The Saints are currently sitting pretty at the top of the Championship, but what is the secret to their success? The first of the Wessex Scene‘s round-ups of Southampton F.C.’s 2011-12 campaign answers this and other questions.
Southampton F.C. were promoted to the Championship this year after two seasons in League One, and will be looking to cement their place in the second tier of English football and make progress towards their ultimate goal of returning to the Premier League. The season kicked off on 6 August, and after three games the Saints are more than holding their own against the competition by sitting at the top of the league table, with three wins out of three against decent opposition. But how have they made it this far, and will this level of success last?
In their 125-year history, Southampton have spent 35 seasons in the top flight (the Premier League and the First Division), 38 seasons in the second (the Championship and the Second Division) and 11 in the third (League One and the Third Division/Third Division South), with the remainder spent in the Southern League before the First World War. Clearly, they are no strangers to the competition of English football at the highest level, and so it is no surprise that they appear to be on the rise again.
The Saints‘ downfall started in 2005, when managerial changes and the loss of star striker James Beattie to Everton meant they finished rock bottom of the Premier League. More problems behind the scenes, including liquidation of the club’s parent company, meant the South Coast club took a further fall into League One, incurring a ten-point deduction for the next season in the process. The 2009-10 campaign was decent, and finished with the Saints in 7th place — just seven points shy of the playoff places (which they would have achieved but for the deduction). The next season saw the arrival of manager Nigel Adkins, who came in accepting nothing less than promotion. Southampton delivered, finishing in the second automatic promotion place just three points behind champions Brighton & Hove Albion. And now they are back in the Championship, arguably where they belong at the least.
The club’s impressive display in League One last year could be credited to the hard work of so many players in the squad, not least top scorer Rickie Lambert, top assistant Adam Lallana, and 17-year-old wonderboy Alex Chamberlain. New manager Adkins seemed to be an amazing asset too, following the somewhat strange and controversial sacking of Alan Pardew early in the year. The only obvious concerning change this season is the loss of Chamberlain to Premier League powerhouse Arsenal for a club record of £15million (surpassing the £12million paid for Theo Walcott in January 2006 by, coincidentally, the Gunners), although new signing Steve De Ridder has already set the standard with one goal in two substitute appearances for the team so one is tempted to not worry too much about his departure. Midfielder/defender Jack Cork has also returned to the club (following a half-season loan spell in 2008), and is already creating chances and proving himself worthy of Morgan Schneiderlin‘s place in the team. All in all, it looks as if the Saints have got as strong a squad as any to perform in the Championship this year.
First up this season was a home match against three-time First Division champions Leeds United, who suffered a similar downfall to Southampton at around the same time. Having already spent a season in the Championship and finishing an extremely respectable 7th place, Leeds provided what looked like a tough opening day fixture for Adkins‘ boys. The hosts came out absolutely gunning though, and within 25 minutes were two goals up thanks to efforts from captain Dean Hammond and winger Lallana. Shortly after the break, striker David Connolly made it three and it looked as if the Saints were on course for a huge victory. Max Gradel denied Kelvin Davis the clean sheet, however, scoring in the dying seconds of the match from the penalty spot. Straight away Southampton were in the top two of the table, behind only Ipswich Town with their 3-0 result.
A trip to Barnsley was next up: a team who have struggled to make any significant impact in the league for a few years, finishing 17th or lower the last five seasons. Southampton won again, but not as easily as before; a single goal, again from Connolly, was all that separated the sides at the full time whistle, and the visitors were a man down as Richard Chaplow was dismissed for a high challenge late in the game. In the end though, the club picked up three points, a clean sheet, and went to the top of the table before even August was over. A midweek trip to Ipswich Town was the third match of the season, and the Southampton players were on top form from the first second and won the game in the first half with three goals. The hosts brought two back, but Lallana scored a couple more to put the Saints back up at the top.
It seems as if the players of Southampton are toying with the opposition, despite being one of the newest teams in the league. If they keep this form up, there looks to be no way that the team will face relegation, or even achieve anything less than a top-10 finish, at the end of the campaign. But it’s early days, and we all know that in the world of football things can turn sour very quickly. Southampton have made a blinding start to the season, but with teams like Millwall, Leicester City and West Ham United on the horizon, fans will be worried about the side’s ability to keep up the momentum for the whole nine months. All they can do is keep playing, and if the fans keep up the support then there’s no reason why the Saints can’t finish in a respectable position in the table and even, dare I say, challenge for promotion. In the end, it’s okay as long as we beat Portsmouth, right?