It wasn’t a classic, says Dan, but last weekend showed reasons for encouragement, including a strong game defensibvely from Saints, with the recalled Jack Stephens seemingly the catalyst for improved performances from Hoedt and Cedric…
On Saturday we made the short drive down to Bournemouth for the ‘not a derby’ fixture against the Cherries. Two years ago, to that very day, many of us were inside one of the true cathedrals of football, Inter’s San Siro, embarking on the highlight of a short-lived European adventure. Slightly less glamorous this time around but nevertheless an opportunity to support the mighty Red and Whites.
A usually routine journey descended into a chaos of roadworks due to the work on the Spur Road as you enter Bournemouth, rendering parking in King’s Park at a premium. Thankfully I spotted one miniscule space at the end of a road and just about manoeuvred in without a collision aided by the fact I drive a humble Polo. Whilse shifting this way and that I caught a steward eyeballing me and thought I was in for a rollicking but, on the contrary, he congratulated my driving, sayng: “He’ll never get in there,” as I was sizing it up.
Having planned to seek out a pub, the traffic delay mant we arrived at the ground with less than an hour until kick off so we settled for a stroll around Dean Court, encountering no friction from home supporters, due to the lack of rivalry, and headed into the away section. With many fans likely downing pints elsewhere, the concourse was scarcely populated and having spotted the reasonable price for a pint (£3.50, even if it was Fosters) we duly obliged. Having got the drinks in for Dad and me, I was handed a raffle ticket, with the prize of a new Saints away shirt which was being showcased behind the bar. Unfortunately I was not a lucky winner this time around but nonetheless, a nice initiative, one that I have not witnessed at any other away grounds. The lunchtime kick off between Chelsea and United was being screened and Dad and I took in the remainder. I commentated for Dad in between sipping my beer and we both revelled in Jose Mourinho’s misery as Chelsea bagged a late equaliser.
Once in our seats, the atmosphere was building and the Saints backing was phenomenal. Prior to the game, considering the contrasting fortunes of each club, I had anticipated the Bournemouth fans to be raucous but the tone was set early and the only voices that could be heard were from the St. Mary’s faithful. As is well documented, Bournemouth’s stadium is small, the smallest to ever grace the Premier League, and therefore our ticket allocation was only abojut 1,300. Therefore, we were heavily outnumbered in the ground that holds just over 11,000 but oddly, it was a case of the proverbial library in the home sections.
The game was viewed differently by many and I heard the odd grumble while in attendance, complaining of a turgid affair and how a point against Bournemouth should not be celebrated. Some see this as a marker of how low the ambition has dropped in recent years but, though I understand this view, as a lifelong Saints fan I try to remain ever the optimist. On current form, the free scoring Cherries who sat in 6th position prior to the encounter and had torn apart Watford on their patch prior to the international break, were expected by most to put Saints to the sword. Bearing this in mind and our recent defensive frailties, I was very impressed with the performance, particularly that of the back four in earning a clean sheet away at one of the League’s top scoring sides. Admittedly it was a game of few chances but we matched Bournemouth blow for blow, frustrated them due to a regimental organisation and shape and could have nicked it late on, after both substitutes Gabbiadini and Armstrong wasted good chances. All in all a promising result and hopefully something on which to build. As for Bournemouth failed, they have pne win in 12 against Saints.
In terms of standouts: I thought the defence looked a lot more solid with the inclusion of the much-maligned Jack Stephens. Perhaps not as much of an aerial presence as Vestergaard but Jack, the Cornwall man our Academy pinched from Plymouth Argyle, possesses greater speed and plays with heart every time he features. Wesley Hoedt was a colossus too, putting in arguably his best performance in a Saints shirt to date. Cédric, rather inconsistent in recent weeks, was solid, making a crucial sliding challenge in his own area but the pick of the bunch had to be Pierre Hojbjerg. Running the show in the engine room, covering every blade of grass and making some incisive passes from the middle of the park, Pierre is becoming a key man and showing the promise expected when purchased from Bayern Munich a few seasons back.
Elsewhere at Saints there were wins for both our Under 23s and Women’s teams. Starting with the Under 23s, who welcomed table toppers Wolves to St. Mary’s. Saints offered free entry to the game, a great initiative to see the next generation of players in action and those in attendance were treated to a thriller. Saints lead 2-0, with goals from Michael Obafemi and Marcus Barnes, only for the West Midlands based side to roar back, levelling up at 2-2. However, when all looked lost, Irishman and captain Thomas O’Connor stepped up and headed home the winner from a corner deep into second half stoppage time.
As for our ladies, the team were in action in the Southern Region Women’s Football Premier League Division, travelling to Berkshire to pit their wits against Newbury. Ultimately, the fixture did not prove much of a contest as the red and whites romped home to a 9-0 victory, Ella Pusey notching a hat-trick. Attention turns to the next league fixture against New Milton at AFC Totton’s Testwood Stadium this Sunday, free entry being offered once more for season ticket holders.
Back to the first team, a big week lies ahead starting with the potential relegation 6 pointer against Newcastle, the Premier League’s bottom side. Shortly after on Tuesday comes to the trip to Leicester in the Carabao Cup, a competition which has been kind to us in recent seasons and the team will look to finally get one over on former manager Claude Puel. Lastly, next Sunday, the daunting prospect of Champions Manchester City at the Etihad. I, as I’m sure many others will be happy with a display we can all be proud of, rather than a result come the end of the match. I’ll be at all three fixtures, taking my cousin Cam to City next Sunday. Cam plays for Yeovil Town’s academy and as a football fanatic, longs to visit what is no doubt one of the most impressive stadiums in the country, I couldn’t resist treating him to such an experience because I wanted just the same at his age. Until next time, and I’ll see you at St. Mary’s Saturday. COYR!
Kind regards and have a smashing weekend!