Posts Tagged ‘Saints’

Ricky Lambert scores last minute equaliser against Blackpool

Ricky Lambert scores a last minute equaliser against Blackpool in the 2-2 draw on 10 December 2011

I am perpetually bemused and amused by the propensity for otherwise reasonably sane people, oneself included, to become helplessly trapped in a cycle of despair and adoration for a group of sportspeople.

Currently, the football team which has been my deep love for more than thirty years – the “Pride of Hampshire”, Southampton FC, a.k.a the “Saints” – sit proudly atop the English Championship, the second tier of English soccer. If they continue to win more games than their rivals, then the end of the season will see the ultimate dream achieved, returning to the Premiership – the world’s greatest domestic football league – which they once graced for a remarkable 27 continuous years.

St Mary's Stadium

St Mary’s Stadium, home to Southampton FC, nestled in an industrial area near the famous port

Southampton’s story is that of a family club, once based around a Church football team – St Mary’s, now the name of their new stadium,and the origin of their nickname – way back in the 19th century, that has always punched way above its weight. At one point when I started supporting them (whilst at University in the ugly little south coast port city, so scarred by Nazi bombs in the 2nd world war) Manchester United used to make more from programme sales on a Saturday than Southampton made from ticket sales. The club nearly crashed out of existence altogether through financial troubles just a few short years ago, and have languished in the lower reaches of English football while they sort themselves out. These are heady days indeed.

Saints have always, with temporary diversions inflicted by misguided managers who rarely lasted long, been a club that preferred to play “total football”: football with genuine flair, football with what used to be called “Continental panache”, football to make you gasp with pleasure when it went right and cringe with pain when it went wrong. The roll call of great players who slotted comfortably into this unrealistically idealistic atmosphere almost beggars belief for a club of the size of Southampton – Bates, Gilchrist, Davies, Paine, Boyer, MacDougall, Moran, Osgood, Channon, Keegan, Wallace, Shilton.

Matt Le Tissier

Matt Le Tissier, perhaps the most talented footballer of his generation – perhaps any generation – and Southampton legend.

And, of course, the mecurially brilliant and sublime Matt Le Tissier. Or as he became universally known by Southampton supporters, “Le God”. Without question, the most gifted attacking midfielder the English game ever produced, who steadfastly refused multi-million-pound offers to move to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United with the simple words, “I like it here”.

It was this crazy, knockabout passion that led to Saints once memorably defeating Manchester United in the prestigious FA Cup Final, despite being a division below and a light year apart in terms of raw talent. It remains the only major trophy the club has ever won.

It is Saints’ generation-on-generation preference for bold, flowing courageous football, so often resulting in the team losing games 4-3 at the death knock of the 90 minutes as the defence streamed forward, looking for a winner, that led one supporter to memorably comment, “It’s not the despair that really gets to me, it’s the hope.”

So anyhow, last night, my beloved team were on the TV live, playing a team, Blackpool, that on current form they should beat easily. And true to the deadly obsession that is sports fanaticism, a bunch of us on the other side of the world from the actual match trailed loyally into a pub in Melbourne at 11.30pm in the pouring – torrential – rain, to once again undergo the ritual sacrifice of our sanity.

All ages, shapes, sizes and sexes. Actually, what was really funny was that in the streets and in the pub we were surrounded by cheery Christmas party revellers, many of them late teen, early 20s girls dressed in their best party finery – which means mini skirts that make handkerchiefs look excessively over-manufactured and legs that never seem to stop as they reach for the sky. Yet we only had eyes for the TV and every missed pass, crunching tackle, and woodwork-rattling shot. They must have felt their efforts to impress were entirely wasted. Or perhaps we were all gay? We certainly looked peculiar, decked out in red and white team shirts, and one bizarre fellow sporting a felt jester’s hat in team colours with bells. Yes, dear reader, that was me.

Bartosz Bialkowski

Bart Bialkowski – the stand-in keeper’s mistake gifted Blackpool a vital goal

And once again, Saints put us through the emotional wringer, with a performance that ran the full gamut of the sublimely talented to the horrifyingly inept and back again. They totally dominated the opening period, and scored a good goal from the latest hero to embody Saints’ spirit, Ricky Lambert. Then they let in two goals, one a well taken effort that was probably unpreventable, and one a goalkeeping howler that will haunt the lad concerned for the rest of his career. Stand-in keeper Bart Bialkowski somehow let an otherwise harmless shot squirm under his body and through his legs to give Blackpool the lead.  Perhaps the only consolation for the lad is the mishap occurred too late to be included in the “bloopers of the year”compilation DVDs out for Christmas.

Not until the second minute of five minutes added on to the normal 90 did Saints finally score an equaliser (seen above, again from “Goal Machine” Lambert). The relief in the Sherlock Holmes Tavern was palpable. And Saints’ nearest rivals, West Ham, contrived to lose, to boot. So we were still somewhat fortuitously top of the table, still with an unbeaten home record (although the current record-breaking run of 22 homes games won came to a sticky end) leaving us tragics in the pub buoyed up and near-salivating for next Sunday’s game against arch-rivals Portsm*uth.

(I have to write Portsm*uth and not the whole name of that benighted club, because it is a long-standing tradition amongst Saints fans that we never write their club name in full, which would pay them too much respect. They are more commonly referred to as simply “Skates” or “the fish fiddlers”, in deference to the belief that fishermen in the area used to acheive sexual satisfaction by having intercourse with the wings of the Skate fish, common in the area, (a type of small ray), which was supposed to mimic a human female sex organ. The fact that those fish were then on-sold to the locality, including Southampton, may well have something to do with the persistence of the mythology and the mutual dislike. Since time immemorial, the rivalry engenders more hatred and detestation than possibly any other in English football.)

I was left, driving home in the pouring, leaden, dark night, to reflect on what it is about supporting a sports team that makes it such a consuming and culturally-independent experience. Around the world, sport of all kinds, but especially the various codes of football, captures the hearts and minds of thinking, rational people and turns them into dribbling idiots, crying or laughing into their beer, and happily hugging smelly strangers indiscriminately.

I saw it again last night, when, in response to our manic shouting at the TV, (“Ref! You total bastard! Offside!”), the entire clientele of the pub started to forget what is was they were there for originally, and pay attention to the flickering images of inch high men running backwards and forwards, beamed live through unimaginably brilliant technology from the other side of the planet. By the end of the game, and Lambert’s last-gasp equaliser, they were all on side too, cheering, asking us if they could wear our colours, asking about the team and our star players, and cheerful adopting our lifelong allegiances as their own. As one colleague bemusedly remarked to me, “Not bad, another 30 new supporters who’ve never heard of us before.”

Yes, for a few brief minutes, we were the same tribe. We were the same religion. We believed the same things. We were the same town. The same country. The same world.

We were the same family.

Damn, it felt good.

Post Scriptum

Southampton were promoted back to the Premiership in late April 2012, returning to the top flight of English football – possibly, arguably, the best league in the world – after seven years away. A week before, Portsmouth were relegated to League 1, the old “Division 3”. As one wag remarked: “Normal service has been resumed”.

Southampton FCOK, it’s a personal obsession … so if you’re not interested in football just ignore this post!

But I’d love to know who people think are the greatest Saints players of all time.

As some of us would find it impossible to separate some of these, you can choose up to five of your “best of all time”. Comments welcome, too. The poll is open ended, so I’ll keep it running while people keep voting 🙂

PS This is just a sample list: so please feel free to also leave adulatory comments about Adam Lallana, Tim Flowers, Alf Ramsey, John Sydenham, Anti Niemi, Ted MacDougall, Phil Boyer, Wayne Bridge, David Peach, Brian O’Neill, Peter Osgood, John McGarth, Theo Walcott, Joe Jordan, Ricky “Goal Machine” Lambert, Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle etc etc!

Notes on the players in the poll

TED BATES
1937-53, 216 apps, 64 goals

“Mr Southampton” devoted his life to the club and did more to build Saints into a respected top-flight football club than any other individual. But he also played for the club for 15 years, joining his former Norwich City manager Tom Parker at Saints in 1937 on his nineteenth birthday. He was steeped in the club when, on June 8, 1940, he married Mary Smith at St. James’s Church and that evening watched Saints play Charlton Athletic at The Dell. After the war, Bates and the prolific Charlie Wayman were the club strikers but Bates played in every position, including in goal. In 1953, he retired from playing as Saints sank into the Third Division (South) and he began 50 years of backroom graft, from manager to chairman, until his death in 2003. In 2001 he was appointed MBE, and continued to play an integral part in Southampton’s affairs as the club relocated from his beloved Dell to their new St Mary’s stadium. After Bates’s 66 years of faithful service, there was a case for naming it Saint Ted’s. His statue stands outside the ground.

NICK HOLMES
1973-87, 535 apps, 64 goals

Think Saints, real Saints players, and you think Le Tissier, Channon, Benali, all local boys. And Nickie Holmes is right up there with them, born and bred and a one-team man. This man worked his socks off in midfield for 15 years, averaging 35 games every season, the tireless, skilled grafter working alongside the vision and passing ability of Steve Williams. Apart from 1976, he scored in the 1979 League Cup Final and became club captain in 1980 leading Keegan, Ball et all. McMenemy called him “a man for all seasons,” and the fans warmed hugely to his positive attitude and lopsided grin. Not quite the beard, however. Owner of one of the hardest bullet-shots from distance the league has ever seen.

PETER SHILTON
1982-87, 242 apps

Did you know that Shilts earned more caps for England playing for Southampton than any other of his clubs? (And yes, that includes Forest). At Leicester City, he actually scored against Saints, and for Forest played against Saints in the 1979 League Cup final, before coming to his senses and leaving the former European champions to join Southampton in 1982. In the McMenemy all-stars team, Shilton reached an FA Cup semi-final and finished runner-up in the old First Division. There’s not much else to say about Shilton: Saints had England’s No 1 at his peak and during our best ever league campaigns. No coincidence there.

ALAN SHEARER
1988-92, 158 apps, 43 goals

Silly bugger, if only he had stayed with Saints, who knows what he might have achieved in his career? But anybody who marks their professional debut with a hat-trick, as Shearer did against Arsenal in 1988, is likely to prove something special, and so it was with the lad who used to clean the boots at The Dell. Shearer was only 17 on his debut and he matured at Saints until sold to newly-promoted Blackburn for a then British record £3.5m – but it was still a bargain. And he refused to join Manchester United, which amused everybody at the time but Sir Alex Ferguson.

STEVE MORAN
1980-86, 217 apps, 99 goals

Some of his goals were memorable – a late strike at Anfield in 1981 to hand Saints a win at then invincible Liverpool, his hat-trick in the 8-2 demolition of Coventry in 1984 and, above all, his injury-time winner at Fratton Park in the fourth round of the 1984 FA Cup. It seemed for a while that Moran had the world at his feet and would go all the way, but after such a dramatic initial impact, his career waned as he suffered from continual back problems. It was a sad day when he left for Leicester City at still a young age. Moran’s career kicked off when McMenemy turned up to watch his son, Chris, play for Tyro League side, Sarisbury Sparks. McMenemy senior was so impressed by Chris’s team-mate, that he promised him a new pair of boots if he scored a second-half hat-trick – Moran duly obliged. He signed professional forms in August 1979, after finishing his schooling. Later that season he made his debut as a substitute against Manchester City, scoring with his first touch. He was blessed with having Channon and Keegan amongst his team mates and scored 18 goals from 30 starts in his first full season. Voted PFA Young Player of the Year in 1982.

DANNY WALLACE
1980-90, 323 apps, 79 goals

Small, compact and lightning quick, Danny wowed Dell crowds with his pace and superb individual goals. He burst into national prominence with both goals in the first match televised live from The Dell against Liverpool in March 1984. His first was an overhead scissors-kick and for the second, he threw himself in front of Alan Hansen to head home a superb cross from Mark Dennis. The first goal was named Goal of the Season. He made his debut aged only 16 years, 313 days in November 1980 at Old Trafford, the youngest ever for Southampton (a record broken by Theo Walcott in August, 2005). Danny’s fine form continued after that Liverpool game, and in April 1984, both he and Moran scored hat-tricks in an 8-2 demolition of Coventry City. His career culminated with him being picked to play for England and scoring in his only appearance in a 4-0 victory, over Egypt in January 1986. He eventually went to Man United for £1.2 million, then a record fee for a Southampton player, but in 1996 was sadly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

ALAN BALL
1976-82, 234 apps, 13 goals

Channon, Keegan, Ball… It still amazes some people that Southampton had such a stellar line-up three decades ago. Football and fun was their creed – with racing thrown in. McMenemy used to joke that training sessions were built around the horses for their benefit. Ball loved the club so much he had two spells as a player, then returned as manager. He first joined in 1976 from Arsenal, despite offers from several top-flight clubs. “I reckon McMenemy and myself were the only two people convinced I’d done the right thing,” he said in his autobiography. But he helped to get Saints promoted, missing just one of 42 games in 1977-78, and bringing on the silky skills and vision of Steve Williams. The second spell were the magic C, K and B years when Saints topped the old First Division for the first time. He left, aged nearly 38, only to return as manager, bring Le Tissier back into the team (who had fallen foul of Ian ‘Dunderhead’ Branfoot) and save Saints from relegation. Apart from Ted Bates, no other player/manager had such an impact on Saints. And while he is claimed by Everton, he was also one of ours, watching Saints against Charlton the weekend before he died, aged 61. The turn out for his funeral at Winchester Cathedral was immense.

MARK WRIGHT
1982-87, 222 apps, 11 goals

A winner through and through. He played for England 45 times, and only lost six. After leaving Saints for Derby County, the Future England Captain went on to Liverpool, captaining them to FA Cup success in 1992, and scored for England in the 1990 World Cup. And he learned it all at The Dell, becoming the best centre half Saints ever had. He made his debut at 18 in a 3-1 win over Leeds, in which Keegan scored twice. Player of the Year in 1982-83, Saints finished second in the old First Division the next season and Wright replaced Terry Butcher in the England line-up. “Mark matured into a graceful and poised defender – a hitherto unkown phenomenom in post-War Southampton back lines,” noted Saints history tome In That Number. He broke his leg in 1986 – a crack heard around the ground – which cost him a World Cup place, and while recovering Derby came sniffing. It cost the Rams a hefty £750,000 but it was still a bargain.

STEVE WILLIAMS
1976-84, 346 apps, 27 goals

Steve Williams was ahead of his time, a Fàbregas of his day. And like Le Tissier, he was another of a lengthy list of Saints who should have played more at international level. He started brilliantly as well, making his debut in a 1-0 victory over Portsmouth that contributed to Pompey’s relegation to the old Third Division. His vision and passing saw fans vote him Player of the Year in his first full season and earn him England Under-21 caps. At Saints, he played alongside Ball, whom he succeeded as team captain, leading Saints to an FA Cup semi-final in 1984 and runners-up in the old First Division. At his peak, Williams was transferred to Arsenal for a club record £550,000, but he was then struck by injuries. He did win a League Cup final against Liverpool but in January 1988, he fell out with manager George Graham and moved to Luton Town.

RON DAVIES
1966-72, 277 apps, 153 goals

When Sir Matt Busby was asked for his opinion on Ron Davies, the response was simple: “The finest centre forward in Europe.” Davies was twice top scorer in the old First Division during the 60s and his tally of 37 league goals for Saints in 1966-67 has not been bettered since. Between 1966-69, he scored 90 times in 123 league games. That quote from Busby came in August 1969 on the back of a stunning 4-1 victory for Saints over his United side, with Davies getting all four. As a result United lodged a then-massive £200,000 bid which was turned down by the Southampton board. A big but amiable giant, Davies was useful on the ground, but it was in the air where he inflicted most damage, although in Terry Paine and John Sydenham he was lucky to have two fine crossers of the ball. He also had a neat little sideline in the days before meg-bucks pay packets: he was a talented artist and his caricatures of his team-mates would be sold in the club shop and appear in The Echo.

TERRY PAINE
1956-74, 811 apps, 187 goals

“A fluke I think. It was a punt by Campbell Forsyth and as its coming, I read it – everybody might miss it. I’ve got on my bike early and it’s bounced. It’s bounced over the top of them and I just head it and stick it in the back of the net.” There have been many more spectacular goals in Southampton’s history but few more significant as Paine’s header that earned a 1-1 draw at Leyton Orient, thus elevating them to the old First Division for the first time in 1966. Paine was already an England regular, about to appear in the World Cup finals and, as a Hampshire boy, he had remained loyal to Saints. He went on to win ten caps for England and to break all club records, making 811 appearances. He was a superb winger, who could land a ball on a sixpence.

MATTHEW LE TISSIER
1986-2002, 541 apps, 210 goals

Saints are known for three types of player: old pros at the end of their career (Osgood, Rodrigues, George, Watson), the Academy kids sold on to balance books (Walcott, Bridge, Shearer, Oxlade-Chamberlain) and the loyal one-team players, of which Matthew Le Tissier was the biggest. The boy from Guernsey was simply Saints’ biggest ever class act. He could have gone to Spurs (or half a dozen other leading clubs) but stayed at Saints, a priceless act of loyalty that undoubtedly saved the club from relegation several times over. He missed only one penalty in his entire career, scored extraordinary goals (just ask Newcastle fans) and, like Channon, played for fun with a huge smile. Work-ethic managers like Branfoot missed the point: scared managers like Glenn Hoddle daren’t risk him for England, but smart managers, like Ball, told his players to fetch the ball and just put it at Tiss’s feet. He was repaid many times over. He was Le God, revered by fans and the last goal ever scored at the much-loved Dell was inevitably one of his specials – twisting impossibly to volley the ball into the corner in a 3-2 defeat of Arsenal. Simply the best. Apart from, perhaps:

MICK CHANNON
1966-82, 602 apps, 228 goals

It was always going to be between Le Tiss and Mick, but as much as Le Tiss was the epitome of Saints in the 1990s, so Channon was the backbone of the club in the 1970s. It’s a generational thing. Those aged in their 30s and 40s today would vote Le Tiss: those in their 50s or over for Channon. Just. He was there for the FA Cup Final in 1976, the first European excursions and gained 48 caps for England in his golden period of 1972-77. His arm waving, windmill goal celebration was copied by every boy on Southampton’s playgrounds, and his permanent enthusiasm and straight talking wed him to fans. He was Saints’ top scorer for seven consecutive seasons and his testimonial two days after the Cup Final sparked jubilant pitch invasions as a wildly over-packed Dell continued the weekend celebrations – it was one of the most special nights at The Dell. Channon was to move to Man City the following season but returned to The Dell for three more years in the top flight. He may love horses but he still passionately loves the club. And he is adored back.

Comments very welcome!

Player comments Steve Keenan, The Times

One can but dream …

http://backpagefootball.com/featured/can-southampton-march-into-the-epl/