“We had a mountain to climb, but then it kicked in: that inner survival, sticking together and knowing that we had the quality with Matt Le Tissier in the team that will make the difference in any given moment.”
Following Southampton in the ‘90s was like sitting through a Rocky film. Every time they looked down and out, they’d somehow resurrect themselves to throw the last punch in the fight.
Always the last one standing, against all odds, no matter how battered and bruised from all the blows they’d taken along the way.
This remarkable staying power and resilience in the face of bigger hitters that was soon to become their trademark was not yet a signature move when Saints headed to Carrow Road in April 1994.
Manager Alan Ball, who had taken the job in January with the team in the relegation zone, had enjoyed an immediate resurgence, but a run of seven games without a win left his side four points adrift of safety, having played a game more than Oldham in 19th, who had recently come to The Dell and won 3-1.
Saints had six matches to save themselves, a sequence that began with a trip to East Anglia.
“Loads of people talk about that game. Even though we’ve been in similar situations a few times with the Saints, that one sticks out,” speaks Monkou, fondly, 27 years on.
“It showed the spirit and the character that we had in the side at the time. Most of the time we were in that position, so we knew: now was the time we really had to believe in each other and pull the results out. And we did, time and time again.”
Maybe this, above all others, was the game that formed Saints’ reputation in the Premier League’s first decade as a club that refuses to give up and continually defies the odds. The one that left relegation rivals wary of their staying power. The team you could never write off.
Yet many still would; before, during and even after this unforgettable away day that began a lot less memorably than it finished.
Saints went in at half time on level terms, as a Rob Ullathorne own goal just before the interval cancelled out Mark Robins’s opener to give the visitors fresh impetus.
It didn’t last long.
“It was a game we had to win,” Monkou says. “But the way we started in the second half, straightaway conceding two goals, being 3-1 down, you’re thinking ‘oh god, what’s going on here?’”
Within 10 minutes of the restart, Saints were staring down the barrel of another defeat, but in Matt Le Tissier they had a trump card none of their relegation rivals could top.
“As frustrating as he could be, because most of the time we would play with 10 men because of the hard work we had to put in, we always knew the quality that he had,” former defender Monkou explains, having played behind the iconic No 7 for seven and a half seasons.
“He could change it – with one free-kick, one touch, putting someone else in… he could make the difference.
“I remember having conversations with Graeme Souness a couple of seasons after. He said, ‘Ken, you’re the cornerstone of the squad – can you tell me about the team?’
“I said, ‘we’re a very hard-working side. You can see us as a big cake – the icing on the cake is Matt Le Tissier. That’s what we are’.
“He didn’t last that long, Souness, because there was lots of other stuff going on, and maybe he tried to rock the foundations of that squad and that team at the time.
“With Alan Ball, it was all about expression, believing in each other and working for each other. It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic.
“When you ask most of the guys who spent their time at the Saints which manager [they enjoyed playing for], I think most of them would say Alan Ball sticks out.”
Le Tissier is certainly one of those. Freed of off-the-ball duties, he was expected to be in the right place to score or assist whenever Saints reclaimed possession. He thrived, posting numbers to rival any player in the league.
Previously a peripheral figure in this particular game, Saints’ talisman suddenly burst into life just shy of the hour mark.
A trademark jink inside bought him a yard of space to hit a low, left-footed shot that had just enough on it to escape the grasp of goalkeeper Bryan Gunn.
Six minutes later, Jeff Kenna set off on a charge from the touchline, just inside the hosts’ half, that carried him all the way into the box where he was tripped by the hapless Ullathorne.
Le Tissier, who only ever missed once in his career, put Gunn the wrong way and Saints were level with the best part of half an hour still to play.
But this was Southampton of the ‘90s. The team that only ever did things the hard way. The team that enjoyed suffering because no level of pain was ever enough to kill them off.
Straight from kick-off, Norwich won a free-kick. Chris Sutton, who had already scored once, peeled away from Monkou and met the floated delivery with a textbook header, back across goal and in off the far post. 4-3.
“It’s like a boxer,” Monkou continues. “You get punched and you’re laying down on the canvas, but you have to get up, like Tyson Fury, and you get on with the job.
“That’s what we did. We never gave up. We always believed we would come back, and that’s why, when you look back as an ex-player at that particular match and that particular period, no matter how many times we got ourselves into that situation we always managed to pull ourselves out.
“That’s why I’m proud of the time I spent with Southampton, seven and a half seasons and never relegated, because we always believed.”
Again, it would be Le Tissier who gave Saints hope. Less than 10 minutes later, the tireless Kenna bombed down the right and delivered a fine cross to the far post where you-know-who was waiting, powering a header down inside the near post to complete a perfect hat-trick: left foot, right foot, header.
Monkou’s insistence that a draw was not enough was reflected in the actions of his skipper, who barely raised a smile in shaking a defiant fist in the direction of the travelling Saints fans as he jogged back into position for the 10th kick-off of the match.
“We kept pushing. We believed there was definitely another goal in there,” says the Dutchman, for whom it was a trip to Norwich many years before that cemented English football as his dream destination.
“I had the experience as a 12- or 13-year-old of going to Carrow Road, where I saw Norwich play versus Ipswich,” he reveals.
“We used to come with the amateur club that I used to play for. We used to come for 10 or 12 days to the UK and play in a kids’ tournament.
“That was one of the first games that I saw, and the kids were allowed to sit behind the goal, and I said at the time, ‘I’m going to be back here – I’m going to be playing’.
“People said, ‘hold on, you don’t even play for a proper club!’ That was the first experience I’d had of the English atmosphere. It was a small ground but the atmosphere was different to anything I’d ever experienced.
“That was my first experience, and that’s why I wanted to come to the UK and not to Italy, where most of them went at the time because Serie A was the place to be in the mid, late ‘80s.
“I chose England, and in the mid ‘90s when the Premier League kicked off, all the big stars started turning up.”
This was Monkou’s stage. Having felt the buzz of the same stadium from the stands, he was about to create a new memory to last a lifetime.
“I remember Matt Le Tissier taking another corner,” there was barely enough time to take it. “And I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to make sure I connect with that ball and get it on target. That’s all I need to do’.
“Of course he delivered the ball, I got it on target and it went in. The rest is history, in a way, and you could tell the relief on all of our faces, because we’d been in a proper match. The fans must’ve absolutely loved it – from either side.”
By his own admission, Monkou had not had his best day up to that point. Which maybe goes some way to explaining his celebration.
Such was the force with which he connected, throwing his upper body at the ball to plant a header down into the ground and up into the corner of the net, his momentum carried him all the way into the net behind it, like a fast bowler coming down the wicket to glower at the batsman.
From there, he retrieved the ball and launched it into the away end, where his triumphant supporters were completely lost in the moment.
“It was just the excitement that sports and football bring to you,” he says. “We knew it was the telling goal. For us to have been behind every time and then come back to draw, and then score the winner… the release was from all of us.
“You don’t want to give anything away, but there was some appalling defending – terrible, and I was right in the middle of it.
“I think that’s why I was even more pleased. That’s why I got hold of the ball and said, ‘listen, this is the last goal that’s going to go in!’”
Such is the volatile existence of a Premier League footballer, Monkou, who produced hundreds of superior performances in a stellar 16-year career, was the hero.
“Yes, I was on the end of it, but it’s a team effort,” is his modest take. “I would’ve never been able to put the ball in if the ball wasn’t delivered by Matt, and it works the other way around too – people had to give the ball to him for him to score.
“It’s the euphoria of knowing you actually played not that great, because we conceded four goals and we didn’t play well.
“That’s the beauty of sport when you really believe; when everyone believes in the same objectives and you’ve got someone on the touchline to encourage you not to sit back.
“Most of the time, when you look at lots of other teams in lots of other sports, when you actually go for it you gain more than you lose. Yes, the manager might get a heart-attack, but for the spectators it’s great and for the players too, because you’re always in the game.”
Ball’s brave approach to let Saints off the leash and build around Le Tissier paid off, as five goals at Norwich were followed by three against Blackburn, four against Aston Villa and three on the final day, at West Ham, as the most entertaining side in the dogfight survived by a solitary point.
“That game was the instigator,” Monkou reflects on the Norwich rollercoaster. “Coming into it after seven games without winning everyone thought, ‘definitely this season, Southampton are down. There’s no way they’re going to turn it around’. But we did.
“That was the springboard. Not only because we won that game, but also the manner – we showed character and spirit.
“For people conceding four goals to still believe and to still think we’ve got the killer punch… that’s why confidence within sport is a big, big factor. Confidence and belief in your own ability, whatever is put in front of you.
“I always said you either play to win the league, or you play to survive. For Southampton, most of the time it was to survive, but I’d rather be in one of those positions instead of being in the middle of the table where there is nothing to play for.
“You know you’re alive, and you have to really battle. It makes you as a player, when you’re under pressure all the time, dealing with those emotions and still believing you’re going to get the results, even though you know you’ve got to climb Mount Everest.
“When I talk to Franny and Matt Le Tiss, who I’m very close to still now, we had a strength of character in our side, and that’s why I was so very proud to be part of the Saints team of that time.”