Two relegations with administration in between at the south coast club saw them staring oblivion in the face but now consecutive promotions have fans pinching themselves
By George Ankers
It has been a long and often dark seven years for Southampton since they were last a Premier League club.
Relegation, administration, relegation again … it is the path that every football fan dreads for their club, and the Saints skirted as close to oblivion as any league club has on their way down the divisions.
Hideously mismanaged by a succession of short-sighted and confused board members, it would have been hard in the summer of 2009 to imagine that just three years later, they would be back in the big time.
The overriding mood heading into Saturday’s final game of the season was optimism – after all, Southampton stood two points clear with a goal-difference advantage, facing in Coventry a relegated side. Yet nerves, naturally, were taking hold.
Almost every team’s supporters have held their side up as “typically” blowing it when it would be easier to succeed, and a fluffing of their lines away to Middlesbrough, losing 2-1 when they could have confirmed promotion, triggered a similar reaction for some of the south-coast faithful.
|THE SAINTS ARE COMING
1. Reading (c)
3. West Ham
Great rivals they may be, but there is sympathy for the sickening anguish of a crumbling club.
But Saints were luckier than some and were not only saved, but invested into. Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr swooped in when local legend Matt Le Tissier’s plans for a consortium fell through and turned things around.
Two key arrivals that summer set the wheels in motion for today’s triumph – Alan Pardew in the dugout and Rickie Lambert, a 27-year-old forward signed for £1 million from Bristol Rovers, up front.
The Saints were unable to overcome the 10-point penalty still hanging over from their administration but Pardew’s nous and Lambert’s relentless goalscoring fired them to glory in the Football League Trophy. It may not be the best-regarded of accolades by their former contemporaries but it was Saints’ vindication that they had made it out of the long, dark tunnel.
At the start of the next season the Saints had to overcome more difficulties. Liebherr’s death in August 2010 was a shock, though his family had prepared themselves to continue to provide for the club, and the elevated chairman, Nicola Cortese, controversially fired Pardew over an apparent personality clash.
However, though the decision was disagreed with at the time, it has worked out beyond well (for both parties, as Newcastle will testify), as the man recruited to fill the vacant post was Nigel Adkins.
Adkins’ rise is impressive enough as it is. “Who needs Mourinho, we’ve got our physio,” they used to sing at Scunthorpe when the 47-year-old was elevated from the medical staff to take charge of the Iron. His achievements in lifting his side twice from League One into the Championship convinced Cortese to sign him up, and he fit in immediately.
He is a manager universally adored at St Mary’s, as much for his relentless optimism and enthusiasm as his results. Adkins often resembles a playful rabbit as much as a man, such is his innocently happy, bouncy demeanour, but there is no question of him not being taken seriously. His charisma has driven Saints up in style.
He suits Southampton precisely because of his happiness. Ever since that nadir, when liquidation was a very real possibility, there has been a feeling of not quite believing that all of this has been happening. Recovering to one promotion was an incredible achievement.
Striding to back-to-back triumphs is pinch-yourself stuff. It is no wonder Adkins can not stop smiling.
They deserve it, too. There has been more than their fair share of spending for League One and Championship level, but Lambert’s expectation-demolishing excellence aside, the standouts at St Mary’s have been raised there.
Adam Lallana, starring on the left of midfield, is a product of the club’s famed academy, the only genuine first-team star to have risen through all the ranks and not been sold on as had the likes of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Frenchman Morgan Scheniderlin arrived as a very green teenager before administration but has matured into a fine central midfielder. Both should flourish in the top flight, and more prospects keep coming.
Centred around Lambert’s peerless hold-up play, passing and lethal finishing allied to Lallana’s trickery and, lately, Billy Sharp’s dynamism, Southampton have thrilled fans who would have been happy enough just to see a team walk onto the pitch at all.
Their victory over Coventry turned a delirious affair as soon as Billy Sharp and Jose Fonte poached a quickfire double midway through the first half. They may have been burned at the Riverside but there was no mistaking what was going on - the Saints were not giving this up.
For the record St Mary's crowd who flooded onto the pitch at full-time, the joy of witnessing Saints' remarkable return from the brink may never be matched in a lifetime of support.
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