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. The final instalment of his captain's diary tells the story of Saints' memorable 2011/12 Championship campaign...
Going into the Championship, it was noticeable how the pressure and expectation from the outside lifted.
Within the club it was different – we knew we had a chance to go back to back.
We came back for the first day of pre-season and the manager made it pretty clear: we were going to get promoted again. Anything less would be a failure.
Some players at other clubs might not react well to that, but we knew we had a good squad and we knew we could compete in the Championship.
A few of us had played in the league before – the likes of Kelvin, José, Richard Chaplow, David Connolly and I – and we had that winning momentum behind us from League One.
When the manager said what he said, we believed it. That was one of our massive talents as a group: we really believed in each other.
Our results at the beginning of the season justified that feeling. We backed it up pretty quickly on the pitch, and, unlike my first two seasons with Southampton, we were flying right from the start.
COMPETITION FOR PLACES
Jack Cork and Danny Fox were two more players with Championship experience who arrived in the summer, along with Jos Hooiveld and Steve De Ridder, but I think keeping the majority of the squad together was one of the best decisions the manager made.
The money was there to bring more players in, but he stuck his neck on the line to give the boys who had got the club promoted another chance.
By doing that, he earned a lot of respect from us. He trusted us to get Southampton back to the Premier League.
For me personally, I’d played against Corky before and I knew what he was about. With Morgan improving all the time and Corky coming in, along with Richard Chaplow who was already at the club, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about my place in the team.
Competition was strong, but it could only make me a better player by training with these lads every day – that’s what I kept telling myself. To keep my place, I knew I had to improve.
Corky coming in made me feel uneasy, there’s no denying that, but the four of us were all different players, we complemented each other quite well and the manager probably ended up rotating us more than any other position.
THE PERFECT START
For our first game back in the Championship to be at home was important. It gave us an opportunity to get off to a good start.
For it to be against Leeds just added to the sense of occasion – they brought a big travelling support, it was live on Sky and the stage was set. We knew it was a good test for us, and we were up for it.
Why I was shooting from 25 yards with my left foot I still don’t know, but somehow it went in, so it must’ve been the right decision! That early goal helped us settle, and we went on to win the game quite comfortably, 3-1.
Playing against a team like Leeds, who would’ve been one of the favourites, seemed like a tough challenge. When you overcome a challenge like that so early on, it gives you a massive boost.
We were only one game into the season, but we already knew we could compete against anyone in the league.
We followed up that result with a 1-0 win at Barnsley, and our next performance, away against Ipswich – especially in the first half – was exceptional.
Everything just clicked. Everything we worked on throughout pre-season and in training was coming off for us. Rickie and David Connolly were on fire at the start of that season. They had an amazing partnership, and then you had Adam Lallana and Guly coming in off the wide positions.
We scored some fantastic goals that day at Ipswich. The pace, the passing, the movement… it was some of the best football we’d ever played.
I’d love to say it was a perfect day all round, but I’d had food poisoning before the game and I was being sick in the dressing room.
I told one of the medical staff, who advised me to eat as much as I could to get some food inside me, and I just about got through it. Luckily the manager didn’t find out until after the game, by which time we’d played so well that he didn’t mind!
With Corky, Morgan and Richard Chaplow breathing down my neck, I knew that if I came out of the side through illness, injury or suspension, it would be difficult to get my place back. I had to do everything I could to stay in the team.
I wasn’t feeling my best that day, so I was quite fortunate that the other 10 players were on fire and carried me through the game.
DIGGING DEEP ON THE ROAD
Unlike the two seasons in League One, when we were always playing catch-up after a slow start, suddenly we were the team at the top being chased by the rest.
We loved it. Coming up from League One and sitting on top of the Championship didn’t make us nervous. We thrived off it.
By the time we travelled to Leeds for the return fixture against them in March, we’d been top of the league for most of the season.
There were a couple of games in the run-in when you just felt promotion was meant to be, and that match at Elland Road was one of them. Kelvin was unbelievable that day. He was like Superman flying across his goal, somehow keeping Leeds at bay.
As a team, we showed a different side to us. Forget the slick passing football at Ipswich – this was about grit and determination, as we hung on for a vital 1-0 win after Rickie’s early goal.
In the dressing room afterwards we were congratulating Kelvin for his performance, but we were also laughing about it, because we knew we’d got away with one. We knew we hadn’t played well and Leeds should’ve won the game, but we’d nicked the three points.
Two weeks later, we went to Millwall – another place that’s always hostile. I don’t care what anyone says, Millwall away is never an easy game. The crowd make it difficult, they play direct football and they’re in your faces from the first whistle to the last.
For some reason, every time I played at The Den it was always raining, so you were battling the elements as well. On this occasion, we were 10 games away from the Premier League, but found ourselves 2-1 down going into the last five minutes.
I’d been substituted in the second half, so I was sitting on the bench when Rickie scored the two late penalties to turn the game on its head and clinch another unlikely victory.
We were getting pelted with coins. The physio got hit with a pound coin that split his head open as we were celebrating. Their fans were going mental but we loved it – we thrived off the adversity.
It was an amazing atmosphere in the dressing room. I didn’t feel too safe getting back on the bus, I must admit, but those are the sort of games that get you promoted – the ones when you’re not quite at your best, but you find a way to win.
NO REGRETS? NOT QUITE
If we’d looked a bit nervous in those games at Leeds and Millwall, it was probably because of the amazing run that Reading were putting together just behind us.
Maybe that was the point that we did start to feel the pressure a bit, just because we were so close to achieving that ultimate ambition that we’d all joined the club for.
One of my regrets with Southampton is that we didn’t win the Championship that year. Hats off to Reading – they went on a run of 15 wins from 17 games, including a 3-1 success at St Mary’s in our penultimate home game. That was the game that cost us the title.
The reason I say “one of my regrets” is because there is one more: we didn’t beat Portsmouth.
The derby at Fratton Park was our last game before Christmas. Rickie scored a header to put us 1-0 up, but they equalised late on from a set-piece. That was absolutely gutting.
At home, Billy Sharp scored early and late. His second goal, which was initially given offside, put us 2-1 up in the 89th minute. We thought we’d done enough, but David Norris hit a left-footed volley from the edge of the box to make it 2-2 with virtually the last kick.
We knew the importance of those games. It was an opportunity for us, because Portsmouth were struggling and we were flying high, so we felt it was our turn to take the bragging rights.
When we were in League One and they were in the Premier League, they’d come to our place and beaten us quite easily, so we were desperate to make amends. To concede late in both games was really tough to take.
I loved those derbies. There were always fans coming up to you in the week leading up those games, letting you know how important it was. Members of staff would do the same.
They were definitely different – you could feel that. It didn’t matter where they were in the league or where we were in the league. It’s a huge derby and the atmosphere was electric.
Beating Portsmouth would’ve been the icing on the cake that season. Winning either of those games would’ve seen us crowned champions, but it wasn’t to be.
PROMOTION IN SIGHT
Those home games against Portsmouth and Reading were major setbacks, but when we made the long trip north to Middlesbrough for our last away game of the season, we knew a win would see us promoted.
Even with a draw, we would’ve gone six points clear of West Ham in third, leaving them having to win their last two games and needing Coventry to turn us over at St Mary’s on the final day.
We went 1-0 up in the very first minute with a goal from Billy Sharp. Middlesbrough had to win to stay in the play-off hunt and they played well that day – it’s a big pitch up there, and they really got on top of us, to be fair to them.
After getting the equaliser just before half time, they scored from a free-kick in the last 15 minutes to make it 2-1.
One of their players should’ve been sent off that day when Adam was brought down right on the edge of the box. It might’ve been a penalty and a red card, because the player had already been booked, but we ended up with just a free-kick and the ref kept his cards in his pocket.
It just wasn’t our day. That was a long journey home and a long week leading up to the final match of the season, after West Ham won their game in hand to keep the race alive.
It’s not nice when you’re so close, knowing you’ve already had an opportunity to get promoted and haven’t taken it.
DATE WITH DESTINY
I’d be lying if I said there was never any doubt in our minds that we would beat Coventry.
Don’t get me wrong, we were confident, but there’s always a chance that circumstances can contrive against you, just as they had done with that key decision at Middlesbrough.
We actually changed our routine that week. The old adage is never change a winning formula, but we trained at the stadium for the whole week, which we’d never done before.
The manager just wanted us to be familiar with everything. It sounds silly, because obviously we’d been playing there all season, but I just mean the whole routine of coming into the stadium, eating at the stadium and getting ready to go. He wanted everything to feel completely natural by the time the game came around on Saturday afternoon.
It was a strange week for me. My first son was expected to be born, so I didn’t know whether I would even be playing in the game, and I was moving house at the time so I had to stay in a hotel.
It wasn’t exactly ideal preparation for me, personally – a really strange week, which took another turn when I got injured in the first half and had to go off. It was still an amazing day, don’t get me wrong, but it certainly wasn’t how I’d dreamt it the night before.
I would’ve loved to have still been on at the final whistle, celebrating with the fans as they ran on the pitch, as I had done against Walsall 12 months earlier.
Instead I made a conscious decision during that Coventry game. We were 2-0 up at the time, but I was struggling. I probably could’ve played on, but I just couldn’t justify the thought of us drawing or losing that game if I hadn’t come off.
I wasn’t moving freely, and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if someone had run off the back of me and I’d given a goal away, or I’d been too slow to get to a loose ball and been sent off.
I knew Corky could come on and do my job better than I could, at that moment in time. That was how we had been as a squad of players all season – taking responsibility and making decisions for the good of the team. So I made the choice to come off.
Being completely honest, it would’ve been selfish of me to stay on in those circumstances. Maybe I just wanted to open that first beer early…
SAVOURING THE MOMENT
The celebrations were amazing. It took ages to get the players off the pitch – at one point I think the staff were a bit uneasy about it, because we knew there were a few still out there but we couldn’t see them and had no idea where they were. They’re always safe, but I guess you just can’t absolutely guarantee it in those situations.
We stayed in the dressing room for hours after the game. The families came in, so we were all having a drink together.
You work so hard through your whole career for moments like that. Not every player gets those opportunities in a 15-year career in the game, so to do it two seasons in a row at such a big club as Southampton, who were so well supported, and with such good players and good people, you couldn’t write the script.
The club put on a celebration party on at the Four Seasons Hotel for all the players and staff. We hired out most of the hotel and stayed there – wives included.
If I’m honest, I don’t remember too much of the night, and my wife wasn’t too happy because she was heavily pregnant at the time, but it was such a one-off achievement that we had to make the most of it.
The next day we went into Southampton, just as players to celebrate together, and then we went away on holiday together. The celebrations lasted a long time, but deservedly so, as far as we were concerned.
My son ended up being born two or three weeks late, so when I went on holiday with the rest of the lads I was expecting to have to fly home early. Thankfully I got permission from my wife to go, and he was born a week after I got back.
It was my second child and my first son, and just an absolutely incredible time in my life.
PREMIER LEAGUE DREAM
Stepping up to the Premier League, I felt as though I’d earned the opportunity to play, but that’s just not how football works.
It’s a professional sport. A business. An industry that’s based on opinions.
I knew it was going to be tough for me, because I knew the club would invest in players to play in my position. I knew Morgan and Corky were getting better with age, so it was going to be a challenge, but I was willing to fight for my place and give it everything I had.
Unfortunately, that didn’t work out and I never got that opportunity.
I had a sensible conversation with the manager – a good, honest chat. He and the football club were really good for me. They explained the situation, in terms of where I stood in the pecking order, and they allowed me to make the decision.
No one told me I had to leave but they gave me the freedom to go if I wanted to. Did I want to leave? Of course I didn’t. I’d joined the club at minus 10 in League One and we’d made it to the Premier League.
I’d never played in the Premier League before and it was a burning ambition of mine that I wanted to achieve, but it just didn’t quite work out.
I can honestly say I wouldn’t change anything about the way my Southampton career played out, from start to finish. The club were good to me in helping me get an opportunity at another club, so I left on really good terms.
I would’ve loved to lead the team out as captain for the first game in the Premier League more than anything, but it just didn’t happen.
There was never a breakdown in my relationship with Nigel. He was always good to me, and three years later he signed me for Sheffield United, which proves there was no ill-feeling from either side.
I’m not saying I agreed with every decision, but I appreciated his honesty. Like I said, football is an industry based on opinions, and the club went on to have a good first season in the Premier League, so I think it probably worked out well for both of us.
I would’ve loved to have made that final step in my career with Southampton. Luckily, I had that opportunity with Leicester two years later, and I’m very fortunate to be able to say I played with a number of players who won the Premier League.
My last game for Southampton was away against Stevenage in the Carabao Cup. We had a really strong side out that night and ran out 4-1 winners, so it was a good way to go.
I look back on the whole journey now with amazing memories. I love seeing old photos and clips on social media from those years. I don’t think I ever really appreciated until now what a journey it was, or the scale of what we actually achieved.
I was so proud to be the captain of such a great club, playing with some amazing players and working with some really good people. I honestly can’t tell you how much I loved it – living in Hampshire as well, a lovely county. They were the best memories any player could have.
I just wish I could do it all again.