It was 1976 when Southampton won their only major trophy at Wembley; since then the club has enjoyed promotion back to the old Division 1, an FA Cup Final in 2003 and a brief European tour to Bucharest. Relegation to the third tier of English football, administration and watching their nearest and dearest rivals winning the FA Cup in 2008 followed.
Now though the turbulence of recent years is beginning to calm for the Solent club.
Sunday’s triumph at Wembley could may well be the point that Southampton have announced themselves back into English football, as they embark on a journey to take them back to the ‘promised land’ of top-tier football.
Alan Pardew has been tasked with the job of getting Saints out of League 1, into the Championship and then straight out of the Football League altogether. Nicola Cortese has provided him with the tools to do so. 32-goal striker Rickie Lambert is the most high-profile acquisition and the most successful. Markus Liebherr’s cash injection has also seen the arrival of big-money signings such as Jose Fonte, Jason Puncheon and Lee Barnard.
However, Pardew’s relative success this season cannot be put down to money alone. The former Charlton manager has also proved to be shrewd in finding bargains. Dan Harding was picked up as a free agent, and what a signing he has been. The left-back has been the Saints’ most consistent performer this season. Radhi Jaidi, a player whose experience is invaluable, has also been bought into to ‘beef up’ what was last year a very frail defence.
Cortese has gone on record to say that league results have not been good enough this season and that the club’s position in the league is not satisfactory considering the money spent. Cortese may have seen the books last year but he certainly wouldn’t have seen the team. This squad is so much stronger this season and contains winners, experience and belief. A complete contrast to last season’s relegated squad of youth players who went down with a whimper.
Pardew and his team, however, have been able to make use of the talented players from last season, two of whom have become key components of his JP trophy winning side: Morgan Schneiderlin and Adam Lallana.
Schneiderlin, the French under-21 captain, has all the attributes to be a top player but his first year of football across the Channel has not been a happy one on the pitch. Being relegated with Saints is what marked his debut season in English football. The cultured midfielder came under criticism for his lack of strength and lack of fight, a lot for a 19-year-old player to take.
This season, however, his game has changed. Now the young midfield magician has added bite and fight to his game. Although he is yet to score a senior goal he certainly contributes towards the large number of goals scored by Saints. Southampton’s number 19 will have been deeply disappointed to have missed Sunday’s final through injury, but he will probably return to Wembley one day for a bigger competition, with or without Southampton.
Fans from St. Mary’s are still holding onto slim hopes of reaching Wembley for a second time this season, after waiting more than 15 years since their last trip. Without the points deduction they would find themselves two points from the play-offs. 12 points to make up in nine games seems unlikely but not impossible considering the fixtures for both Southampton and their play-off-chasing rivals.
The men with money talk and Cortese certainly does; the man charged with managing the finances expects more. But a question that Saints fans have asked themselves, and one for Cortese to consider, is this: at the start of the season with a 10-point deduction, a squad in tatters and a manager joining less than a month before the start of the season, would you have been happy with a top-ten finish and winning a trophy at Wembley?
The answer for most is yes. Even Southampton great Matthew Le Tissier has given Pardew his public backing; take note Cortese.
The last few years of football on the South Coast barely tell a story of success. Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth and even Weymouth have suffered financial woes and now relegation.
The story of Southampton should provide inspiration to fans of these other clubs that the good times can arrive as quickly as the bad times. Portsmouth fans may not wish to emulate Southampton but if the Saints can continue on their current track they could be the model for clubs beyond the South Coast.
Written By Carl Noyce