In three seasons as Southampton’s on-field skipper, Dean Hammond lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and achieved back-to-back promotions, playing a key role in the club’s return to the elite. Eleven years on from arriving at St Mary’s, the midfielder relives Saints’ unique renaissance in his own words, starting with the 2009/10 campaign...
I’d never had any prior contact from Southampton, whether that was coming through the youth ranks or professionally, but I knew it was the biggest club on the south coast. Coming from the south myself, I always knew it was a club I’d love to play for.
A lot of people won’t know this, but I actually played in the last ever game at The Dell. It wasn’t an official, competitive game, just a friendly to mark the closure of the stadium, to celebrate all the memories.
I was a young boy at Brighton. Only 18, so I was still in the youth team, but I was asked to come along as part of the squad and ended up coming on for the last 20 minutes or so.
That was my first real experience of coming up against Southampton and getting a taste of what the club was about. It was a pretty amazing occasion to be involved in, now that I look back on it.
THE FIRST CONTACT
Eight years later, I was at Colchester when Southampton had been relegated to League One in 2009. I had a phone call from Dean Wilkins, the assistant manager to Alan Pardew, who had just been appointed.
This was during pre-season. It was only a catch-up, because I’d worked with Dean at Brighton and we had a good relationship, but it’s that time of year when clubs are identifying players to build a squad for the forthcoming season.
It started off as just a general chat, but then he told me they were looking for a midfield player and that I was on a list of three or four potential targets.
“Would it be of interest to you?” he asked. “Well of course,” I replied – no hesitation. Nothing came of it at the time, so I just carried on my pre-season as normal.
Colchester and Southampton were now in the same league, and on the opening day we went and won 7-1 at Norwich! It was an incredible result, one that made national headlines at the time.
Obviously we went top of the league, while I remember Southampton drew 1-1 at home to Millwall in Alan Pardew’s first game. It was an early kick-off, so I watched it on Sky.
That was when things started happening. I had a phone call after the game to tell me I was the one they’d chosen from the list, asking if I would still be interested, because the clubs were going to try to negotiate a fee.
It turned out to be a difficult decision. After that 7-1 victory, my manager at Colchester, Paul Lambert, got offered the Norwich job and wanted to take me with him. Norwich is a lot closer to Colchester than Southampton, geographically, and a big club in its own right, so I had an important choice to make.
CHOOSING RED AND WHITE
Going back to the beginning, as a boy coming from the south coast and knowing the size of Southampton, I knew it was a Premier League football club. It was a sleeping giant in League One, and I wanted to be part of the resurrection.
I knew Dean Wilkins well and I trusted him. He spoke well of Alan Pardew, he spoke well of the ambition of the club and told me the new owners were going to financially back the manager with a view to getting promotion.
That was the ambition. Whether that was realistic or not, given the 10-point deduction and the effects of relegation, that was the ambition. All things considered, we were probably aiming for the play-offs.
Rickie Lambert, Dan Harding and a couple of others also came in that summer. There was already the nucleus of a really good squad for League One and I was aware that we would try to make more signings in January.
I came in with the understanding that we were going to try and push for promotion, but with the realism that we were on minus 10, and we needed to get to zero before we could even think about anything else.
MEETING THE BOSS
I didn’t actually meet Alan face to face until after I’d signed. I’d spoken to him on the phone and I’d played against his teams before, but that was as far as it went. I didn’t really know him as a person.
We had a good working relationship. I enjoyed playing under him, but he was very firm – you knew he was the man in charge.
Personally, I didn’t get a massive amount of praise from him, but he played me every week and I was made team captain, so I just assumed he rated me. When I did get some praise from him after a game, it meant the world to me, because it didn’t happen very often.
One thing I really liked about Alan was his pattern of play. His 11 v 11 training was very good – when you went on to the pitch on a Saturday, you knew exactly what he wanted from you. That was what gave us a team structure in the beginning, which we developed from there.
When I arrived, you could sense there had been a relegation. I wouldn’t say the confidence was low, but it was indifferent. You’re in a habit of losing games, after all.
From the squad of players who were still there, there were some exceptionally talented youngsters.
I’ve been fortunate to play with some very good teammates, but I still say to this day that Adam Lallana is the best I’ve ever played with. Naturally gifted, worked really hard, loved the game… Adam stood out straightaway.
The one thing I’ll say about Adam is that he always wanted to learn and he always wanted to improve. All he wanted was to be the best footballer he could be, and he was always very committed in training.
Morgan Schneiderlin was another one. He was only young when I first signed, and there were rumours of him going back to France because he was homesick, but he had natural ability and you could see his talent.
Those two especially, Adam and Morgan, really stood out. They had so much ability, but they’d been losing games and there had been changes in managers – managers from different countries playing different styles.
I wouldn’t say the young players at the club didn’t understand the game, but they needed to understand how to win. Then you had the likes of Kelvin Davis and Paul Wotton, who were at the other end of the spectrum.
They were really experienced players and top professionals, but that middle bit was missing – players who were at a good age with experience at that level who knew what it was like to be relegated and promoted.
That was the void the club tried to fill that season.
TURNING THE TIDE
When you’re Southampton in League One, the expectation is massive, and there was a bit of nervousness around that, to tell you the truth.
We were expected to win every game – whether we were on minus 10 points or 50 points. You have to handle that, but we found it tough at the start.
We didn’t win for our first seven games. Even when we got that first win, 2-0 against Yeovil at St Mary’s, the next couple of games were indifferent. But once we got going – especially from January – we finished really strongly.
Looking back now, I can’t pinpoint one moment or one game when I felt it turn, but I think you’re always judged on how good your strikers are, and we had Rickie Lambert.
When Rickie really took off, found his rhythm and started scoring goals regularly, I think that gave us the confidence to believe we had a chance in every single game.
We were getting used to how Alan wanted us to play and we were getting fitter. We trained really hard and Dean had a big influence on that – his training methods were excellent.
I also thought the quality of player we signed in January – the likes of Lee Barnard, Jason Puncheon, José Fonte and Dan Seaborne – made a real impact on us.
The competition for places within the squad was what changed. You really had to step up to keep your place in the team, and I think that was the catalyst for us finishing the season so well.
I’d captained Brighton and I’d captained Colchester, but I was surprised when Alan told me of his plans to hand me the armband, just three months into my Southampton career. I wasn’t expecting it at all.
As far as I was concerned, Kelvin was club captain and rightly so. He was experienced, he’d had a great career and was well-respected by the players, staff and supporters.
Alan called us both into the office. He told us he wanted someone in an outfield position to be captain – to help influence the referee, amongst other things. He wanted someone on the pitch who was closer to the action, who could give more information to the rest of the team.
In his eyes, he wanted an outfield player who could take on that extra responsibility and have more of an influence on the game. Luckily enough, that player was me.
Kelvin was brilliant with me about it. He was still club captain, so he still had all the major responsibilities and was still seen as the captain by the rest of the lads, but I was lucky enough to wear the armband and lead the team out on a matchday.
I think it worked. I’m just glad it happened and so proud that it did.
THE LAMBERT EFFECT
I’d played against Rickie a few times when he was at Bristol Rovers, so I knew of his ability to score goals, but I didn’t fully appreciate him until I started training with him.
One thing I’d say about Rickie is that when he came to Southampton, he worked so hard on his fitness. He used to be training in the morning in the gym before the rest of us arrived – he’d already done a session before we even started training.
He started looking into his diet more to understand his eating habits. He got himself in better shape, which helped his game, helped his training and helped his fitness. One of the reasons he scored so many goals was because he never had many injuries.
Rickie was definitely a game player – I don’t think he loved training. Like every striker, he enjoyed the finishing drills, but that was about it.
Come Saturday, you wouldn’t want anyone else on your team. He was fantastic – I’ve never seen anyone strike a ball so hard. It was a pleasure to play with him, and we were very fortunate to have him on our team.
WEMBLEY IS FOR WINNERS
One thing that Alan made clear from the start was that he wanted us to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
It wasn’t just because he wanted the club to have a day out at Wembley. He strongly believed a run in the competition would help us build momentum in the league, and so it proved.
The final was an amazing day, playing at the national stadium in front of the best part of 50,000 Southampton fans. I still remember driving into Wembley on the bus. It was just a sea of red and white.
That inspired us and gave us real belief. It was a moment that really made us fully appreciate the size of the club we were representing.
Coming out for the warm-up, the stadium was already pretty full. It’s one thing seeing it on TV or sitting in the stands, but when you’re actually on the pitch and you run out and you’re surrounded by red and white… it was quite emotional, really.
From that moment, seeing the support we had and what it meant to the football club, given what they’d been through over the last few years, there was no way we weren’t going to win that game.
It wasn’t an arrogance or overconfidence – it just felt that it was fate. It was meant to be. All of the players knew we were going to win that day.
A lot of the lads who were playing regularly for us in the league couldn’t play at Wembley, because they’d already played in the competition for another club, so the team had changed quite a bit.
We didn’t start too well in the first five or 10 minutes. Carlisle were strong, they passed the ball well and we didn’t get any momentum going, but once we got the first goal we never looked back.
To be 4-0 up at Wembley with your fans singing and making all that noise was one of the best feelings I ever experienced in my career.
Personally, I can’t actually remember touching the ball that much. It was just one of those games when I wasn’t particularly involved, so I enjoyed the occasion a lot more than the actual performance, if I’m being honest.
The trophy lift was never discussed between Kelvin and I before the game, but it was the right thing to do. I was more than happy to share it – I think there was a mutual respect between us, because Kelvin was club captain and I was captain on the day.
The photo of us holding it up together shows the spirit within the club and the real togetherness that we had. I love looking back at pictures like that.
Lifting a trophy at Wembley – how many players can say they’ve done that? It was the first and last time I played there, so that day will always hold special memories for me.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
My first return to Brighton as a Southampton player was actually our very next game after the JPT final. We fell behind to an early goal from Elliott Bennett, before I equalised with a glancing header in the first half.
They all count for me, because I didn’t get too many, but the way I celebrated in front of the Brighton fans was something I regretted.
It wasn’t planned that if I scored I would celebrate like that. I looked a bit stupid, to be honest. I celebrated like I’d scored a 30-yard wonder goal, but the ball barely touched my head.
After the game, I spoke to a few of my ex-teammates who were still at Brighton. They gave me some constructive criticism, shall we say.
They were right. It was my hometown club who had given me my opportunity to play professionally, but it was a rush of blood to the head and I couldn’t change what I’d done. Thankfully, the Brighton fans were good to me when I went back on loan a few seasons later.
We drew that game 2-2 in the end, with a late equaliser from Lee Barnard, but we knew we needed a run of wins to have any chance of catching Huddersfield, who occupied the last play-off spot.
Every time we won they won, and we just couldn’t close that gap. We actually beat them 5-0 in March, but our bogey team was Swindon – they took six points off us. In the end, those were the games that cost us.
It was an enjoyable season nonetheless, because it was the start of the club’s recovery, and the building blocks were in place to go one better – without a points deduction to hold us back.