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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

How Southampton are moving on from the pain of the ‘pantomime villains’

Football's Front Lines: "There’s no love lost at all. We're a club that love to hate Liverpool."

“I think Saints supporters have unrealistic expectations of their star players because our greatest ever – Matt Le Tissier – stayed for his entire career.”

That’s Saints FC Podcast host John Bailey, explaining the complex relationship between a loyal fan base and the heroes they idolise.

Southampton supporters know more than most the feeling of being unceremoniously picked apart by those higher up the food chain.


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Persona non grata

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Persona non grata

And football’s food chain is undeniable.

Celtic sell players to Southampton, who sell players to Liverpool, who sell players to Barcelona.

Saints have reluctantly pocketed £345million in transfer sales since the summer of 2014, with over half of that mammoth total coming from Anfield.

St Mary’s isn’t typically associated with belligerent atmospheres, but for Virgil Van Dijk, and a handful of his Liverpool team-mates, it was the lion’s den last Friday night.

Every touch was met with a deafening chorus of boos and the towering Dutchman, usually calm as you like, looked rattled and nearly scored an own goal during a blistering opening period.

“There’s no love lost at all,” Freddie Hunt, from podcast The Ugly Inside, told me. “We’re Saints… we’re a club that loves to hate Liverpool.”

Jurgen Klopp prepares for the post-match presser

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Jurgen Klopp prepares for the post-match presser

Some, like the universally loved Sadio Mane, have left amicably.

But other departures have left a sour taste in the mouth.

Van Dijk, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana in are public enemies number one, two and three on the south coast after acrimonious exits.

“The whole Van Dijk saga really soured the relationship between the clubs,” John added. “All the weird meetings between Klopp and Van Dijk in Blackpool.”

“He’d just taken the captaincy after signing a six-year deal so people felt quite cheated.

“I think, as a result, Saints fans want to beat Liverpool more than any other Premier League team.”

Chatting to John prior to kick off

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Chatting to John prior to kick off

You just have to compare the vitriol aimed at Van Dijk and Lovren with a moment in the last 15 minutes involving Mane and Maya Yoshida…

“They [Van Dijk, Lovren and Lallana] are the pantomime villains,” Freddie quips.

“Lovren… as soon as he had the first opportunity to jump, he jumped.

“Van Dijk refused to play for us for six months and was feigning an injury. He became a character we love to hate.”

It’s not the departures in isolation that have sparked this hostility, this unlikely rivalry within the Premier League, but the manner of their exits.

Lallana, a Southampton youth product who journeyed with them up the Football League pyramid, was seen kissing the Southampton badge just weeks before signing on the dotted Liverpool line.

One of their own?

PA:Press Association
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One of their own?

Then there’s Van Dijk.

Since moving to Anfield last January the towering Dutchman has developed into possibly the best centre-back in the world, but Saints fans will tell you he already was… he just chose not to show it.

Liverpool’s initial approach had been rebuffed in the summer after Southampton reported them for ‘tapping up’ their prize asset.

Van Dijk was duly handed the armband permanently but, besides a few flourishes against the likes of Inter Milan in the Europa League, generally performed way below his best.

From one armband

PA:Press Association
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From one armband

To another

Reuters
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To another

Halting that seemingly endless conveyor belt of talent leading out of St Mary’s has been Southampton’s biggest obstacle to stability.

But there is now a growing sense that there is light at the end of a frustratingly long tunnel.

Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes all came, saw and emphatically failed to conquer, with the latter duo dragging Saints perilously close to the drop.

Saints Voice representatives

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Saints Voice representatives

“Never again please” remarked Saints Voice representative Yasmin Wiseman on the Mark Hughes era.

“We were just so poor under Hughes,” John added.
“Tepid in attack, squandering chances. The mental fragility was just unbelievable.

“We’d go two or three goals up and expect them to still throw it away.

“Players don’t often slag off ex-managers but the way they talk about Hasenhuttl has contained plenty of sly digs at Hughes.”

Before Friday’s dramatic 3-1 defeat courtesy of late goals from Mohamed Salah and Jordan Henderson, Southampton sat eighth in the Premier League form table in 2019.

Klopp and the ‘Alpine Klopp’

PA:Press Association
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Klopp and the ‘Alpine Klopp’

While the majority of English fans may have shrugged their shoulders at Hasenhuttl’s appointment, European followers waxed lyrical about the man dubbed the ‘Alpine Klopp’.

In Germany he took Ingolstadt from the foot of Bundesliga 2 to the Bundesliga in two seasons, before turning RB Leizpig into a Champions League club.

Hasenhuttl’s stock was high, so after the doom and gloom of Pellegrino and Hughes, this was some coup for Southampton.

And his impact has been instantaneous.

Doom and gloom

PA:Empics Sport
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Doom and gloom

After claiming the scalps of Arsenal and Spurs, big wins over Everton, Fulham and Brighton in recent months should preserve their top-flight status for another season and give them a platform to build.

Hasenhuttl has even gone to the lengths of banning WiFi from club hotels in a bid to suppress gaming addictions within his squad.

“Hughes was the manager but he didn’t manage properly,” Freddie adds. “Ralph has got that aura and charisma about him to demand the respect from the players.

“The team spirit is back again. We’re playing direct and attractive football.”

JWP is the man on everyone’s lips

AFP or licensors
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JWP is the man on everyone’s lips

The likes of James Ward-Prowse, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and rising star Yan Valery have all excelled under Hasenhuttl, who Jurgen Klopp branded ‘exceptional’ in his post-match presser.

So the question is; can they keep the class of ’19 together and fend off interest from the likes of Liverpool again?

With Hasenhuttl at the wheel Southampton boast the pull factor they have sorely missed since Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman were at the helm.

Their problem, this time, may be keeping hold of their manager…

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