Southampton’s B team began their Papa John’s Trophy campaign with a 3-1 defeat at League One outfit Forest Green Rovers on Tuesday night.
Deserving of the lead following their positive start, Saints struck first through Olly Lancashire’s powerful header in the 32nd minute, but Dave Horseman’s men quickly found themselves trailing after Baily Cargill and Dom Bernard steered home before the break.
Uplifted by their late success in the first 45, the hosts continued to threaten in the second and earned an unassailable lead courtesy of Olly Casey’s 59th minute header, an advantage the home side managed to sustain despite a red card for striker Armani Little in the 72nd minute after his reckless challenge on Diamond Edwards.
Contested under the baking Gloucestershire sun, the opening minutes of the game made for entertaining viewing as both sides wrestled fiercely for early control of the unpredictable cup encounter.
The form of either side couldn’t have varied more, Forest Green Rovers’ last outing resulting in a heavy 5-0 defeat away to Sheffield Wednesday in League One, while Saints remain undefeated in Premier League 2.
With that in mind, Southampton were predictably the first to go close, Sam Bellis driving in-field from the left wing before arching a beautiful, right-footed effort toward Lewis Thomas’s far post which flew just a few inches wide on 17 minutes.
With Saints’ intense press continuing to frustrate their opponents deep into the half, Rovers were made to wait until the 27th minute for their first opening, Little’s wicked, low cross from the right flank intended for the boot of Harvey Bunker, but the striker was unable to pull the trigger before Lancashire’s brave block.
With his latest defensive contribution epitomising his fine start to proceedings, Lancashire was on hand to give his side a deserved lead in the 32nd minute, the defender climbing highest to reach Matt Carson’s in-swinging free-kick before planting his header firmly into the bottom left corner.
In response, the home side drew on their experience to drag themselves back into the game, a looping header toward Ollie Wright’s far post hooked back across goal by the quick-thinking Josh March, presenting Cargill with the simple job of sliding the ball home from just a few yards to level the score five minutes after the opener.
What started as a cagey, nervy encounter was rapidly becoming an end-to-end shootout. Dom Ballard the next to enjoy not one, but two golden one-on-one opportunities in the 38th and 40th minutes respectively, both of which were smothered effectively by Thomas to the frustration of Saints’ striker.
Horseman’s men would be made to deeply rue such spurned chances come the 45th minute, as a half-clearance only fell into the path of Bernard, whose subsequent side-footed effort proved a composed, clinical one moments before the break.
Having pounced at the perfect time, it was unsurprising that the hosts started the second 45 the brighter of the two teams, as Saints looked to steady the ship.
Wright would be kept busy straight from the restart, first keeping out the driven efforts of Ben Stevenson and March, before clawing away Bunker’s looping header from the corner that followed.
Further saves to deny the attempts of both March and Sean Roberson would trail, but the visitors were eventually condemned to a third goal as the clock ticked into the 59th minute, Casey’s awkward header from close proximity squirming between the goalkeeper’s gloves and into his net following Jacob Jones’s deep corner.
With the 726-strong home crowd in full voice, Southampton’s fate seemed all but sealed at this point, but, in a game of constant twists and turns, the home side would offer their visitors a lifeline with a little over 15 minutes to play.
Having picked the ball up in his own half, Edwards looked to drive forward but found his feet cynically swept from beneath him by Little before he could do so. The nature of the challenge was not only needless, but unnecessarily high and dangerous in the eyes of referee Charles Breakspeare, who was quick to brandish a straight red card.
Entering the closing stages of the match a man light, Ian Burchnall was quick to switch to a defensive tactic which surrendered possession of the ball to their opponents in a bid to lock-up and preserve their lead in defence.
As such, Saints saw more of the ball in the latter minutes, but struggled to turn that possession into goalscoring opportunities, substitute Luke Pearce’s first-time volley from Zuriel Otseh-Taiwo’s whipped cross in the final minute the most noteworthy effort, but one he couldn’t keep down as Saints were forced to settle for defeat in their Group F opener.