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Thinking Back – Looking Fowards

Thinking back to before the International break (a period I used to despise but the novelty has become more welcome due to poor form in recent times), it was time for the visit of Watford, the Hertfordshire side in indifferent form after a strong start to the season. Having lost to lowly Newcastle the week prior, gifting the Geordies their first Premier League win, Saints fans viewed it as a great opportunity to notch up that elusive first win at St. Mary’s.

 

The signs were not promising from the off, a typically damp autumnal Saturday as Dad and I began our bi-weekly pilgrimage to what we consider our spiritual home. Next the roadworks under the Millbrook flyover were to cause havoc, football supporters and shoppers alike brought to a halt with brake lights as far as the eye could see. The delay caused made for a mad dash to the stadium from our regular parking spot at the train station and we finally made it to our Northam based seats five minutes before kick-off.

 

The fact we both made it in one piece was nothing short of miraculous. As you can imagine, slippery conditions and someone who is registered blind is far from a match made in heaven but ironically, despite dragging Dad through puddle after puddle during the quest to make it to the match on time, it was myself, fully sighted who was closer to a calamitous fall.

 

Football aside, with Remembrance Sunday the following day, proceedings began with a wonderfully observed minute’s silence in honour of those who sadly fell serving their country. The fantastic Saints Brass, who can often be spotted outside the Itchen Stand before matches had the honour of playing the Last Post on the hallowed turf and did so to perfection.

 

After surviving a few precarious moments initially, Deulofeu looking a potential thorn in our side, the first half showed signs of promise up against a Hornets side who had failed to score in 10 of their last 13 away Premier League fixtures. Manolo Gabbiadini, operating in an unfamiliar role on the right flank, chased down every ball for the duration and it was the Italian who put Saints ahead. The former Napoli man divides opinion but will forever hold Cult Hero status after his initial purple patch upon arriving on the South Coast, this spell of course included two goals against United in the EFL Cup Final. The goal itself came from a corner, Watford failed to clear their lines and Manolo clinically finished into the bottom corner.

 

The home side maintained the lead going into half-time but the unfortunate loss to injury of Danny Ings, coupled with the introduction of Watford’s bullish Centre Forward Troy Deeney, seemed to shift the dynamic of the match. On the hour mark former Chelsea starlet Nathaniel Chalobah was clattered by Ryan Bertrand in the penalty area but remarkably, what was no doubt a stone wall spot kick was not awarded and Saints were offered a humongous reprieve, especially when considering Bertrand already had a yellow card to his name and therefore being reduced to ten men should have been a given.

 

Now my opinion will undoubtedly be somewhat biased due to my lifelong Saints ties but the refereeing performance by Simon Hooper was easily one of the poorest I’ve witnessed in over twenty years of attending matches. Recently elected to the elite pool of referees, the Saints/Watford clash was in fact his first top flight game and if the FA continues to promote such a standard of officials to one of the world’s most renowned leagues, I genuinely worry for the future of our game.

 

The officiating standard did not improve and a mere six minutes later saw one of the most controversial decisions in recent memory. Frontman Charlie Austin, having entered the fray following the injury to Ings, bent a superb strike from distance into the upper left corner, sending the Northam into raptures. The celebrations lead to a sea of embracement and the spilling of stewards, supporters and policeman alike into the aisle of the stand. The emotion was no doubt fuelled by the fact that a Pompey fan had somehow managed to find his way inside the away end, a fact who soon made known yet bizarrely nobody felt an urgency to evict.

 

Obviously this elation spanned a considerable amount of time but when the scenes eventually died down, it came to everyone’s amazement that the goal had actually been ruled out by Hooper, adjudging that Yoshida had interfered with play, holding an offside position. The referee had a poor game as it was but also got two huge decisions wrong and bearing this in mind, I’m adamant that at the very least, a short term ban from officiating Premier League games should be imposed against Hooper.

 

During a post match interview, Maya Yoshida admitted overhearing the referee’s admission of an incorrect decision and then Charlie Austin chipped in with his brutally honest, now viral comments, having been brilliantly dubbed to Blur’s Parklife. It was refreshing to see some passion from a player, an honest opinion given, not a pre-determined, watered down account. Thankfully The FA saw sense and Austin was not fined for his outburst.

 

Unfortunately the full force of Austin’s wrongly disallowed goal was felt and Saints relinquished the lead with just under ten minutes remaining. Full back Jose Holebas found a pocket of space on the edge of the Saints’ area, let fly and the shot took a wicked deflection off Cedric, leaving Alex McCarthy no chance to prevent the equaliser. Having restored parity, Watford looked the more likely team to go on and clinch maximum points but the contest ended in a draw, with yet another opportunity to secure that vital first home win slipping away.

 

The poor run of form that this season has seen means that Saints now sit in 17th position having accumulated eight points, level with Cardiff who sit in 18th position and just three points above bottom placed Fulham, hence why this Saturday’s trip to Craven Cottage holds more meaning that ever being the definition of a ‘relegation six pointer’. Fulham’s ground is an absolute treat, a historic treasure amongst the masses of identikit stadiums that plague modern football. The stadium is a listed building, incorporates a cottage into one of it’s corners (hence the name) where teams get kitted out to this day and sits on the banks of the River Thames. Sadly though, I don’t think the game will match the ground as a spectacle.

 

It was well documented that the Cottagers bolstered their squad over the summer, spending in excess of £100 million to capture former Barcelona target Jean Michael Seri, the country’s most prolific striker this year Aleksandar Mitrovic, whilst also retaining teenage wonder Ryan Sessegnon amongst much speculation. However, the additions have not gelled as had been hoped and limitations stem from a somewhat weak backline. Fulham were renowned for an attractive playing style during their rise from the Championship to the Premier League but this approach has since been abandoned and the club are seemingly struggling with a lack of identity.

 

However, although the table doesn’t currently offer much hope for supporters, the recent recruitment of Claudio Ranieri as manager will surely boost spirits in West London. The Tinker Man, renowned largely for guiding Leicester City to the Premier League title a few seasons back, will look to stamp his authority on the side in what is a crucial game for both teams.

From a Southampton perspective, with Captain Ryan Bertrand forced to miss out having collected his fifth booking of the season, an opportunity will presumably be handed to academy product and lifelong Saints fan, Matt Targett. Targett shone on loan at this weekend’s opposition last season and such glowing performances lead to the left back being subject to a bid in the region of £10 million from Fulham this past August. However, Saints were keen to retain his services and hopefully Matt’s attributes will be on full display once more at Craven Cottage, this time for the visitors.

 

Mark Hughes confirmed in his pre-match press conference that Danny Ings remains a doubt following the injury obtained last time out and with Shane Long sidelined for the foreseeable future after treatment, I’d like to see youth given a chance. Sam Gallagher is unfortunately out injured at the present time but once fit, I feel he’d offer a different dimension, particularly aerially and Michael Obafemi gave a good account of himself during a cameo at The Etihad. Obafemi was called up for The Republic of Ireland recently and made his International debut in a goalless Nations League tie away to Denmark. With this in mind, his confidence must be sky high and he’s blessed with blistering pace, something the team sorely lacks.

 

Another man who’s been on the periphery for the most part this season but I would like to see more of is Stuart Armstrong, the attacking midfielder recruited from Celtic in the summer. I thought he looked lively, making only his second start against Watford and off the back of a sterling display for Scotland in their crucial Nations League victory over Israel, the visit to London could be an ideal opportunity for him to make the role of playmaker his own.

 

Away from first team matters, the Under-23s last action saw Newcastle United visit a rain soaked Staplewood for a Premier League Cup fixture. The affair was tightly contested, though it was the home side who took the lead through Marcus Barnes, the Saints man rifling into the top corner following a parry from the Magpies goalkeeper. Saints held onto the lead but were left to regret adding to it when, with just two minutes remaining, Elias Sorensen dispatched underneath Jack Rose to salvage a point for the visitors.

 

Having only just been reincarnated this season, Saints’ women’s side continue to flourish and remain unbeaten. Last weekend saw a trip to Basingstoke Town, who were annihilated, the final score an astounding 11-1 to Southampton in what was a Hampshire FA Women’s Challenge Cup Third Round fixture. Chloe Newton tallied four goals, with teammate George Lowe helping herself to a hat-trick. The week before, the winning theme did not let up as Saints’ put Poole Town to the sword and in the process, progressing to the next round of the FA Cup in the process. Donning the legendary yellow and blue, Saints ran out 3-0 winners on the day and in doing so, set up a visit to MK Dons in the Second Round.

 

On a more personal note, last Friday Dad and I were visited by a couple of lovely members of the club’s fantastic media team. Infamous for their witty posts throughout various social media platforms, I recently wrote in and put into words our story of following Saints. We welcomed the media guys into our home, with the front room transformed into a movie set with various equipment galore and once set up, Dad and I fielded a number of questions for a piece for the website’s #MySaintsStory campaign. I’m lead to believe that the content is being edited as we speak and should be live on the site shortly so watch this space.

 

That’s all for this week, I’ll see you all in the Putney End, cheering on the yellows to a big three points (hopefully).

 

Dan

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