“We just had to believe in it, and we did, for sure. These are not just empty words… we did it.”
Perennial strugglers throughout the ‘90s, Southampton consistently defied the odds to maintain their top-flight status, often kicking and screaming their way to the final day, but ultimately always smiling at the end of it, no matter how grave the fuss.
By the time Michael Svensson arrived in the summer of 2002, fresh from the World Cup, the club was transformed.
Gordon Strachan, appointed as manager nine months prior, had turned around a tricky start to life at St Mary’s, the club’s brand-new home that lacked the intimidation of The Dell, its predecessor, but offered the club greater scope for progression.
And so it proved. Finishing 11th in 2001/02, the target for Svensson and co. was to go one better and secure a top-half finish – something Saints had achieved only twice in the first decade of the Premier League.
What followed was the Swede’s first and fondest season, in which Strachan led the club to eighth place and an FA Cup final, with defender Svensson heading Saints’ final goal of the campaign – the last ever scored at Maine Road, formerly the home of Manchester City, in a 1-0 away win on the final day.
All of the above combined to ensure Saints now approached trips to the big boys differently. Old Trafford, Highbury and Stamford Bridge were no longer places to fear, but places to thrive.
Anfield was no different, despite just four wins in Saints’ previous 44 visits. Heading to Merseyside in December 2003, victory would see them leapfrog Liverpool, who started the day in fifth.
“We were so confident going up to Anfield,” Svensson recalls, bullishly. “We could sense that they were struggling a bit and we could come away with three points.”
Anfield or Aldershot, Strachan’s approach was consistent.
“He would treat it like any other game,” Svensson continues. “He pushed the right buttons, because he didn’t speak about how big Liverpool was as a club, but he made sure he found ways of how to beat them.
“There were a few topics that we made sure we did, but most important was that we believed in our way of playing, our style of play. If we did what we were supposed to do, we would have a good starting point, for sure.
“It was pretty much down to hard work and just making sure we didn’t give players space and time on the ball. We made sure we had a good, organised team when we didn’t have the ball, but also not just kicking the ball when you win it – you had to have confidence on the ball as well.
“We were so strong down the wings, getting crosses in the box, and making sure we had people who were running in to meet them.
“It’s called basics, but it’s not that easy to do. You have to make sure you do it in the right manner and the right way as well – you can’t just run around like a headless chicken, so the organisation was very important.”
For many players – home and away – Anfield can do anything from inspire to overwhelm, but Svensson, much like his manager, was unfazed by the weight of history at the famous old ground.
He had many friends back home in Sweden who idolised the club and its legends, but Saints’ No. 11 admits he was indifferent towards football in his younger years. Cold-blooded “Killer”.
“I think I’ve said this before: I had some kind of support towards Aston Villa, just from collecting the stickers in the 80s,” he laughs.
“I can’t remember why I chose them, but I didn’t really follow football that much. I watched some games but I wasn’t really a big supporter of football generally, I just enjoyed playing it.
“I was doing so many different sports up until I was 16 or 17. I was playing badminton, I drove motocross, stuff like that. I didn’t have the skills when I was a kid to be a good footballer, but I worked hard and when I was playing I gave it 100 per cent.
“I didn’t have any dreams to be a professional player or anything like that. I just enjoyed doing it, then suddenly I realised I was quite good at it – defending especially, so it came quite naturally for me.”
Fast-forward to 2003, and when Liverpool attacked the Kop in the first half, Svensson didn’t cotton on.
“I didn’t know it was called 'the Kop' until many, many years after, and all the stories behind it. That’s just my distance to football, really,” he shrugs.
“We knew that when you go to an away game like that you’re always going to have a pressure from the home team in the first 15 minutes.
“You have to make sure you’re very strong and you defend well, and then you’ll get your chances… we got ours after two minutes.”
If Liverpool’s Kop-inspired plan was to start quickly, they got their wish when summer signing El Hadji Diouf won a corner with the game barely 30 seconds old.
But when the delivery of a young Steven Gerrard was found wanting, Saints sensed an opportunity to break.
Claus Lundekvam spotted space in behind the home defence and caressed a low pass into it, prompting Brett Ormerod to burst through, race beyond Dietmar Hamann and squeeze the ball between the legs of goalkeeper Chris Kirkland in front of a joyous pocket of Saints supporters, tucked away in the lower corner of the Anfield Road End.
“I can’t remember it being that early, but obviously they (Liverpool) have to react and go forward even more as soon as they go behind,” says Svensson, remembering the siege over the score.
But Lundekvam, Svensson’s partner in crime at the heart of the defence, pulled up with an ankle injury before Saints could get to half-time, prompting a tactical switch as midfielder Chris Marsden entered the fray and left-back Danny Higginbotham moved inside.
“Me and Claus had a great partnership, but we had a strong group and every player was prepared, even if you were a substitute,” Svensson recalls.
“Claus going off was always going to make it a bit more difficult, but we made sure we managed the situation in a good way. Danny was a great player and he had experience, so I didn’t really think about it.”
As usual, “Killer”, as he was affectionately known, was ready for a fight, and the absence of his Scandinavian mate was not about to make him back down.
Four minutes after the Liverpool fans booed Lundekvam from the field, accusing the Norwegian of time-wasting, they were jeering their own team as the half-time whistle sounded.
The natives were restless, but Saints’ approach was not about to change.
‘“Like it was before the game, ‘control the controllable’ and make sure you keep working hard, because they will come out in the second half and try to put you under pressure,”’ says Svensson, echoing the words of his manager 18 years on. ‘“In the same way as at the start of the game, you will have opportunities.’
“And we did have more chances in that second half. They did too, but Antti made some good saves and we stopped a header on the line as well.
“He (Niemi) was fantastic. Me and Claus, and the whole backline with Antti behind us, we were difficult to break down.
“When I missed something, Claus was there or Antti was there. If Antti would come out, we stood up for each other in the way that goalkeepers and defenders should do.
“We made a strong partnership, between all of us, and he was very easy to play with.”
Svensson rates Niemi as one of the finest goalkeepers he ever had the duty to protect, but the flying Finn’s heroics on this particular day would not be required until Saints had already spurned two golden chances to extend the lead.
James Beattie’s bustling run set up Marian Pahars for an uncharacteristically glaring miss, though the Latvian was nearing the end of the longest goal drought of his career as injuries took hold of a once ruthless marksman.
Then Marsden crossed for Beattie, by contrast at the peak of his powers, only for the highly-rated Kirkland to reach back across his body and claw the ball out of the bottom corner.
Sensing a reprieve, back came Liverpool. Higginbotham threw himself in the way of Vladimír Šmicer’s shot, before an off-balance Niemi, having already dived, climbed to his feet to repel substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle.
That led to an emergency intervention from Jason Dodd, who cleared Sami Hyypiä’s header off the line from the resulting corner.
Suddenly pinned back, Svensson and his fellow defenders were grateful for a breather when Beattie chased a lost cause to win a corner from Igor Bišćan in the 64th minute.
Svensson met the corner with a thumping header, 10 yards out and in line with the far post, and watched the ball leap into the roof of the net via a glancing blow from Šmicer on the line, who could not replicate Dodd’s defensive inctincts at the other end.
Just as Liverpool were beginning to lose hope 10 minutes later, Emile Heskey set the ball back for Gerrard to strike, Niemi could only parry, and the big striker gobbled up the rebound, finally bringing Anfield to its feet and leaving Saints with a long 15 minutes to see the job through.
“We needed to make sure we keep on trying to prevent them from creating chances as a team, and make sure we put in some really hard work, because they got energy from that goal,” Svensson resumes. “We had to make sure we were on top of it.
“We felt very, very strong and we were confident that we could deal with this. I felt great, even in the 90th minute. They could keep going and keep attacking, but we could be sure that we could defend properly and be focused on the task.
“I felt brilliant. I didn’t feel any pressure. I felt confident. Obviously when they scored we felt a little bit nervous, but at the same time we felt that we would pull through.”
Only George O’Brien (1960), Steve Moran (1981) and David Hirst (1998) had netted winning goals in league matches for Saints at Anfield before Svensson, who has since only been joined by Dejan Lovren (2013). It remains a very exclusive club.
“I think it’s only coming 20 years after!” Svensson jokes, when asked about the magnitude of the moment.
“We were so satisfied after the game. Afterwards there is a bit more media attention, even from Sweden, when you beat Liverpool.
“When you are objective on it, and zoom out, they are fantastic memories and I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud to have been part of Southampton Football Club and the team that we had at the time and all the people around it. I am very happy about that.”
Saints would go on to do the double over Liverpool that season, but Strachan’s surprise resignation in February and a serious injury for Svensson a month later meant a promising start to 2003/04 rather petered out.
The winner at Anfield would prove his last goal for the club.