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. Part two of his promotion diary focuses on the 2010/11 League One campaign...
With the momentum we’d built from the second half of the previous season, boosted by the JPT win at Wembley, there was a genuine belief that we were going to get promoted in 2010/11.
It wasn’t like we thought we just had to turn up to win games, but there was a real positive feeling around the club. We felt it could be a big year for us.
Looking around the dressing room at the squad the club had put together, we knew we had some really good players, and there was an understanding between us of how the manager wanted us to play – how we needed to play to win games.
I’ve referenced previously that we could feel the weight of extra pressure that came with being Southampton in League One.
Going into that second season, it was magnified even further.
We played Plymouth at home in the first game, live on Sky. Rickie was injured that day. He was our target man – the focal point of our attack. We weren’t used to playing without him, and we missed him.
We lost 1-0. The pressure that was already on us started to grow.
Three days later, Markus Liebherr died.
I’d only met Markus a couple of times, but he was so well-respected within the football club for everything he and his family had done – not just for us, but for the whole Southampton community.
They were a lovely family. We met them as players on a few occasions and they were very generous, very honest and very open people.
Did Markus's passing have an effect on the players? Of course it did. How could it not? We were all absolutely devastated. He will always be the man who saved Southampton.
The news came as a massive shock to everyone, but I think that inspired us, and made us even more determined to put things right.
We wanted it so much – not just for ourselves, but for Markus as well. I genuinely believe that spurred us on, because we were desperate to fulfil his dream of promotion, and to get the club back where it belonged.
There was nothing wrong with our pre-season. The summer recruitment was good, confidence was high and we felt like the team to beat. We were ready.
To lose four of our first six games… well, none of us saw that coming. None of us.
Alan was sacked after the one game out of those six that we actually won – 4-0 away at Bristol Rovers, in what was a really strong performance.
I remember sitting on the bus home thinking, ‘we’ve turned a corner now. We’re back to the Southampton we know. Our season starts here.’
Two days later, I’m driving into training on the Monday morning and I hear on the radio that Alan’s been sacked.
That was the first I’d heard of it. I did have a text from Kelvin, telling me what had happened, but, because I was driving, I hadn’t checked my phone.
We had a team meeting at the training ground. Nicola Cortese came in and informed us of the news, but that was it, really. It was short and sharp. No detailed explanation.
It was a shock, especially after such a good performance, but the decision must’ve been made before the Bristol Rovers game, I’d have thought. I’m still not sure to this day.
I knew there had been a few rumours and a few rumblings that things were not quite right. The club were ambitious and they wanted to get promoted that season – not the following season, or the season after that.
They obviously didn’t feel comfortable with the manager anymore, so they acted. As players, you’re used to hearing rumours all the time about all sorts of things – signings, sackings and other changes, but more often than not it comes to nothing. You learn to take no notice of it all.
Especially after a victory like we’d had on the Saturday, it was a shock. I certainly did not pick up on anything from Alan that suggested he knew that was going to be his last game, but I had trust in the owners. I knew we shared the same ambition for Southampton Football Club, in the short and long term.
I felt for Alan. I felt for Wally Downes, the first team coach, and I felt for Stuart Murdoch, the goalkeeping coach. It isn’t nice to see people lose their jobs, but I had signed for Southampton because I wanted to play for the club and I wanted to help fulfil the collective vision of bringing Premier League football back to St Mary’s.
Alan’s departure really came out of the blue, as I felt we may have just turned a corner at that time in terms of performance and results, but this is the harsh reality of the football industry.
THE LOWEST EBB
The first game after Alan’s departure was a 3-0 defeat to Swindon in the JPT at St Mary’s – a premature end to our defence of the trophy. In the next game, we lost against Rochdale in the league, 2-0 at home.
That was the lowest point of my Southampton career.
I went out for a meal with my wife after that Rochdale game, and it was the only time I was ever confronted by Saints fans. It was nothing bad, but they were angry, demanding to know what was going on.
“We deserve more than this,” they were saying. Who was I to disagree? I felt embarrassed that night, but it was another moment that spurred me on.
They were difficult times, the start of that second season.
Nigel came in with a real buzz about him. He had a really positive attitude, he made an effort to get around the players and probably sensed that we needed a lift.
With Markus having passed away, Alan losing his job and a poor start in terms of results, I wouldn’t blame him for thinking that.
They were very different managers. Nigel wanted to know the players and understand them, whereas Alan preferred to keep a little bit of distance.
As players, we’d seen what Nigel had done at Scunthorpe and the negotiations between the clubs had rolled on for a couple of weeks, so we knew it was going to happen. It was quite a refreshing change in the end, when he did finally walk through the door.
THE ADKINS EFFECT
Nigel wanted us to play in a different way. He wanted us to play out from the back, playing a possession-based style of football.
We had to adapt to that, we weren’t used to it. We were a little bit more direct under Alan, playing off Rickie, which had worked for us.
Nigel’s first game was away at MK Dons. We lost 1-0. We tried to play a bit differently that day, but it didn’t quite work. The fans were getting restless.
It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but we really did work diligently at that to get it right. They were long hours on the training ground, early in Nigel’s reign, but he was determined to get us playing in the way that he wanted, and he wasn’t going to change for anyone.
I remember one game against Bournemouth, soon after he arrived. We beat them 2-0 at home, and I think that was the first time it really clicked – we played slick, passing football.
They were a possession-based team themselves, but we completely out-passed them. They couldn’t get near us that day.
The key was finding that balance, because it’s easy to pass the ball and get nowhere doing it. We were keeping the ball for a purpose – to move the opposition around, to open up a gap and find someone in between the lines.
Adam Lallana would come in off the flank, receive it on the half-turn and play forward. We were playing possession football to wear teams down, and it’s no coincidence that we scored a lot of late goals that season.
We used to score early or late, actually, because we would always try to start fast and get on top of teams. In between was when we would keep the ball and tire the opposition out.
Once it clicked and we found that formula of how Nigel wanted us to play, we became very effective.
Talking of Bournemouth, I scored against them in the away game to put us 2-1 up, which felt like a big moment at the time. I didn’t get too many, but that was certainly one of the most important goals of my Southampton career.
What I remember even more clearly is Radhi Jaïdi jumping on me to celebrate. He’s a big bloke, Radhi, and a rock-solid centre-half, so that wasn’t the most pleasant experience!
Bournemouth scored early in that game, after my clearance smacked Danny Butterfield in the face and fell kindly for their player in the box. I remember seeing the linesman with his flag up for offside and thinking it was going to be disallowed, but the goal stood.
Thankfully, Lee Barnard’s header went through the keeper’s arms and we were soon back in the game. With 20 minutes to go, I scuffed one in with my left foot, which dribbled into the bottom corner.
That was a great feeling, as I ran off to celebrate with the travelling fans, before Rickie wrapped it up with a late free-kick.
There were certain games that season that we knew were important, and that was one of them.
We dealt with that pressure that was getting on top of us at the start of the season and responded to all the expectation in exactly the right manner, scoring a lot of goals along the way.
Because of our slow start, Brighton were running away with it at the top, with Huddersfield, Peterborough and Bournemouth just behind.
We were playing catch-up and couldn’t afford to drop any more points. It’s tough when you feel like you’re on a good run but you’re not closing the gap, because the teams above you keep winning.
We just had to keep going, keep winning and hope for a favour or two from elsewhere.
By the time we went to Brighton with five games to go, we were in the top two.
There was a party atmosphere that day, because they’d just won the league the week before at Walsall, so this was their homecoming as champions.
There was a bit of rivalry between the clubs and a bit of tension going into that game. We fell behind when Radhi tried to pass the ball back to Kelvin and Ashley Barnes nipped in to score right on half time.
It was a baking hot day and we played well, but with six minutes to go we were still trailing. That was when David Connolly, who had come off the bench, grabbed the equaliser, before Rickie or José got the winner – I’m still not sure to this day!
The Withdean was a made-up stadium, really, but the scenes behind that goal on the athletics track were brilliant.
For me, personally, it was a great place to go and win. It was my former club and I’d gone a bit overboard with my celebration after scoring against them the season before, so I was still getting a bit of stick from the fans.
That was a critical result. It was the game that really set us up for the end of the season, and we followed up that win by beating Hartlepool and Brentford.
We knew we were close now. Really close.
It was a long old trip down to Plymouth, but we knew that if we won we were promoted – forget the maths, which meant we could still be caught on goal difference. We knew three points would be enough to get us into the Championship.
We had a huge travelling support down there that day and, much like the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final at Wembley the year before, it was a game we were never going to lose.
Sure enough, we won relatively comfortably that day, as two goals from Rickie and one from Ryan Dickson secured a 3-1 victory – our sixth win on the spin.
Make no mistake, we celebrated as if the season was over. Technically, promotion still wasn’t quite guaranteed, but we were in no mood to wait another week to let loose.
I didn’t enjoy the trip down that day, but the journey back was incredible. We were celebrating all the way home – I would’ve been quite happy if the driver had taken a detour and dragged it out for a few more hours, to be honest with you.
There was a lot of singing and drinking on that bus. A few players were falling off it by the time we got back to Southampton!
We actually went out into Southampton after the game – as a club. The players jumped straight into some taxis, still in our tracksuits, and we all celebrated together. That was a special night.
Thankfully, we were given a few days to recover and rest our heads. After all, we still had to avoid a 17-goal swing on the final day…
LOST IN THE CROWD
The homecoming against Walsall was an amazing day, it really was. We played really well in the first half, with all the freedom of a team who knew they were promoted.
We were 2-0 up, they pulled a goal back before half time and then Chambo came on to score a lovely left-footed curler into the far corner to seal it.
That was a great day and they were great scenes, with the fans pouring on to the pitch at full time and us celebrating in the stands.
We stayed behind for ages, it seemed, because it was a struggle to get everybody off the pitch, but being lifted up by the fans and celebrating with them was an amazing feeling.
It meant so much to them, so much to us and so much to the staff. It was just a brilliant way to finish a season of unforgettable highs and lows.
Ok, we didn’t win the league, but we set out to be promoted and we’d achieved it. To celebrate at home, with everybody together, was the perfect way to sign off.
We were halfway to the Premier League.