Academy graduate determined to nail down starting berth for good.
Twenty minutes into an encounter with Arsenal that would prove to be one of the most raucous St Mary’s had seen in a long while, Matt Targett collected the ball in the wide left position with little really to aim at in the centre.
Saints’ number 33 shifted the ball slightly into space and saw things quite differently. His surgically precise cross was thrillingly met by Danny Ings in a way that only headed goals can be to kick off the Ralph Hasenhüttl era in earnest.
Targett had made just five league appearances before then between August and December and has more than doubled his tally since.
With a strong emphasis on youth, hunger and passion, the homegrown full-back is one of a handful of players to have immediately benefited from the Austrian’s leadership.
A critical part of Fulham’s remarkable surge to promotion via the play-offs, rarely a part of the matchday squad on his return and now a key figure in a position he is looking to make his own; as Matt says himself, it has been quite the ride.
“It’s been a weird time in my career,” he reflected. “I guess the best way to describe it is a bit of a rollercoaster with loads of ups and downs already!
“It’s nice to be in the team and having a good run of games again, and each one of them has been a different challenge.
“Defensively, I think the Leicester game was my best in a long time, it was incredible the way we dug deep from start to finish and hung on for all of 55 minutes.”
That stoically superb win over Leicester was the kind of afternoon the 23-year-old had been exposed to as many as three times a week during a half-season loan on the banks of the Thames with Fulham.
Mental and physical endurance and the habit of grinding out consecutive results when the pressure was firmly on – the Cottagers lost once in 19 league games with him in the starting XI – were a staple of Targett’s richly successful Championship experience and his first real test as a professional.
“The experience with Fulham was incredible; each week we were either winning or drawing and that meant the momentum we carried into each game was huge,” he explained. “We just felt like we couldn’t be beaten by anyone.
“For me, it was the first test I’ve had as a player; to go to a Championship club and get 23 games under my belt like that.
“The most important aspect of it was pushing myself each week, knowing my body could do it, handling the Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday routine and playing that many games close together.
“It was a steep learning curve and I learned a lot from every game; there are a lot of different styles in the Championship, some want to play hard and get in your face and others want to get the ball down and play.
“Off the back of that, having to step up to the Premier League again, I’m ready for it. Now I feel fine and eager to play again as soon as I can.”
Consider that part the steady upward progress of the rollercoaster. On a personal level, the drop followed in the summer.
Returning for pre-season at Staplewood with a first senior goal – scored on just his second start for the Cottagers – and a play-off winner’s medal in the cabinet, first-team opportunities for the 2018/19 campaign nonetheless appeared to be limited.
An assist for Pierre-Emile Højbjerg just 15 minutes into his first Premier League appearance of the season against Crystal Palace demonstrated the match sharpness he had honed in west London but proved to be a rare bright spot in a difficult opening.
Waiting until the end of November for a first top-flight start – ironically at Fulham - since Boxing Day 2017, would be the second test of Targett’s mettle.
He has emerged from the other side full of confidence and with the trust of his new manager.
“It was definitely a difficult start to the season for me,” he admitted. “I had gone out on loan, felt like I did a great job and achieved something really important.
“It was a weird feeling to come back for pre-season feeling like I was back to square one in some ways.
“Not being in the team, sometimes not even the squad, was tough. Ultimately, you just have to keep working hard and make sure you take your chance when it comes along.
“It’s a matter now of staying in the team as long as possible and doing everything I can to make the position my own.
“It feels great to be back in the setup – the change has been incredible. It’s all so clear and easy to pick up what the manager wants us to do; the tactics, the video sessions and the way he speaks with us, the attention to detail is amazing.”
Ask him what else has changed and the answer is immediate.
Ronald Koeman handed the then-18-year-old his senior debut in a League Cup second round tie against Millwall in August 2014 and four years on, the Saints Academy graduate is delighted to see more youngsters following in his footsteps.
As an Eastleigh boy, it was an experience lived, and now shared, that means an awful lot.
“It really feels like the Southampton Way is coming back; it’s what we built our success on.
“It’s amazing to see the young guys coming through now and getting their chances. There were eight of us in the squad against Leicester and that is just amazing.”
He laughs at the suggestion of being a senior figure for fellow Academy full-backs Kayne Ramsay and Yan Valery.
“I wouldn’t say I’m one of the senior boys, but I do try and keep an eye out on the younger guys coming through,” he said.
“I’ve been on a very similar journey to them. I’ve been in their shoes not so long ago, so I’ve done it and know what it takes.”
A lot has changed since his own first steps into the game. Now battle-hardened, experienced and with a burgeoning winner’s mentality, Targett is ready for whatever comes next on his own journey.