Built on Saints
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of our much-loved home, Graham Hiley tells the tale of the stadium’s most memorable Southampton victories.
Saints 3-2 Arsenal
November 23rd 2002
As rarities go, Agustin Delgado’s match-winner was an “I was there” moment to savour alongside Francis Benali scoring against Leicester or Claus Lundekvam netting at Wolves.
The difference with the Tin Man registering his only Premier League goal was that it was supposed to be the first of many.
The previously prolific marksman arrived to a big fanfare from then chairman Rupert Lowe when he joined from Mexican club Necaxa for £3.2m during the managerial change-over between Stuart Gray and Gordon Strachan.
They say success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan – and none of the three have since been keen to claim the erratic Ecuadorian as their signing!
Indeed Strachan delivered one of football’s most memorable put-downs when asked about the injury-prone striker who drove him to distraction by frequently going AWOL. The Scot’s withering response? “I’ve got far more important things to worry about than Delgado – I’ve got a yoghurt on its sell-by date!”
Yet it could all have been so different – at least on the evidence of this match when the dynamic Delgado delivered a deadly display to crush the champions.
It was far from a solo show though as James Beattie struck twice and Antti Niemi produced a series of stunning saves to keep the visitors at bay on a memorable afternoon at St Mary’s.
The game seemed to be following a fairly familiar pattern as Saints tore into Arsène Wenger’s men from the start, dominating with high-tempo attacking thrusts – and then falling behind against the run of play.
Matthew Oakley’s long-range Dambuster effort had already drawn a sprawling save from David Seaman on his return from injury when the Gunners took the lead on 36 minutes.
A neatly-worked series of quick-fire passes ended with Dennis Bergkamp firing a half-volley just inside Niemi’s right post from 20 yards to seemingly announce business as usual for the title holders.
If that was spectacular, then Beattie’s response was sensational. On the stroke of half-time, Pascal Cygan was judged to have fouled Delgado 30 yards out and Wayne Bridge tapped the ball to Oakley who stopped it dead in a well-rehearsed routine.
Beattie was already powering onto it and let fly with the sweetest strike, his thunderous low drive arrowing past Seaman’s despairing dive to his right.
In an instant it changed both half-time team talks. Despite the language barrier, Strachan clearly found the words to inspire Delgado who was still unable to understand any English – let alone a Scottish growl!
First though Saints had to survive an early Arsenal onslaught thanks to Niemi’s astonishing triple save which was every bit as memorable as the goals.
Patrick Vieira burst through the inside-right channel one-on-one only for the Finnish keeper to produce a superb block. The ball looped up and the midfielder headed it goalwards from close range only to find Niemi in the way again.
The rebound fell kindly for the Frenchman who lashed it back from just four yards. With the keeper grounded, it looked a certain goal but Niemi somehow picked himself up to produce an incredible point-blank range save.
It was every bit as vital a contribution as that of Delgado. On his first Premier League start, the South American showed the first flashes of the ability which had taken Ecuador to their first ever World Cup finals just a few months earlier.
On 57 minutes Beattie’s through ball hit the heels of the retreating Cygan and fell kindly for Delgado to burst through the inside-left channel.
He was crudely brought down by the floundering Sol Campbell who received an instant red card from Paul Durkin. Beattie sent Seaman the wrong way from the penalty spot to register his seventh goal in five games.
With the extra man, Southampton pressed home their advantage and it was Delgado who stretched the lead eight minutes later with one of the scruffiest goals of his career.
Fabrice Fernandes whipped in a wicked free-kick from near the right corner flag and as Seaman flapped and missed, it went right through to the far post. Delgado hurled himself and bundled the ball into the tightest of gaps off his left hip.
Niemi produced another outstanding stop as a precision pass from Robert Pires played in Thierry Henry to the right of goal. He lashed in a powerful shot but again the keeper pulled off a fantastic block.
Even then Saints had to survive a nervy finale as Pires was left free at a corner to head goalwards. Oakley blocked on the line but the rebound went straight back to Pires who thumped past the grounded keeper with 10 minutes still remaining.
The Gunners piled forward but Saints stood strong to deservedly secure their first win in five matches and inflict a third defeat of the campaign on the champions.
Saints: Niemi, Dodd, Lundekvam, M. Svensson, Bridge, Fernandes (Telfer 87), Oakley, Delap, Marsden, Beattie, Delgado (Ormerod 83). Unused subs: Jones, Williams, A. Svensson.
Arsenal: Seaman, Luzhny, Campbell, Cygan, Cole, Wiltord, Vieira, Edu (Toure 61), Ljungberg (Jeffers 72), Bergkamp (Pires 73), Henry. Unused subs: Taylor, Silva.
Referee: Paul Durkin