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 Sheff Utd
4th May 2008
All those years spent trying to stay out of the Championship and suddenly it meant the world to remain in it!
After 27 seasons in the top flight and then two more battling to get back there, it scarcely seemed fathomable but here we were… on the brink of the drop to the third tier.
Forty months of managerial upheaval and boardroom instability had taken their toll in the wake of the premature departure of Gordon Strachan. Even so, this perilous position crept up almost unnoticed.
Saints had been comfortably mid-table and still harbouring hopes of a play-off push when George Burley left to take charge of the Scottish national team on January 24th 2008.
In truth, it probably suited both parties at the time as form began to dip although the following weeks were a classic case of “careful what you wish for.”
John Gorman took over as caretaker boss but Southampton managed just one point from their next four games while also suffering an ignominious FA Cup exit to a Rickie Lambert goal at Bristol Rovers.
Nigel Pearson steadied the ship, losing just four of the next 13, but seven draws and just two wins meant the south coast side had slipped into the bottom three by the final day of the campaign.
Colchester and Scunthorpe were already down, which left Saints and Leicester level on 51 points but in touching distance of Coventry and Blackpool on 53.
The Foxes had a vastly superior goal difference so Pearson’s men knew their fate was no longer in their own hands as they hosted a Sheffield United side who still had hopes of making the play-offs.
With all ears on the updates from Leicester’s trip to Stoke, there was a tense sense of foreboding around St Mary’s – and that intensified as the home side fell behind on 23 minutes.
Billy Sharp curled in a cross from the right and Stephen Quinn raced in unchecked at the far post to power home a flying header.
The south coast side could have been doomed to the drop 19 minutes later had Richard Wright not made a stunning point-blank range stop from Matt Kilgallon’s header. It is no exaggeration to say the incredible block saved the season.
Within a minute, Saints were level as Andrew Surman found Jason Euell in space on the left. He crossed with the outside of the right boot and the ball took a deflection to loop up to the far post where Marek Saganowski scored with a brave diving header.
With Leicester level at Stoke, it still wasn’t enough. But eight minutes after the break Southampton took the lead and clambered out of the bottom three. Stern John nodded down a long pass from Iñigo Idiakez, Saganowski lifted the ball over the defence and John controlled well before rifling home.
As the biggest crowd of the season went wild, John whipped off his shirt in celebration, little realising how it would come back to haunt him.
The pendulum swung back in Leicester’s favour after 65 minutes when Quinn played the ball in low from the left and substitute Jon Stead turned it in at the near post. He had only been on the field two minutes but his first significant touch silenced the home fans and put their team back in the bottom three.
But this rollercoaster of a match took another sharp turn within four minutes as Jhon Viáfara nodded forward and Stern John controlled and spun in one sharp movement before firing Pearson’s men back in front. It lifted them above Coventry who were being well beaten at Charlton.
It possibly helped that other scores meant the visitors no longer had a realistic hope of prising open the door to the play-offs, but it was still a tense finale with the crowd well aware that a Blades equaliser would put Southampton back in the drop zone.
The nerves were stretched still further when a reckless lunge by John on Derek Geary saw referee Phil Joslin almost apologetically issue the inevitable second yellow card.
It left Saints having to battle with just 10 men through the final 10 minutes plus an eternity of stoppage time, but they held firm to secure safety at the expense of Leicester who could only draw 0-0 at Stoke. The south coast side also moved above Coventry who lost 4-1.
The final whistle sparked a jubilant pitch invasion and even Blades boss Kevin Blackwell conceded: “Credit to Southampton. It was an incredible atmosphere – pure theatre.”
The outcome left Pearson purring. He said: "It is a huge relief. I didn't know the other scores – my staff did but I just wanted to focus on the game. At a number of points it looked like we were going to come out on the wrong side, so obviously I'm delighted.”
Sadly it was only a temporary reprieve. Pearson’s reward was to be deemed surplus to requirements. He was replaced by Jan Poortvliet with Rupert Lowe returning as chairman, and a year later Saints were relegated.
Saints: R.Wright, J.Wright, Powell, Perry, Surman, Viáfara, Safri, Idiakez (Licka 79), Euell, Saganowski (Lallana 73), John. Unused subs: Davis, Wright-Phillips, Pericard.
Sheff Utd: Kenny, Geary, Kilgallon, Naysmith, Halls, Cotterill (Gillespie 38), Speed, Tonge, Quinn, Hulse (Stead 63), Sharp (Shelton 56). Unused subs: Bennett, Armstrong.
Referee: Phil Joslin (Nottinghamshire).