Friday, July 19, 2024

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Football Away Days: Southampton FC and St Mary's Stadium

View from outside St Mary's Stadium 13/04/24

After a gap of just over a year, we finally notched up another new entry in our long line of football away day experiences. And this one delivered the most entertaining game that we've seen so far in this series. Our venue was the St Mary's Stadium, and the fixture was Southampton against Watford in mid April. Whilst there wasn't a lot riding on it for The Hornets, the same certainly couldn't be said for a Saints team still pushing for an unlikely automatic promotion spot, and already nailed on for a Championship play-off place.

 



Despite the fact that this season has seen Southampton in the second tier of English football for the first time since 2012, it was refreshingly easy to buy tickets through their website. Obviously, a lot of this is down to demand, but I had expected there to be more difficulty in finding five seats together than there was, and I ended up opting for the Itchen Stand, relatively close to the away supporters that I had been amongst for my football away day at Vicarage Road last season.



The journey down by train ended up being a lot more straightforward than initially feared, although an undisclosed fault did delay us for about fifteen minutes. Sadly, the same thing couldn't be said for our voyage home, but on the plus side we were all in good spirits by that point! One of our group may have been clairvoyant, as they decided to drive down, and we rendezvoused with him at the Overdraft in Bedford Place, which is about a twenty-five minute walk from St Mary's.



It was a decent venue, one of two in the city, with plenty of good options for beer and cider, plus some tasty tacos on offer. And whilst we could have happily stayed there for longer, we were conscious of getting to the stadium and confident of finding a closer watering hole for home fans. However, our lack of forward-planning came back to bite us, as St Mary's Stadium is actually pretty lacking in nearby pubs and the atmosphere that they contribute to. With time ticking away we opted instead for a pint at the ground.



As we approached the home of Southampton FC, we passed Old Northam Rd, a curious street populated by antique shops, independent businesses and others no longer trading. The King Alfred pub was one of these establishments, an impressive building that was sadly sitting idle and would surely have a roaring trade with Saints fans if it could get a new lease of life.



After reaching the ground we were serenaded by a brass band as I sought out a programme, before taking a wander around the outside of St Mary's which, as you'd expect, is a decent, modern venue that can hold a bit more than 32,000. Built on a former gas works, the surrounding area retains an industrial heritage. The Kingsland Stand has a railway line that runs behind it, whereas the Chapel Stand had a plastics warehouse at the rear of it until a huge fire recently gutted the site. Finally, in between the Itchen Stand, Ted Bates statue and the River Itchen there's a large cement production operation.

 

On to the game itself, and it presented an opportunity for the home side to force themselves back into the automatic promotion hunt for the Championship. This anticipation had been heightened after Leicester City had a shock loss the night before to Plymouth, and was amplified when loud cheers rang out on our way to the stadium, and a quick check revealed that Leeds United were about to unexpectedly lose at home to Blackburn Rovers.



Having found our spots in the Itchen Stand, the five of us had barely settled into our seats before we were springing up back out of them. Saints striker, Adam Armstrong, turned provider and put a perfect cross into the middle of the six yard box, where a waiting Will Smallbone was somehow allowed a free header when surrounded by three Watford defenders. It was the quickest goal of the season for Southampton, taking a mere fifty-seven seconds to open the scoring.



The Saints fast start continued as they pressed the away side, Smallbone blazed over when through on goal, and then in the twentieth minute Kyle Walker-Peters persevered and got a low cross in from deep on the left of the Watford penalty area. The ball ricocheted off of David Brooks and a hapless swipe of a clearance, by Tom Dele-Bashiru, was ballooning out for a corner before Brooks nudged it back for a grateful Che Adams to tap in for 2-0.



At this point, we couldn't believe our luck in seeing an early goal rush and Southampton looked on course for a comfortable victory. So, you know what happened next. Watford duly worked their way back into the game, as they started to consistently threaten down the right hand touch line in front of us. Yáser Asprilla (and no he's not related to Faustino) was the antagonist every single time, as he went on darting runs, and he wormed his way into the penalty area before forcing a good save by the 'keeper that was inexplicably given as a goal kick.



It was no surprise when, in the thirty-fourth minute, he was the one that laid the ball off to defender Ryan Porteous. Who let fly from the edge of the box with a decent hit that deflected off of the defender's scalp. This took it past a stranded Gavin Bazunu, rocketing into the top corner and halving the deficit for The Hornets. By the break it felt like a good time for Russell Martin to have a word with his team; to reset and rethink their approach.



View from the Itchen Stand 13/04/24The second half was a bit more cagey, with both sides having chances but Watford looking best for the majority. Porteous had a close range downwards header cleared off the line by Taylor Harwood-Bellis, the centre-back on-loan from Manchester City. However, despite the warnings from Watford, the game should have arguably been sewn up with about ten minutes to go. Attacking down the same side as Asprilla had in the first half, Adam Armstrong was suddenly free down the wing and sent a controlled pass into the middle of the pitch for an oncoming Ryan Fraser, another loanee only this time from Newcastle. He steered a nice, low finish into the bottom left hand corner, only for the linesman to raise his flag. The decision happened right in front of us, and from where we were sitting it looked on. Let's just say it was marginal!



Sods Law then struck as Watford, buoyed by their let-off, got the equaliser just five minutes later. The Canadian midfielder, Ismaël Koné, spurred to life, with his back to goal he controlled the ball on his chest and was allowed to turn and dribble from forty yards out to the edge of the penalty area, where he then passed the ball into the far right hand corner. It was a lovely individual goal, but one that should have been avoided with a bit more proactiveness.



Whatever happened we had witnessed a hell of a game but, probably more than any other football away day, we were as desperate as the rest of the home fans to see a winner for 'our team'. Thankfully, Southampton belatedly rallied themselves for the few remaining minutes, as Armstrong had a bouncing volley into the turf tipped over the crossbar. The stoppage time came up as seven minutes, which pleased all but the corner of Watford fans to our right, and on the cusp of that extension elapsing, Saints got a free-kick on the far side of the pitch.



It found Jan Bednarek, who ran onto his header and saw it deflected out for a corner. The referee allowed for it to be taken, despite it now being the ninety-ninth minute, and the corner from Ryan Manning drifted into the middle of the penalty area, amidst a sea of players, only to bobble through toward the left hand post. There it found yet another loanee, the central midfielder Flynn Downes from West Ham, who controlled the bobbling ball for long enough to bundle in a late winner and cause St Mary's to deliriously erupt.



It was a joyous moment. We all hope for the Hollywood storylines, the late winners and the drama, but actually witnessing them may not occur too regularly. As the final scores revealed that Ipswich had drawn at home to Middlesbrough and made it a clean sweep of dropped points for their automatic promotion rivals, Southampton could breath a huge sigh of relief and rejoice in a very successful weekend.



Post-match we ambled back through the crowds and back towards the centre of the city, where we found The Painted Wagon within a short walk of Southampton Central train station. It's a sports bar that's almost exclusively dedicated to Southampton FC, with plenty of memorabilia, programmes and photos adorning every wall. It felt like a kind of mecca for Saints fans, and the punters were understandably jovial.



The only downside was the unexpected rail replacement service for our journey home, a coach that was in no hurry to get us to our connecting train. A short race against time in a taxi was required instead, but we did make it back at a reasonable time despite the mishaps. As far as away days go, this was up there with the best so far, but now, a few fixtures later, our adopted team face going through the play-offs following consecutive defeats to Cardiff and Leicester. An immediate return to the Premier League is still within reach for Southampton, if they can quickly get themselves ship-shape again.

 

 


Click this link to read about our other football away day adventures

 

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