With Saints unfortunately having been eliminated from the FA Cup, the weekend was freed up, with an ideal opportunity for our ladies side to take centre stage and continue their impressive unbeaten streak. Having cruelly been defeated last time out in the Hampshire Cup by a Portsmouth side featuring two divisions above, Saints visited Ascot United in the Southern Region Women’s Football League Premier Division.
The away side showed no ill effects, surging into the lead within the first five minutes, Shelly Provan cutting back for Chloe Newton who once again found her name on the scoresheet. Spectators did not have long to wait before the net rippled once more as the advantage was doubled after 20 minutes. Ascot failed to deal with Shannon Sievwright’s delivery into the area which resulted in Provan smashing the post, before Caitlin Collighan was alert to tuck away.
It seemed certain that the gap between the sides had been further increased prior to the break, the deadly duo of Provan and Newton combining to good effect once more, only for the latter to be adjudged as having been in an offside position. Still, 2-0 it remained and a healthy Saints advantage as the team departed for further words of encouragement in the changing room from manager Spacey-Cale. After the interval, the score line remained unchanged for a long period but there was no way back for the hosts with 12 minutes left to play. Phoebe Williams penetrated the Ascot box with a darting run, rolling into the path of Ellie Chaffe, who saw her effort repelled by the goalkeeper. However, Newton’s unerring instinct proved pivotal yet again, heading home for her brace in what is proving to be a highly prolific season in front of goal.
Ascot did pull one back but the goal was merely a consolation as Saints soon restored their three goal cushion. Newton, on a hat-trick, unselfishly turned provider this time around, playing a slide rule pass with just a minute to play. Chaffe was on the receiving end, taking in her stride and coolly finishing into the bottom corner to cap off a fantastic display, whilst also taking Saints impressive league winning run to eight on the bounce. Up next for the girls is a trip to Winchester Flyers next Saturday as they aim to take top spot outright, currently trailing Bournemouth only by goal difference. Considering their formidable form, as well as a game in hand, there’s no reason why this should not be achievable.
Following the mini break, Wednesday saw a return to action for the first team, Crystal Palace the visitors to St. Mary’s on a bitterly cold evening. Leaving the office in Wiltshire at 5:30, making kick-off is always interesting with evening games and fear set in when the overwhelming red glow of brake lights lit up the night sky on the M271 as we entered Southampton. Rush hour combined with poorly timed roadworks is a recipe for disaster but thankfully, some unprecedented quick thinking allowed me to skip the backlog, diverting via Test Lane. With the clock approaching 7, the executive decision was made to opt for McDonald’s Drive Thru and having quickly thrown down a well received Mayo Chicken, we enjoyed a stress free last leg of the journey before parking up at the station.
After a leisurely stroll up to the ground, weaving through the visiting supporters who could be heard bellowing chants of “Eagles! Eagles!” at the top of their lungs as they traipsed alongside the Northam’s outer wall, we entered the bowels of St. Mary’s. Having consulted a steward to collect Dad’s hearing loop for the brilliant audio description service, we embarked upon our journey up the steps of St. Mary’s vocal heartbeat, ultimately reaching our regular spot. One thing that became instantly apparent was the lack of people in attendance which was somewhat disappointing considering the recent resurgence. Perhaps the cold and timing were enough to deter but the club even offered incentives such as money off next season’s season ticket if bringing additional friends/family etc. The home fans were not guilty alone, Palace, usually selling out their allocation religiously also faltered in this department, another eyebrow raiser when you take into account the famous win at Manchester City, as well as running Liverpool close at Anfield.
Unlike Mark Hughes’ constant chopping and changing, it appears as though Ralph has quickly identified the crux of his best team and this ability meant an unchanged line up from the home win over Everton. Danny Ings lead the line, with Redmond in support and a midfield featuring Ward-Prowse, Hojbjerg and Romeu sat in front of the usual defensive back three. Palace, no doubt buoyed by having knocked Spurs out of the FA Cup the previous Sunday were the first to threaten. Luka Milivojevic, The Eagles top scorer last season with 10 (7 penalties), an impressive return from Midfield, was proving troublesome with a series of deliveries. Saints dealt with the majority but a resultant corner was headed into the path of Sakho as Ings attempted to divert the danger but fortunately, it sped beyond the far post.
Young, inexperienced right back Valery was facing a stern test, matched up against Palace’s star man Zaha. The Ivorian international attempted to take him on down the left wing but he displayed a combination of excellent discipline and concentration to thwart the winger, nullifying the danger with a challenge timed to perfection. Milivojevic left his role of provider in the 13th minute, receiving the ball from Townsend on the edge of the box he got under the ball and subsequently, his effort cleared the bar by some distance. Zaha, always a threat, often garnered the attention of midfield enforcer Romeu and won a number of free kicks – to the tune of vociferous howling and hissing from the St. Mary’s faithful, adjudging his acrobatics somewhat melodramatic.
Zaha’s forward thinking presented an opportunity but again, the opening was spurned, McArthur this time blazing high into the Chapel Stand. Matt Targett went about combatting Palace’s forays and, enjoying a spell in the team in Bertrand’s continued absence, the local lad centred from a wide area but an Ings header sailed harmlessly wide. Fuelled by signs of attacking momentum, Ings demonstrated his impressive all around game, beating the physically imposing Sakho in an aerial dual before teeing up Hojbjerg. With yellow shirts onto him in a flash, the Dane was forced to strike first time and although a good connection, Guaita in the Palace goal kept out with a strong hand down low to his right.
Palace, fantastically organised under Hodgson and working tirelessly were making it hard for Saints, whilst also packing a punch of their own by way of the counter attack. With the majority of red and white shirts in an attacking position, Ayew gathered possession and drove forward, leaving Hobjerg in a particularly undesirable position. The Captain brought Ayew down and was shown a yellow card for his troubles. With the warning signs very much evident, Palace took the lead. Townsend saw his speculative effort blocked but it fell to the dangerous Zaha, who rifled home from outside the area, McCarthy no match for the shot’s pace as it beat the former Eagle at his near post.
After the restart, Saints immediately sought to reduce the arrears, Targett winning a free kick that just eluded the advances of the towering Vestergaard. Ings, looking sharp following a recent injury lay off, then fashioned a chance of his own, skipping past Tomkins in the opposing area before unleashing a shot from an acute angle. Guaita repelled however and Palace survived the period of pressure, moments later turning defence into attack, which lead to a caution for Bednarek who illegally stopped the advances of Zaha, proving more of a handful as the game wore on.
With the majority of players within the Saints engine room defensively minded, Hasenhuttl elected for a switch, Scot Armstrong entering the fray as a creative influence was viewed as a way back into the game. It didn’t take long for Armstrong to get involved, his eye for goal clear as he let rip from over twenty yards. The shot went wide but the intent was encouraging and certainly gave home supporters renewed optimism.
Schlupp, once a Premier League champion with Leicester, was introduced for Kouyate and the impact made was instantaneous. The versatile player, blessed with blazing pace, won a corner down the left. The delivery lead to a defensive mix up, the ball ultimately falling to Sakho who punted towards goal, only for Bednarek to display his exemplary instincts once more, thinking worst case scenario allowing the Pole to redirect off his own goal line. The defensive intervention proved pivotal in the game’s complexion as Saints sprang forward. Following build up play from Redmond and Armstrong, Targett hared down the left wing, making it to the by line before offering up a cut back. Ward-Prowse, now featuring in a wing back role following Valery’s departure, had been screaming for possession in the build up but his patience bore fruit. An excellent team move was capped off wonderfully, Ward-Prowse covering the length of the pitch to coolly side foot home for 1-1.
With parity restored, Saints looked to take the initiative, Armstrong going even closer, forcing Guaita into a save through another shot from distance. Townsend then had a very similar opportunity for the visitors but McCarthy replicated Guaita’s reflexes in the Palace goal. Moments later, bizarre scenes transpired, unlike anything I have ever witnessed before. Ward-Prowse challenged Zaha, the winger unhappy with the act which lead to a confrontation. Ward-Prowse appeared to play on Zaha’s fury, goading, which lead to the Palace talisman’s enraged reaction, batting Ward Prowse’s arm away. The gesture lead to a booking from referee Marriner, Zaha reacting by sarcastically applauding the official.
Quickly, yellow turned to red as Zaha appeared to lose the plot, continuing the sarcastic applause as he made a bee line for an early shower, whilst also seemingly directing a hand gesture at Saints supporters occupying the Northam, as the majority made their feelings known vocally. Having feigned to throw the ball at Zaha, JWP certainly wasn’t innocent but his response was somewhat justified for the Palace player’s completely over the top reaction, not that I’m biased at all. As Zaha was given his marching orders, Ward-Prowse celebrated justice having been done by punching the air, scenes that translated to the stands as the lad next to me offered an arm around my side in jubilation.
Admittedly Zaha is blessed with undoubted skill but I feel at 26, his petulant attitude seriously requires attention. It appears Zaha believes a bounty against him is in place, when in reality, other players with similar talents are subjected to precisely the same. Ultimately, football is a contact sport and for a player taking up a position that requires beating opposing players, heavy challenges (legal/sometimes illegal) are part and parcel. For his actions, I only hope that the FA punish Zaha, hopefully more severely than Austin who was handed a two game ban for ‘showing the v’s’ to the contingent of City supporters during the Champions visit to St. Mary’s in December.
Saints had one last chance to sneak maximum points, Armstrong’s surge forward blocked but having trailed for so long in a contest where an equaliser looked a hopeful prospect at most, I for one was grateful for a point. Although Saints bossed possession, chances were evenly shared and a defensively resolute Palace side will have been disappointed to concede so late, almost executing the perfect away performance for a valuable three points.
Thursday evening saw the close of the January transfer window and although whisperings of incomings, 11pm struck without any transactions, leaving Saints having to complete their campaign with the current squad in place. Judging by social media, many fans were unsettled by the lack of business, referencing a lack of ambition. Personally however, I think it’s more Hasenhuttl seeking the “perfect deal”, not being pressured into any unnecessary risky signings – perhaps aware of recent misfires including the likes of Boufal and Carrillo. Birmingham forward Che Adams was mentioned as a potential recruit. Blessed with pace and power, he reminds me of a young Troy Deeney and at 22, fits Ralph’s mould in continuing the youth trend.
However, with the Blues having an outside chance of making the playoffs and currently in the midst of a transfer embargo, manager and ex-Saints Gary Monk was no doubt reluctant to part ways with such a pivotal player. Rumour has it that the youngster is open to a switch to the South Coast and therefore, hopefully we can pounce in the summer. Above all though, rather than bolstering the team further, I’m just grateful that we’re fortunate enough to have a forward thinking manager with a clear vision in place. Hasenhuttl has already proven he’s capable of producing results with the current set of players and I’m confident in his ability in staving off relegation. I’m certain in the summer the squad will see an overhaul, with Ralph securing the services of an array of players that he has in mind.
On Saturday, Saints make the long trip up to Lancashire, Turf Moor to be precise to pit their wits against Burnley. The Clarets lead 2-0 at Old Trafford in the week, only to be pegged back late by a resurgent United side, still riding the wave of the managerial switch to club legend Solskjaer. In his pre game presser, Hassenhuttl mentioned how it is “more important we go unbeaten against these types of opponents” and I have to agree. Locked on 23 points, as is the case with previous opponents Palace, at this stage of the season it is imperative to ensure teams are kept within touching distance as the fight for survival continues. Providing a heavily snow dusted Wiltshire does not hinder, I will be up at the crack of dawn in order to make the supporters coach departure time of 7:15am from St. Mary’s. Without putting the kiss of death on it, hopefully new Clarets addition, skate and former Saint, Peter Crouch has no say so in the final outcome. See you north of the wall, Come on you YELLOWS!