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HUNTING ON TWO FRONTS!

With the vaunted man flu striking once again, a tactical substitution was made for Saturday’s drive to Leicestershire, Dad withdrawn for the much younger, spritely Cam, my sixteen year old cousin. In all truth, bereft of Christmas present ideas the plan was in the works long before but with Dad ailing, all worked out swimmingly in the end. When I’ve taken Cam to matches before, we’ve boarded the supporter’s coach from St. Mary’s but I decided to conquer the M1 myself this time around, leaving Cam somewhat disappointed, upon realisation that I would be unable to partake in his latest game download. At least, I hope it was that, as opposed to fearing my driving ability.

When it is the usual dream team of Dad and I during away days, we tend to plough on up to our destination without factoring a stop, preferring to get parked up and into a local pub with fellow ardent Saints supporters. However, Cam’s presence threw off the usual plan of action, superstitions thrown out the window. Of course, roughly an hour away from the King Power, he requested a McDonald’s pit stop for an essential sweet chilli wrap. How foolish of me to think otherwise, his consumption of said is more probable than Shane Long losing his composure at the vital moment – sorry Longy, this will be revisited further ahead. Still, I was treated to a hot chocolate and therefore, deemed the gesture a fair trade for slight disruption to our progress.

Upon arrival in Leicester, the first port of call was to hunt down a petrol station having exhausted my Polo’s fuel quota. Fancying myself as a bit of a knock off Martin Lewis, I always try to plan it so that I’m able to refuel up North because for some unbeknown reason, petrol’s significantly cheaper in those parts. Without Dad for the trip, the privilege of the hallowed disabled badge was lost and therefore, I took to Google in the week preceding the match in order to book a driveway. Hardly spoilt for choice but I managed to secure a space for under a fiver, purportedly just over a mile walk from Leicester’s ground. I had found the street which was home to the hotel leasing the space but, bottlenecked due to parked cars on either side of the road, the last leg of the journey was trickier than presumed.

Eventually the build up of traffic cleared and having travelled the length and breadth of Belvoir Drive, relief set in as the sought-after hotel was located. Happily parked, all seemed good and well until checking the on foot route to discover it was a two mile trek, double the initially anticipated distance. Still, the promise of seeing Saints in action outshone all else, although our spirits were quite literally dampened as the heavens opened just as we embarked upon the slog. Thankfully, some quick thinking allowed me to find a local boozer just a stone’s throw away from the King Power stadium. Brandished The Counting House, the pub itself has a very old school feel to it, somewhat Church like with a spire being part of it’s makeup. Welcoming both home and away supporters, featuring a fine selection of refreshments and more televisions than a scousers garage, I highly recommend a visit if you’re ever in the area.

With the early game reaching its climax, Arsenal continuing their slide with yet another defeat, this time at London rivals West Ham, I knocked back the last dregs of my Estrella before making the short walk to the ground. Upon reaching the ground, I suggested circling the King Power’s periphery, Cam was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped, the substantial pilgrimage from the car likely not helping but nevertheless, I was not taking no for an answer. The route allowed the taking in of features such as a large graphic in homage to The Foxes former owner, who tragically lost his life in the helicopter disaster last year and a touching memorial garden, an area for reflection, remembering those supporters who are sadly no longer with us. Last but not least and within the shadow of Leicester’s home, youngsters could be seen enjoying a kick around on a nearby concrete five-a-side pitch, no doubt looking to emulate their heroes just yards away from where they ply their trade.

The circuit now complete, we headed for the away corner, scanning our tickets before making a bee line for the turnstiles, clinking and clunking as we entered, nearing ever closer to the arena that would later see the action unfold in front of our eyes. Trudging up the countless steps, the luscious green of the turf at last became apparent, which we marvelled at prior to combatting the final spiral of steps, leading us to our spot up in the heavens, a mere five or six rows from the top of the stand, offering a perfect view for taking in proceedings.

In terms of the line up, somewhat surprisingly following on from his impressive debut at Stamford Bridge, Angus Gunn was left out with McCarthy resuming his spot between the sticks. With Maya Yoshida, heroic throughout the draw at Chelsea, away on international duty for Japan’s Asian Cup campaign, Jack Stephens stepped in, along with Matt Targett at left wingback. Devoid of attacking options with injuries to Obafemi, Ings, Austin suspended and Gabbiadini leaving for Sampdoria, Long was left with the daunting task of leading the line on his lonesome.

Saints, looking to get one up on former boss Claude Puel for the first time since his departure, started strongly and looked more like the home side. Saints applied pressure, Armstrong dragging a shot wide before a counter attack saw Redmond feed the aforementioned Scot, who was proving a threat, though this time his effort was deflected into the side netting by the retreating Mendy. Their endeavour was rewarded in the 11th minute when Long was cynically brought down in the area, allowing Ward-Prowse, enjoying a new lease of life under Hasenhuttl, to confidently rifle home into the top left corner.

Now being completely honest, due to his father’s persuasion, Cam himself is a QPR fan. However, the opener saw us rejoice in the moment, embracing one another before offering endless support vocally. Therefore, there’s a glimmer of hope in that he’ll one day see sense and convert to the correct team. Redmond, displaying renewed vigour proved too hot to handle for Maddison, the one time Saints target having his name enter the referee’s notepad by virtue of a drag back to thwart Nathan’s darting run. Not resting on their laurel’s, Saints continued to carry the greater threat, Stephens meeting a Ward-Prowse corner, only to be denied by Leicester’s Great Dane, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

Leicester then showed their first signs of life, Maguire heading wide from Chilwell’s cross before his centre back partner Morgan looked certain to score. The former Forest man’s powerful shot was well on its way to plundering the back of the net but for Bednarek to read the danger and repel the effort with an outstanding sliding block, leading to an incredible amount of passion displayed as the Pole celebrated with his teammates. Having survived that scare by the skin of their teeth, the pressure ramped up. Young fullback Valery, could have been sent off earlier in the contest, leading to a heated back and forth between him and Chilwell throughout the first period. However, already on a yellow, the Frenchman showed inexperience in pulling back Albrighton and Michael Oliver gave him his marching orders. I’m sure Valery will learn from the experience but obviously this meant an uphill battle for his teammates in attempting to hold onto their lead.

With just minutes until the break, you sensed it was critical that the advantage was held until the break but remarkably, against all odds, Saints grabbed a second. A route one approach saw McCarthy leather the ball deep in the area of Long. The Irishman, working tirelessly as ever, stole possession from Mendy before racing to the left byline and curling past Schmeichel from an incredibly acute angle.

After the half time stoppage, rather than making changes following the sending off, Ralph stuck with the remaining 10 players, Ward-Prowse shifting to the vacant wingback position. With Leicester underwhelming, Puel took a different stance, introducing the pace of Demarai Gray and power of Harvey Barnes, recalled just a day before following an impressive loan stint at West Brom. The Saints side were sitting incredibly deep, with the entire squad often compacted within a fifteen yard area. Admittedly initially I did question this approach from Hasenhuttl, doubting the ability to resist in such a way for the remainder of the game but the setup did reduce Leicester to predominantly long distance efforts, Maguire and Maddison opting for this ultimately fruitless approach.

On a side note, I can’t help but mention the father and young son that sat beside me. The young lad, only five or six years old, could be heard screaming enthusiastically throughout and every time he holder a chorus of ‘Oh when the Saints’, the chap behind me and I joined in. Propped up on his seat in order to witness the action (to the dismay of one particularly miserable Leicester steward), I overheard that the match was his first away trip and the lad was besotted with The Foxes stadium, stating that he wished Leicester could sell up in order for Saints to move in. His Dad’s unimpressed reply? “It’s exactly the same as St. Mary’s but with blue seats, you’re only saying that as it’s new to you”. I couldn’t help but chuckle, thinking back to when I was a nipper, visiting The Dell with Dad. Father and child relationships are what football is all about.

Back to the game and Leicester gave themselves a lifeline, Pereira squaring from a wide position for Ndidi to scrappily tuck away off his upper leg. Vardy, kept at bay up until this point desperately lunged, seeking a penalty but rightfully, nothing was awarded. The act was nothing short of disgraceful, yet, somehow the striker escaped a booking and little was made of the act following the match, leading many to conclude that the let off was purely down to his nationality. Vardy then threatened again but could only direct wide from Maddison’s cross.

Leicester continued to plug away, enjoying 92% of the possession but in large part, still restricted to half chances from distance, huge credit owed to Hasenhuttl’s implemented shape and organisation. Following on from his bow at Derby in the Cup, Slattery was handed a Premier League debut whilst Maddison tried but failed once more from range. Unbelievably, the unthinkable had almost been achieved but, the fourth official then excruciatingly signalled there were to be an additional four minutes to be played. Lanky forward Sam Gallagher entered the fray having returned from injury and Leicester urged goalkeeper Schmeichel to leave his post in order to attack a corner but ultimately, Ndidi’s header went wide of the left upright and Saints held on.

So a huge three points for Saints against all odds. I recall my first visit to the King Power very well, a 3-2 loss back in 2011. At the time, the result was seen as respectable, Saints being new boys following promotion to League One and Leicester, one of the title favourites with the injection of funds following takeover. In the subsequent 5/6 visits since, I had never seen a victory, the best a 0-0 draw but that all changed this past Saturday. I think Saints teams of past would have crumbled following the red card but the belief instilled by Hasenhuttl, coupled with ingenious tactics has completely rejuvenated the side. I think a mention to Matt Targett is a necessity also. The left back has received a lot of criticism of later but thoroughly proved his worth at Leicester. Ultimately he’s one of us, a Saint from birth, played a big part in The Cottagers promotion last season and clearly has ability.

It wasn’t just a good weekend for the first team, as our Under-23s made the long trip to Teeside for the visit to Middlesbrough. The hosts started the stronger of the two sides and it paid dividends when Liddle struck a free kick that curved over the wall, the trajectory of which allowed it to dip under the bar before nestling in the top corner. Saints responded well, Vokins surging forward from his fullback spot and teeing up Johnson, who narrowly missed the target with a lobbed effort. Goalkeeper Cull kept Saints hopes alive shortly after, repelling Reading’s shot from distance onto a post, before repeating the feat, alertly diverting Coulson’s effort onto the woodwork.

Saints were hanging on and the swirling winds of the North were severely interfering with play. The visitors made it to the break without suffering further damage and came out a completely changed outfit, perhaps boosted by the wind which was now behind them. Barnes, off the back of his first team debut at Derby the previous week, skinned his man down the right wing before setting up Afolabi for a first time finish. Now going toe to toe with Boro in the midfield engine room, Saints also were creating more opportunities in the top half of the pitch and this lead to Johnson being brought down in the opposing area with just over 10 minutes to play. Tyreke bravely took himself and made no mistake, putting the ball under goalkeeper Brad Jones. Saints hung on for a big three points and find themselves joint top of the division, only second by way of Reading’s superior goal difference.

Last but certainly not least, our women were in action, visiting Wargrave for a League Cup Quarter Final tie. Similarly decked in the historic yellow and blue, however, this is as far as the comparisons went as the ladies thoroughly outdid the men whilst in cup action. In truth, the home side never stood a chance, Saints putting in yet another dominant display in routing Wargrave 9-0 on their own turf. The ever dangerous Chloe Newton helped herself to a hat-trick, before even half an hour had elapsed. The Saints star showed her versatility in bagging two composed finish, with the other strike a lashed volley into the roof of the net.

Newton netted once more, before Rachel Wood racked up a brace before the half-time interval. Caitlin Collaghan joined in the fun after the break, tallying two herself, before the deadly Newton found the back of the net once more for a remarkable fifth. Next week sees a clash with bitter rivals Portsmouth in the Hampshire Cup Semi-Final, let’s hope for a similar outcome in that fixture.

After scuppering a two goal lead at Pride Park, Saints were forced to a replay in the FA Cup Wednesday night, meaning a bonus match to discuss. As much as I deem night matches under the bright LED lights of St. Mary’s special, getting to them can be a chore, particularly with work commitments and having to travel from the other side of Salisbury. Thankfully the company where I’m currently based allowed me to sacrifice part of my lunchtime in order to leave at the earlier time of 5pm, affording a bit more leeway prior to the game’s commencement.

Mum dropped Dad off at my office’s car park, not stealthily whatsoever as he blasted out Oasis’s ‘Stop Crying Your Heart Out’ from the radio’ and as soon as the clock struck five I belted out of the door and we were on our way to Southampton once more. In the early stages of the journey, I could hardly contain my excitement and soon had to reveal my mad hat idea to Dad. You see, usually for night games, a McDonald’s visit is a key fundamental but having sampled almost their entire menu in recent weeks, I felt as though change was in order. A while back I came across a German bar situated in the city centre online and secretly booked a table.

Excited by the prospect of a Bratwurst and stein of beer, Dad was thoroughly on board on with the plan and with our stomach’s resembling the whaling wall, arrival on the South Coast could not come quickly enough. However, typically, the plan did not go without a hitch as we met torrid traffic in Salisbury. This delay meant a parking change, diverting from our usual spot at Southampton Central and instead, heading for the Itchen Rowing Club. Thankfully I’m familiar, my Godparents who used to offer lifts down to St. Mary’s many years ago before my driving ability set in would religiously use, plus its car park is closer to the ‘Stein Garten’ bar. 

Having finally waded through the traffic, the time was approaching 6:30pm and having consulted Google Maps to discover the walk to our eatery of choice was 20 minutes, a semblance of panic crept in considering the 7:45pm kick-off. The prospect of German sausage and a wheat rich golden pilsner was too much and therefore, undeterred, we marched full throttle to our destination. Arriving with an hour before the game was due to get underway, we felt quietly confident, especially having opted for a no-nonsense approach, immediately plumping for two standard bratwursts and a couple of pints of house beer. If you’re a fan of the Bavarian environment, I cannot recommend Stein Garten highly enough, littered with various German paraphernalia including flags, every size of stein under the sun, the rear of a BMW built into a wall and most impressively, the ceiling designed like the upper of a traditional Munich beer tent for that authentic feel.

Settling down at our red and white cloth laden table, the experience got off to a promising start, with our crisp and refreshing beers brought to us within minutes. After the expedition to locate the bar, the beers inevitably disappeared in no time at all but with time ticking away, Dad was growing antsy. Just about managing to avoid reacting to his wittering’s, our food arrived roughly half an hour later. In fairness to the service, it was particularly busy but this obviously meant a man vs food like challenge as we were on the clock, forced to demolish our chips and hot dogs swiftly. We did so but with time against us and being situated in an unfamiliar part of Southampton, the odds of making the game on time were slim.

Off we surged, braving the risk of indigestion as we pelted past the Itchen Bridge, beside St. Mary’s Church (where Saints came into existence back in 1885) and down the final stretch, over a leg of the railway track until finally, the stadium, looking impressive as ever as it illuminated the night sky, came into sight. After our tickets had been scanned, we had been located by a steward with Dad’s receiver for Audio Commentary (Props to the club, who monitored our stadium entry and had us hunted down upon turning up), we had finally made it to our regular spot in Row BB of the Northam, with a minute to spare. First impressions having reached our seats was how scarcely populated St. Mary’s was. Admittedly, it was a cold, drizzly night, with the match live on BBC One but tickets were cheap and obviously readily available. I think it was disappointing considering Derby managed to bring over 800 from the East Midlands but perhaps my mentality of ‘support you team no matter what’ is one that is largely dying out.

Hasenhuttl made changes but, likely learning from the disappointing first contest, resisted overdoing it on that front and elected for just five alterations. Youngster Tyreke Johnson was handed a debut, Ralph continuing with the youth trend, Kayne Ramsay also received a second start. Opposite number Lampard, overseeing wins at Old Trafford and an impressive showing at former club Chelsea in the League Cup this season, certainly will not have lacked confidence heading into the tie.

Waghorn, once a Saints target, had the game’s first chance but Gunn dealt with the effort. Jack Stephens then responded, getting on the end of Ward-Prowse’s corner but unfortunately was unable to get over the ball and his header sailed over the bar. Tyreke Johnson, full of energy and gusto, delivered for Long but was denied by a fantastic reaction save by Roos in the Derby goal. Lampard, in his first managerial position, has The Rams playing free flowing football and this was soon put into practice. Wilson moved on for Mount, who lacked composure and blazed over as the boos rained down on the former Portsmouth youngster.

VAR made its debut at St. Mary’s and it soon played a part in proceedings. It seemed certain that the visitors had taken the lead, some more neat build up leading to Bryson storming into the Saints area and finishing Waghorn’s pinpoint pass. However, after the vocal celebrations from Derbyshire voices had sounded high into the cold night sky, confusion followed, the referee static in the middle of the pitch, play not resuming and at this precise moment, the message ‘VAR check in progress’ was beamed across the big screens. Ultimately, referee Anthony Taylor deemed Waghorn to have held an offside position, offering Saints a reprieve. Personally, I think that VAR will be good for the game, particularly considering that so much rides on matches that are often marred by erroneous decisions, our safety last season could have quite easily be undermined by certain calls, Doucoure’s blatant hand ball at Watford denying Saints all three points comes to mind. However, it is very much in its infancy and the process will undoubtedly become more streamlined with heavier implementation in the coming years.

Johnson, who I thought put in a promising display, showing true hunger, was unlucky to be withdrawn at the break but Hasenhuttl clearly sought a game changer in Redmond and someone had to be sacrificed. Saints reverted to a back four and soon reaped the benefits of Nathan entering the fray as he stung the hands of Roos, following Gunn thwarting Keogh and Wilson at the other end. Shortly after Saints found themselves in front, Elyounoussi, once again struggling to make an impact, this time got his head up in the opposition area and floated a hanging cross to the back post. Initially, the delivery was headed off the line by Malone but Armstrong was alert to head in from close range.

Just two minutes later, Stephens, showing off his impressive ball playing attributes, split the heart of the Derby side with a highly accurate pass which found Redmond. The forward drew the goalkeeper out of his goalmouth before dinking over the onrushing keeper with aplomb to give Saints one foot in the next round of the competition. However, with minds shifting to a long trip to Accrington, Cedric fouled Bogle on the edge of the area and the resultant set piece was whipped into the bottom left corner by the gifted Wilson. It went from bad to worse, the nightmare of the first encounter repeating as Saints woeful home form reared its ugly head once more. Wilson, heavily involved again, drove the ball in from a wide position for an unmarked Waghorn to powerfully bury with his forehead. With Extra Time looming, Lawrence wasted a golden opportunity to avoid the extra 30 minutes, heading over when it looked easier to score, before Redmond’s darting cross slid across the face of the goal, Elyounoussi just inches away from connecting.

With the aforementioned openings going begging and after a gruelling shift put in by the team at Leicester, somehow surviving with 10 men, the contest reached the dreaded Extra Time. Recent debutant Slattery came on to make his St. Mary’s bow, replacing scorer of the opener, Armstrong. The first period saw a stalemate but Lawrence had another headed opportunity after the short break but was again unable to find the target. Speaking of Targett, the born and bred Southampton fullback replaced Ramsay who was suffering from cramp before the referee blew to signal the end of the game, meaning a third penalty shoot out of the season for Saints.

Ward-Prowse, Vestergaard and Targett all found the back of the net with their spot kicks but sadly Redmond put his effort wide, shifting momentum to the visitors, Keogh stepping up, with the captain confirming his side’s passage into the next round. Admittedly, I’m disappointed not to be heading to Accrington but I think there were positives on the night. Particularly, Ralph’s continued blooding of youth, with Ramsey, Johnson and the returning Gallagher all featuring. Additionally, he may have missed the decisive penalty but the confidence exuded by Redmond upon being introduced was amazing and testament to the hard work he has put in. Derby are a good side, littered with young, technically gifted players and I think if they secure a play-off spot, they’ll have a genuine chance of promotion this season.

So with elimination from the FA Cup confirmed, full focus now on the league campaign and retaining our Premier League status. Saturday sees the visit of Marco Silva’s Everton, currently sitting in tenth place. As was the case at Hull and Watford, the beginning of his reign started promisingly but has since petered out somewhat, The Toffees, losing heavily at home to Spurs, a single goal saw Leicester gain maximum points and they were also on the wrong side of the same result at Brighton. With this in mind, Saints will fancy their chances, attempting to arrest their unimpressive home form. However, with a worsening crisis in the striker department, Long leaving Wednesday’s game with a knock, that task has grown increasingly difficult. With no whisperings of transfer activity in that department and Hasenhuttl stressing that changes will be required on Saturday considering the exhaustion entailed from the visit to Leicester and 120 minute graft at home to Derby, there’s a strong likelihood that youth will be afforded a chance to shine again. Hopefully Gallagher and possibly Marcus Barnes can prove their worth and stake a claim for more regular playing time in the coming weeks.

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