Victory at Old Trafford gives Southampton’s followers real reason to believe

Top four place now a distinct possibility for Ronald Koeman’s side

Southampton’s Dutch manager Ronald Koeman congratulates defender Ryan Bertrand after the victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP

Southampton’s Dutch manager Ronald Koeman congratulates defender Ryan Bertrand after the victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP

 

Nigel Adkins was not happy. His team had lost 2-0 on Merseyside and he had an issue with one of his best young forwards whose head, Adkins explained, “has not been right – he was due to travel with us”.

Instead Jason Puncheon stayed at home, which at that time – 2011 – was in Hampshire. Thus Puncheon missed Southampton’s 2-0 defeat to Tranmere Rovers in the English third division.

This is where Southampton were four years ago. Four years ago next week. The loss left Southampton fourth in League One. Today they are third in the Premier League.

Nick Illingworth recalls leaving Prenton Park in Birkenhead with a group of fellow Southampton fans and having a long night’s drink in Liverpool. “For the first few pints it was all doom and gloom,” Illingworth says. “We were meant to be certain for promotion but we’d been steamrollered at Tranmere on a bog of a pitch. Brighton were running away with League One. We felt we’d blown it.”

Four Januarys later and Illingworth says that over the past week there has been a debate amongst Saints followers as to where last Sunday’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford stands in their 121-year history.

“Some have said it’s our best-ever league result,” he says. “It was the way we played, the maturity, it was a coming of age. And we jumped above Man United in the table.

“So there are reasons why fans are saying it’s better than when we beat Man United 6-3, or when they were 3-0 down at half-time and had to change their grey shirts.”

Entered administration

Ronald Koeman

It must also be remembered that in April 2009 Southampton entered administration, next season they might be in the Champions League.

Given that Illingworth attended his first Southampton game in 1972, began the Ugly Inside fanzine in 1988 and was at Tranmere in 2011, he and the fans like him who sustain professional football are experienced witnesses. They have seen enough not to get carried away.

But this is surely a time for Southampton’s support to dream. In their last five Premier League matches, Southampton have beaten Everton, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Manchester United and drawn with Chelsea. The Saints have constructed the best defensive record in the division, conceding just eight goals in 10 away games.

They will go to Newcastle with the confidence such security brings, although Wednesday’s FA Cup win at Ipswich brought another injury. Victor Wanyama is out, as is his fellow midfield pivot Morgan Schneiderlin. Impressive full-back Toby Alderweireld was injured at Old Trafford.

Without that trio, Southampton and Koeman will be tested at St James’ Park. But this is not new. When Koeman arrived at St Mary’s last June, it looked like the Dutchman was walking into a club bent on implosion. There was a lost manager, Mauricio Pochettino, and lost players in Adam Lallana, Richie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers, who joined other recent departed such as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Southampton received a lot of money but they also needed half a team. Koeman, so far, has bought well. Alderweireld (on loan), Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic have made an immediate impact.

And although the club gave the impression of implosion, Koeman nevertheless inherited a core of players who had done well under Pochettino, and Adkins before him.

Praise gushing

Jermaine JenasJose Fonte

In fact, as those who were there know, Fonte played in the 2-0 defeat at Tranmere.

Stationed in front of him that afternoon was Schneiderlin. Oxlade-Chamberlain also played. Lambert was up front.

In one sense, economically, Southampton were badly run, but in other ways – scouting and recruitment – they were excelling. By the time Koeman landed the Liebherr family had stabilised the club’s finances and though there was last summer’s sale, the Saints had something in reserve.

The team is a mix of that continuity of personnel and new faces. Koeman’s job is to gel the parts together in a convincing shape and to date he has done this so well a legitimate question is whether Southampton can keep it up and finish in the top four.

The Saints’ stripes bring a welcome dose of variety to the top. Southampton have brought a level of discipline and energy unforeseen in August and as Illingworth says: “It’s suddenly realistic we could make the top four. The Man United result has made the country realise that. It has made our supporters realise that. Still, there’s an element among us who think things can go wrong.”

There speaks someone who was at Prenton Park not that long ago.

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