The stands at St Mary’s may have still been some way short of capacity as Southampton took on Leeds on Tuesday night, but one thing they were undoubtedly full of again was life.
Just under 8,000 supporters made a long-awaited return to the stadium for Saints’ final home match of the 2020/21 campaign, and, although they did not get the result they were hoping for, it was hard to detract from the positivity of seeing, and particularly hearing, them once again.
Ralph Hasenhüttl said before the game that a real football match is one with fans in attendance, and the soundtrack this crowd provided to what was an entertaining contest between two energetic sides was a welcome contrast to the eerily quiet atmosphere that football has been played in for more than a year.
Still, it was not the perfect night, as Patrick Bamford’s second-half goal and Tyler Roberts's strike in added time put paid to any hopes Saints had of making it three consecutive Premier League wins.
Hasenhüttl made three changes for the game from the side that had beaten Fulham 3-1 at St Mary’s on Saturday, as Moussa Djenepo, Theo Walcott and Nathan Tella – the latter of who started up front – came into the side in place of Nathan Redmond, Takumi Minamino and Danny Ings, who all dropped to the bench.
Walcott was starting just hours after it was announced that he had agreed a deal in principle to remain with Southampton on a permanent basis after his contract with Everton expires at the end of June, as the day began in positive fashion.
That is how the evening started for Saints too, as they opened up the game very much on the front foot.
No doubt spurred on by the enormous roar mustered by the fans inside St Mary’s as the sides emerge from the tunnel, Hasenhüttl’s side pressed and harried their opponents to excellent effect in the opening exchanges, with their best effort coming inside two minutes, as Ché Adams out-jumped Kalvin Phillips at close range to get on the end of Stuart Armstrong’s chipped cross from the left, only for Leeds keeper Kiko Casilla to acrobatically tip the ball over the bar.
Saints continued their push, with a couple of efforts from distance and a few other attacks that didn’t quite produce what they might have hoped, before Tella helped a ball in behind for Walcott on 17 minutes, but, needing to flick it past the on-rushing Casilla, he had no choice but to take it very wide and was unable to locate an angle to shoot from, with his delivery back across goal being cleared from inside the six-yard box.
There was barely a moment’s peace for the Leeds defence, and another chance opened up on 20 minutes when Jannik Vestergaard drove forward from defence, spun 25 yards out, and squared the ball to Armstrong, whose subsequent shot had plenty of venom but flew two or three yards over.
Midway through the half and there was a rousing rendition of “stand up if you love the Saints”, with what seemed like almost every fan inside the ground rising from their seats.
The mood was almost brought down shortly after when Leeds created their first real opportunity, but Stuart Dallas dragged his shot wide from just inside the area after Raphinha had laid Jack Harrison’s diagonal ball back into his path.
Back at the other end, referee Peter Bankes dismissed a penalty appeal in the 29th minute, after Kyle Walker-Peters raced into the box and ended up on the ground under pressure from Harrison, but there was ultimately little complaint from the home side about the decision.
With half-time beginning to come into view, Saints were still looking to make their pressure tell, and they came close in the 37th minute, as Tella played a pass into Adams on the edge of the area, with the striker firing a low, first-time shot back across goal, only for Casilla to get fingertips to it and divert it wide.
Hasenhüttl decided to make a switch at the interval, as Ings was sent on in place of Adams, while Marcelo Bielsa made a pair of substitutions, with Pascal Struijk and Gaetano Berardi replacing Phillips and Diego Llorente.
Almost immediately after the restart, Saints were handed a sight of goal, as Tella was brought down by Leeds captain Liam Cooper 30 yards out. James Ward-Prowse, who had received the Virgin Media Fans’ Player of the Season award ahead of kick-off, produced a typically excellent effort with the dead ball, whipping it towards the top corner, but it had a little too much height and clipped the top of the bar.
Even by this stage, Alex McCarthy had been little more than an interested spectator, but all that changed on 50 minutes as he made two outstanding stops within moments of each other.
First he flew to his right to tip wide a volley that Stuart Dallas had sent arrowing towards the far corner from just outside the angle of the area, before keeping out Bamford from a tight angle after the striker had got in behind the defence.
Bamford again got clear on 58 minutes, this time in a far more promising position for the Leeds forward, but again McCarthy, who was making his 100th Premier League appearance for Saints, did brilliantly, forcing him wide as he attempted to go round the keeper and allowing enough time for Vestergaard to get back and knock the ball away from Bamford’s feet and behind for a corner.
If Leeds’ top scorer was beginning to look an increasing threat, Southampton’s also worked his first opportunity, as Ings took a pass from Jack Stephens on 67 minutes, shifted into space on his right foot 25 yards out and fired in a shot, but it was a little off target.
Shortly afterwards, McCarthy was again back in action, saving smartly at his near post from Ezgjan Alioski, after the ball had fallen to him in space just inside the area following a low delivery from the right.
Leeds were certainly far more threatening following half-time, and Hasenhüttl was prompted into a change with 20 minutes remaining, as Redmond replaced Tella.
But it continued to be the visitors in the ascendancy, and they eventually made their pressure tell on 73 minutes, as Bamford finally was able to beat McCarthy, poking past him from close range after latching onto a clipped ball over the top from Rodrigo.
Hasenhüttl quickly made his third change, swapping Walcott for Ibrahima Diallo, before Redmond had a couple of bright moments, finding the side netting from an angle before working room for a shot from distance only to send his effort off target.
The signal of six minutes of added time brought a roar from the crowd, as they urged Saints on, but in fact it was Leeds who got the second goal, as Roberts applied the finish in the 94th minute following a breakaway.