Sunday 15th May 2005, approximately 4:55 PM. After twenty-seven years of top flight football the Saints finally relinquish their place among the English elite and slip unceremoniously into the Football League Championship. A book could be written about what happened thereafter but the short version is that the off the field problems were making more headlines than the team. Chairman came and went, but not as regularly as the managers and players did, huge debt was accumulated in a last ditch attempt to reacquire our Premier League status. We failed, and the club was left in a perpetual nose dive, that resulted in administration and third tier football for the first time in nearly 50 years.
The club was rescued only days from extinction by Marcus Liebherr and the recovery began, the only thing that stopped us from making an immediate return to the Championship was the ten point penalty we were given for going into administration. There was however something to cheer after seasons of doom and gloom with a trip to the new Wembley Stadium in the final of the Football League Trophy, it mattered not to us Saints fans that it was a competition reserved for lower league clubs that is largely ignored until the area finals. To us it was a day out at the home of football and a chance to celebrate after all the stress and worry of the previous close season when it looked like we may not even have a club to cheer on at all. When Dean Hammond and Kelvin Davies lifted that trophy in front of our new owner and chairman, to me it was not just a trophy but also a beacon, a beacon of hope that one day we would crawl out of the depths and back in to the top flight, back in to the limelight.
There was talk of a five year plan to return to the Premier League and with a hard fought promotion back to the Championship the following season – under the stewardship of relatively unknown manager Nigel Adkins – we still had three years left to realise our dream. I think I speak for most Saints fans when I say that everyone was expecting us in our first season back at this level to be kicking around mid-table with maybe a late push for the playoff places if we were still in touch come March. But as the Month of March comes to an end, we find ourselves in first place where we have been there or there about since the opening day of the season. In fact we had our best start to a season since, well our Southern League days probably, back in the days of horse drawn trams and unsinkable cruise ships.
“Oh it will never last, wait for the drop down the table!” they said, and that was just some of our own supporters! Inevitably the slump happened and the doomsayers started predicting that we would be lucky to make the playoffs, but the recovery was swift and we clung on to second place as the clubs around us failed to take advantage. So now we find ourselves with only a handful of games and with a fairly comfortable lead over 3rd place. I want to believe that we are almost there that we will keep our heads and our form and not let the prize slip from our grasp, but older fans still remember the great slump of 1949 when the club let and 8 point lead (2 points for a win back then) slip with seven games left to play to finish 3rd (only two promotion places and no safety net of the play-offs) and miss out on promotion, in a shocking reversal of form from what they showed in the previous eight months.
I want to believe that this will not, cannot happen again, but this is Southampton and we never do things the easy stress free way when it is much more entertaining to keep everyone on the edge of their seats. I cannot think of anything else at the moment, I thought with age I had left those days behind, when as a youth football infused my every waking moment, but I find myself working out different permutations and possible results. My nerves are not helped by the fact that we have a local derby coming up over the busy Easter weekend as well as a top of the table clash against fellow promotion hopefuls Reading a week later. I want to believe that in the end we will achieve promotion – and yes the title too – with games to spare, but in reality I know there may be a few twists and turns to come, but whatever happens April is going to be one hell of a month.