Prior to the season getting underway, Saints fans had been given reason for renewed optimism after the appointment of Hasenhuttl last December.
At that point, the situation was looking bleak to say the least, languishing in the bottom three, below would be Championship fodder Cardiff. The Bluebirds got the better of the Austrian’s side in what was his first contest at the helm, the home side eking out a tightly contested 1-0 victory as the teams locked horns in Wales. The dismay of that day was not to last however with the amusingly dubbed ‘Alpine Klopp’ introducing a heavily pressing based style of play which reaped rewards aplenty. Ultimately, Saints avoided the threat of relegation rather comfortably, impressive victories over the likes of Arsenal and Spurs helping to secure the feat, as the fan base took Ralph to their hearts, inevitably so considering results on the pitch combined with the passion/energy regularly displayed by the one time forward.
Now, obviously hindsight is a wonderful thing but there is clear cause to wonder whether expectations for this season grew beyond the realms of reality. The bulk of the squad that has looked destined for demotion in recent seasons remains and, in addition, although successful stints previously in Germany with Ingolstadt and Leipzig, Hasenhuttl is still relatively new to coaching, particularly in England – the 2019/20 campaign his first full season in charge.
The first game of the season at Burnley was odd in that for the majority of the contest, it felt as though it had 0-0 written all over it. Although the final score of 3-0 far from told the entire story, the fact the team was blown away within a 15 minute period provided cause for concern. A defence consisting of the towering Vestergaard, Polish international Bednarek and a unit you would have hoped were extensively drilled by Ralph during his first pre-season, mind bogglingly continue to be painfully susceptible to balls lofted over the top, a fact that is downright unacceptable.
The general consensus after the first flurry of fixtures was largely positive, a spirited performance, going down 2-1 to Champions League winners Liverpool, before victories on the road at both Brighton and Sheffield United. Attending these fixtures, naturally I was ecstatic, however, looking back, it’s hard not to wonder if the results papered over cracks somewhat. Take the visit to the Amex for starters, Brighton, rejuvenated under new boss and former Saint Graham Potter, looked the stronger side, even having been reduced to 10 men. Eventually a combination of a moment of class from summer acquisition Moussa Djenepo and the strain of functioning with just 10 players on a sweltering afternoon saw Saints return along the South Coast with maximum points.
I’m not one to doubt Ralph’s managerial prowess, nor am I ludicrous enough to suggest his sacking, however, some of his decision making has been seriously questionable. From playing Kevin Danso, a youngster still finding his way in the game, out of position, to overlooking the experience of Ryan Bertrand and negatively persisting with two defensive minded midfielders, despite trailing to a Spurs side reduced to 10 men. Che Adams was dropped after a baron run in front of goal and now can’t get back into the team and I’m concerned about the potential damage done to his confidence and scenario of yet another big money signing not working out.
Fans have debated the possibility of Angus Gunn being dropped in favour of Alex McCarthy after a string of calamitous errors and I can see the reasoning, however, again you run the risk of negatively impacting his psychological make up. Another summer arrival, Moussa Djenepo, clearly possesses the ability to light up a game and his enforced absence through injury has hurt the team to an alarming extent. It’s almost a damning indictment of modern football but as a fan, subconsciously you’re wary of him performing overly well, in fear of him being snapped up by a bigger club, as has happened so frequently over the years. In addition, despite some tough opponents, the fact we have reached November without a home win is staggering.
Before his departure to Bayern Munich, Ralph’s right hand man, Danny Rohl went relatively under the radar. It’s easy to connect the team’s downturn in performance to his absence, with major whispering’s of Rohl being a go between, a link in communication from player to Hasenhuttl and vice versa but, I feel as though the issues run much deeper. Another cause for concern is the fact that Ralph has decided against appointing a replacement, reluctant to promote within, a probable indicator that the Austrian lacks faith in Kelvin Davis/Craig Fleming/Dave Watson. Not only this but other notable departures include Ross Wilson, not to mention Les Reed also in recent seasons. Such turnover in staffing gives off the impression of considerable friction within the behind the scenes structure.
No disrespect to Leicester City, they’re a decent footballing side but losing 9-0 at any level, let alone the highest in world football, is utterly unacceptable. My first Saints game was in 1997 and in all of the time since, I have never been as disgusted as I was last Friday night. The majority of the team failed to show the bare minimum we expect as paying supporters as the performance was devoid of passion and effort, simple things such as tracking your man and sticking a foot in were totally absent. The only saving grace was a) the players rightfully donated their wages to the Saints foundation and b) the support that opted to stick it out until the end. This is not to disrespect those that left long before, they were more than entitled to do so but I think it spoke volumes that the support generated at 6, 7, 8 and 9-0, was better than has been witnessed in many months.
Atmosphere wise, St. Mary’s has been abject at best for a long while and a throwback to the good times, nods to Guly, Sir Rickie and even Lee Barnard, was gratifying and a reminder of why we all love this incredible club so dearly. With the Premier League as it is these days, dictated by funds, I can’t help but yearn for the lower league days and I wonder sometimes, would it serve us well to suffer relegation and come back a reformed outfit? Admittedly, there’s a potential for no return (Giant clubs the size of Forest, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday spring to mind), that being said, the race for the playoffs is exciting and provides something tangible to target. Also, the attendance would naturally dip but the atmosphere would more than likely improve, those within the ground purely present for their undying love of the club, not just the Premier League experience.
On a more positive note and despite recent troubles, I think I speak for the majority of our fan base in saying that the demolition of our arch nemesis, in their own back yard, is what mattered most this season. These are the moments we live for as football fans and whatever else occurs, that will stay with us all for the rest of our days – revenge has never been so sweet. Admittedly, it was a shaky start but ultimately the gulf in class told and for local lad and lifelong Saint Danny Ings to grab a brace was the stuff of fairytales, you couldn’t have written such a script. In a similar sense, of the two fixtures against City, my preference for success was in the cup fixture, no doubt whatsoever. Can there really be any other outlook? A result that keeps us just about comfortable above the bottom three or a cup run, a chance to secure only a second major trophy in the club’s history and a moment that will be harked back to for generations to come?! No debate personally. One thing’s for sure, losing 9-0, pitting our wits against the Champions of Europe or facing Barnsley on a cold, wet Tuesday night, whatever the circumstance, nothing will ever change my love for the club that I have adored since a wee lad and will do so until I’m old and grey.