On 18th October 2008 at St Mary’s Stadium, Southampton Football Club faced Watford in the Football League Championship. Languishing in 20th place, the Saints were in desperate need of a win to lift them away from the nether regions of the table. Their 27-year stay in the top flight of English football had only just come to an end four seasons previously, and the prospect of relegation to the third tier for the first time in fifty years was unthinkable.
As it happened, Watford won by a comfortable 3-0 margin on that autumnal Saturday afternoon, with two penalty misses for the Saints compounding their misery.
“It is all about confidence,” said then-Southampton manager Jan Poortvliet in the aftermath of the game.
“We have to pick ourselves up, learn from this and go on to the next game.”
The Dutchman’s optimism proved to be unfounded. The Saints would go on to reach no higher than 19th in the table, and after they were deducted 10 points for going into administration on 23rd April 2009 – a consequence of financial difficulties that had dogged the club for a number of seasons – relegation to League One was confirmed, the absolute nadir of the darkest period in Southampton’s history.
Even at the beginning of this season non-believers had them mid-standard, but fast forward to this past weekend and the Saints again found themselves playing in front of their loyal supporters at St Mary’s. The visitors were Sunderland, but this was no League One tie, nor a Championship fixture for that matter. Southampton – managed this time by another Dutchman in the form of Ronald Koeman, a two-time European Cup winner and one of the finest defenders of his generation – were going into the game in 3rd place in the Premier League.
As the referee’s whistle blew for full time, with daylight beginning to fade over the South Coast, the scoreline read: Southampton 8-0 Sunderland. This was not only one of the Saints’ highest-ever recorded wins; it was also one of the greatest and most complete team performances ever witnessed in the Premier League.
After the nadir of relegation to League One, the total and utter annihilation of Sunderland represented the zenith of Southampton’s glorious renaissance. In just five years, the club had gone from playing the likes of Hartlepool United, Oldham Athletic and Exeter City in League One to becoming one of the most lauded and talked about teams in the most popular league on the planet.
For the duration of those 90 unforgettable minutes on Saturday, the innocent, child-like joy of the Southampton players as they shed their labels as multi-million pound professionals and showed why they fell in love with the game in the first place, the red-headed serenity of Koeman as he basked from his dugout in the glory of his team transforming the sport into a perfect, pure art form, and the overwhelmingly majestic sense of happiness emanating from the men, women and children filling the home stands symbolised the attainment of football for football’s sake, of playing the sport as a means of providing the greatest amount of entertainment to the greatest amount of people – the one overriding purpose of the game.
It is for this reason that the rise of Southampton Football Club – epitomised by the perfection achieved over the weekend – is the best thing to have happened not only in the Premier League, but in the whole of English football since the advent of the modern game.
The Saints’ triumphant and rapid success has shown that football does not always have to be a slave to money. Their investment and belief in talented young players through their academy – reflected in the high turnout of graduates in the first team – helped them overcome the pain of administration, and their commendable refusal to surrender to the conventional credence that it is only by spending money that a club can develop and achieve greater success remains steadfast to this day.
Despite receiving in excess of £90 million over the summer for a number of their best players, the Saints ended the transfer window with a net positive balance of £30 million. Instead of blowing the whole sum on expensive signings à la Manchester City, Chelsea and most other cash-rich football clubs, their expenditure was relatively modest, with their two major signings of Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle costing a combined £20 million.
Southampton’s summer windfall has not hindered the chances of its homegrown players, either. Nathaniel Clyne, Jack Cork and James Ward-Prowse remain highly valued members of the team – just as Adam Lallana and Calum Chambers were before their departures – which is further evidence of the club’s firm commitment to its youth setup.
As for Tadic and Pelle, their arrivals in English football provoked little attention due to their relatively obscure reputations and unremarkable transfer fees, yet the way in which the pair have taken the league by storm – including scoring against Sunderland – highlights Southampton’s preference for players who buy into the hardworking, collective ethos of the club over those who come with expensive price tags, copious hype, yet a desire for individual rather than team glory.
Southampton’s Saturday afternoon masterpiece encompassed the very best and most virtuous aspects of football. That day, the Saints made the game beautiful. In truth, they were the only team who could have done so.