 in the league. In their last 18 league visits to United they’ve lost 16 and drawn just twice. It’s not been a happy hunting ground. But as their terrific early season form proves, confidence is high on the South Coast.
Many Southampton fans are pinching themselves, as the rapid ascent from League One basement boys to slugging it out with England and Europe’s big boys has all happened rather quickly. Over three seasons, to be precise.
“I was outside the stadium speaking to the media and others, waiting for the club to die back in 2010 when we went into administration,” Mike O’Callaghan, a lifelong Saints fan and chairman of the Southampton Independent Supporters’ Association (SISA) said. “Then the Liebherr family and Cortese saved us right at the death. That’s when the feel good factor came back to the club. We are a decent sized club, but to go up two years in a row was like, ‘blooming heck’… it was totally unexpected.”
Last season was Saints’ first campaign back in the top-flight since being relegated in 2005 — they’d previously spent 28 uninterrupted campaigns with England’s elite — and Southampton consolidated, finishing comfortably in 14th.
With ambitious owners and revolutionary Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino in charge, Saints fans of a younger generation are starting to get starry-eyed. Nick Illingsworth is one of the older generation of Saints fans, who has been an almost semi-autonomous spokesperson for Southampton fans at every major flashpoint in recent years. He also runs a hugely popular Saints fanzine, The Ugly Inside, which has been around since 1988.
“There is a new optimism,” said Illingsworth with a sense of excitement. “Those supporters under the age of 20 have a belief that Saints can get into Europe and that the sky’s the limit. But an older generation like myself, we have a more pragmatic approach. We only got relegated eight years ago from the PL, but someone who is 18 has only known failure as we dropped down the leagues and into administration, and then… success. So for them, the sky’s the limit.”
A FEW BEERS, THE GAME, A SING SONG, AN INQUEST, MORE BEER, CONTINUE…
Success and stardom may be swirling round the heads of most Southampton fans as we speak, but the match day routine for many Saints fans hasn’t differed whether they’re playing Chelsea or Colchester United.
Fans will often congregate in City Center pubs, then stroll through the bustling streets of Saturday afternoon shoppers to get to St. Mary’s Stadium in time to belt out “Oh when the Saints go Marching in” and sing about their hatred towards close rivals Portsmouth. (We could write a book on that)
“We still do the old traditional thing,” O’Callaghan said. “We met up at noon before every home game, have a couple of jars before the game, sit down and watch the match at St. Mary’s. Obviously if we’ve had a few beers we loosen up and lose our inhibitions, so you get more involved in the game and show your passion with the singing. Half time comes and there may be an inquest as to what’s going on in the game, then full time comes and recently, more often than not, we celebrate. We are very happy bunnies at the moment, it’s a good time to be a Saints fan.”
To paint the picture on game days, there is no real organization of flags, banners or singing. Unlike the massive Supporters Groups in Portland or Seattle in Major League Soccer, Saints fans go to watch the game and absorb themselves in the 90 minutes of action, they don’t prepare tifos, have any capos or set off any flares. As I walked around St. Mary’s on one of my many previous visits, small St. George’s cross flags hung up from the concourse entrances. “Scandinavian Saints” reads one, “Pride of the South” reads another. The singing comes on spontaneously, it isn’t scripted. And if Saints’ players and the manager aren’t doing a good job, the fans let them know.
“Guly, you’re shit,” exclaims one Southampton fan, standing up and pointing his finger acrimoniously at Saints’ 31-year-old Brazilian attacker. “You must be the only Brazilian who can’t play football,” he continued. Then he sits down calmly, takes a swig on his cup of tea and bites into his steak and kidney pie. Passionate, unorganized and totally encapsulated with the game, that is a typical Saints fan.
“Women come and go, but Saints will always be there,” O’Callghan said. “My ex-wife said ‘you love Saints more than you love me’ and I said… ‘I love Pompey more than I love you.’”
That gives you a quick intro into the animosity that exists between the two sets of fans…
WHAT FANS EXPECT IN 2013-14
Many teams can have a great start in the PL. Just look at West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City last season, which slipped away dramatically in the second half of the season. The hard part is keeping that run going.
“It’s attainable,” Illingsworth hesitantly said. “But it’s a harder job than people would think. It’s very difficult to get a European spot, you’ve got to say from where we’ve come it’s a bit of a fairytale. Is it attainable? Possibly.”
Steve Grant, who runs another fan website SaintsWeb, is a long-time fan who travels down to Southampton from London for the matches. Grant is a little more cautious, but believes a top ten finish is now what Saints should aim for.
“I think in the short term Champions League is completely out of the question,” Grant said. “Even a Europa League position through the league, over a 38-game season it’s going to be very difficult.”
And despite O’Callaghan’s brash positivity, he believes Saints can’t break into the top six just yet.
“I know the Liebherr family is worth over $7 billion,” he said. “But unless they want to go spending silly money like Manchester City and like Chelsea have done, I can see top six being as good as it gets.”
Likeable Saints fan O’Callaghan is known by many supporters around the ground on a match day, constantly greeting other ‘Saints’ with “how are you mate?” and “great to see you fella” as he strolls confidently through the concrete concourses of St. Mary’s. O’Callaghan has been traveling around to watch Southampton for decades and has been to 91 different soccer grounds in England supporting Saints. He represents the core of Southampton’s supporters, with the vast majority hailing from within the historic city limits.
“When we play the big clubs, we sing ‘we support our local team’ and we are proud to support our local team. We’re not jumpers on the bandwagon,” O’Callaghan said furiously. “But I know people from Southampton who support Liverpool and clubs like that and they’re from Southampton and I can’t get my head around when Saints are playing Liverpool they are supporting the opposition against the city of their birth. That’s like being a traitor to me. That is being a traitor. What is wrong with your own local team? Most fans say ‘oh my granddad was a Liverpool fan, etc.’ That’s the biggest load of nonsense, have they not got their own brain? Support your local team.”
HOW SAINTS RELATE TO AMERICANS
For some people — I’m looking at you America — it’s not possible to support your local Premier League team, because, eh geography is kind of in the way.
Chances are if you live in the USA, until now you probably don’t know what color Southampton play in, where the city is located in England and their top five players of all-time. But that’s okay, you don’t need to.
“Southampton will appeal to the fans who identify their team with their city and community,” Illignsworth said. “Southampton will appeal to the people of Chicago, the people of Pittsburgh, Boston and Philadelphia. Working class cities that have a community feel.”
Illingsworth, who often travels to the U.S. for vacations and recently watched the NFL’s Saints kick off their season, believes the city of Southampton will resonate with fans of one team in particular.
“Southampton are probably the Chicago Cubs of soccer,” Illingsworth said. “They never really look like winning anything, but we’ve got this big fan base that turns up week in, week out and always has potential and those clubs appeal to people who identify with the triers. For people who like to see success built rather than bought.”
“THE ACADEMY OF FOOTBALL” – GIVING YOUTH A CHANCE
And that success is often built by investing in youth and giving it a chance to nurture at the professional level. If you like seeing teams develop young talent and give youth a chance, Southampton is right up your street.
In the current team, captain Adam Lallana was called into the England squad last season, left back Luke Shaw is the most promising 18-year-old in English soccer, 18-year-old James Ward-Prowse scored his first goal for England’s U-21 side last week, Nathaniel Clyne has been around the England U-21 setup for many years and 18-year-old right back Calum Chambers is a star in the making.
The list continues, as Saints have an endless conveyor belt of talent rolling out of their Staplewood training ground tucked just inside the marvelous setting of the New Forest national park.
“I would say these days, our academy has no comparison,” Grant said. “I think Saints have now taken over the slogan, ‘the academy of football’ from the likes of West Ham who held that in the past. It very much applies to the ethos around the club now. Regardless of how much money the club’s spent, how many trophies you win, Southampton Football Club is still based in Southampton as a city and still has the support of the people of Southampton. As a result when one of your own breaks into the team, there’s always a greater sense of pride when that player then goes onto be successful.”
And Illingsworth believes the fact that Saints have always relied on youth players being core members of the first-team has enabled them to go on be stars.
“There is a pride,” Illingsworth said. “Even if someone isn’t born and bred in Southampton, there’s still that sense of pride that we’ve made them, we’ve drilled this Southampton thing into them. That’s why over the years people like Matt Le Tissier never left the city.”
A CITY ENCAPSULATED BY THE SAINTS
With a population of around 300,000 and sitting all alone as the only Premier League club south of London, the City of Southampton is somewhat cut off from the rest of England’s soccer fraternity.
But that only makes the bond between the club and its supporters stronger.
“With Southampton there’s a community spirit,” Illingsworth said. “If you walk along anywhere in the world and you see a guy wearing a Saints shirt, you stop and speak to him. Because you know you’re going to have something in common. 10 years ago I went to watch the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden and at the end of the game a guy walks towards me wearing a Saints shirt. I didn’t know him but we had a chat and that’s the type of community spirit Southampton has. You don’t get that from Chelsea, United or Arsenal where the supporters are drawn from a far wider area. It’s not just a pride in the team but a pride in the area and your home city.”
When you walk around and look at the history on every street corner, it makes you realize just how long soccer has been engrained into the minds of the people in Southampton. The club has been around for 128 years, which is a long, long time. But in comparison to the city itself, it’s a baby. Starting off as a Roman settlement named “Clausentum” in AD 43, it soon became a massive medieval port with strong links to France across the English Channel. Today, many of the medieval walls and ruins still remain throughout the newly constructed city that was heavily bombed in World War II. And it was from Southampton that the Titanic made it’s fateful voyage, with many of the city’s streets affected by the deaths of over 700 Sotonians on board The White Star Line’s luxury liner. Now it’s rich shipping heritage sees it dubbed ‘the capital of Europe’s Cruise line industry’ and it boasts the UK’s largest container port.
The city is thriving, and Southampton FC’s successful ascension towards the summit of English soccer has had a lot to do with that.
Crowds are averaging over 30,000, with money, sponsorship and new exposure coming to the city thank to Saints’ success. But some fans aren’t exactly bowled over by the side effects of being back in the PL.
“You’re going to get your ‘Johnny come lately’s’ I call them ‘Bandwagon United,’” O’Callaghan laughed. “They come along to watch Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, you get that. And that has to do with the price of football and being back in the Premier League. Those kind of fans are pushing the real fans out of the stadium. Which isn’t right.”
ONLY BIG DREAMS… POCHETTINO’S REVOLUTION
Ultimately Southampton’s fans are feeling the pinch in their pocket as the club continues to hike up season ticket prices as demand for seats is increasing, and talk of expanding the 32,000 capacity stadium to over 40,000 rumbles on.
Right now the fans don’t mind shelling out a few extra ‘quid’ here and there… because their team has been relatively successful.
A few years ago, back in my heyday as an athlete at college, there was one slogan the administration was always throwing round to try and inspire athletes: “Only Big Dreams.” Like the average pretentious upstarts, we raised our eyebrows and muttered ‘yeah, yeah’ under our breaths.
But when I recently went along to speak with Southampton’s manager Pochettino, he had that same mentality, that same “dream big”
outlook, and shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly when asked if Southampton can reach the top six and beyond. Instead of Europa League dreams, Pochettino is “aiming for the Champions League.” If you set the bar high, ultimately lesser accomplishments are still hugely impressive.
That seems to be what Pochettino is doing.
“The work that’s been happening for the last four years, started with the chairman,” Pochettino said. “His vision for the club and the way he started building the future of the club, the ideas, the philosophy. The basic idea is to take the club to the top of the league and Europe. That’s our ambition.”
From League One to the Champions League in less than five years wouldn’t just be a “Big Dream” it would be a miracle. The chairman Mr. Cortese, who was lambasted by plenty of Saints fans I spoke to when writing this story, has been ruthless in his aim to get Saints challenging with the big boys of England. He’s on his way to achieving that, but can they now make a splash in Europe over the next few years?
Pochettino’s well-drilled charges have got Saints’ fan dreaming again.
With a squad full of internationals, huge investment from the owners in the transfer market and a hungry manager implementing revolutionary high-pressure tactics that are taking the PL by storm, Southampton are on the cusp of something big. A few more steps in the right direction and the growing promise could become sustainable.
Recently I went to check out what all the fuss was about. Pale purple and red skies hung over St. Mary’s Stadium down on the banks of the River Itchen on a chilly evening as summer turned to fall, I was amongst a small crowd watching Saints take on Bristol City in a League Cup game in September. When the team sheet was handed to me and I looked down the list, it was a completely different starting XI than the team that had just beaten Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield a few days previously.
It included the likes of Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez, Japanese internationals Maya Yoshida and Tadanari Lee, Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis and many other players that would have been nailed on starters for Saints last season in the PL. Now, they’re effectively a reserve squad, albeit it a reserve squad full of internationals. The strength in-depth is getting there, and Saints could certainly go deep in the League Cup and FA Cup on that showing with a strong second XI dominating.
The thing that strikes you about visiting St. Mary’s is the large band of supporters who stand, and refuse to sit when directed by stewards, at the Northam End of the stadium. Situated next to the segregation with the away fans, fans at the Northam end are the heart and soul of Saints’ home support. All the chants emanate from this section of the stadium behind the goal, and when Saints players score at that end, they often run to the Northam to revel in the delight. There’s a mix of red and white shirts scattered amongst the Northam, but mostly you’ll find middle-aged men in denim already a few beers deep and smoking a cigarette. This is where Southampton’s average working class man, with strong connections to the City’s docks, chooses to watch the game. No bullshit, no flags, nobody telling him what to do. Just watching the game, singing his heart out and hoping and praying Saints can keep their good run going.
The fans are impressed at how seamless the transition has been since Pochettino’s controversial arrival, following the sudden sacking of favorite Nigel Adkins who orchestrated two-straight promotions from League One. But Argentine Pochettino has taken things to the next level.
“It is attractive football, I know the guy is Argentinian and he’s earned his living in Spain as a manager, but what he’s done, you can’t knock it,” O’Callaghan said. “Saints improved after he came in last season, and considering this guy came in and didn’t speak the lingo and introduced a new system, the players adapted very quickly. They must have a lot of respect for him, they’re playing for the manager.”
LOYAL SUPPORT, PRIDE AND PASSION PREVAIL
As aforementioned, Southampton is tucked away down on the English Channel over an hour and a half south of London by car. It’s hard for their traveling band of supporters to get to stadiums across the length and breadth of England.
But they do so in their droves.
Since promotion back to the top flight last season, almost every single away game has seen a sold out Saints section, and the tickets to Saturday’s game at Old Trafford against Manchester United sold out weeks in advance. That isn’t lost on manager Pochettino, who’s astonished by the huge numbers of supporters Saints take to far flung corners of the country.
“The away fans, the 2,000 or 3,000 fans that are with us every single game, we really appreciate their support,” Pochettino said puffing out his cheek in amazement. “Yes, I’ve been very surprised from the away fans. We really want to thank them and congratulate them for that continued support that they give us. We know how hard it is, and how much of an effort they make to come to those games. What I really want from the fans is that they’re supporting the club. That they’re always cheering on and supporting the players, the club itself and to enjoy how we play.”
That massive traveling support shows the willingness of fans to support their local team and represent the city in other parts of England.
And O’Callaghan believes the pride Saints fans have is stronger than ever.
“I have always been proud to be a Saints fan, but I’m even prouder at this moment of time because of where we are right here, right now,” O’Callaghan said with a lump in his throat. “In our wildest dreams, if someone said to us five years ago when we were in the third tier that we’d now be fourth from top in the PL of England, one of the richest leagues in the world, people would think you’re hitting the bottle a little bit too much. We are where we are on merit. You can only be proud of that and also proud of the people at Southampton Football Club who’ve put us in that position.”
That sense of togetherness between the fans and Saints’ players has been growing since the struggles of administration and relegation to League One. Star striker Rickie Lambert, goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, defender Jose Fonte, midfielders Guly Do Prado, Morgan Schneiderlin and captain Adam Lallana have all been on that journey with the fans, the backbone of the squad throughout the successful return to the PL.
Captain Lallana spoke to me about the special relationship between himself and the fans.
“I think I have a great relationship with the fans,” the skipper said with a smirk on his face. “I think I always have since I’ve been here, and I just love playing my football here, week in, week out. I have a really good relationship with the fans, always have and I always will.”
And to end our journey on the fans behind Southampton and what the ambitious club is all about, our friend Mike O’Callaghan can sum up exactly what it means to be from Southampton and support the Saints.
“Southampton is my team. I’ve got a tattoo right across my back that says Southampton FC and it’s written in olde English,” O’Callaghan said with intense emotion flowing through his southern English accent. “It took two hours to do, it has thirteen letters… and it bloody well hurt. But when I go on holiday, and I take my shirt off and I’m walking by the beach or the pool, people know where I’m from. I’m proud of where I’m from, and I love to let the world know as well.”