Heading into Saturday’s crucial encounter with fellow strugglers Cardiff City in Wales, there was a certain sense of renewed optimism amongst the Saints faithful following the appointment of Ralph Hasenhuttl as new manager. The Austrian, renowned for his success in Germany, taking second division strugglers Ingolstadt up to the Bundesliga and guiding RB Leipzig to a second placed finish in the top flight, put pen to paper on a two and a half year deal midweek.
Normal serviced was resumed this week, with Mum ousted and just Dad and I making the trip to Wales. Thankfully, being relatively West based, Cardiff is only a short distance away. I was particularly grateful for this as I was in the Welsh Capital both Thursday and Friday for a gig, begrudgingly returning in order to ferry Dad across for the journey on Saturday.
Obviously travelling to Wales entails the use of the Severn Bridge and therefore, digging deep to cover the cost of its toll. Amazingly, after all this time, the fee is to be waived, although typically not until December 17th, long after our encounter with the Bluebirds. I’ve been stung by the charge on numerous occasions over the years, during trips to Swansea, Newport and Cardiff but for some unbeknown reason, I was possessed to do some research prior to departure. It turned out that Blue Badge holders, namely my Dad, are exempt from payment and upon presenting, the barrier was raised and onwards we headed. The let off didn’t make up for the countless previous incorrect charges but nevertheless, shrapnel had been freed up to cover the beers before kick-off.
Having withstood a depressing and drizzly start to the day, the forecast appeared more promising as Wales beckoned and the contrasting conditions lead to an impressive rainbow arcing over the Severn River as we crossed the link from England to so called ‘God’s Own Country’, sadly the more pleasant temperature was not to be a mainstay.
With the majority of the journey behind us, we soon entered Cardiff, passing the Principality Stadium en route, the scars of fifteen years ago reopened as I experienced a sudden bout of déjà vu.
That very stadium, although then named the Millennium, was the scene of 2003’s FA Cup Final, Arsenal fending off Saints by way of a solitary Robert Pires strike and thus, dreams were dashed after such a promising run. Sadly, moments after the final whistle had sounded, I was reduced to a mere sobbing statue in amongst a sea of yellow and blue, the support from the South Coast so magnificent an everlasting image was etched in my mind during that moment.
Back to the present and just a stone’s throw away is the imposing Cardiff City Stadium, home to, unsurprisingly, Cardiff City. A far cry from former base Ninian Park, the ground was opened in 2009 but has increased in capacity since my last visit, a 3-0 victory on Boxing Day of 2013. A Jay Rodriguez brace accompanied by a strike by the potent Rickie Lambert settled that particular match within the first 27 minutes. The arena itself was expanded in 2014 and in preparation for the hosting of the UEFA Super Cup, which pitted fierce Rivals Real and Atletico Madrid against one another.
With an upper tier added to the Ninian Stand, the current capacity stands just over 33,000, although oddly the seats in this section are garishly red, in contrast to the blue ones which fill the four original stands.
We sought out some on street parking roughly a fifteen minute walk from the ground and had plenty of time to spare before the game’s commencement, spending this devouring a bite to eat before taking a leisurely stroll around the local area. Unfortunately, unlike the confines of Fulham’s Craven Cottage, Cardiff’s equivalent is a lot less pleasing on the eye, grey and industrialised with copious businesses lining roadsides. Dad and I have a somewhat superstitious tendency of circling away grounds prior to entry, this task was once again carried out and ultimately lead us to the away section.
As is common practice for most grounds in the country, the turnstiles didn’t open until 1:30pm and therefore we had a short while to mingle with fellow Saints supporters. We crossed paths with another Father and Son duo who had travelled to Wales the night before, stopping over in a hotel just around the corner. We conversed, the topic unsurprisingly the new managerial appointment and both shared a positive opinion with regards to the board’s decision. Although they have been heavily criticised previously, and rightfully so, I believe they deserve a lot of credit for a true show of ambition/intent, opting to avoid the temptation of luring in a stop gap such as Moyes or Allardyce.
Hassenhuttl’s record speaks for itself but the way in which he conveys himself also provides solid hope for the future, this impressive attribute on show during his initial press conference. The Austrian’s ambition is clear for all to see but an element of being down to Earth shone through. With quirky remarks such as “if you want a guarantee, you have to buy a washing machine, there are no guarantees in football” and referring to Saints’ history and playing style suiting his perfectly, the former Leipzig man will no doubt endear himself to home fans.
Having allowed Dad to chew the ear off of another unsuspecting victim, the stewards ushered us inside and we took the opportunity to watch the second half of the day’s early kick off, with the concourse protecting us from the ever worsening elements. Bournemouth were trounced by high flying visitors Liverpool, a 4-0 rout in what could only be described as The Mo Salah show, the Egyptian sensation racking up a hat-trick. With just an hour until Saints got underway, it was time for the weekly routine of consulting Twitter to discover the starting XI, relaying the information to Dad in the process.
Ralph’s first team selection lead to instant pleasant surprise upon realisation that, promising youngster and Polish international, Jan Bednarek, jettisoned under Hughes, was to start alongside the towering Jannik Vestergaard. Obviously, it was well documented that the Welshman tended to persist with Wesley Hoedt despite a number of costly errors. Hastenhuttl, having only arrived at the club Wednesday, showed moxy and the assertion of authority by opting for Bednarek, along with a clear eye for talent. With Cedric suffering from a knock, Yan Valery deputised, Hojbjerg continued as captain and there were also starts for Armstrong, Austin and another long term absentee, Oriol Romeu.
We made our way into the stand, trying but failing to shield ourselves from the wind and swirling rain whilst climbing the steps to the top, where our seats were situated. The away fans were situated in a corner, with Dad and I directly behind a goal and over 2,000 made the trip from Hampshire. Not only in numbers, the support was impressive in terms of noise generated and once again, the Saints faithful did themselves proud, displaying unrivalled loyalty through even the toughest periods. There was the typical English/Welsh banter throughout, home fans could be heard ironically chanting “football’s coming home”, whilst one supported waved an Iceland flag for the duration, no doubt a mockery for England’s failings at the last Euro’s. Obviously the Welsh must have poor memories, having not even qualified for the summer’s World Cup.
Southampton began the affair brightly, Austin coming close with a couple of near misses as new man Ralph prowled up and down his technical area, keen to stamp his mark on the team quickly. The hosts, with Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Josh Murphy in attack, had pace in abundance and this was soon utilised as the tide turned, the former directing to on loan Bournemouth player Harry Arter, who could not get enough purchase on his effort to test McCarthy.
Soon after, the pressure was really mounting, Vestergaard all to easily grounded by Morrison, fortuitously for anyone of a red and white persuasion, makeshift striker Paterson was unable to trouble the Saints goal. In for Ryan Bertrand, home grown product Matt Targett was struggling and gifted possession to Mendez-Laing. Driving forward with gusto, fortunately the winger was thwarted by a perfectly timed Bednarek sliding challenge. Both the Pole and Spaniard Romeu showed incredible assurance, especially when considering the lack of game minutes in recent times.
Yan Valery, so impressive since his recent inclusion, was struggling mightily with the pace of Murphy and this ultimately took its toll, resulting in a booking following the take down of the former Norwich wide man. Sadly, Valery was withdrawn at the break with his under par performance clearly noticeable to the new manager but hopefully, the experience will have served as a learning curve for the Frenchman. Saints had a clear chance to take the lead just before the break, a corner crashing onto the bar before falling to Lemina, who unfortunately couldn’t get over the ball and blazed high, wide and not very handsome. Alex McCarthy saved well from Mendez-Laing, having bravely dived at Murphy’s feet earlier, the goalkeeper showing his worth and the reason for his recent England call up.
Having sustained Cardiff’s onslaught in the first half, Saints came out rejuvenated after the break and Armstrong was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty. His motion may have been slightly over elaborate but Camarasa certainly dangled a leg out, bringing the progress of the Scotsman to an abrupt end. Just as Saints seemed to be gaining control of proceedings, disaster struck, Vestergaard failing to execute a routine back pass to McCarthy, which saw Paterson alert enough to pounce and roll home.
The introduction of Jack Stephens for Valery nullified the threat from the right wing and Hassenhuttl rung further changes, introducing both Gabbiadini and Ward-Prowse to the action. However, the additional substitutions had little effect, with the home side still posing the greater threat and they held on for a vital win. When all was said and done, the statistics reflected a largely dominant display by the visitors, at least in terms of ball possession. However, a meagre one shot on target and such defensive frailty proved to be the downfall. Hopefully, with a full week of training for the new boss to get his ideas across, the team will be more moulded into his style next time out.
Whilst Friday night’s offering of Championship football saw West Brom host midlands rivals Aston Villa, just a few miles up the road from the Hawthorns, Saints Under-23s were in action at Villa Park. In a fairly even contest, it was the visitors who took the lead, Will Smallbone, with the help of a deflection off of a Villa defender, finding the target in a quiet first half. Unfortunately though, the advantage was not to remain in tact and Villa turned the game on it’s head after the break. Firstly, Saints were punished for ill-discipline, Hepburn-Muphy felled and he duly dispatched the resultant free kick. Having struck the crossbar, Villa were piling the pressure on and Saints rear guard relented with just two minutes remaining. Jack Clarke buried from close range to seal the victory, a killer blow for Saints who were surely worthy of a share of the spoils.
The youngsters did not have to wait long for an opportunity to put things right as they faced West Ham in the Under-23 International Cup at Staplewood. The competition founded in 2014, comprises of 12 English clubs, as well as 12 Europe based outfits and Saints are featuring in the tournament for the first time this season. UEFA actually tried to block the creation of the tournament and for this reason, all games are held on British soil.
With Saints on the brink of elimination, a win was vital in order to progress to the knockout stages and this was confirmed, with opponents West Ham brushed aside at Staplewood. Will Smallbone, with great work down the touchline, squared for Tyreke Johnson who made no mistake from close range. The home side doubled their lead within moments, Marcus Barnes, in a rich vein of form, burying a clinical pass from Slattery. At 2-0, the result looked all but confirmed but this was made certain, a howler from the West Ham goalkeeper, who somehow managed to mishandle Ferry’s corner, which ended up in his own net. 3-0 it finished and having toppled Dinamo Zagreb, as well as securing a draw against previous winners FC Porto, Saints will fancy their chances regardless of their opposition in the competition’s next phase.
There was no game this weekend for our Women’s side, the home fixture versus Woodley United postponed due to inclement weather, which made for an unplayable surface at Totton’s Testwood Stadium. The fixture will, however, be rearranged at a later date.
The first team feature at St. Mary’s this weekend, Arsenal the visitors for Sunday’s televised lunchtime encounter. Many were sceptical of The Gunners hopes for this season in the post Wenger era, but former PSG man Unai Emery is proving to be a shrewd appointment, the North Londoners unbeaten in 22 matches across all competitions. It was reported in the week that Hassenhuttl cancelled the players regular day off following defeat in Wales and both Romeu and Targett have been quoted commenting on the strenuousness nature of the training regimes the Austrian implements, hoping for a more pressing based style. Fingers crossed the disciplinarian approach has worked wonders and will have the team up for the fight come the first blow of the referee’s whistle on Sunday.