“It is always exciting to test yourself against the best, because there is no better measure of your own progress and no better way to learn.”
These were the words in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s programme notes ahead of last weekend’s meeting with a Manchester City side who had built up an 11-point lead thanks to a sequence of 12 consecutive Premier League wins.
City, right now, are the team to beat, and Southampton threatened to do so, leading until the 65th minute and deservedly taking a share of the spoils to halt City’s unblemished run.
Back in 2011, the team to beat could be found on the other side of Manchester. Eleven years ago today, United arrived at St Mary’s still unbeaten, 23 games into the Premier League season, and on course for a fourth title in five years; a feat City can match by picking up the trophy in May.
The similarities are plentiful between the two juggernauts of their time. The big difference is much closer to home.
Whilst Hasenhüttl’s underdogs were 12th in the Premier League, the Saints side led by Nigel Adkins were in League One.
That was the scale of the task when United rolled into town for an FA Cup fourth-round tie on Saturday 29th January 2011.
“It’s like a free hit; a free game,” Richard Chaplow explains, reminiscing about the draw as “a welcome distraction” from the pressure of Saints’ promotion push, by now in full swing past the season’s midpoint.
Midfielder Chaplow was in his second spell with Saints, having previously arrived on loan in 2006.
“As a club, a lot of things were still the same – there was still some familiarity there,” he recalls. “However, the feel around the club was different in respect to the expectations.
“The first time I joined we were battling relegation – I came on loan to try and help them stay in the league, which we accomplished.
“The second time, under Adkins, the expectation was promotion. We were a league lower, of course, but stepping into that changing room and out on to the field with that group of players that had been assembled at that time, there was definitely an air of a group that could achieve something special that season, and beyond.”
Saints’ squad was certainly talented – absurdly so, by lower-division standards. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all went on to play for England, Morgan Schneiderlin went to major tournaments with France and José Fonte won Euro 2016 with Portugal.
Whilst promotion to the Championship was expected it was by no means guaranteed, and a goalless home draw with Notts County was followed by a 2-0 defeat at Tranmere, meaning Saints had dropped to fourth by the time United arrived.
Few gave the hosts a hope, but the players saw it differently.
“We were an optimistic group because we were in a good run of form,” says Chaplow, referring to the bigger picture, with Saints having won their four matches prior to the Notts County stalemate at an aggregate score of 17-2.
“We all know the FA Cup can spring out surprise results,” he reasoned. “I think there’s always the prediction that when a team from the top half of the Premier League visits a Championship or League One team, they’re going to make some changes.
“That means, ultimately, the team coming to play is probably not in a great rhythm, because the players haven’t been playing much, so that always gives you a little bit of a shot.
“We knew we were in a very, very good place, performance-wise, in a fantastic rhythm, built a lot of momentum and confidence going into that game.
“Was it slightly different? Probably yes, because if we lost we were expected to do so, but if we won the celebrations would be wild.
“I suppose the feelings were, ‘could we pull off a potentially huge upset?’ Quietly, we were all confident we could.”
Chaplow’s prediction that United would shuffle the pack was proved correct, but there was still no shortage of experience in the visiting ranks, including iconic names of the era like Paul Scholes and Michael Owen, who both started.
Saints were far from overawed, and not shy in getting on the front foot.
“I think we did catch them on the back foot a little bit and probably surprised them coming out of the gate,” he says of the early exchanges.
“Once you’re in a group that’s got momentum and confidence, it doesn’t really matter who you’re up against.
“You’re still going to try to play your game, you’re still going to try to do what you’ve been doing in previous weeks, and we started really fast.
“There was a sizeable crowd, the fans packed the house out and there’s always a ripple of excitement coming through because we’ve got one of the big dogs in town.
“That excitement runs through the group of players and the staff – what can we do? Where do we stack up right now against some of the world’s best?”
As it turns out, Saints were closer than many thought, and made a mockery of the 47 league placings between the sides – more than four times the deficit Hasenhüttl’s team were faced with against City.
“I remember we had a really good chance with Guly from a cross from the right wing. In other games that season and in the seasons to follow, Guly had capitalised on those chances, but he wasn’t able to on this occasion.
“But it was a fast start – it was everything we hoped it would be – and we were able to carry that confidence through the first half.”
The bubbling sense of anticipation that a giant-killing to trump any of the league triumphs Saints were famed for in the 90s reached a crescendo in the final minute of the half.
Danny Butterfield, whose aforementioned cross was headed over by Guly a minute earlier, sent another ball into United territory, this time intended for Lambert.
Chaplow remembers every detail of what happened next.
“Something I’d always modelled my game on as a midfielder was trying to run beyond, and into the depths behind our forwards,” he says. “In this game it was Rickie (Lambert) and Lee Barnard.
“I’d done that many, many times in games before. Especially when the ball was going into Lambo, you always knew that, with his qualities, there was a very good chance he would bring you into play, so a lot of the energy you used to get up there was rewarded by being able to get on the ball higher up the field.
“So I was always confident when the ball was going into big Rickie that he was going to link you in, but on this occasion he actually slightly mistimed his flick-on to my run.
“It came off one of the Man United defenders and sat up between myself and Jonny Evans.”
Evans, unable to react to Lambert’s glancing touch that never came, was now out of position, leaving a gaping hole to his right for Chaplow to charge into.
“I was able to take it past him on the thigh in one touch, and it took me into a really favourable position inside the area.
“One look up to make sure no one had moved the goals on me, and then putting my foot through the ball.
“Obviously seeing it nestle in the top corner was always the objective, but isn’t always what happens, so it was nice to see it go in.”
St Mary’s erupted.
“The excitement and the energy that I mentioned earlier then flies through the stands and it’s transferred on to the field,” he explains.
“I think the first two players up to me were Barny (Barnard) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the rest of the group shortly joined after, but there’s a 10-second window after you score a goal when you just go absolutely crazy on the field, enjoy that moment and, I wouldn’t say blackout, but it’s a strange feeling you can’t really replace in life.
“I remember everybody just jumping on me and thinking, ‘ok, maybe we can actually do this.’”
Chaplow may appear the coolest man in the stadium on the match footage, but the man himself, now 36, admits he needed time to come back down to Earth when the whistle sounded soon after.
“You’ve got a bit of a pump on, so to speak,” he says of the adrenaline rush. “You’re going in at half time with that buzz running through your body – that emotion of going in 1-0 up against one of the giants of the game, knowing you’ve got another 50 minutes in front of you to try and pull off something that would be historical.
“It’s a case of going in at half time and trying to calm everybody down, myself included, and I remember the coaching staff doing a great job of that, whilst giving us some tactical pointers.
“By the time you come back out after half time, you’re fully focused – your head’s back on and where it needs to be, in a controlled manner. You’ve still got a lot of energy pulsing through your body, but you’ve got to be focused to be able to channel that in the right way.”
Faced with a wounded animal, Saints were ready for war.
“We knew Alex Ferguson was going to give them a big push, a big boot to get them out and on top of the game.
“It felt like we held our own. We knew we weren’t going to have the same 45, 50 minutes of football and success we’d had in the first half – that’s impossible to have a full game of control against anybody, never mind Man United, so we knew they were going to come out and push.”
It was not until the arrival of Ryan Giggs and Nani on 58 minutes that the tide began to turn.
“They did slowly start to turn the screw. He (Ferguson) made a couple of substitutions, which added a bit more energy, trickery and craft into his team.
“Those two players had been playing regularly for him, so he’s put them on to really try and change the game for him.
“They did manage to get on the ball, put us under pressure and pin us back in. Then it was a case of, ‘we’ve been here many times before, can we ride the storm?’
“If we could ride it for maybe 15, 20 minutes and not concede, we had a good chance.”
It was not to be. Within seven minutes of the double change, Ferguson had the reaction he craved from his team.
Nani had already fizzed in a low cross from the left that was lifted over by Owen, but the predator had his eye in and United were coming again, this time down the opposite flank, as Gabriel Obertan dropped a shoulder and squeezed in a cross from the right.
Saints needed some luck that was not forthcoming. Obertan’s delivery deflected unkindly off Danny Seaborne, inviting Owen to mop up the loose ball with an instinctive header, perfectly placed into the bottom corner.
“As any player does, you have a brief moment of, ‘ok, now it’s going to be difficult,’” Chaplow admits.
“You feel the momentum shift, the goal goes in and you’re back to 1-1 against one of the strongest teams in world football.
“We knew it was going to be difficult and a bit of a long shot at that point, because at 1-1 we knew we were going to have to be resilient for another 25 minutes and ride our luck, hang on in there and see if we could nick a goal from a set play, or a little bit of luck or good play from one of our creative players.
“At that point in the game up against such a strong side as Man United, that’s basically what you’re starting to play for.”
Again, good fortune was in short supply. Ten minutes later, Saints conceded possession in their own half. Giggs’s pass was tantalisingly beyond the lunging figure of Fonte, and Javier Hernández slid in to score via the torso of Bartosz Białkowski and the foot of his left-hand post.
The margins were painfully small, but enough to decide the tie.
“I think ultimately no one expected us to do it anyway, but it just felt like a little bit of an opportunity missed,” Chaplow sighs, wistfully, but his stance has softened over time.
“I think now the overwhelming emotion is a happy one. The main thing that sticks in my head is the celebrations of the fans after the goal.
“I think for everybody it was a little bit of a gasp moment – everybody going wild, and then, ‘wow, we’ve just scored against Man United…we can go and win this game.'
“Those moments don’t last forever, but to experience those 45 minutes of belief and hope that it gave everybody… I think that’s the overwhelming emotion that you take away from the game.
“We still came out of it with a lot of confidence, because we’d pushed Man United right to the end of the game, and in many moments gave just as much as they gave us.
“At some points it was punch for punch, and that galvanises the group – it gives you that extra bit of belief that we’d just performed extremely strongly against a strong Man United team, and I think that helped us push on again in the league when we got back to work there.”
That final point is perhaps the most pertinent, for the legacy of this defeat lives on longer than most – in an unusually positive manner.
Whilst Saints’ resurrection was already well under way, this was the game that showcased just how far this young team could go.
The return of Premier League football followed in the shortest possible time; promotion to the Championship within four months, and up again 12 months later.
“I can’t remember from memory if we referenced Man United going into future seasons, but there’s always that anticipation, I suppose, once you’ve been promoted, of what comes after that in the league above,” the goalscorer concludes.
“It was an extremely special moment for everybody at the club, in the group, and that sort of legacy still lives on, through social media and fans. I always get people reaching out to me about that time, and it’s always nice to read about.”
This is Saints’ 10th successive top-flight season. Testing themselves against the best must have played some part in making that possible.
After all, what better way to learn?