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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINE

How did Southampton go from the Premier League’s best run side to relegation candidates?

For years Southampton were a model Premier League club but now they are staring relegation in the face. So what went wrong?

Proper Football correspondent Jim Daly is standing on the terraces to take the temperature at clubs who are facing dramatic changes as the season reaches its climax.

Remember when Southampton were the blueprint for English football?

Finding gems for pennies and turning them into Premier League stars, a conveyor-belt of young British talent being blooded into the first-team, constantly upsetting the odds against the big boys.

They started this season in the Europa League for the second year running but on Saturday, with just three games left in the 2017/18 season, they sat in the Premier League bottom three, four points from safety and staring relegation squarely in the face.

How on earth did this happen? I decided to head down to the south coast to find out for what just so happened to be a must-win clash was against noisy neighbours Bournemouth.


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You can have it for free if you can name the cover star

Getty - Contributor
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You can have it for free if you can name the cover star

I park up by the Ocean Village docks and walked into town past my old university halls, a full 14 years after I lived there during a journalism degree where, like Southampton on the pitch this season, I didn’t turn up much.

My fixer for the day is Freddie Hunt, well known to Saints fans as the host of The Ugly Inside Youtube fan channel. He sorted me a ticket and I meet him at the Scholars Arms, which I have vague memories of being chucked out of during uni.

I walk past tonnes of police on the high street, many of whom are watching and filming Bournemouth fans in Yates, but when I get to the Scholars there are Saints and Cherries fans happily having beers side by side.

It all looks surprisingly calm

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It all looks surprisingly calm

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In fact, Freddie’s brother’s mate for some reason gets the impression I am a Southampton fan, even though I introduced myself as a Palace supporter, but is incredible friendly about it.

“We all need rivals to survive and you know what, you’re alright mate,” he says and I suddenly feel like I’m an undercover cop in The Wire about to bust open a massive drugs ring.

Freddie is less concerned about Bournemouth and more worried about his own club as we watch 19th-placed Stoke take on Liverpool in the early kick-off, the entire pub willing a home goal at Anfield.

“If we don’t win today that’s it, there is no way back,” he says while a roar goes up in the pub as Erik Pieters’ handball somehow isn’t punished with a penalty.

‘It hit me face, ref!’

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‘It hit me face, ref!’

“I think a lot of people would be happy to see the back of Les Reid [Saints Director of Football],” he goes on when I ask about what the hell has happened at Southampton recently.

“He has to take some responsibility for the recruitment of players and managers over the last few years. He sees dollar signs when big clubs come calling. We’ve made £200 million off Liverpool alone!

“It’s all just caught up with us,” he adds. “The attitude of the club has changed. How we got into this situation where for the last two two years ago we were in the Europa League to this, I do not know. This situation is totally unacceptable.

“We are victims of our own success in a way. Expectations have been raised so high. We were obsessed with ‘The Southampton Way’ but we just needed to f*** The Southampton Way for the last eight or nine games, go back to basis and just stay up.”

The Southampton Way

AFP or licensors
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The Southampton Way

He tells me about an infamous black box in a hidden room at the training ground with hundreds of scouting reports on unearthed gems; a box that has served the club well in the past but to some remains a myth. “I’ve seen it,” he adds and now I really want to see the box too.

There is a bit of romanticism about manager Mark Hughes at the club. He was here as a player during the Saints’ last big Premier League survival in 1999 and scored in a 3-3 game that kick-started an unthinkable turnaround in mid-April. Many are hoping he will have a similar effect this time around as manager.

He replaced summer appointment Mauricio Pellegrino who Freddie adds had “sucked the life and confidence out of the players” and should have gone way before he was finally relieved of his duties in mid-March but kept finding results here and there every time the board was ready to wield the axe.

There are black clouds hanging over the stadium – metaphorically and literally; it’s a dreary day – and there are a disproportionate amount of burger vans by St Marys, like literally one every five yards. They must really like burgers down here.

The smell of a lack of success

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The smell of a lack of success

I get a programme and read about a lad who went to my uni and is now an analyst for the Southampton first team and I can’t help feeling a tiny bit of collective responsibility for their current plight.

I then remember that I used to coach for Southampton Football In The Community at a local school during my final year and wonder if any of the kids in my class grew up to go through the famed Saints academy and into the first team. But then I recall that, to a child, they were all awful at football.

Outside the ground Freddie introduces me to Jordan Baldridge, who is on a pilgrimage from California to St Marys, via the Middle East and Egypt, for his first ever Southampton game. “I’m super excited because I don’t get access to this kind of atmosphere in the US,” the 22-year-old says, visibly excited. “Being around a Premier League atmosphere is really special.”

Point to your right ear

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Point to your right ear

He became a Saints fan due to a family friend out in the USA during the Mauricio Pochettino era and has stuck with the team ever since, which is refreshing because it’s easy to assume most American fans just pick the big, successful teams.

“I happened upon being a Saints fan through a family connection but honestly it’s been an incredible ride and I wouldn’t have picked it any other way with any other team,” he says.

“A win would be the perfect way to end my trip,” he says before adding “but I’m really hoping that even if relegation is next, that The Southampton Way is held intact” and I make a mental note not to tell Freddie that.

I go in and find my seat in the corner of the Itchen North right next to the away fans. Home fans instantly break into “Oh when the Saints go marching in” which the away fans respond with “Oh when the Saints go Championship” and I settle in for 90 minutes of pure panto.

Hands up if you would prefer to be at the theatre

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Hands up if you would prefer to be at the theatre

Dusan Tadic, who was Man of the Match by a mile, opens the scoring and an empty plastic pint lands almost directly at my feet from the away end. “How s*** must you be, we’re winning at home” sing the Saints fans only to be met with “How s*** must you be, you’re still going down”. It’s like terrance chant tennis.

Southampton are on top for most of the half but concede a sloppy goal from a corner right at the break and the whole atmosphere is deflated.

I queue at half-time for a tea and notice as I walk back up the steps to my seat that the club had laid out plastic clappers on every seat but that I hadn’t noticed a single person use one in the first half.

Loads are discarded, unwanted, on the floor and my respect for Saints fans goes up massively.

Mario Lemina, a Poundland Pogba, is busy in the middle of the park but it’s Tadic who scores again 10 minutes into the second half and a sea of clappers are launched towards the pitch. A bald lad in front of me gives the away fans a no-look w***** sign.

Carrying other teams on his back

Getty Images - Getty
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Carrying other teams on his back

Saints miss a tonne of chances to put the game to bed and Alex McCarthy is forced into a couple of big saves to keep the Cherries out. The big lad in front cannot stop farting but I just put it down to nerves.

Injury time seems to go on for hours and Asmir Begovic goes up for two corners but finally the game ends and more clappers are launched onto the pitch. You can smell the relief in the air, or maybe that was more farts.

“The South Coast is ours” sing the home fans as the away end clears pretty quickly except for two young Cherries fans right down the front brazenly mocking the Saints fans with the ‘Take The L’ dance that Antoine Griezmann did at the Emirates two nights before.

I nip into Eddie Howe’s post-match press conference right at the end and typically my phone goes off. He doesn’t look best pleased; about that or the result. When Hughes turns up someone tells him Swansea are 1-0 down to Chelsea already. “Good” he says emphatically.

“We’ve got to maximise our opportunity,” the Welshman goes on. “It’s not going to be easy. We needed to win today and we have. It’s huge for everybody here. It’s an uneasy situation and we are all aware of our responsibility.”

Outside the ground I watch Freddie conduct interviews with supporters for his fan cams and there is widespread positivity. “The belief is back,” says an older fan called Steve while a lad called Dan lauded the players and Hughes for showing some passion out there. “We’re going to survive” he says.

It’s amazing what a win can do.