When I last visited Southampton it was to play at a venue called the Brook. It’s a cracking place both to perform and to see a band and an easy drive for me and it made me think rather warmly of the place. This of course put me in a minority among my peers. The rest of the band, from Portsmouth to a man, looked upon Hampshire’s biggest city with much the same love as you and I might reserve for a Spurs supporting Great Dane with diarrhoea that had just evacuated twelve pounds of semi digested Pedigree Chum onto our best Axminster.
My football memories (there are precisely two) of Southampton go way back. The first comes with a wholly unsavoury confession which I hesitate to make public here. You see, back when I was still in short trousers and newly arrived in England, I decided to choose an English team to support. I was already fascinated with football and Chelsea had an extremely photogenic and exciting team and I briefly flirted with the idea of supporting them. Can you imagine? It was a bloody close run thing as well, what with them defeating the universally despised Leeds United in the FA Cup final that season. Just the kind of behaviour to turn a young boy’s head. Then, as now, Southampton was the closest top flight club to my home town and as a treat my dad took me to the Dell to see not the home side but the visitors who included the likes of Bonetti, Harris, Osgood, Hudson, Cooke and Hutchinson. It was, on reflection, a heck of a thing for him to do because he was a Pompey fan himself and while neither Chelsea nor Southampton was destined to be my team, the occasion, the crowd the sheer bloody excitement of the thing were massively significant if not fundamentally instrumental in sparking my lifelong obsession with the beautiful game. Not that watching Chopper Harris repeatedly kicking Joe Kirkup six feet into the air could be classed as a thing of beauty, but I’m sure you catch my drift.
I didn’t visit the Dell again until Arsenal came to town for a League Cup 4th round replay in November 1985. It was a wonderful night. We won three one, Charlie Nicholas scored and we successfully wound up Peter Shilton to the point were he nearly climbed into the crowd to sort us all out. In a neat symbiosis Spurs also travelled to the south coast in the same competition and lost to Portsmouth. Life can be sweet at times. I went down with my mate Jon in my shiny new Skoda 120LS which, unfortunately for us broke down in Buckland Dinham on the way home, moments after the village pub shut for the night.
The only other part Southampton played in this old man’s misspent youth was beating Man United in the FA Cup final of 1976 and for that and all the other reasons above I harbour them no ill will. I don’t wish them well this afternoon of course, that would be a step too far, but the way they have gone about their business this season has, quite rightly, drawn plaudits from far and wide. When you consider the appallingly unambitious, lowest common denominator football some of the smaller clubs have practised over the years, all of them dragging out the feeble excuse that it is the only way to guarantee survival in the Premier League, it is a joy when teams come up and try to move the ball around and get forward in numbers.
Obviously the silly talk of us being underdogs today is just a symptom of the disease of exaggeration, hyperbole and over reaction which infects so much of today’s media both social and professional. Southampton are coming to the home of the league leaders, who, on their day can beat any team in the world, and they know they will need to be at their very best and Arsenal at their worst to create an upset today. I am not belittling the opposition, I hope I may never be accused of such premature triumphalism, and I know that the kind of disjointed, insipid display we put on in the first half at Old Trafford will not be good enough if our visitors do play to the best of their abilities, but I am very positive about today. As Arsène said yesterday, there were lessons to learn and the team have learned them. It’s all about self belief and imposing your game on the opposition whomsoever they might be.
As far as the squad is concerned it’s one step forward one step back. Flamini suspended and Theo returning from injury is, I think , indicative of the change in approach the team needs to adopt in the light of its last outing. We need to get at and behind sides with pace. We need to start frightening teams, putting them onto the back foot in the style of the great Arsène Wenger teams of recent years. I have no qualms about our defence, we look very solid with either Arteta or Flamini in front of our back five, I think we just need to play a little more in the other teams half. Of course, we need to pass the ball quickly and accurately as well and for me the key player is Tomáš Rosický. He keeps things moving and ups the tempo in a way nobody else does. He may be back from his illness, we shall have to wait and see. If he is fit then guessing the team selection is all but impossible as there are too many undroppable players on the list. It’s a problem I’m sure Arsène is delighted to have and one he’ll have in spades when everybody is fit again.
The wingless wonders have done us proud up until now. With the return of genuine width and pace we become an immediately more threatening proposition and with the option to rest tired legs and replace them with authentic quality I am really looking forward to part three in what is shaping up to be the most intriguing Premier League battle in many years. More than anything I’m just bloody relieved that despite cheering Chelsea on to that FA Cup win back in 1970, something happened in the summer and I decided that the team for me played in red with white sleeves. It was, as I have said, a close run thing.