Sunday’s trip to Manchester saw a change to the normal procedure with Dad dropping out, my friend Maria drafted in to replace. I may well have touched upon this before but Dad often feels bad for leaving Mum on her lonesome during the weekend and therefore, he saw no alternative, though I refrained from overly scolding him as in fairness, he had recently secured tickets for us both to the upcoming trips to Brighton and Watford. Maria, a fellow Saints supporter, who I met a few years back through Twitter was happy to fill in – as she has done multiple times in recent seasons. With our chances looking bleak away to an in form United side, seemingly reborn under Ole, I decided to make a weekend of it and another Twitter acquaintance, Aydin, came to the rescue. Originally from the Isle of Wight, Aydin moved to Lincoln as a teen, his Saints affiliation remaining intact. Now residing in Manchester for University, Aydin kindly offered a place to rest my head for the night and I duly obliged.
Under strict orders from Aydin to arrive in good time purely to squeeze some likely well needed drinking in prior to the match, Maria and I left Wiltshire behind at 7am sharp and with roads scarcely populated at such an early hour, we lived up to our half of the bargain, a couple of toilet breaks not hindering, leading to a fairly decent arrival at 11:30am. Parking up on the main road, I quickly made Aydin aware of our close proximity before a stab at my best pack mule impression, juggling bedding and bags whilst trying to avoid being mowed down in attempting to cross and meet the house on the other side of the road. We piled inside the shared terraced house, relievedly throwing our belongings down before hopping onto the wi-fi, having not checked phones since leaving home in the early hours of the morning – millennials eh?
Aydin kindly offered a well deserved can of cider before we were introduced to a couple of his mates. One, another long suffering Saints fan but based in Lincoln, it’s pleasing to know that the support for our beloved team stretches beyond the constraints of Hampshire’s border. Ed’s Dad grew up down South and his Grandparents currently reside in Eastleigh, therefore, Saints ties were never far away. As a youngster growing up it was made clear that rooting for Saints would never be forced upon him and with a contingent of family Nottingham based, Forest were a viable option. However, Ed deemed the Hampshire based outfit as the team for him and he makes the effort to attend games, understandably predominantly away from home due to his location.
Aydin’s other friend was of a United persuasion, always a controversial talking point. However, he was nice as pie, welcoming as could be and not only that, a genuine Manc – born and bred. He knew his football, clearly attended United games home and away and in all truth, living in the South of the country myself, it was refreshing to come across a genuine Red Devils supporter as opposed to the usual glory hunting plastic variety we are used to. Having discussed one another’s fortunes and thoughts on the afternoon’s encounters, it was time to arrange an Uber and head into the city centre for some further whetting of the whistle.
Trusting Aydin’s recommendation, we arrived at a sports bar,
unsurprisingly littered with a predominantly United based clientele,
sparking confused looks as we proudly entered in Southampton yellow.
Aydin took the plunge, approaching the bar to get the first round in
and my tipple of choice saw no dithering, a refreshing jar of Czech
Staropramen, a beverage first discovered during our heady Europa
League days and a visit to Prague to face Sparta – a trip in which
the beer swilling was much more memorable than the football itself.
Some of the group elected to partake in a game of pool, I shied away,
unwilling to expose my lack of prowess with a cue and instead opted
to take in the day’s early offering, the North London derby between
Tottenham and Arsenal, beamed on countless televisions throughout the
With time cracking on, we collectively made the decision to seek out another watering hole before heading to Old Trafford and ended up in a Wetherspoon’s, understandably packed to capacity being both a Saturday and matchday – not to mention the offering of countless drinks at great value. Having sampled a local ale, a must with nerves creeping in due to the line up announcement now just minutes away, we departed and sought out a tram (to this day an absolute novelty as a Southerner) that would guide us the three miles to Old Trafford. Yet again outnumbered, we survived swathes of United supporters swaying the carriage whilst pelting out their newly formed chant “Ole at the wheel” at the top of their lungs – the terrace anthem is to the tune of The Stone Roses hit ‘Waterfall’ and is irritatingly catchy.
After 10 minutes or so, the bright red of Old Trafford cricket ground’s new pavilion became apparent through the tram’s glass and it was time to hop off. Upon the short walk from the stop adjacent from the cricket ground, the majority of our group made their way ahead, unable to control their urge to reach the ground with the pre-game excitement now fever pitch. During this time, I was intercepted by a United fan in his later years. He had obviously picked out my Southampton shirt, approached for a conversation and although I think the gentleman was well intentioned, it was impossible to get a word in edgeways and he made an array of questionable statements. None more so than “I find it ironic how Southampton fans complained about refereeing in the 2017 League Cup Final after the offside winner in ‘76”. Clearly countless trophies since have failed to ease the bitter taste but I resisted biting back, we wished one another well for the remainder of the season and continued our march towards The Theatre of Dreams.
With an overwhelming capacity of just shy of 75,000, the compact
surrounding streets were heavily populated with supporters but on we
surged, ducking and diving past favourite stop offs such as The
Trafford Pub and United Café – proudly displaying its sale of fish
and chips, undoubtedly drizzled with gravy, a staple of life up
North. Aydin diverted via a booth to purchase a programme, a pastime
long since given up by myself due to becoming overrun back home
before finally, the behemothic structure that is Old Trafford stood
before our very eyes. Ed and Maria in particular were left a gasp at
the sight as we looked toward the East Stand, the legendary figure of
former United boss Matt Busby in statue form, stood proudly at the
bottom of the largely glass dominated stand, looking over the car
park in which the Saints supporters coaches were situated.
We entered the ground and found ourselves in the visitors section situated in a corner between the South and East stands. Aydin’s United supporting mate gave his opinion that the “away area at Old Trafford offers the best view in the Premier League” and in truth, it was hard to argue, an unrestricted view of the action, encased by old fashioned stands steeped in history – including the world renowned Stretford End, whilst the opposite North Stand gave an air of impressiveness, the flags of a whole host of nations stationed in its top rippling on a blustery Lancashire afternoon.
In terms of the side entrusted for the day, Hasenhuttl opted to stick with the exact same XI who secured a vital three points against Fulham in midweek. Gunn remained in goal, whilst attacking responsibilities were left to Austin in a lone role, as Saints looked to test the grit of a United side who had won 12 of their last 15 matches under the stewardship of Solskjaer. That run naturally meant that the team was far from short of confidence and it showed as the visitors were forced to weather an early storm. Lukaku, always a menace when playing Saints regardless of the side he represents, was providing to be once more. First, Gunn got down well low to his left to tip an effort around the post before the former product of arch rivals City thwarted the Belgian from close range after an in swinging corner.
Saints responded with a golden opportunity of their own to take the lead. James Ward-Prowse, long renowned for his set piece precision, picked out towering Centre Half Vestergaard. The great Dane was uncontested but failed to direct the headed effort on target and it sailed harmlessly over De Gea in the United goal. The experience and attacking outlet provided by Ryan Bertrand had been sorely missed in recent months and his reintroduction meant hell for the United backline. The Left Back stormed down the left wing, played in behind by Redmond and getting the better of Smalling. The United Centre Back saw no other option than to stop the momentum illegally, resulting in a clear shirt tug as Bertrand penetrated the box. Stuart Atwell, however, was having none of it and a strong appeal for a penalty was waved away.
Saints could easily have lost their focus, feeling aggrieved after the previous decision but this turned out to be far from reality and the visitors took the lead in the most incredible fashion. Austin, a lot brighter in the last couple of outings, held up and spread out to Valery in a pocket of space on the right. The Frenchman took a touch and only had one thing on his mind as he unleashed an unstoppable rasping drive that ended up in the top right hand corner of the net, almost de-gloving De Gea as it shot past the United goalkeeper. The drive from a full 25 yards eluded former Saint Luke Shaw in the process and brought back memories of Nathaniel Clyne’s thumping strike in a League Cup triumph at the Emirates some seasons ago – there’s something about a Saints right back bagging thunderbolts on the biggest of stages.
The man in the middle, Atwell, was continuing his poor performance in awarding United a corner, though there was no touch from Bertrand. The set piece almost resulted in disaster for Saints as Shaw centred for Lukaku, only for Rashford to nab it off his toe and the chance went begging. Every time United surged forward, it seemed as though Lukaku was their best bet of getting back into the game but his next sniff of goal saw Vestergaard fantastically intervene to ensure that a Sanchez cross came to nothing. Pereira then whipped a delivery in but Lukaku could not get enough purchase on his header. Another corner posed a threat, Smalling’s downward effort skewing away from the goalmouth only for Rashford to keep alive but Bertrand remained alert to slide in and prevent Lindelof who was stood waiting to pounce.
Bertrand, coming off some crucial defensive work was then involved once more at the other end of the pitch. A barnstorming run gave veteran Ashley Young all he could handle and the former Villa man appeared to lay his hands upon Ryan, leading to a tumble but yet again, the referee was not interested. After the break, after some likely stern words from Solskjaer, United appeared more determined than ever to claw their way back into the contest and Dalot, on in place of Sanchez who had picked up an injury, delivered for Rashford in a forward position. Fortunately, from a Saints perspective though, the English youngster could only nod wide from 6 yards.
Just when everything United tried in an attacking sense appeared to be failing, the home side found themselves on level terms, with the match featuring yet another sublime finish. Pereira eyed up the top corner from a similar distance to what Valery had in the first period, before curling a precise effort that initially appeared to be headed wide, only to tuck back in at the last and bulge the net. It went from bad to worse for Saints, Pereira this time turning provider. The Brazilian picked out Lukaku in the area, who cut inside centrally before picking out the bottom right corner with a guided effort.
Having lead the contest for a sustained spell, only to relinquish quickly at the start of the second half, you feared an implosion but incredibly, Hasenhuttl’s charges responded positively, Ward-Prowse finding Hojbjerg who blazed over, the Dane’s body language confessing disappointment in the effort. However, it didn’t overly matter a few short moments later when the recently introduced Armstrong found himself upended by Young. Ward-Prowse stood over the free-kick, 25 yards from goal before casting his spell over the ball, contorting it into a postage stamp sized area of De Gea’s left upright.
The strike was of perfection, impossible for the United goalkeeper to get a fingertip to, whilst the game’s ongoing theme of gunning for ‘goal of the month’ continued. In the aftermath, Ward-Prowse wheeled away to the corner housing the visiting support, doing his best Gabbiadini impersonation as he knee slid toward a corner flag. As you may imagine, the away section erupted, limbs flailing left, right and centre, one bloke even hurtled down the gangway, thankfully remaining on his feet – not that he’d have cared too much considering the quality of goal and lifeline in a game that appeared to be drifting away.
Valery, who’s opener seemed so long ago, bundled forward and centred for Ward-Prowse but unfortunately, the delivery just eluded the midfielder who was in search of his sixth goal of 2019. However, having seemingly salvaged at least a point, disaster struck when Lukaku managed to find the bottom corner once again with a low strike, breaking Saints hearts with just a minute of regulation remaining. The final score almost worsened, which would have been extremely harsh on the visitors, when Atwell pointed to the spot. Up stepped Pogba, who went down the middle but Gunn managed to repel with his legs, keeping the score line respectable. I was happy for Gunn, impressive on the day, especially during the initial United siege and he certainly did his chances no harm as he aims to make the number one shirt his own next season. However, ultimately, the outcome meant a long journey back to Hampshire with nothing to show for it as The Red Devils saw out the victory.
So in all, a hugely promising display, arguably the best since Hasenhuttl arrived on the South Coast but unfortunately, no points to show for it. Saints showed fantastic resolve to remain competitive in the contest, even after relinquishing their lead and it was refreshing to see a largely younthful side go to Old Trafford with no fear and get at a team packed with world class talent. Standouts for me included Ryan Bertrand, whose experience and eagerness to bomb forward is pivotal when deploying a 3-5-2 formation that lacks natural width. Jannik Vestergaard, written off by a few after a difficult start to life in English football, was dominant, a brute who uses his leverage and strength to bully attackers. I don’t think it is coincidental that since the departure of Hughes and installation of Ralph, along with his familiarity with Vestergaard from his time at Bundesliga giants Monchengladbach, that we are beginning to see the best of the Danish giant.
Pierre Hojbjerg was solid yet again, running the show in the midfield engine room and he continues to make the captaincy his own with every passing game. Personally though, my man of the match was Yan Valery. Not only because of his thunderbolt goal that opened his account for Saints but defensively, he was excellent, refusing to back down against stalwarts such as Pogba and Rashford, getting stuck in for the duration of the 90 minutes. Of course, when initially introduced to the side, there were teething problems but that is to be expected with a young player and Ralph’s faith is being rewarded as the 20 year old’s confidence grows with each appearance. Following the game, although proud of his players, Hasenhuttl understandably lamented the refereeing decisions, commenting “There were a few crucial things I think. In the first-half, two times we could have had a penalty. The second goal was offside, which isn’t easy to stand”, along with “To be proud is one thing but when you wake up tomorrow and you feel that you lost, nobody asks how you lost. It’s like every manager doesn’t like to lose and we had a big chance but it was not enough.”
The women’s side saw their trip to Barton Rovers for a league contest postponed due to a water logged pitch and will have to wait until this Sunday for their next action, when fourth placed Woodley United are the visitors to AFC Totton’s Testwood Community Stadium. However, the previous Friday saw the Under 23s welcome Reading to Staplewood for a top of the table clash in the Premier League 2. Saints started the affair brightly, earning four quick corners, whilst livewire Nathan Tella saw one effort ricochet off the bar before another flew agonisingly wide.
Reading responded though, Olise’s effort just wide of Forster’s upright before Saints transformed defence into attack via Kayne Ramsay. Hamblin picked out a pinpoint pass from a deep position, which found the full back but Boyce-Clark in the Reading goal was equal to the effort. Both sides were clearly gunning for three points, Saints attempting to sneak in behind the Reading backline but Boyce-Clark, privy to the blazing pace of Tella, alertly gathered to prevent the danger.
Although the teams headed into the break deadlocked at 0-0, spectators did not have to wait long for the game’s opening goal, Saints taking the lead early into the second period. Ramsay was becoming more of a threat as the first half drew to a close and after another foray forward, he laid off for Afolabi in a wide position. The striker whipped a delivery in, Odimayo failing to adequately deal with and Tyreke Johnson was there to pounce and subsequently stab home for 1-0. Afolabi, strongly involved in the first, looked to aid the side in their pursuit of another, hooking over the top for Tella but his eventual half volley was dealt with by Boyce-Clark in the Reading goal.
Reading attempted to answer back but Barrett’s tame free kick did no damage and the hosts continued to boss proceedings, until, Ramsay misjudged, a momentary lapse in concentration lead to the conceding of a penalty and a potential route back into the game for The Royals. Frost converted, sending the man mountain Forster the wrong way and out of nowhere, the side currently chasing Saints in the table were back in it. And just 10 minutes later, Reading were ahead. The Saints rear guard fell asleep, allowing Pendlebury to snatch the winner. Alfie Jones was beaten all too easily down the left by Barrett and the ball broke to Pendlebury who made no mistake in smashing home from 20 yards. Despite the loss, Saints remain in pole position in the pursuit of promotion back to the Premier League 2’s First Division, Wolves, our next opponents on Friday, held on the night by Middlesbrough and therefore the gap has been narrowed to 2 points.
The youngsters did not have long to
wait to arrest the undoubted disappointment as Villareal visited
Staplewood for a Premier League International Cup Quarter Final
clash. Up against a very experienced side, fully capable of spraying
the ball around in that typical Spanish ‘tiki-taka’ style, it was
always going to be a tough task. The Spaniards started strongly,
enjoying long spells of possession but in truth, the majority was in
front of the Saints back four and failed to cause too many problems.
The blistering pace of Tella tested Villareal’s resolve, Saints
having conserved their energy, sitting off and selecting precisely
when to strike. The forward, back to goal, was upended in the area
which lead to the awarding of a penalty. Smallbone stepped up, making
no mistake as he rifled into the top corner to hand Saints a crucial
Saints could feel somewhat fortunate to hold a lead as they had been largely under the cosh, albeit without goalkeeper Harry Lewis being tested too strenuously. However, that all changed in the 59th minute when Alvarez managed to sneak in behind and lob over the helpless Saints stopper. Not deterred, Saints responded by way of attack and just two minutes later were rewarded as the lead was regained. Smallbone delivered deliciously towards the back post where Captain Tom O’Connor resided and the ball rebounded off him and into the back of the net.
Undoubtedly Saints had planned to see out the game as comfortably as possible but the game heated up and made the possibility nye on impossible. Christian Norton, a second half substitute was given his marching orders having been adjudged to have elbowed Blanco, the decision leading to a fracas between the two sets of players. The referee blew the whistle shortly after, cementing a historic night for Southampton’s reserves but the explosion of emotion failed to go down well with the Spaniards, leading to N’Lundulu also seeing red, as well as Blanco for Villareal. Although the scenes at full-time were a shame, they could not detract from a magnificent victory, all the more impressive when considering their opponents had recently slammed seven past Liverpool in the final group game.
Returning to First Team matters, Tottenham are the visitors to St. Mary’s Saturday as Saints are forced to pit their wits against another top 6 side laden with talent. Spurs will likely be buoyant having progressed to the next round of the Champions League midweek, securing a 1-0 win in Dortmund after a 3-0 triumph in the first leg. The North Londoners have also recently welcomed back prolific striker Harry Kane to side, however, having said that, their league form has only seen one point accumulated from nine – a loss at strugglers Burnley included within that period. Looking back to the same fixture last season, Saints secured a point, debutant Obafemi going close to snatching all three. If the side are able to replicate their performance at Old Trafford, I see no reason why the same outcome, or even better, should not be possible. Thanks for reading as always and I hope to hear you all loud and proud at St. Mary’s on Saturday. COYR!