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Sheepish Saints

Having gotten a little too carried away with a morning FIFA session, Dad was left furiously pacing the living room in anticipation of our departure as the clock approached 12:40 – ten minutes behind our usual schedule. Already playing catch up, I received a phone call just moments after exiting the village. Rudely interrupted was our Stone Roses mix, blaring out of my Volkswagen Polo’s speakers and it turned out the caller was Mum. Upon realisation of this, panic set in, memories flooding back of previous catastrophic football trips – namely a journey to Coventry where the bag holding all key matchday essentials had been left behind or the infamous trek to White Hart Lane in 2015, parking up in North London only to discover our match tickets remained in a drawer at home. Thankfully this time around the damage was less impactful, I had set off without my coat and decided to brave the elements without in order to power on.

The decision turned out to be a wise one, traffic in Southampton chaotic, fuelled by the ongoing Redbridge roadworks, not even the diversion via Test Lane when entering the city gained much of an advantage. Finally, beyond the vaunted traffic lights of Millbrook, Southampton, I’m almost certain has more traffic lights per square mile than any other UK city, Central Station was up next. The train station has two car parks, the northern most one our usual go to but unfortunately, spaces are limited, particularly disabled bays, with just two in place. Bearing in mind the later than usual arrival, the car park was predictably full and we were forced to look elsewhere. Back past the train station we surged, on the prowl for a space in the other car park and fortunately, the search was fruitful. I say fortunately begrudgingly considering the width of the bay which almost caused the loss of a wing mirror – more fool me for being a gentleman and allowing Dad more room on his side.

Amateur dramatics aside, we were parked up and out of the car, on foot to embark upon the final leg of the journey – or so we should have been. Yet that would have been too easy and naturally, the pair of us combined to leave our rucksack in the car resulting in me darting back, I could only hope and pray at this point that the team would be in better form than ourselves. Bag retrieved, the route was resumed and hitting the city centre, we met a stream of Cardiff fans, their thick Welsh accents projecting out into the crowd as they spilled out of Yates’s, a designated away supporters pub and onto the high street’s pavement.

Implementing selected hearing to shun the cries of “bluebirds”, we shuffled inside the ground. We passed punters having a flutter at the Ladbrokes stand, friendship groups supping up the dregs of their beers at the Saints bar before reaching our very own stairway to heaven, the pilgrimage to Block 42 was almost complete. Upon reaching this point, it always becomes clear whether or not the visiting team has sold its allocation of away tickets. The tell-tale sign being a series of metal rafters, pulled down if the block is occupied by away supporters, left up if this is not the case – a potentially rare opportunity for Saints supporters to experience the roar of Northam, with unsold tickets made available to those of a home persuasion.

As anticipated, as the light of a clear, yet crisp afternoon at St. Mary’s became apparent having made it to the top of the steps, to the left an impressive following of in the region of 3,000 supporters who had made the trip from South Wales. Within the away section, tribute tees, screen printed number nine’s and  Argentinian flags rippling in the breeze could be spotted in homage to Emiliano Sala, Cardiff’s new signing who tragically lost his life a few weeks back. I clocked our go to steward, the Northam’s head steward who handed over a hearing loop as usual for Dad. The steward enlightened us to the fact that he had been waiting outside for an age, expecting our imminent arrival. He briefly left his post to seek out a cup of tea and sod’s law, the moment he did so, received notification that we had arrived, our season tickets having been scanned – oops.

We took on the final climb up to our seats and settled in with around 15 minutes until kick-off. Since we moved to the upper reaches of the Northam Dad’s struck up a friendship with the chap next to him, who goes by the name of Brian. With no Saints fixture next weekend, Dad and I saw an opportunity to continue the quest to visit all 92 Football League grounds and therefore, we’re off up to Lancashire, taking in matches at Preston’s Deepdale and Blackburn’s Ewood Park. Dad’s actually been to Blackburn before, watching Saints win an FA Cup 5th Round tie thanks to a solitary Dave Armstrong back in 1984 – typically though, the ticket stub has since been misplaced. Unbelievably, Brian was at that very game himself – a small world indeed.

After an impeccably observed minute’s silence in memory of Emiliano Sala, both sides linked arm in arm around the centre circle, donning black armbands as a mark of respect. The referee gave a short, sharp blast of his whistle to signal the end of the minute and the teams readied themselves for a crucial encounter at the Premier League’s basement. Saints welcomed back long term absentee Ryan Bertrand from injury, whilst Yan Valery was restored to the starting XI. Captain Pierre Hojbjerg also came back into the fray, recovering from the head injury incurred against Palace. With Danny Ings set for a spell on the side lines through injury, Shane Long took centre stage up front, although there was no place in the squad for Stuart Armstrong, who missed out due to calf issues. Maya Yoshida made the bench after his foray to the Asian Cup Final with Japan, who sadly succumbed to Qatar in the final.

The match started in a cagey manner but Saints soon began to gain control, commanding possession and this quickly translated into a threat. The ball was worked wide to the returning Bertrand down the left, who fired a ball into the box. The delivery fractionally eluded Hojbjerg but lead to chaos in the Bluebirds box before eventually being deflected wide off towering Centre Back Bamba. Redmond, buoyed by his recent blistering form which has seen him net six goals in ten appearances, was fed by Hojbjerg, ultimately cutting in but his effort could only connect with the side netting.

Cardiff, occupying a place in the bottom 3 at the beginning of the day, appeared content to sit deep, perhaps eyeing a draw with the idea of snatching maximum points on the counter attack in the back of players’ minds, if the opportunity were to present itself. Saints often struggle to break down teams who adopt such an approach and this was proving to be the case, although dominating possession, genuine chances were hard to come by. Struggling to carve their way through the visitors rear guard, Hojbjerg decided to take matters into his own hands, chesting down and striking from distance. Unfortunately however, little power was generated from the volley which meant for a comfortable stop for Bluebirds goalkeeper Etheridge.

Redmond attempted to provide a spark that was so clearly lacking, imposing his will in beautifully combining with Hojbjerg down the right, only for his resulting low centre to deflect off Bamba and comfortably into the gloves of Etheridge. Eyeing a goal before the interval, Saints determinedly continued to apply pressure, Redmond yet again looking the most likely to break the deadlock. He twisted and weaved through the royal blue shirts of the opposition before unleashing a line drive from the edge of the area, only for Manga to crucially intervene. Before the referee signalled for half-time, there was still time for Ward-Prowse to haul back Niasse to thwart a counter attack, the midfielder duly shown a yellow card. The man who hails from the wrong side of Hampshire could quite easily have been cautioned for an almost identical act earlier in the game and therefore, could consider himself fortunate.

The second half got underway and continued in similar fashion, Saints restricted in large part to shots from distance, first Hojbjerg trying his luck once more before Valery made good forward progress, driving inside the opposition area and stinging the hands of Etheridge. The young Frenchman looks more assured every week, putting in arguably his best display and despite some minor hiccups initially which are always to be expected with a rookie learning their trade, the decision to axe Cedric and persist with Yan is looking a solid one by Hasenhuttl.

Cardiff remained resolute, Warnock’s charges sticking to their game plan and looking well organised front to back, leading to copious Saints attacks fizzling out in the attacking third. Ralph looked to the bench and decided upon introducing Austin, or at least he did, until his plan was temporarily thrown as Cardiff, who showed little sign of troubling the Saints goal, unthinkably went ahead. With 20 minutes remaining, Joe Ralls floated in a corner and having scored the winner in December’s reverse fixture, you’d have thought Saints would have paid more attention to Paterson. However, they did not and the Scot all too easily outjumped Hojbjerg, heading down into the ground where Bamba was alert enough to stab past McCarthy.

The Ivorian leapt the hoardings to embrace the affection of the Cardiff faithful, ultimately booked for the act – although on this occasion it was us who conceded, I think the caution for such is ridiculous and a bit of passion in the game is healthy. The young man who met Bamba for a most humongous bear hug saw his glasses snapped in two in the process, not that he cared much with his team netting a crucial goal in the fight against relegation. In the days after Bamba responded to the gentleman’s tweet, apologising for the damage and also commenting that the hug received was much firmer than anything ever received from his wife – his better half later picking up on this, dog house successfully entered.

In response to conceding, Hassenhuttl elected to bring on both Austin and Elyounoussi to try and get back on level terms, Long and Vestergaard sacrificed in the process. Saints looked certain to level in the 76th minute, Valery in inspired form, showcasing his inner Boufal, attempting to imitate the Moroccan’s stunning solo effort against West Brom last season. The Frenchman’s bulldozing run which saw him travel the length of the pitch, resulted in a stinging effort from just inside the area, Etheridge equal to but could not cleanly claim. The rebound fell to Austin, normally so clinical from close range but his swipe at the ball was blocked brilliantly by Peltier before Elyounoussi’s follow up shot met the same fate.

With time running out, Gallagher was brought on in place of Valery as Hasenhuttl went for a more direct approach. Ward-Prowse went close with a free kick, the set piece specialist bending around the Cardiff wall, seeking out the bottom right corner but Etheridge repelled. Just when all looked lost, Ward-Prowse delivered the resultant corner which was flicked on by Austin and met by Stephens at the far post to tap in from just yards out. The defender, hardly renowned for his prowess in front of goal, enjoyed a purple patch at the start of last year, netting in three consecutive games so hopefully the Cornishman can do similar in games to come.

Now I can’t lie, during the infancy of my Saints supporting, I was a bit of a gobshite, throwing out insults left right and centre at visiting fans, fully aware that if confronted outside of the ground I’d be reduced to mere pulp. Thankfully, I have simmered down dramatically in the years that have since passed but, after an afternoon of enduring plenty of anti-English stick from the Welsh contingent, the euphoria of the equaliser saw an overcoming of emotion and a return to times now long gone. As the fans to my left darted over to the Cardiff supporters to rub salt in the wounds, I soon followed suit, almost taking Dad clean off his feet in the process. Thankfully I just about managed to prop him up after our post goal embrace and continued with my best goading efforts.

The elation was short lived however and I was soon stung by karma as unfathomably, rather than seeking out a winner, Saints went behind again and this time, for good. They say that teams are always at their most vulnerable having scored and it proved to be the case when the visitors, mustering up one final attack, delivered into the Saints box. The defence failed to clear their lines and stood, almost statuesque, second half substitute swivelled and finished with aplomb, the strike finding the back of the next having rebounded off the base of a post, McCarthy left with no chance. Predictably, the away end erupted, giving back what they had only just received from home fans. After the dust had settled, Dad and I took the wise decision to exit the ground to the right, avoiding the gauntlet beside the Cardiff supporters, the winner heart breaking enough without being subjected to a torrent of abuse from those from the Valleys.

So ultimately a devastating blow, seriously harming Saints chances of survival as Cardiff climbed up above their opponents, the home side plundered into the bottom three after Burnley secured maximum points at Brighton in the tea time fixture. Cardiff secured a first double of the season, whilst Saints once again struggled against a newly promoted side (not one beaten this season or all of last). Dominating the statistics once again, both in terms of possession (67% to 33%) and shots (14 to 6 – on target: 7 to 3), yet somehow coming out on the wrong end of the final result. Although I agree to a point with Hasenhuttl’s post Palace thoughts, a mindset of remaining patient and not forcing passes, I felt against Cardiff we were too cautious at times, little urgency/up tempo shown, even towards the dying embers of the contest. For all the naysayers, I’m of the opinion that we seriously lack a creative influence, able to unlock defences in tight matches and we have never replaced the services of Dusan Tadic who continues to flourish for new club Ajax.

After the game, Hasenhuttl was brutally honest in his evaluation, quoted as saying “They shot three times on our goal and scored two goals. We had not many chances but more than Cardiff and scored only once”. On a positive note, the defeat was only the first suffered this calendar year, albeit much costlier considering the opposition. I understand the club’s urge to remain positive but I thought having Hojbjerg roll out, insisting that it is not where we currently sit but where we finish that matters, was a bit of a PR disaster. Fans were already fuming following the conclusion to Saturday’s game and with games running out, not to mention vital points dropped against fellow strugglers, both Burnley and Cardiff in consecutive weeks, surely the time to start taking advantage of somewhat favourable opposition is now?!

On Friday night the U23s travelled to Newcastle for a Premier League Cup clash but unfortunately, it was disappointment for the youngsters also as their hopes of qualification sustained a dent. The home side now look destined to finish top of Group H but it was Saints with the first real chance of note, Hamblin centring for Afolabi but his effort was never going to test Harker in the Magpies net. Toure then came close with a header of his own for the hosts, before Ferry trickled down the touchline, only for his eventual effort to strike the side netting.

In a game of few chances, the wind was seriously hampering playing conditions, causing any lofted balls to unpredictably swerve and sway. The elements played a huge part in Newcastle’s opener in the 28th minute, a free-kick held high by a gust causing confusion in the Saints ranks, before ultimately falling for Charman who buried. The scorer played no further part in the game after a nasty clash with Tom O’Connor which resulted in him being stretchered off.

The tide did not turn in the second period, goalkeeper Rose keeping his side in the contest, going airborne to superbly deny Longstaff’s free kick that was destined for the top corner. Ultimately his efforts were for naught with 10 minutes remaining as Longelo beat Klarer down the left, squaring for Toure who found the bottom corner on the turn. The striker then made doubly sure of the result, completing his brace in stoppage time. The result will have come as a huge disappointment, particularly after an impressive victory at Manchester United in the league the week before. Jaidi’s youngsters will be looking to get back on track when Fulham are the visitors to Staplewood this Friday night.

There was better news on Sunday though, when Saints’ women’s side welcomed Oxford City to Totton’s Testwood ground for a top of the table clash. The fixture saw a bumper crowd of 218 and in the lead up to the fixture, it was pleasing to see the club promote, with time dedicated to the fixture on St. Mary’s big screens during the Cardiff fixture and a video produced for the club website, Calum Slattery saying a few words in encouraging attendance. The hundreds were in for a treat as the home side routed one of their challengers 5-0, the victory seeing second place in the table behind Bournemouth CST retained.

Saints took the lead in the 7th minute, Shelly Provan’s advance down the line lead to a cross which was cleared to the edge of the box, where Phoebe Williams alertly waited and thundered into the top corner. Just over 10 minutes later one became two, Shannon Sievwright picking out the bottom corner with Oxford failing to clear. With an hour of the game still to be played, Saints made it three, Chloe Newton finding the back of the net in a smart team goal.

It was becoming damage limitation for the visitors but their rear guard wilted once more, succumbing to a fourth before the break, Sievwright doubling her personal tally, picking up a blocked shot from Woods and arrowing a rasping half volley into the net from beyond the area. The second half saw less goalmouth action but was still thoroughly controlled by a dominant Saints side and ensuring that the period would not remain goalless, Ellie Chaffe stepped up in the 90th minute, continuing the theme of the day – stunning goals, with a left footed volley after the ball had been cleared to her. Spacey-Cales team continue their quest for promotion next week when they travel to eight placed New Milton.

With no fixture this weekend due to the FA Cup taking centre stage once more, Saints fans must wait some time for their next football fix, the first team’s next fixture not until Sunday 24th February, a daunting trip to the Emirates to take on the attacking might of Arsenal in a match selected for television coverage by Sky. Hasenhuttl has jetted off to Tenerife this week with his side for a warm weather camp and with three of the next four matches being against sides currently sitting in the top 6 (Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham), as well as another relegation six pointer against Fulham, the Austrian will be determined to have his team fully prepared for an incredibly tough spell. Thanks for reading as always and I’ll be back before you know it with my thoughts on the trip to North London. COYR!



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