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AUSTIN THE NICK OF TIME!

Before I begin to sum up what turned out to be a surprisingly incredible Sunday for Saints fans, first I must slate my Mother profusely. As has been well documented, I’ve held a season ticket since the age of six and although I’m not certain of the exact time frame, I hadn’t missed a home game for well over five years. Like all good things though, this had to come to an end but sadly, did so much earlier than anticipated. On Sunday, a family gathering was arranged at my Auntie’s house and having dodged many get togethers over the years, Mum largely left disappointed, Dad and I made the executive, generous decision to skip the match in her favour. Although desperately difficult, a seemingly wise one with a Christmas schedule that will see us taking in trips to Crawley, Cambridge and Shrewsbury as we aim to attack more grounds in our quest to visit the 92.

Now considering the woeful form of late and an Arsenal team, on an admirable unbeaten run of 22 matches, many would have thought that avoiding attendance was probably in our best interests, particularly when considering the heart’s wellbeing. Sod’s law of course, saw Saints come out on top in what was an absolute thriller, notching up only a second home victory of the year. To top it off, we missed out on a free beer voucher which accompanied a particularly classy hand-written letter from new man Ralph. Dad and I decided to avoid the outcome in order to go through the motions as genuinely as possible, unaware of the result upon returning home. This is easier said than done, however, considering my cousin and his Father are also football crazy and we were constantly subjected to wind ups along the lines of “cracking game this one, it’s looking good at the moment” etc.

So, in short, don’t let your heart overrule your head, allowing feelings for family members to intervene with your Saintly love affair, you won’t ever be allowed to forget this sacrifice Mum! In all seriousness, I was just happy to see the seem performing fantastically, to their potential and in the process, secure a massive three points in the fight to stave off relegation.

To the match itself, with Unai Emery comfortably settling into life in the north side of London, experiencing plenty of success with the Gunners amassing the aforementioned unbeaten run, the Gunners were firm favourites with the bookies. However, despite the intimidating opposition, there was cause for optimism following the exciting appointment of manager Hassenhuttl.

Saints reverted to a 3-5-2 formation, comprising of Yoshida, Bednarek and Vestergaard. It was heartening to see Ralph stick with young fullback Valery following a tough day out at Cardiff the previous week and the positive news continued with Danny Ings, the team’s top scorer returning to the starting lineup. 

Yan is smashing it!

Although Saints made a purposeful start, it was Arsenal’s lethal Aubameyang with the first warning shot, thankfully McCarthy stood his ground in order to thwart the former Dortmund star. Nathan Redmond looked lively as ever, never giving the Arsenal rearguard a moment’s peace and in the 19th minute, the promising beginning paid off as the home side took the lead. Targett delivered a delicious whipped delivery from the left wing which was met emphatically by Ings, directing a bullet header past Leno in the Arsenal goal. 

Within 10 minutes however, parity was restored, Mkhitaryan heading into the ground from a Monreal centre, the ball skidding off a slippery St. Mary’s surface and into the back of the net. Things very nearly went from bad to worse, Aubameyang looked certain to double his tally, only for the magnificent Bednarek to intervene with an incredibly timed sliding challenge in his own penalty area. The Pole has looked quality since his return and one genuinely has to question the managerial prowess of Mark Hughes, considering the Welshman constantly overlooked him.

Arsenal ramped up the pressure but Saints held firm and regained the advantage courtesy of another Ings header. The frontman is not renowned for his aerial ability but was proving an expert, exerting the use of every neck muscle in order to intelligently guide out of the reach of Leno. 

The second half began with the home side surprisingly leading, with the visitors four month unbeaten run in real jeopardy. Aubameyang, a threat all afternoon, went close once more, his effort blocked by the legs of McCarthy but it was Mkhitaryan who proved yet again to be a thorn in Saints’ side. The Armenian shot, albeit tamely but the ball took a wicked deflection off of Vestergaard, giving McCarthy no chance as he was left wrong footed. 

McCarthy’s fine form continued, fearlessly pouncing on an Iwobi cross before St. Mary’s entered euphoria. Yoshida headed on target from an in swinging corner but Leno repelled brilliantly. However, Long converted the rebound, only for the Irishman to be adjudged offside. The decision appeared correct but further replays seemed to indicate that the ball glanced off of an Arsenal defender prior to reaching Long. Nevertheless, the decision stood, thus bringing the pandemonium of the loyal home faithful to an abrupt end. 

A draw, all things considered, probably would have been viewed positively but unbelievably, Saints snatched maximum points with under ten minutes remaining in the contest. Long, who Arsenal will certainly never forget having played a starring role in the 4-0 demotion a few Boxing Day’s ago, snuck behind the Londoners defence. With Austin darting into the area, Long got his head up, clipped across the face of the goal, out of the reach of Leno and the bulky forward was ready and waiting to power home a third headed goal of the day. 

On the head son!

The good news didn’t stop at the first team. The U23s welcomed Newcastle to Staplewood for the last league fixture of 2018 and rounded off the year in perfect fashion. Will Smallbone, who has recently signed a new contract with the club, rifled home ten minutes after the break having been picked out by Afolabi. The lead was doubled just seven minutes later, the speedy ex-Arsenal product Nathan Tella dancing down the right flank before provider of the first, Afolabi clinically picked out the bottom corner. The Magpies pulled one back, Tom O’Connor giving away a penalty which was put away but Saints saw out the victory and look set to continue the push for promotion after the festive period. 

Last but certainly not least, Saints women continued the victory trend, conquering AFC Bournemouth in what was a 3-1 win in the Southern Region Women’s Football League. Saints took the lead through Chloe Newton, only to be pegged back by the Cherries and it remained 1-1 heading into the half time interval. However, the action resumed and Newton soon restored the lead before completing her hat-trick to secure the three points. 

Saints first team make the long trip to Yorkshire this Saturday for a vital fixture against Huddersfield at the John Smith’s stadium. The Terriers currently sit in 19th place, on 10 points but just two behind their south coast counterparts and therefore, the encounter offers a perfect opportunity to gain a bit of breathing space, plundering Town further into the mire. Huddersfield had started to show signs of life with wins at home to Fulham, as well as toppling a talent laden Wolves side at Molineux. However, that win at the end of November has been followed up by four successive losses and with the side desperately bereft of goals, Saints, on the back of that fantastic victory against Arsenal, will be confident of securing only a second away win of the season. 

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