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DOUBLY DIFFICULT WEEK !

I first visited Craven Cottage on my 21st birthday.

Our Championship encounter with Leicester had been moved to the Monday for screening and therefore, with a free Saturday, Dad and I opted to take in Fulham’s entertaining of Newcastle. And what a decision it was, Fulham trailed at the break to a solitary goal from ex-Saint Danny Guthrie but that was soon to be cancelled out. A second half awash with goals saw The Whites topple the Magpies 5-2, American favourite Clint Dempsey bagging a hat- trick in the process.

 

My three journeys to ‘The Cottage’ since had all been for Saints fixtures, a boxing day stalemate, a particularly engrossing 3-0 victory which saw all three recent England call ups (Lambert, Lallana and Rodriguez) on the scoresheet and last but not least, this past January’s Third Round FA Cup tie settled by James Ward-Prowse’s finish. Obviously this meant I had never witnessed a Saints defeat within the historical ground beside the Thames, but, I guess all good things must come to an end.

 

Saturday’s match saw the sides cross paths for the first time in a good few seasons, Fulham, having been relegated but returned to the big time, securing promotion via the Championship play-offs last season. We left home at 10:30am and thankfully both the M3 and M25 were kind to us, far from a certainty and this lead to a routine journey up to South West London. A rarity on this occasion was Mum’s presence, a woman who historically has been more interested in fan spotting and dishing out sweets than the action itself. Admittedly though, she’s been brilliant in putting up with our Saints related shenanigans over the years. Therefore, I couldn’t really grumble about having to tolerate her joining us, even if part of my theory was that by okaying it, she’d potentially be less irate when Dad and I plan further escapades in the not too distant future (sorry Mum).

 

Upon arrival, I parked up roughly a twenty minute walk short of the ground, hoping to avoid the mass exodus come full time. Having quickly scoffed lunch in the car, I lead the way to Fulham’s long time home, a mixture of Google Maps and familiarity from previous visits ensuring I did so without faltering. Via the Thames Path, braving the arctic chill in order to witness a more scenic part of the Capital, with countless rowers and boats drifting by in the distance, we arrived and sought out the Johnny Haynes stand.

 

A myriad of red bricks, the structure itself is so picturesque, the fact it forms part of a football stadium is somewhat hard to fathom. Up next was a visit to one of the away ticket booths situated outside, collecting a radio and headset in order for Dad to listen to full commentary of the match. Whilst waiting, the Saints team coach arrived and parked up, having contested with the hoards of fans that had accumulated. Peering through the masses, I saw a glimpse of my heroes stepping off, everyone from Alex McCarthy to Nathan Redmond. Naturally, I narrated in order for Dad to keep track, though this was soon regretted. Upon realisation that Charlie Austin was venturing towards the players entrance, Dad decided to bellow our Blur’s infamous hit ‘Parklife’ after Charlie’s recent post-match rant, I should have known better.

 

With the players pre-game preparations well underway, it was time to make our way inside the Putney End, skipping queues by entering via side door as opposed to a traditional turnstile, Dad does have his uses. Having refreshed with a beverage or two in the concourse, I scanned our tickets before entering the stadium to locate our seats. Thankfully Dad managed as had been hoped, securing a spot roughly three quarters from the back of the stand, a perfect viewing point to witness all facets of play unravelling.

 

Following on from the #MySaintsStory piece Dad and I did with the club a couple of weeks back, having got in touch with us once more, Rich from the media team found us upon arrival at Fulham. Prior to going live on the Saints site, shots of Dad and I at a game were desired as the final piece of the puzzle and these were captured, thankfully in the run up to the game as I find it hard to believe we’d have appeared as buoyant come the end.

 

As Saints fans based out of Southampton, social media has provided a fantastic platform for myself and particularly Dad, via his computer speech software, to interact with fellow supporters. This has been illustrated countless times at various fixtures with a number of otherwise strangers, making the effort to greet us and discuss all things red and white. Precisely the same happened in West London, firstly, a chap from nearby Amesbury spotting us and traipsing up the stand for a natter. He acknowledged us by name, shook our hands and mentioned that similarly, he had travelled to the game with his Dad, no doubt another scenario where the Saintly passion has been passed down from generation to generation.

 

This was just the beginning as shortly after the action had got underway, I felt a tap on the shoulder. A man recognised us, explained that he was father to Ben Stansfield, host of the brilliant ‘Total Saints’ podcast and even wished Dad a happy birthday, recalling that it had recently passed. Finally and to top it off, I spotted a gentleman by the name of Clive, long time friend of Dad’s who even knew him prior to his sight loss. We’ve since become close and following one of our goals, I made a point to turn around, ensuring he shared in the celebrations with us. Football often receives such a bad press but the incredible way in which people are brought together by a common passion is hugely understated.

 

The game itself followed a similar pattern to many fixtures this season, early promise only to end with ultimate disappointment. Saints came out of the blocks sharply and dominated the affair, Stuart Armstrong, in only his third start opening his account by guiding a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. Despite dominating, Saints were pegged back, an unmarked Aleksandar Mitrovic guiding a glancing header past Alex McCarthy. Since his move from Newcastle to Fulham in January, no striker has racked up more goals in the English football pyramid than the Serbian and therefore, you would have hoped for Saints to pay closer attention. The visitors continued in the ascendancy, Gabbiadini and Lemina spurning opportunities, only for Fulham to take the lead. Whizz kid Ryan Sessegnon bamboozled Cedric before delivering a delicious ball to the far post, which former World Cup winner Andre Schurrle met to blast home.

 

After the restart, Alex McCarthy did magnificently in getting down low to repel Andre Schurrle’s strike, thankfully preventing Fulham from extending their lead. The stop proved pivotal when up stepped man of the moment, Armstrong, who picked out the top right hand corner with a rasping drive from distance. Having initially offered a rousing vocal backing, the voices of the Saints backing became prominent once more, the equaliser instilling renewed optimism. It is often said that teams are most vulnerable having just scored and unfortunately this proved to be the case. Wesley Hoedt lost possession on the left flank, allowing Sessegnon to flick on Cyrus Christie’s cross for the ever dangerous Mitrovic. The forward was once again afforded far too much room and volleyed with aplomb into the back of the Saints goal.

Despite Michael Obafemi and Moi Elyounoussi entering the fray, it was a case of too little too late as Fulham saw Saints off, claiming a first victory in ten Premier League contests. Understandably after being edged out in such a crucial fixture, further pressure has been heaped upon manager Mark Hughes and despite guiding the team to safety last season, I fear for the Welshman’s future. The fact that he persists with Wesley Hoedt despite numerous glaring errors, Charlie Austin, who’s replacement Obafemi made a bigger impact during a ten minute cameo than the former QPR man had managed all game, are both inexcusable. Lastly, the admission of Armstrong, scorer of a brace at Craven Cottage, from a side that lacks goals is nothing short of bizarre and you can’t help but feel decisions like these are increasing his likelihood of facing the axe.

 

Fortunately, other teams under the Southampton FC umbrella are yielding more positive results. The Under-23s travelled to East Anglia last week for a league fixture, hoping to claim maximum points in their pursuit of top spot. Unfortunately however, despite controlling the majority of the game, they were forced to settle for a point. A golden chance to claim victory was gifted late on as Enzo Robise was brought down in the area. Midfielder Calum Slattery stepped up to take the penalty and although well struck, the man between the sticks for Norwich did well to parry away down low.

So a point was claimed and although no doubt somewhat disappointed considering the manner of performance, any feeling of despondency will have been washed away following Wednesday’s trip to Nottingham to fact Notts County in the Premier League Cup. Both Will Smallbone and Tyreke Johnson secured hat-tricks in what can only be described as a mauling, the goalmouth bombardment culminating in a 7-0 win. Harry Hamblin opened the scoring for the visitors in the 23rd minute and during a crazy fifteen minute spell, the lead was stretched to 4-0. And so it remained until after the restart when further strikes were added by Smallbone (2) and Johnson (1) in a fixture that saw former first team regular Oriol Romeu gain vital playing minutes.

 

Last Sunday Southampton’s Women’s team put their unbeaten record on the line, welcoming Moneyfields to town. Obviously the points at stake were incentive enough but undoubtedly a little extra was added considering the visitors are based in the home of arch rivals, Portsmouth. In truth, the impressive record was never under threat as Saints ran out 4-0 winners. They were put into the lead after 20 minutes, Ella Pusey finding the bottom corner. Pusey then bagged a second and a hat-trick with her third, all before the interval. Georgie Freeland added a fourth minutes into the second half to cap off another resounding victory. Attention now turns to arguably the biggest game of the season, this weekend’s trip to MK Dons in the second round of the SSE Women’s FA Cup.

 

Back to first team matters and Tuesday saw a trip to Leicester for the rearranged Carabao Cup tie, previously postponed after the devastating helicopter crash, which lead to The Foxes’ owner sadly losing his life. In order to attend, I put in for a half day of leave at work and Dad and I embarked upon the journey just after 3pm. The weather was horrendous, some of the worst conditions I’ve ever contested with, driving rain leading to poor visibility and surface water in abundance.

Stuck in traffic near Oxford with only a few hours until kick off, things looked bleak but thankfully, congestion eased. Eventually arriving in Leicester with under an hour until kick off, traffic was causing havoc once more, with all routes into the city at a complete standstill. I use my phone for navigation but had been conserving data, eventually opting to switch this back on and the maps app came to the rescue, rerouting, meaning we were on the move once more. Taking the lesser trodden path to the King Power seemed a blessing at first, only for a build up of cars becoming prominent again as we neared. We took the executive decision to dump the car in a residential area and conquer the last mile on foot, panicking more so as we had to be at the ground between 7:20-7:30 in order to collect a headset for Dad. Somehow we pulled it off, Dad had been handed apparatus for commentary by a steward and we were at the back of the visitors corner, eagerly awaiting kick off which was just moments away.

With a busy festive period looming for both sides, understandably there were changes aplenty made by messers Hughes and Puel, the inclusion of young French Right Back Yan Valery for his debut, as well as a start up top for Michael Obafemi particularly exciting side notes.

Leicester struggled to cope early on with the pace of attacking trio Armstrong, Redmond and Obafemi, the latter unable to get enough power behind his shot to trouble the Leicester goal with twenty minutes on the clock.

Matt Targett picked out Vestergaard from a corner but the Dane was unable to direct his effort on goal. It has to be said that his inclusion, along with Yoshida and Stephens provided much more solidity to the back line, Jannik’s 6”7 frame in particular imposing as one would assume. Hopefully Hughes recognised this, putting the Hoedt love affair in serious jeopardy come Saturday. The Foxes attacking talents of Demarai Gray and Jamie Vardy were largely thwarted, youngster Yan Valery not looking out of place in the Starting XI.

0-0 at the break, Hughes was forced into showing his hand after Targett was withdrawn following a clash of heads. Cedric was introduced in his place. Saints had a golden opportunity to take the lead when Redmond’s blocked effort rattled off the crossbar and into the path of Obafemi. The Irish international was in prime position to slot home at the back stock with the keeper out of sight but could only guide wide.

Pierre Hojbjerg once again took the armband and for me is the absolute embodiment of a Captain, something I mentioned as a possibility some weeks back. Nothing against Ryan Bertrand but I hope Pierre continues in this role for the foreseeable future.

Vardy set Diabate away but the chance fortunately came to nothing due to the fantastic sliding effort by Stephens. With extra time having been scrapped in this season’s League Cup, the prospect of penalties became ever more likely, until, Nathan Redmond burst into the home side’s area. The ball found it’s way to substitute Steven Davis who found the back of the net, causing an eruption in the away end as the team surged towards the visiting fans to celebrate. However, the atmosphere soon became subdued after the goal was ruled out with VAR having been consulted. Ironic really, with the announcement of VAR use in next season’s Premier League following Austin’s infamous rant, Saints were undone by the technology.

The fixture was the first I had attended with VAR in play, fans regularly being informed of ‘checks in progress’ displayed on the big screen. The whole concept lead to a fair amount of humour in the stands, home supporters chanting ‘V-A-R’ when a decision went their way, the visitors firing the same back when the shoe was on the other foot. This, coupled with the fight shown, particularly from youth, lead to a more positive vibe in amongst Saints fans, a welcome change from the volatility that has become the norm of recent.

Gabbiadini came on for Obafemi and also clinched it in the dying embers, his free kick striking the crossbar. As feared though, Roger East blew his whilst and the tie went to a penalty shootout. The penalties were of an incredibly high standard, Fuchs almost obliterating the net with a thunderous strike before Gray cooly finished for the hosts. Davis, Hojbjerg and Redmond all converted but the towering Vestergaard toyed with nerves, his strike just finding the bottom corner, with Leicester’s keeper Danny Ward getting a glove to the shot. Cedric took the fifth and final attempt, blasting into the roof of the net. Vardy levelled to send proceedings to sudden death and up stepped Gabbiadini. Having almost secured safe passage into the next round moments earlier, confidence in his ability was high but the Italian’s effort was saved by Ward down low to his right and Mendy followed up by rifling home, sending Saints out of the competition after a promising display.

Attentions now turn to Saturday’s tea time kick-off versus Manchester United. United overcame Young Boys late on at Old Trafford in the Champions League earlier this week. However, the Red Devils were held by Crystal Palace on home soil last weekend and therefore, Saints will feel they stand a chance, stranger things have happened, right?!

 

Thanks,

Dan

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