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Back in Britain - Part III of the Owain Williams saga


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John Terry has had plenty to say about the match between your two sides in the League Cup, claiming that your team was lucky to get through and ‘didn’t deserve to be at Wembley.’ Do you have anything to say in response?”

It was true - the Wolves boss had not taken defeat well. Nevertheless, his claim that we were lucky was frankly ridiculous.

John is entitled to his own opinions, but that doesn’t mean I agree with them in the slightest. I’m not quite sure how he’s reached his conclusions - it’s not often you get a lucky 3-0 win - but if it’s that how he deals with the defeat then so be it. As far as I’m concerned, we’re going to Wembley and deserve to be there.”

“So you’d dispute his claim that Wolves deserved more from the tie?”

“I don’t want to actually get into a dispute, but I wouldn’t share those views, no.”

“Tonight’s performance wasn’t a classic, but once again you got the job done. How much of a relief was Andre Wisdom’s red card late on?”

The press conference followed our 2-1 FA Cup win over Swansea, which put us through to the fifth round. We’d gone 2-0 up, conceded, and then held on until the aforementioned Wisdom’s dismissal, and which point we could easily have scored more.

“It changed the complexion of things, of course it did. We played an excellent first half and I think the scoreline reflected that, but we have to give Swansea a great deal of credit for the way they fought back. On another day they might have forced a replay, but we defended well enough.”

Callum Jacobson has started his Southampton career very well - has he surprised you with his form?”

“If I didn’t believe Callum could play at this level I wouldn’t have signed him, but he’s hit the ground running and that’s great news for all of us. He’s a very talented player to add to a very talented group of attackers, and he’s a real asset to us.”

“Looking ahead to the next round, you’ve been sent to Nottingham Forest in the fifth round. What are your thoughts about the draw?”

Forest are a good side, so we’ll have to be careful. We’ll be favourites, and that can be dangerous in itself, but we’ll go there confident of making progress.”

“Is the FA Cup a priority for you this year?”

“Every competition is a priority, and you can’t help but want to win a competition like the FA Cup. So to answer your actual question - yes, we’ll be playing a full-strength side.”

“Finally, there’s just one more week of the transfer window remaining, are we likely to see much movement at Southampton?

“There’s no movement on anything at the moment, although I’m sure you’ll find out if that changes. I’m happy with the squad, so even if there are changes they won’t be wholesale.”

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Thanks Mark - glad to have you following along and to have another ally in my dislike of Mr Terry!

David Moyes was a smug little so-and-so after our game in Norwich, so much so that had we not been two professional football managers, I’d have been tempted to ask him outside. In the press conference following our second winless game against the Canaries, Moyes told anybody who would listen that he had spotted our ‘weakness from corner kicks,’ spent extra time in training on dead balls, and then reaped the rewards.

What rankled most was not that Moyes had fallen the wrong side of the line between celebrating and gloating, but that he was right. It had been some time since we had conceded multiple goals from corners in the same game, but it was a recurring problem for us, and in East Anglia we paid the price. Once was enough - Callum Jacobson had pulled us back on level terms before the break after the opener - but to ship a second in identical fashion, allowing Gavin Gardiner to bundle the winner 20 minutes from time, was simply inexcusable.

So, I threatened my players before our next game, back home to round out January against Burnley. If we conceded from a corner against Paul Robinson’s side, the man or men I deemed to responsible would be fined a week’s wages. It was extreme, and I wasn’t sure it was entirely legal, but I needed some way of getting my point across.

I also told them that we needed to start taking our chances again, and that particular call was heeded more quickly. Six minutes in, Ross Ifan caressed a shot in from the edge from the penalty area, and three minutes later, Alejandro doubled the lead with an absolute thunderbolt from 10 yards further out. Already Burnley were lost, and we dominated every one of the first 45 minutes. Five before the break, Jacobson saw a shot parried into the path of Escalada, and our Argentine prodded home the rebound to make it 3-0 and game over at the break.

Or so we thought. Within 30 seconds of the restart, a rash challenge from Hodge gave Burnley the opportunity to pull one back from the penalty spot. There was only one man on the pitch who was ever going to take the spot-kick, and after barely waiting for the referee’s go-ahead whistle, Ciro Mangini smashed the ball down the middle and beyond Hamish Jack to make it 3-1.

From the restart, we went forward, Ifan and Bright combining well before the Welshman tried to thread a ball into the path of Escalada running between two defenders. Out went a Burnley foot, and a second claret shirt launched a ball over the top which caught Kenan Kus several yards out of position. Mangini was there again, and after collecting the punt, calmly slotted under our keeper to cut the deficit to one.

We were panicking, and suddenly became unable to complete even the most basic of passes. Burnley were all over us like a bad rash, Robinson was screaming his players forward from the opposite dugout, and it was impossible to tell the European hopefuls from the relegation battlers. Four minutes after Mangini’s second, a scramble on the edge of our penalty area saw the ball break behind our defensive line. With Jack and his back four all leaving it for each other, in nipped Hamza Mohamed to level the scores, the England youth international delighting the away fans by cartwheeling in their corner to celebrate. From a position of absolute security, we had thrown everything away.

I rang the changes. Boyd Clarke got the nod to replace the largely ineffective Jacobson, Forsberg took Henrique’s spot and, somewhat boldly, I replaced captain Kus with Canini. The quizzical looks from my opposite number went without reply - we may have had 35 minutes to go, but at this rate, we were set to lose by a dozen.

Instead, Forsberg in particular exerted the calming influence on the match which I had hoped for, the next 10 minutes broken up by the substitutions and the Swede’s combative style. As we passed the hour mark without any further goals, there was at least a suggestion that we weren’t about to cave in on ourselves. Of course, Robinson too had changes to make, and threw on an additional striker to try and utilise the momentum his side very much possessed.

It proved his undoing. With Ifan dropping deeper and two men sat in front of our defence, we created a midfield wall which effectively took Burnley’s front two - and at times the wingers as well - out of the game. We weren’t particularly creating anything either, but in the end we didn’t need to. With the clock showing 78 minutes, a loose ball back to the goalkeeper was gobbled up by Escalada, who won the footrace and slotted into an empty net.

Then, after halting the Burnley attack from kick-off, we worked the ball out to Canini bombing forward from right-back. Checking first inside and then back onto his favoured right foot, the Italian whipped a low cross across the six-yard line, where Clarke met it with a diving header to make it 5-3. To add insult to injury, the substitutes combined again in stoppage time, this time a lofted ball over the defence giving our striker a one-on-one which he never looked like missing.

Any game looks ridiculous with a 6-3 final score, but this one in particular was as mad as it looked. Robinson and I faced plenty of questions along those line afterwards, but both of us just wanted it all to be over. I felt for my counterpart - at least we could breathe knowing that we had three points to show for our efforts.

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We weren’t making things easy for ourselves. Staying at St Mary’s to take on Nottingham Forest two days later, we fell behind midway the first half, newly-capped England midfielder and summer transfer target Jay New silencing the home fans with a rifled finish from just inside the area after a missed tackle had given him space.

On this occasion, we were able to turn things round - a rapid-fire double from Adam Bright and Nestor Mina putting us ahead by the hour, and a third from our Ecuadorian hitman late on ensuring us maximum points. However, there were plenty of warnings that something had the potential to go very wrong.

That something turned out to Manchester City. The side from the Etihad were still chasing down their city rivals United at the top of the table, and were looking for revenge after our shock win at St Mary’s earlier in the season. Simeone’s men arrived on a run which had seen them pick up eight wins from their last 10 games, and were the top scorers in all of England. We knew it would be tough.

What I was not expected was a massacre. Just two minutes into the game, Chinese striking sensation Yu Shuming took three of my Saints out the game with a single turn, before firing low beyond Jack. Two minutes later he turned provider, standing the ball up at the back post for newly-crowned Ballon d’Or winner Vianney Hamdani to head over the line with our goalkeeper stranded.

Two goals down after five minutes, you would have expected us to drop back slightly, regroup and attempt to claw back the deficit with some intelligent counter-attacking. We didn’t. Instead, we gave up a third inside the first quarter of an hour, and then two minutes later watched Yu celebrate his hat-trick after bending a free-kick up and over our wall. The Etihad crowd smelled blood, and I wandered whether or not it would be acceptable to resign my position at the half time interval.

I did not, but nor did I enter the dressing room at the interval, choosing instead to let my players stew in silence for the entire 15 minutes. I wanted to see them snorting fire and brimstone when they emerged from the tunnel and in fairness there was something of a resolve about them - we even clawed a goal back, Aswad Payne heading in from a corner for a rare set-piece at the right end.

The relief was short-lived. Yu was a man on a mission, and 10 minutes later he had his fourth of the night to make it 5-1. That he only got one more, a calmly-taken half-volley in the dying minutes of the match, was down more to lack of time than any expert defending on our part. To only go down 6-1 when 4-0 down after 16 minutes could be counted as something of a moral victory, but it would have taken some incredibly positive thinking to pick the Southampton men off the canvas with any sort of dignity intact.

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Owain, you know as well as I do that we can’t play like that again. I know it was Man City on a good day, but there’s just no excuse. You know that, right?”

Ralph Krueger was not going to sack me - he had told me as much with his previous sentence - but the question alone was enough to send me into a spiral of self-doubt. Of course I knew the performance had been unacceptable - we were the laughing stock of the Premier League after our 6-1 hammering - but in many ways there was little I could have done about it. Yu Shuming had been in unstoppable form, and we had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And yet, I was held up as responsible. It was my team selection, my summer transfers, my tactics on the day. It was me who had to stand up in front of the press and convince everybody, including myself, that it could have happened to anyone and we would move on. Southampton’s fortunes were now my fortunes, and I felt as if they were somewhat out of my control.

After all, if I was powerless to deny a 6-1 defeat, what impact was I truly having if we won by the same scoreline, or edged a tense game 1-0? Clint Dempsey had already taken my Seattle team to new heights by beating Barcelona and winning the Club World Cup - who was to say I was not just playing a part, acting as the figurehead for a squad of players perfectly capable of figuring out what to do at any given time? If I were to leave, would anybody even notice?

The internal monologue was in full flow - to the extent that even Rachel’s calming words were having little to no effect - by the time Fulham came to Hampshire for our next league fixture. I do not know whether or not the players noticed how subdued I had become, but their performance in the first 45 minutes certainly reflected it. Our visitors, mired in midtable and already out of both cup competitions, had little to play for and so played little, but it was enough to hold our sluggish strikeforce at bay for the opening half.

For the second match in a row I wanted to say nothing, but Terry suggested that leaving them to stew after a lifeless rather than abysmal performance would hinder, rather than help, our cause. And so I gave the address, finding enough within myself to tell them that the match was there for the taking, to stay switched on at the back and to keep the ball moving. It was cliché and tired, but it was what I was supposed to do.

And yet, as the game drew on I felt compelled to act once more, this time making a double substitution in a bid to force something from the game. On went Jacobson and Cohen, and within five minutes it worked. The Israeli schemer spun on a pass from wide before nutmegging a defender, and there was our new Welsh striker, who dinked the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper to give us a lead we had barely deserved. This time, the intervention had worked, and we claimed all three points.

Maybe there was something to my job after all.

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That was that then. One trophy we wouldn’t be winning. Jay New had tormented us once again, but it was his Scottish counterpart Gordon Hunter who had done the deed. Having twice come from behind, the diminutive winger cut in off his left flank, dropped his shoulder to beat Canini, and then lofted a shot over the head of Jack to put us 3-2 down with no time to respond.

It been an entertaining enough game for the fans at the City Ground, but once again it wasn’t the performance I had demanded from a club expecting to be in the running for success. Without wishing to be too unkind to the Reds, we were undoubtedly a better team on paper than our hosts, and so to be knocked out at such a relatively early stage of the competition was a significant blow to our hopes for the season.

Again, the doubts crept in, but this time in a different fashion. It had taken some time - relatively little in both Prestatyn and Adelaide, and more than an entire year in Seattle - for my teams to become those which competed at the very top of the domestic game. Trophies became the norm. Here, in the pleasant surroundings of Southampton Football Club, there was the undoubted potential to do the same.

However, unlike in the Welsh, Australian and American games, the English league had a certain pedigree to it which meant we could not simply waltz in and expect everybody to start singing to our tune. There would be players who spurned our advances, other managers who would look down on my past achievements, more established and wealthier teams who could play us off the park. Even middle-of-the-road sides, teams like Forest and Norwich, were of sufficient calibre to beat us on their day.

On the other hand, if I didn’t maintain an ambition to be champions, what point was there? No team in history has ever achieved greatness by shrugging their shoulders at defeat - it had to bring with it crushing disappointment, dissection and learning. Losses needed to be significant rather than expected, an unwelcome part of the game to be avoided at all costs. What enjoyment could be garnered from finishing 7th?

But, I thought as Gidon Cohen’s goal handed us a 1-0 first leg victory over Fenerbahce in the Europa League, 7th was exactly what we were supposed to achieve. Southampton was not supposed to lift the title, go on extended European runs, or even challenge for the domestic cups - our presence in the League Cup final was genuinely upsetting to some.

That was it. That was the point of it all for Southampton and for everyone like us. We were there to spoil the party for everybody else, for those hosting the event who felt they could stop the music and unwrap the present themselves because it was their parents in charge. We weren’t supposed to compete with Manchester United, City or Liverpool. We weren’t really supposed to compete with Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs either. But if we didn’t, nobody else would - if nothing else, we had a duty to underdogs everywhere.

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Liverpool were next. They were 3rd, and therefore one of those clubs we had in our sights. Montella’s team had faded somewhat, but were still only five points off United at the top of the table and getting very excited about the possibility of silverware after a long drought. They arrived from Anfield confident and expectant - exactly the sort of arrogance we had come to expect from clubs of their ilk.

Before I could get too carried away painting us as a bastion of underdog spirit, I had to remember that we ourselves were no paupers, and a timely reminder came in the form of Boyd Clarke. Our multi-million pound England international with six-figure wages headed tamely into the arms of the visiting goalkeeper after just a couple of minutes, coming frustratingly close to giving us the lead.

We were not done there either, as we took the game by the scruff of the neck in the opening stages. Liverpool couldn’t find a way to take the ball off our midfield box, and inevitably it was one of the quartet that opened the scoring. Henrique fed a lovely diagonal ball into the path of Ifan, his first touch stunned it sideways into the path of Bright, and his shot brushed the calf of a visiting defender as it flew beyond the goalkeeper for 1-0.

Five minutes before half-time, disaster struck. As our opponents tried to turn the screw and get back into things, the midfield battle intensified. A bouncing ball just outside the centre circle was chipped forward, and suddenly we had a race on our hands. Kenan Kus came to the rescue by knocking the ball into touch, but immediately signalled to the bench. In his own efforts to get to the ball, Carlos Henrique had crumpled to the ground, his right arm shooting to his hamstring to give away the source of his pain.

With Alejandro taking his place alongside Forsberg, our midfield kept its shape until the interval and beyond. Around the hour mark, our Swedish enforcer met a corner from the right at full speed, only to be denied by a combination of goalkeeper’s fingertips and woodwork. Liverpool, despite the frantic gesticulation of Montella to my right, were still struggling to get going.

They had one exception, and it was the man who had netted the winner against us in the return fixture: Pirulito. Their speedy winger took it upon himself to bring his team back into the match, and Luke Shaw had his hands full down our left side. Twice our veteran full-back was beaten for pace and needed Hamish Jack’s safe hands to help him out, and twice more he used all his experience to shut down his man and clear to safety. Time ticked by, and we held on.

That meant we were back up into 6th, taking advantage of Arsenal’s draw at Stoke to leapfrog the Gunners. It also meant spirits were high as we prepared for the first European match my wife had actively asked me to reconsider. Given the history and the reputation, it was little surprise - we were heading to Istanbul, and while it was not the ‘Welcome to Hell’ of Galatasaray in the early 1990s, their fierce rivals Fenerbahce were not likely to make things any more comfortable for us.

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The Turkish fans had a reputation to live up to, and live up to it they did. It was not the Champions League, we were not Manchester United, and we were not met with banners at the airport, but every other trick in the book was employed as we attempted to build on the 1-0 win we had secured from the first leg. The bus collecting us from the airport ‘accidentally’ took a wrong turn through some of Istanbul’s less savoury districts, and at the hotel itself there had been a ‘mistake’ which meant we had fewer rooms available than we had booked. Thankfully, my men were all on speaking terms.

Of course, there was a fire alarm on the night - or rather, the morning - of the match, which meant that the entire squad, staff and myself were stood out in the Turkish rain at 4am, throwing everybody’s body clocks into disarray and creating some rather foul tempers among the players. Istanbul is a beautiful city as a tourist, but for travelling football teams, it can leave the wrong sort of impression.

Besides which, nothing could have prepared us for the spectacle of the Fenerbahce fans in the stadium itself, even aside from the huge banners passed around the three sides of the ground occupied by home fans. Our own supporters had indeed made it into their seats, but they were thoroughly drowned out - firstly by the vociferous chanting of their Turkish counterparts, and then by the mustard-yellow and jet-black smoke pouring from the pyrotechnics. We were in hostile territory, and nowhere could we escape that fact.

The first 45 minutes were thunderous, but ultimately fruitless for our unwilling hosts. They dominated possession before the break, but struggled to create any real openings, testing Jack only twice, and even then from distance. We gathered in the changing room knowing that a single goal would almost certainly be enough to get out with progress in the competition secured. The onus was on the home team to come out and play, and we were confident of picking them off on the counter if they slipped up.

They didn’t, but they didn’t need to. Instead, just over 10 minutes into the second half, Bright was bundled over 30 yards from goal when looking threatening. He quickly spread the set-piece wide to Kus, and the Dutch international, who had taken extra stick from the fans as an apparent traitor to his local heritage, placed the ball on the forehead of Clarke 10 yards from goal. He didn’t miss from there, and Fenerbahce needed three goals to deny us going further.

They wouldn’t manage it - and we would move to the second knockout round to take on Basel, remarkable 7-2 aggregate victors against Atletico after a 5-2 win in Madrid - but they did continue to make life difficult for us. The tackles flew in with scant regard for personal safety - Payne coming off with a nasty gash to his leg leg and Escalada doing well to hurdle a couple of potential leg-breakers - and the roar from the stands continued to intimidate.

Even after the final whistle, we were made to wait inside the stadium for a further two hours while the rest of the ground was cleared - something I was later informed was only procedure for victorious visitors - before catching our flight home. We had made it out largely unscathed and with a win under our belt, but Rachel had seen the news and needed confirmation.

I assured her that everything was fine - I had no plans to manage in Turkey any time soon.

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“It’s been more than 50 years since Southampton last won a major trophy, and the club has never won the League Cup. Does the history make you nervous, or more determined to succeed?”

It was true - never in Southampton’s long history had the club won England’s secondary cup competition. To the biggest teams, the League Cup was a proving ground for mercurial teenagers and extended rehabilitation for injured stars, but for others it was a route to Europe, a chance to build momentum and get a trophy in the cabinet. For me personally and therefore the rest of my team, it was a competition to win, and therefore we wanted to do exactly that. Of course we felt the pressure to succeed, but the drive to win superseded that.

“Very few people would have expected this final at the start of the season - how impressed have you been by Aston Villa’s run to this stage?”

Our rivals were of course, the Championship leaders, and much had been made of them being from outside the walls of the Premier League. Of course, Villa had only just dropped out of the elite 20 and were on course to make a rapid return, but the narrative could not be avoided. It had been decades since a second-tier team won the competition, and while their run had been impressive, we could not let it go on any further.

“Do you feel you are at any sort of disadvantage after playing on Thursday in Turkey?

The truth was the affirmative, but I had to be diplomatic - the last thing I wanted was the FA on my back or to appear like I was getting my excuses in early. Yes, there was tiredness in the squad after our European exertions, but we had a large enough and talented enough group to overcome that. These were professionals, used to playing several times in a short period, and they would manage just fine.

“This is obviously your first season as Southampton manager, and already you’ve led them to a major cup final. Was this always part of the plan, and do you feel confident that you haven’t peaked too soon in your tenure?”

It was an unfair question, but I gave it the straight-bat response. I mean, of course reaching finals and winning competitions was the plan - it was ultimately the plan of every football manager. And while the League Cup may not have been the extent of my ambitions for Southampton, it was the competition which, at the given time, gave us the best chance of doing that. If we won through, it was to be a springboard to future success.

Sometimes the English media do their image no favours.

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“The ball comes in from the left, this has been a good start from the Championship side. Hodge heads it away, good leap from the Welshman but it’s reached another man in claret and blue. Back it comes, and there’s Gray of all people with the header…

“It’s in! Demarai Gray has somehow looped his header over Hamish Jack, and the Championship club lead after just over 10 minutes here at Wembley! The Southampton fans watch on in stony silence, what can their team do from here?”

“Well Mark, it’s a superb header from Gray, who you wouldn’t expect to be scoring too many like that. If you wanted to be critical you might say Jack was a step too far forward in his six-yard box, but it’s gone right in the top corner. We’ll see what Southampton are made of now.”

Owain Williams is on the edge of his technical area and he is not happy, the referee has waved play on and Jacobson is still down.”

“He’s fuming Mark, but Southampton have won it back and this may well work out for them.”

Ifan on the edge of the penalty area, great block on the pass but it’s back with Ifan. He dummies one way, passes it other and it’s Clarke! Southampton are level and it’s Boyd Clarke against his former club!”

“It just had to be didn’t it? Great awareness from Ifan to find him running between the two defenders, and a lovely first-time finish. You’d have to say the Saints deserve that, they’ve controlled things since going behind. Can they kick on now?”

“We’re into two minutes of stoppage time at the end of the first half here at Wembley, and it’s currently Aston Villa 1-1 Southampton in the League Cup final. You’d have to say Villa will be the happier of the two sides at the break, but Southampton have a free-kick here and a chance to get the ball into the box.

Alejandro and Kus are stood over this one, a left and a right-footed option. It’ll be the Spaniard to curl this in from deep, it’s a good delivery.”

Forsberg! It’s in!”

“Right on the stroke of half-time, Southampton take the lead for the first time in this final, and it’s Seb Forsberg with the goal. Great ball in from Alejandro, the Villa defence caught flat-footed and the Swedish international heads down and past Marcos Fernando to put his side ahead, what a time to score!”

“It is, right on the whistle. Owain Williams will have some excited players in that dressing room in a minute or two, but they’ll be confident of winning this now. They’ve got the lead after a difficult start, and it’ll be a hammer blow to Aston Villa.

“You’d think so, they’d worked so hard until then too. There is the referee’s whistle, it is half-time here at Wembley and, thanks to that goal from Forsberg, Southampton lead Aston Villa by two goals to one.”

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Owain, don’t be ridiculous. I’m no football manager, but even I know you can’t expect to play like that every week. With no break and on such a high, you didn’t think you’d have to come down?”

Rachel was not in a mood to pity me, which is a shame as I was practically wallowing in my own disappointment. She was right, of course - I couldn’t expect to lift trophies and win every game 5-1 - but to have come back down to earth with such a bump was proving difficult to take.

“I know, I know, but like that? We were ahead after five minutes, would it have killed them to hold on for a little while?”

“Well, did you ask them to?”


“Did you ask them to? Did you tell your players after the goal ‘good work lads, let’s contain them for a little while and make sure we keep the lead.’ Did you?”


“What did you tell them?”

“I told them to go for a second and finish them off, but…”

“So is it really the players’ fault that they conceded? Do you not think you might have been a little too confident?”

I didn’t really have an answer to that. Arsenal were not Aston Villa, and I should have realised that a long time before Adrian Gallego equalised 20 minutes in. I certainly should have realised before Gidon Cohen’s own goal gave them the lead, and I should have done something about it before two spectacular free-kicks from Rodriguinho delighted the Emirates crowd and put us on the wrong end of a thrashing.

“Look darling, I don’t want to put you down - you’re already a hero after winning the cup - but you can’t blame everybody but yourself. That’s what Neal Ardley did, it’s what John Terry is doing - and you don’t particularly get on well with those guys, do you?”

“No, you’re right. If I was one of my players I’d be telling me to learn from the mistake, not to let it get to me. I guess I need to take my own advice sometimes.”

“Exactly. You’re still a good manager with a good team. Now you’ve got to bounce back - isn’t that what separates the good from the great?”

“Something like that honey, something like that.”

Sometimes, Rachel was annoyingly perceptive.

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When Swiss side Basel had been drawn out as one of our potential Europa League opponents, I had been quite pleased. Although they were one of the more experienced sides in the competition, they did not carry the same pedigree of some of our potential rivals, and both bookmakers would have made us slight favourites for any two-legged tie.

I was somewhat more surprised when they then proceeded to dump Atletico Madrid out of the competition in the first knockout round, following up an impressive 2-0 win at home in St Jakobspark with a spectacular 5-2 hammering in the Spanish capital. The result, and more specifically the manner in which it was achieved, sent shockwaves around the competition, and signalled Basel as ones to watch for the rest of the competition.

But we had already beaten Fenerbahce, and with the first leg in Switzerland, a 1-1 draw and valuable away goal from Escalada in a match we probably deserved to win put us back in control of the tie. Basel, it seemed, had shot their bolt already. We would go into the home leg was a justifiable confidence in our ability to progress to the quarter-finals. After all, we’d just won a trophy, and were going well in our bid to finish in the top six in the Premier League.

That was then, however. That was before we followed up our 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Arsenal with a fortunate 1-1 draw in Newcastle, having to come from behind to claim a point. Ever since the League Cup final we had been poor, and as we took to the field in the second leg we were without a win in three matches and down to 7th in the table. The picture was a lot less rosy than it had been just a couple of weeks before, and the 1-1 draw in Switzerland seemed a lot less reassuring than it previously had.

At half-time, the match remained goalless. A scoreless draw suited us fine on paper - it would ensure we moved into the last eight of the competition - but it did absolutely nothing for my nerves, or for those of the thousands packed into St Mary’s on a cool Thursday night. Every time Basel came forward there was a hushed silence, a worry that a goal would change the complexion of the tie, and that it would spell the end of our European run. Our confidence had vanished.

The fears were not without foundation. In the 83rd minute of the match, with the scoreboard still unchanged, Petr Papuga rose unchallenged to head in a corner, knocking my Saints out of Europe and leaving the Swiss side to take on Dan Petrescu’s Bayer Leverkusen in the last eight. They had not read the script that would have set us up with a tie against the club’s former manager, and we were instead left licking our wounds. Four games without a win and with March quickly passing us by, we were in danger of having the rest of the season drift away from us.

Thankfully the fixture list was kind, and our final game of the month - before another international break - pitted us against basement-dwelling Brentford, who had made an attempt at a recovery after 12 defeats to start the season, but were destined for relegation with their paltry 15 points. Defeat at home to the worst team in the division would represent a genuine crisis, and so when Michele Schneider slotted them in front after just 11 minutes, there was real worry on my bench.

Thankfully, Alejandro levelled the game just seven minutes later, and on the stroke of half-time Boyd Clarke headed us into the lead. Shortly after the interval a free-kick was powered home from the edge of the area by Adam Bright, and Canini wrapped up the scoring with an angled drive to round off a strong second half performance and restore a modicum of confidence after a miserable month. To think that just weeks ago we were celebrating our League Cup triumph reminded me of the old adage that a week is a long time in my sport of choice - we could not afford to take our foot off the gas if we were finish the season strongly.

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Owain, what we don’t want is for you retreat into yourself. I’ve heard about the way you heap expectation on yourself from Chris Tipping, and I want you to rest assured that we won’t add to that here. We asked for progress, and not only do we believe we’ve seen that, but you’ve also delivered a trophy. We offered you a long contract because we believe in your ability - you need to do that too Owain.”

It turned out Chris Tipping not only had the number of every football club chairman in the English-speaking world, but that he regularly discussed my mental fragility with them. I was a little aggrieved, but would have been more so had his assessment of my sanity not always been spectacularly correct. Ralph Krueger was wise to listen to his insights, and I would have been wise to take heed.

“Thank you, Mr Krueger. I assure you, I don’t feel under pressure from you or anyone on the board, nor particularly from the fans - although they can change their mind from one match to the next. I expect certain standards from myself, and I need to learn how to deal with things when I don’t live up to them.”

“I’m glad you understand, Owain. What I wanted to tell you is that, regardless of results over the last month, the board is very satisfied with your work. The trophy, as I mentioned, is a huge positive, and while the European exit was not desirable, we understand that Basel are a strong team and should not be underestimated. We can focus on the league at this stage, and look to finish as high as possible.”

“I wouldn’t consider anything lower than 6th a success.”

“Be that as it may, if you were to miss your target by a point or two, there would be no repercussions from the board. We are in Europe already, and we are beginning to work towards establishing your budgets for next season. Unless you do something that drags this club through the mud, that won’t change.”

“Thank you Mr Krueger, I appreciate your confidence.”

I did, deeply and genuinely. However, I still struggled to retain that same level of confidence in myself, and even when my players returned from their various national teams with no further injuries, I was unsure how the rest of the campaign would pan out. We had eight games remaining, our final three against teams above us in the table. If we were to upset the Premier League apple cart, this would be the time to do it. Alternatively, we could settle quietly for 7th and sidle unassumingly into next season. I knew which I’d prefer.

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John Terry was unbearable. We were on hostile territory at Molineux, in front of a crowd which had yet to forgive us for dumping their side out of the League Cup at the semi-final stage - particularly because their manager had ridiculously suggested that the 4-1 aggregate scoreline was somehow unfair on a team that had been comprehensively beaten across two legs. Now, his side had an advantage, and the former Chelsea man was loving it.

It had started in the 9th minute, when some hesitant defending had allowed the veteran Turkish striker Enes Unal to steal in and fire past Hamish Jack. Then, just after the hour mark, winger Haruki Uchino had smashed one high past our goalkeeper at his near post, putting us two behind with only 25 minutes left to try and take something back to Hampshire.

Terry’s gloating grin came as I headed to my bench, looking for something other than desperation which could turn the game around. Instead of simply throwing on attacking players and hoping for the best, I opted for a strategic switch - taking off the highly technical Escalada and replacing him with Nestor Mina in a bid to make the most of his strength and power. Adam Bright, removed from the starting eleven after a midweek training knock, also got the nod.

Within five minutes, and with Terry’s smug face still burning in my peripheral vision, we pulled one back. Ifan beat his man, shot low and hard, and then watched as it flicked off the heels of the jumping Mina and nestled in the bottom corner. Wolves raised their hands in unison, appealing for an offside decision that was not forthcoming, and we had a lifeline. Suddenly, my opposite number’s countenance seemed a lot less pleased.

The traffic began to flow in one direction, with Jack in our goal able to take up a position on the edge of his penalty area, such was the lack  of activity in our half. My players buzzed around the Wolves box, Terry responded by withdrawing Unal and deploying another centre-back to make five across the defence, and the scene was set. This was attack against defence, Williams against Terry, and as far as I could see, a battle for moral supremacy. Surely we couldn’t let such an odious man get his victory?

No. And, to make things even better, what we gained moved us level with Arsenal on points, the Gunners’ 5-2 defeat at Old Trafford inching us closer to our coveted 6th place. The timing was the sweetest part, Mina justifying his appearance with a textbook header in the 93rd minute, and with Terry complaining to all and sundry about the amount of time added on by the officials, the final whistle blew with his Wolves side robbed of two points.

It was a good feeling, and one that I basked in for much of the following week, when we faced embattled Stoke at St Mary’s. The Potters had made a managerial change in their bid to avoid the drop, ditching Kevin Kyle and poaching Iain Brunskill from Huddersfield, but even so they hovered just a single point above the relegation places as they arrived in Hampshire. They needed the win more than we did, but we weren’t going to let them have it.

Instead we struck twice in six first-half minutes, the first from Bright coming after a glorious passage of one- and two-touch passing, and then again towards the end of the game to take an unassailable 3-0 lead which was only dented in injury time by Dan Grigoras. Elsewhere, Everton held Arsenal goalless in North London, and we were two points clear in 6th.  After a miserable March, April was threatening to be very good to us indeed.

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“So, on Goals on Sunday this week we have none other than Southampton manager Owain Williams. Owain, welcome to the show.”

“Thanks James, it’s good to be here.”

“I have to say first of congratulations on a good win against Stoke yesterday, that moves you clear in 6th. What are your ambitions at this point in the season?”

“Thank you, it was good performance from the lads. As for my ambitions, they’re the same as any other manager’s at this point - finish as high up the table as possible and keep winning, it really is that simple.”

“So with United and City both winning their fixtures, there’s little to separate them at the top of the table with just a single point in it. We’ll come to you first Owain, how do you see the title race going with just six games to go?”

“It’s difficult to call - both teams have been superb this season, and deserve to be where they are. I saw first hand how good City can be when we went to the Etihad - I don’t particularly like to reminded of it, but they were phenomenal that day and when it clicks they’re unstoppable. United on the other hand just keep on winning, so it’s hard to call.”

“I’m not going to let you sit on the fence here Owain!

“Fine - in that case I’ll back City for the title, purely because we still have to play United and we’re obviously hoping they drop some points there!”

“Back to you on this one Owain as you’re involved in the picture. Obviously you’re already in Europe after winning the League Cup back in February, but from 4th-7th is anybody’s guess, how do you read things? Are you looking even further up the table?”

“No, I don’t think so - if Liverpool win tomorrow they’re 10 points above us, and with five games to go that’s very wishful thinking. You have to say there are some massive games coming up for the teams involved - the North London derby of course, and then we play both Spurs and Chelsea in the run-in.

“It’ll all come down to who can be the most consistent. Spurs have got that game in hand, and if they win it it’ll be hard for us to catch them - the same goes for Chelsea in 4th. I’ve always said 6th would represent a good season, so 5th would be great and 4th would be absolutely brilliant - the Champions League would be a superb achievement, but unless results go our way elsewhere that’s out of our hands.”

“But beat Spurs and Chelsea and all of a sudden…”

“Yes, but those games still only get you three points and they could be five or six clear by then. We’ll keep doing what we know we have to do, and hopefully another couple of clubs will do us a favour.”

“Well that’s all for this week, thanks to Southampton manager Owain Williams and former Scotland international Jordan Rhodes for joining us this week - we’ll be back at the same time next week with more insight, more discussion of the weekend’s talking points, and of course, more goals on Sunday.”

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Watford, the side lurking in 8th and ready for any of the seven teams above them to slip up, were next. We would have home advantage, the benefit of good form, and the fact that Spurs and Arsenal would not play until the following day - their derby being Sky Sports’ understandable choice of live fixture for the weekend.

By the time the clock showed 10 minutes, we also had the advantage of two goals. The first came through Nestor Mina, the Ecuadorian tapping in from Luke Shaw’s low cross, and the second came from the same man, our in-form striker this time showing good strength to shrug off a challenge in the penalty area before checking back onto his favoured right foot and slotting one beyond the goalkeeper’s reach. We were in cruise control, and Watford couldn’t live with us.

It didn’t take long for the third to come either, and by the half hour we had all but sealed the game. Lucio Escalada proved that his strike partner was not the only man on our team who knew where the goal was, a one-two on the edge of the area followed by a powerful strike which left the goalkeeper with no chance whatsoever of making the save. The visitors were done, and had we left at half-time, they might have been tempted to follow us.

Instead we played on, and the second half was decidedly less of an event. Watford grabbed one back, pouncing on miscommunication from a dead ball to cut the arrears, but the three-goal cushion was restored almost instantly. Escalada was taken down inside the area, and he immediately threw the ball to Mina. Appreciatively, he buried the penalty to claim his hat-trick and the aforementioned match ball, and we walked off at the end comfortable 4-1 victors.

The following day, I watched at home as Spurs demolished Arsenal 3-0 in the derby, and then three days later as they travelled to New Anfield and again came away victorious. That particular sequence of results meant that the Reds were now the side ahead of us in 5th, four points clear with four games to go. Spurs were one point better off in the last Champions League spot, and just one more behind Chelsea. Surely we couldn’t do it at this late stage?

Before then, I had far more domestic matters to deal with, as Rebecca was sent home ill from school midweek after vomiting all over one of the keyboards in the music room. Normally, the sudden onset of a stomach bug was the moment when Rachel’s maternal instinct was at it’s finest, but on this occasion it seemed that the transmission had been from mother to daughter, meaning that my wife was already dosed up in bed and largely ineffective in dealing with our youngest’s symptoms.

That meant I spend much of the time in the run-up to our trip to Nottingham playing the nurse, whilst simultaneously trying to ensure that Bethan remained virus-free. It made for long nights, weary limbs, and a whole new appreciation of the work Rachel did on a far more regular basis. Nevertheless, the enforced family time was greatly appreciated, and forced me to focus on what many would sentimentally refer to as ‘what really matters.’

After months managing and massaging the egos of several grown men in a bid to win trophies on the football field, I had to say I agreed them. With several caveats - I would never have wished to pretend to be someone willing to quit on the spot and stay at home - but there was agreement nonetheless. It helped that we won at Forest - Escalada coming to the rescue after we fell behind early on - and that by the time Monday morning rolled round, Rebecca was finally on the road to recovery. You don’t want to be surrounded by illness for too long, after all.

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Everything gets serious when it gets to May. In Europe, almost every competition that is worth winning - with the obvious exception of the League Cup - reaches its conclusion in the fifth month, and so as our calendars reached the all-important milestone, we knew we were very much at the business end of the season. Three matches, three of the biggest clubs in the country, three chances to show to the watching world just what Southampton were capable of. It wasn’t quite all or nothing - we were guaranteed Europa League football come what may - but it felt pretty close.

May 1st was also important for us practically, because it marked not only the arrival of the year’s most important month, but also of Manchester United. Jurgen Klopp’s team arrived at St Mary’s in confident form, a point clear at the top of the Premier League and ready to wrench the title out of their sky-blue rivals’ hands. City were at home, taking on Norwich in their bid for a third straight championship crown, and their local enemies knew they needed to beat us to stay on top.

If Klopp had told his players to stay calm, they did not listen. Inside five minutes two shots from range whistled high over Hamish Jack’s crossbar, the United players keen to register their intentions without giving too much thought to the execution. Moments later the first player found his way to the referee’s book, young full-back Harry Danvers marking just his sixth start of the season with an early booking.

We were trying to get going, as were the crowd - the St Mary’s faithful desperately trying to sing us into some sort of rhythm - but against the would-be champions, that was easier said than done. Alejandro in particular was used to dictating the tempo from his deep midfield position, but against United there was simply no room - everything was at full speed, the opposition closing him down ruthlessly time and time. A goal felt inevitable, and indeed it was.

But not the way everybody expected it. A rare foray forward saw Cohen brought down 25 yards from goal, but the immediate aftermath would prove crucial for United. The offending player was none other than Danvers, and the referee showed no hesitation in punishing the cynical trip with his second yellow card of the game after just 25 minutes. To make matters worse, Escalada proceeded to plant the free-kick into the top corner of the visitors’ net, and we had the lead.

We would hold it too, and relatively comfortably. With only 10 men remaining, United had little choice but to blunt their attacking force or risk being on the receiving end of a hammering. By consequence, our defence had relatively little to deal with for much of the 90 minutes - Hamish Jack coming to the rescue once or twice, but no more - as we upset the odds with a thoroughly professional display. We scored no more goals, which would ordinarily be disappointing against a disadvantaged side, but against United, I could have no complaints. We had the win, and that was all that mattered.

We also dealt a hammer blow to Klopp’s title dreams. As they were sliding to defeat at St Mary’s, the Etihad crowd was celebrating a thumping 6-0 win over Norwich which, with just two games to go of the campaign, saw the Citizens hop over their rivals and into top spot. They were now two points clear, and once again in control of their destiny. When I had talked about upsetting the established order, this was not exactly what I had in mind, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. Harry Danvers would take the flak in the press, but every one of the my men knew who had really done the damage.

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The following Saturday, Liverpool ended Manchester City’s treble dreams in one of the all-time classic FA Cup finals. The league leaders raced into an early lead only to be pegged back before half-time, and the same pattern emerged in the second period - the Reds falling behind just before the hour only to send the Wembley crowd into raptures with a last-gasp leveller. Extra time saw the woodwork hit by both teams but no further goals, and so the silverware would be settled on penalties. The first nine all found the back of the net, the subsequent spot-kick saw Vianney Hemdani blaze the ball over the crossbar, and the Merseyside club celebrated long into the night.

With no league fixtures on cup final day - the way it should be - our league clash with Spurs was instead held on the Sunday, offering us the chance to draw level on points with Londoners in fifth place with a victory. We edged the match and created the better chances - even seeing an Adam Bright header chalked off for a marginal offside - but in the end there was to be no breakthrough, a rare scoreless draw leaving the visitors happy and us likely to settle for Europa League football.

Mathematically, we were still the Champions League picture, but the reality of the situation was somewhat different. We sat three points behind fourth-place Chelsea and with a goal difference deficit of 10 - meaning that we would need to win 5-0 at Zola Park, and hope fifth-place Spurs failed to beat Wolves at home if we were to make it into the top four. On the other hand, defeat in our final game and a win for Arsenal over West Ham would see the Gunners bump us down a position.

Above us in the table, Liverpool were also in the picture - sitting just a solitary point above both London clubs in the bronze medal spot - but were a long way off competing for the title, 13 points down on the red half of Manchester. Klopp’s men trailed their City rivals by two points heading into the final match - and so would have been leading the league had we not beaten them - and so needed to pick up three points against Stoke while hoping for an unlikely favour from Burnley at Turf Moor.

In the end, the Sky Sports team did not get the final day drama they so dearly desired. Gidon Cohen’s equalising goal against the Blues meant that Spurs jumped into the final Champions League spot courtesy of a 4-2 win in Swansea, but that was the only positional change to the top seven in a goal-filled final round of fixtures. Arsenal held off a late Hammers fightback to win 4-2, and despite smashing six goals past a dismal Stoke outfit, Manchester United had to settle for second as the noisy neighbours romped to a 5-0 win, taking their tally for the season to 111 league goals and lifting their third successive Premier League title.

At the bottom we bade farewell to Brentford, Reading and Norwich, allowing attention to turn to the continental finals in the following week. Spurs carried the momentum they earned from jumping into fourth place by beating surprise finalists Rapid Wien in the Europa League showpiece, but the footballing world was still waiting for the big one a few days later. At the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, 120 minutes of pulsating action failed to provide a winner or even a goal to separate two fierce rivals, and this time the shoot-out lottery fell in favour of City, Jurgen Klopp’s United once again finishing runner-up to their old enemies and feeling the pain of watching their neighbours celebrate yet more success.

All of which left me wondering what on earth to make of my first season in charge of Southampton. We had secured European football - one of the main aims of my first year in charge - and we achieved the club’s highest points tally and finishing position since the runners-up spot earned in 1984. On that front, we could be rightly proud.

Conversely, our 70 goals scored and 50 conceded were only good enough for seventh and eighth best in the league respectively, and while we took great joy for lifting the League Cup, our performances in both the FA Cup and Europa League could, and perhaps should, have been even better. Our continental exit in particular left a sour taste in the mouth - we were undoubtedly a better team that Basel.

I allowed myself a week to rest, recuperate and recover - not to mention see my family - before the preparations for the following season began. It would be a busy summer - every summer is a busy summer in English football - and we needed to have every angle covered if Southampton had any hope of breaking into the elite group of clubs at the top of the Premier League table. We had done our consolidation - now it was time to advance.

That wraps up Owain's first season with the Saints, and after writing his story for several years, I'll be taking a bit of a break to focus on a couple of other things over the next couple of months. I've finally caught back up to where I've written in the story, so need some time to get ahead of myself again and get back into that particular groove, so please do bear with me, read the other things if you fancy, and I hope to see you again to catch up with Owain some time in the New Year!

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  • 3 months later...

So, it's been a while. Having put Owain's story down for a little while - having frankly found myself a little tired of him - I've picked it back up again and am raring to go for the next season. Thanks for your patience, and I hope you continue to enjoy the tale!

“Why on earth are you taking them there?”

Rachel’s question, as ever, was a perfectly valid one. After a wonderful week with my three girls back in North Wales, I returned to work and subsequently home with the news that our pre-season tour ahead of the 2027/28 season would be of Denmark and, more peculiarly, the Faroe Islands.

“It’s a confidence building thing,” I explained. “On the one hand, it’ll get them used to playing in unusual conditions - I’m expecting it to be wet, windy and wild up there - and on the other I’m expecting a hatful of goals. When did you ever of a decent Faroese footballer?”

“Never, but that’s hardly the point is it? Why don’t you just stay local and beat up the Hampshire League sides again?”

“I don’t want them to dislike us too much, not at this stage. If we stick 12 past the same sides every year they’ll stop accepting my invitations!”

I didn’t genuinely think that county league clubs would turn down the chance to play a Premier League outfit, but the opportunity to warm up for the coming season out of the spotlight was an attractive one. Rather than jetting off to China or even back to the States, I would rather do our business under the clouds of Torshavn.

Indeed, we would complete our first transfer before we even made it Copenhagen - although our newest squad member would not join us officially until July 1st. In a sign of our growing appeal as a football club, we had managed to secure the signature of Rodrigo Acuna, Manchester United’s Paraguayan international right-back, on a Bosman deal. He would give Kenan Kus some genuine competition for his position on our right flank - and rightly so at £80k per week - and his arrival would likely spell the end for one or both of Davide Canini and Alisan Tok. The former had been steady if unspectacular in his single year with us, the latter had not developed as hoped - there was money to be made, and I was not about to get sentimental.

When we did arrive in Denmark - to play the first of four friendlies against Superliga sides before heading north-west to the Faroes - we were already deep in negotiations for a series of deals which I hoped would revamp our squad for the better. Once again there would be plenty of money flying around St Mary’s - both in and out of the club - and I was confident that, if we got our men, we had a real chance at breaking into the top four and challenging at the top of the table.

Unlike at Seattle however, we were not negotiating from a position of strength as the undisputed best team in the division, and so actually getting deals over the line proved harder than in MLS - not least because of the absence of a Henderson or a Dempsey running the numbers on my behalf. The Southampton staff were no slouches, but we were a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond, and the opposition we came up against were by no means new to the game. We simply had to work harder to get where we wanted.

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It's great to see this come back. I love that a Premier League side is touring the Faroes. :lol:

I can understand why you took a break from this story. Sometimes it's good to recharge the batteries while you do other things.

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Thank you for the kind words Chris, glad to see you're still reading along. I started 'Pontins, Kwik Save...' more than three years ago now, so I think a little bit of a break was long overdue - firmly back in the groove now though. As for the Faroes, I though it would make a nice alternative to smashing the local clubs about in pre-season!

For example, over in the States, the likelihood of a player turning us down in favour of joining another American team was next to nothing – we had the biggest budget, the best facilities, and by the time I left, almost a guarantee of trophies. Here in Southampton, we were forced to try and convince players to come and join a project rather than achieve instant success, and not everybody was convinced.

The first, and indeed second examples of this, came in the form of Italian giants Juventus – not really a club I had previously had much reason to pay attention to. Within the space of a week they took two players from us – the first the disgruntled Canini, who after the Acuna deal had been confirmed was determined to return home – but the second was more problematic.

Sebastian Forsberg had played a strong first season as one of our two holding men, and while we couldn’t guarantee him a starting berth in every match, he was a very useful man to have in the first team squad. However, while he had showed no sign of discontent, the moment the Serie A champions declared their interest, his head was turned. The wage they offered was only a modest rise on his Saints salary – and we could have gone higher – but the appeal of instant Champions League football was too great, and the £15m we got for the Swede joined the £4m for Canini in our bank account.

Not content with taking two players from us, the Old Lady also denied us a third. I had identified centre-back as one of the key positions to upgrade, and when my scouting team alerted me to the availability of Irish international John O’Brien over in Valencia, I had no hesitation in submitting an offer. The former Manchester City man was approaching his prime at 26, and would be a welcome addition to our back line.

But again, the Turin club intervened, making their own move for the Irishman and winning his signature with their offer of winner’s medals and European adventures. Meanwhile, while we were doing well in trimming our own squad – Jeff Rowbotham and John Ruane leaving on season-long loans to Celtic and Stoke respectively – we were in the uncomfortable position of July fast approaching and with only a single deal secured. The window may not have been open, but everybody else was moving rapidly.

Everybody included Hoffenheim, who caught us by surprise with a huge bid for deep-lying playmaker Alejandro. The Spaniard had flattered to deceive at times in my first season on the South Coast, and with the German village club offering a massive £22m, plus a full half of his next transfer fee, we had little choice but the take them up on it. It meant, however, that we were left somewhat light in our defensive screen, with only Henrique and Hossam in the first team squad. Given that we deployed two men in front of the back four at any given time, we needed reinforcement and fast.

Thankfully, with our transfer budget boosted by the £40m worth of sales to the continent, we were able to make a couple of moves of our own. We’d sorted out cover at right-back in the form of Acuna, and it was defence that occupied the rest of my priorities – a centre-back to make up for missing O’Brien, at least one holding man to go in the rotation, and a backup goalkeeper superior to Marc Holland, who was unhappy on our bench and in search of a move.

 Before July was out, we would land three deals of our own. If we hadn’t, I think the fans might have revolted.

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Owain, you sit here with no fewer than three signings wrapped up this week – this must be a relief after a couple of quiet weeks for you?”

“It’s always good to get deals like this over the line, but at the same time it’s only the middle of July! Everybody wants to move early to give the players involved the best chance of settling in at their new club, and we’re no different.”

“There haven’t been too many Russians in the Premier League – what did you see in Arseni to make you think he could be a success here?”

“Any player who gets capped by their national team aged 18 has to have something about them, and I more I watched him for Spartak the more I was convinced he was the man for us. He’s a confident lad for 19, he’s got an excellent pair of hands and isn’t scared to throw himself at a striker’s feet. He’s been learning English already, and as soon as he’s able to communicate I’m sure we’ll have an excellent keeper on our hands.”

“You mentioned the language barrier – do you have a plan to deal with it?”

“I don’t think it’ll be too big of an issue. As I mentioned, he’s already got the basics sorted, and while we don’t have any Russian speakers in the squad, the rest of the team will welcome him just fine.”

“No such problems with Carl and Steve here – and you’ve made quite the statement by spending so much on two Englishmen.

“It is a statement, but it certainly isn’t a risk. Neither of these two gentlemen have played for their country yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Quite why Spurs were willing to let Carl go I’m not sure but I won’t complain, and on the other hand you can see why Stoke fought so hard to keep hold of their man. You’ve got to have a strong backbone if you want to do well in the Premier League, and these two will provide us with exactly that.”

There were a few more questions directed at the three arrivals – although understandably fewer at our new Russian goalkeeper Arseni Bogatyrev – and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. The two English lads gave the usual set of stock ‘new signing’ answers, and we were finally able to get back to the training field.

Arseni would play second fiddle to Hamish Jack between the sticks, the young Russian international learning the language and his trade before hopefully moving into a position of genuine competition after his £7.5m move from Moscow. In front of him, we had persuaded Spurs to release Carl Bateson to us for the relative pittance of £11m, a small sum indeed for a 23-year-old who I felt was a certainty to represent his country. Positionally very aware, quick off the mark and with a heightened sense of anticipation, he would be a welcome addition to our back line.

However, all the focus was on our new club record signing, Steve Woodward. At 25 he had already accumulated six years of experience anchoring the Stoke midfield, and had been called up the national squad on three separate occasions without ever getting on the field. More likely to step in and pick off a pass than to launch his own Hollywood ball, Woodward was strong in the tackle and would be the ideal foil for our more creative players. For £22m, we needed him to grow into the foil and stay there for years.  

Those three deals got rid of the £40m we had received from our previous sales, and unless anything dramatic happened, we would be signing precisely nobody else. I was in agreement with my staff, who believed we had the foundations in place for a strong squad and successful season, and quite frankly I had no desire to go through the rigmarole of further press conferences.

Mercifully, there was nothing of the sort to announce the draw for the final round of Europa League qualifiers. We’d take on Danish outfit FC Nordsjaelland in the first week of the new season, and would be strong favourites to make it to the competition proper. If we didn’t, we’d be in crisis before we even began.

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Our incoming deals were indeed complete, but that did not mean we’d be completely quiet on the transfer front. As anticipated, Marc Holland was none too pleased with the arrival of Bogatyrev, requesting a transfer as a consequence and swiftly leaving to Brentford for just short of a million pounds. Joining him in leaving us for a side further down the pyramid was Alisan Tok, whose development at St Mary’s had left plenty to be desired. Reading would be his next destination in exchange for £2.5m, and a clause which guaranteed us half of his next fee. After all, if our assessment of the young full-back proved wrong, we would still expect to be compensated.

With our Danish and Faroese tours complete, transfer business done and Europa League draw made, all that remained before the start of the Premier League season was to fend off the press once more – this time courtesy of my opposing manager on the opening day of the season, the ever-opinionated John Terry.

Owain, John Terry has once again spoken about your team, suggesting your League Cup win last year was fortunate and that your summer business has weakened your squad. He seemed very confident of a win on Saturday – do you have anything to say to him?”

I took a deep breath before replying – I had plenty to say to Mr Terry, but I saw little value in beginning a slanging match in the national press. I chose to take the moral high ground and address the facts, although not without a subtle barb or two of my own.

“What John has to say about me or anything else for that matter is his business and his alone – I’m focused solely on preparing my side to take on his, and on picking up three points.

“Whether you can win a trophy through luck is something I would question, but I can understand that he has regrets from last season. I believe we have a stronger squad than last year, and I’m confident of starting the season with a win on Saturday – luck or no luck.”

After the match, my press statement was less nuanced. Adam Bright had struck the bar twice in the first 15 minutes, only to be ruled out for the next six weeks by a late challenge which somehow only earned his marker his yellow card. I was less than happy with the rough approach of Terry’s side, and I told him as much.

However, I was also sure to praise my men for their performance, as we overcame Wolves’ dirtiness to claim the three points. Ross Ifan put us a goal to the good with a crisp low finish from the edge of the penalty area just before the break, and in the final quarter of an hour we doubled that advantage, the Welshman’s driven cross deflected past his own goalkeeper by Leo Chambers. It was a comfortable start, Bright’s injury excepted, and it was good to be able to put Terry in his place. It felt like a good year.

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Nordsjaelland were not expected to pull up any trees in the Europa League – indeed, they had surprised many by even making it to the final qualification stage – but we were not about to take them lightly. If we slipped up against the Danes, especially having beaten three sides from the same country in pre-season, there would be a cloud of negativity hovering over us all season.

With that in mind, we lined up, with one or two exceptions, our strongest eleven for the first leg of our tie at St Mary’s. Our plan for the match was a simple one – start fast, keep our foot on the gas, and make sure we could cross the North Sea with a significant advantage.

Just four minutes into the game, we got what we were looking for. Kenan Kus collected a ball at full speed down the right and fired in a fizzing low cross, which Boyd Clarke flicked goalwards. His shot found the post, only to bounce back on the arm of the diving Thomas Krohn and deflecting behind for an own goal off the unfortunate keeper. With the lead secure, I urged my men to push on and double it before the interval.

We would not have it so easy. The Danes showed a bit of steel after the early setback, and after matching us blow for blow in the opening half hour, they struck back. Marc Randrup took the applause of his team-mates after his 20-yard strike beat Hamish Jack low to the corner, and instead of a comfortable lead, we faced a deadlocked game at the break. What’s more, they had an away goal.

So, I lit a rocket up my men at the interval. If they blew it from here, they were told, there were plenty of others in the squad who would gladly take their place in the team. We would face much bigger tests in the Premier League, and I was not prepared to start on the wrong foot.

It took 15 minutes for the message to translate into action, Ross Ifan sliding a pass through for countryman Jacobson to slot beyond Krohn. Ten minutes later substitute and debutant Acuna made it 3-1 with an angled drive from the edge of the area, and with three minutes of the game to go we struck our fourth, Gidon Cohen bursting through the middle of a tired Danish defence before clipping a delightful finish over the onrushing keeper. The final score of 4-1 was perhaps a little kind given our first half struggles, but we would take it.

Next up, just three days later on the following Sunday, we travelled to Stoke for the first away match of the new campaign. We rotated a few players once more – four games in a fortnight requiring the whole squad – and again got off to a lightning start, Ifan bending in a free-kick with the clock still showing single figures. We dominated the first half, and got our reward with a second just before the break, this time Escalada showing his skill to beat two men and then fire high past the keeper at the near post.

The second period saw the hosts roar back, and our defence take an absolute battering. However, it took 35 minutes before we gave up a goal, Ukrainian hitman Gryschuk heading in from a corner, and so leaving ourselves just 10 minutes to hold out. We managed exactly that – Escalada even hitting the post as we looked to counter – and made it two league wins from two.

There would be bigger teams and tougher games for sure, but you have to win all of them if you want to get anywhere. So far, we had managed to do so.

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Rachel, do you ever wonder whether I’m doing the right thing?”

“What do you mean darling?”

“I think I mean Lloyd Collins. I can’t help but feel like it’s my fault.”

Our young Welsh talent would not be playing for Southampton in the near future, after a nasty challenge in an under-21 game against Hull left our teenage starlet with a broken ankle and facing three months on the sidelines. I had wondered whether I had raised his profile too much by spending so much money on him so young, and after he had clearly been targeted by last night’s opposition, concluded that I had inadvertently caused the injury.

Owain Williams, don’t be ridiculous” – my wife obviously disagreed. “Lloyd is a sportsman, he plays football for a living, and he’s doing rather well at it for someone who is just a boy. There are kids up and down the country who’d do anything to be in his position.

“Yes, he got injured yesterday and it’ll be a little while before he can play again. But you take a risk when you play sport, and it isn’t as if his whole career has been ended. He’ll be back by Christmas!”

Rachel’s point was firm and well-made, although I couldn’t help but feel guilty nevertheless. Part of the reason for that guilt was that I had pencilled Collins in for the second leg of our Europa League qualifier against Nordsjaelland, and had seen my own plans scuppered by the injury.

Regardless, I took a heavily rotated side to Denmark in order to defend the 4-1 lead we had earned for ourselves at St Mary’s. My only worry was the hosts’ away goal, but it took us just six minutes to wipe it out, Ross Ifan sliding the ball beyond the goalkeeper from the edge of the area to give us a four-goal advantage. 15 minutes later he fired a cheeky free-kick beneath the jumping wall to make it 2-0 on the night, and we were as good as through to the group stage.

We still had 70 minutes to play however, and there was still time for the Danes to hit back. It took them until the 74th minute before they were able to do so, Claus Madsen leaping highest at a corner to turn the ball in and half the deficit for the match, but 10 minutes later we repeated the trick at the other end, Boyd Clarke the beneficiary of some slack home marking to restore the two-goal cushion. The referee blew his whistle with the score at 7-2 on aggregate, and we were comfortably through to the group stage.

As a result, the following couple of days were taken up largely with draws for the various competitions we would be competing in. First was the defence of our League Cup crown, with those drawing the balls having no intention of giving us an easy ride. We were picked out to host Arsenal in Round Three, one of the tougher tests we could have faced.

Then there was the Europa itself, and we were given a very Eastern European flavour to our group. Whilst there would be one short journey to Aberdeen as part of our Group D excursions, we would also face lengthy trips behind the old Iron Curtain as Lokomotiv Moscow and Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv completed our foursome. The travel arrangements would prove interesting, but on paper it was a group we were strong favourites to escape.

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At the end of August, there would be the annual international break to disrupt any momentum we might have gathered over the opening weeks of the season, but with every Premier League manager suffering the same problem, I was not about to complain too loudly to the authorities. Besides, it offered a little respite after the hectic scheduling of the transfer window, and allowed me to catch up with Rachel and the girls in a way a football manager is often simply unable to.

Before that however, we were to host Swansea before enjoying a couple of weeks with no competitive action, and we got off to an absolutely flying start at St Mary’s. A deep free-kick from the left was hoisted into the visitors’ area by Luke Shaw, and as chaos ensued in the penalty box, the ball was somehow bundled over the line by defender Dylan Launey to give us a welcome lead just five minutes in.

From then on we dominated, racking up no fewer than 21 shots over the course of the 90 minutes and barely allowing the Swans near our goal. We were incredibly unlucky not to extend our advantage, twice striking the woodwork and seeing other efforts fizz past the uprights, but at the back we looked completely comfortable.

That is, until the second minute of injury time, when a simple goal kick was inexplicably allowed to bounce, which it did over the head of Bateson and into the path of Sebastian Gonzalez. Faced with a one-on-one opportunity, the Spaniard made no mistake, coolly sliding the ball under our goalkeeper to earn a truly infuriating point for the visitors.

It was the sort of result which could leave a manager powerless, not knowing what more he could have done to turn a careless draw into a win. My substitutions had made tactical sense, we had not retreated into a defensive shell, and neither me or any of my coaches had ever taught our defenders to allow high balls to bounce in dangerous positions. It was an annoying freak of nature, and we would be left to stew over for the best part of a fortnight as our senor players left to attend to their various national sides.

I was able to distract myself for the most part with a combination of quality family time and multiple scouting reports as we attempted to get ready for the January sales, while a significant portion of my time was also taken up with preparing for the visit of Watford after the break. The Hornets had done well last season to finish in the top half of the table, and so we spent plenty of time figuring out how we would break them down.

So of course there was no surprise whatsoever when they arrived in Hampshire, parked their team bus firmly on their own six-yard line, and left with a goalless draw, having not had so much as a single shot on target over the course of the entire game. I was becoming increasingly frustrating – both with my strikers’ profligacy and our opponents’ lack of adventure – both there was very little I could do about either. It was deeply unsettling.

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Four days after the Watford frustration, we lined up our third home game in a row as we welcomed Metalist to the UK for the first of our Europa League fixtures. The Ukrainian side had established themselves as something of a third wheel at the top table in their homeland, attempting to spoil the title fights between Shakhtar Donestsk and Dynamo Kyiv without ever quite making it to the top. They were a strong team though, and we would have to be careful.

Or so we thought. After an even start we made a simple breakthrough, a quick series of passes in midfield freeing up Henrique to slide a ball between two defenders for Boyd Clarke to chase, and our big frontman took the goalkeeper by surprise with a flashing first-timer from 20 yards which flew into the far corner.  Three minutes later, Kenan Kus shrugged off two challenges down the right before planting a cross right on the head of the goalscorer, and we had a 2-0 lead without really breaking stride.

A two-goal cushion gave us an element of control that we had been lacking in our previous couple of matches, and with the confidence flowing again we were able to hold the Ukrainians at a safe distance, comfortable in our ability to boss the game. Into the second half, we added a third for good measure, Steve Woodward rifling one in from a full 25 yards, and saw out the remaining 15 minutes with no threat from the visitors.

Elsewhere in the group, Aberdeen had done well to come from 1-0 and 2-1 down in Moscow to take a point away from Lokomotiv, and in doing so had given us the early advantage as the only side to take maximum points from their opening fixture. There was still plenty of football to be played, but we would take any advantage we could get – in a game of fine margins, the little victories were important victories.

The international break meant a run of fixtures as we reached the middle of September, and our first trip away from St Mary’s for a little while would be to Villa Park and the side we had vanquished so convincingly in the League Cup final last season. Villa had done reasonably well in the first few games since winning promotion, but given our last encounter we were firm favourites with the bookies.

Accordingly, we dominated our hosts from start to finish, raining down 17 shots on the Villa goal with 12 of them hitting the target – a ratio most sides would be proud of. Our problem on this occasion was not in wayward shooting, but an inspired defensive performance from the home side, who threw their bodies at everything we could manage in order to avoid conceding the opener. Their strategy worked, and we went scoreless again.

To make matters worse, Villa did not. Demarai Gray, the man who had so surprisingly opened the scoring in the League Cup final, breached our back line after half an hour in this encounter after jinking beyond Shaw and into the area, and his solitary strike was enough to condemn us to a first league defeat, not only of the season but in 13 matches stretching into the last campaign. It meant we sat 8th in the table after five games of the current year, and with work to do if we wanted to improve. That, after all, was the bare minimum.

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“I’m not sure to be honest. It isn’t a competition that every side takes seriously, but if you look at the quality of the team we’ve just beaten, I don’t think Arsenal can hide behind that today. We aim to win every competition we’re entered in, and this is no different.”

The media wanted to know the ‘secret’ of our impressive League Cup form, but there was no secret to give. True, we remained unbeaten in the competition after a thrilling 2-1 win over Arsenal in the third round, but it was not as if I was holding my best players back for the tournament. To do so for the Europa League would be crazy enough, but the League Cup? I would be sacked if I admitted to such a move.

The game itself had been a good one – Curtis Bateson heading in from a corner midway through the first half and forcing the Gunners to come and pursue the tie. That in turn fed into our own expansive counter-attacking, and the St Mary’s faithful were treated to an attacking spectacle with neither team particularly concerned about what was going on at the other end.

It was a surprise then, that our second goal also came from a Ross Ifan corner, the former Arsenal target finding the head of Boyd Clarke with 20 minutes to play and give us what looked at the time to be a comfortable advantage. Of course, the visitors raced straight down the pitch and pulled one back through Guido Vadala before we could even touch the ball, setting up an electric last quarter of an hour.

But we held on, clearing the first hurdle of our title defence and proving once again that we could compete with sides predicted to be at the top end of the Premier League table. Arsenal were no doubt tiring of us, particularly in the cups, but by beating them on a regular basis we were feeding our own confidence, and that was no bad thing. In the cup, we simply had to keep going.

“I don’t know what it is about us and North London, but we won’t want to make Spurs feel too welcome in the next round,” I told the press to a chuckle. “Sure, there are easier draws we could have had, but if you want to win a competition you’re going to have to beat the best sides at some point. Spurs will fancy their chances, we’re confident in our abilities, and it should be a great game of football.”

In truth, the level of entertainment on offer was not of huge concern to me, and I dare say that if we were to retain the League Cup, it would not be of great importance to the Southampton fans either. The trophy was the least of our concerns this year, but it was a concern nonetheless, and I had never fully understood the mentality of those who were grateful of being knocked out of cup competitions. Our job was to win football matches, whatever shape they happened to come in, and we would be trying to do the same against Spurs. There was plenty of football to be played between the draw and the match, but when it came, we would be ready.

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September was still going strong, and we had two games to go in the last week of the month – away at Fulham in the league before a Europa League trip north of the border to Aberdeen. We were favourites for both, could use the three points in both competitions, and would be going all out to get them.

Over at Craven Cottage, we did not get off to a great start. Only eight minutes of the 90 had passed when Irish midfielder Liam Kelly picked up the ball 20 yards from goal and hit a swerving drive beyond the dive of Jack to delight the home fans. Their joy has short-lived however, and almost straight from the restart we worked the ball down the Fulham left and sent in a fizzing cross, which was flicked beyond the home goalkeeper by his own winger, Victor Alvarez. Five minutes more and we had turned things around, Escalada the next man on the scoresheet, and already things were moving quickly.

A brief period of calm ensued, but it would not last for long. Shortly after the half hour, with neither side really able to get hold of the ball in midfield for more than a couple of passes, Gidon Cohen took matters into his own hands. Our Israeli international dummied one pass to make himself space, them surged into the area and finished low into the corner. We held the 3-1 lead into the interval, and finally had some breathing space.

The second half began in the same manner as the first – manically. Two just minutes after the restart Kelly halved the deficit with his second of the game, again beating Jack from outside the box, before our first attack of the half saw us win a penalty, Clarke bundled over in the box. Up stepped Carlos Henrique to make it 4-2 for all of three minutes, as Kelly completed his hat-trick by beating Bateson to a near-post cross and poking home.

Fulham had their tails up and wanted their point, and in all fairness their deserved it. For the next half hour we barely escaped our own half, Kelly clearly the man of the match as he orchestrated and attempted to finish most of our hosts’ attacks. Hamish Jack needed to be alert on several occasions to keep us ahead, and in that time we recorded just a single shot on goal, Escalada sending one over the crossbar more in hope in expectation.

As we ticked into the final 1-0 minutes, we retained our 4-3 advantage and Fulham got desperate – that’s when we struck. It was a goal I had seen my teams score several times over the course of my career – an interception in defensive midfield, a lead ball down the flank for a flying full-back to run onto, and a low, curling cross for a forward to finish. I’d seen it with many different players at Prestatyn, Adelaide and Seattle, and here at Craven Cottage it was Blanc, Kus and Clarke who combined to snatch an undeserved fifth. Fulham wondered how they had ended up losing, and we escaped back to Hampshire with all three points somehow in the bag.

After the madness of that game, I made nine changes as we travelled north for Aberdeen, as we went looking for a win that would put us firmly in command of our Europa League group. A 1-1 draw between Metalist and Lokomotiv in an earlier kick-off meant we would be four points clear with a win, but things did not go to plan – despite racing into a 2-0 lead early on courtesy of Callum Jacobson, we were all square again by half time, with my heavily-rotated side struggling to contain the hosts.

The turnaround was complete just after the hour, when a careless challenge from Danny Cavill allowed Matt Harrington the opportunity to give the Scots the lead form the penalty spot, and he took it was some aplomb. We pushed and pushed in a desperate effort to get back on terms, but could only do so with seven minutes to go. Jacobson was brought down in the area and was not fit to continue, meaning that penalty duties were left in the hands of Benjamin Blanc. The Frenchman made no mistake to level the game, but our hopes of winning looked lost given how much energy we had spent.

In the end, there was worse to come. In the second of three additional minutes at the end of the 90, James Pugh got on the end of a deep cross and somehow steered the ball into the back of the net, prompting wild celebrations from the Aberdeen faithful. I had made changes, and would take the flak for it, but there was no way we should have been losing to this side.

With the dust settling on September, it was with some trepidation that I looked to the month ahead. Having just conceded seven goals in two matches against Fulham and Aberdeen, I dreaded to think of the carnage October could bring – in addition to a European game with Lokomotiv, we would take on the powers of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City along with high-flying Burnley, and travel to Tottenham in the League Cup. Unless we could improve dramatically, we risked finding ourselves on the end of some nasty scorelines, and I was not ready for that to happen.

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“Why is it that nothing I do seems to make a difference? I know we’ve been through this before, but have you seen the last couple of games?!”

I knew very well that Rachel did indeed watched the last two Southampton matches, and was well aware of my frustrations with my side. On the one hand, we had breezed past Liverpool at home, handling the title challengers 3-1 and only allowing them a late consolation. It had been a superb performance to a man.

And yet a week later, we had welcomed Manchester City to St Mary’s and ended up on the wrong end of the same scoreline, despite battling from a second-minute goal to make it 1-1 after half an hour. Clarke’s strike was to be in vain though as two in the second half from Green and Krejcik condemned us to defeat, the champions outclassing us in every area of the park.

“Well darling, have you considered that, at the moment, City might just be better than your players?”

“OK, they’re Premier League and European champions, but Liverpool are no mugs and we handled them alright. City seem to have something against us – do you remember the 6-1 game last year?”

“Of course I do Owain, you barely slept for about a week afterwards.”

“Yes, sorry about that. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do about them, you know?”

Rachel gave me a look which told me we had been through this all before, and for a woman who knew very little of the world of football management, she seemed to know an awful lot about precisely that.

“When you managed Prestatyn, did you set your team up differently against TNS?

“No, of course not.”

“And in Australia, did you play differently in the Champions League?

“Not really, I mean there might have been one or two tweaks, but…”

“And with the Sounders, did you play a different game against Chicago or the Mexicans?

“No, we played our game against everyone.”

“Right. And eventually – although not first time round, remember – you came out on top. Your ideas were more effective, your players knew the system, and they carried out your instructions. Owain, you haven’t got to this point without knowing what you’re doing and being in control of things. You’re in the Premier League now, and City are probably the best team in the world. You’ll beat them again, I know you will. But in the meantime you’re going to have to accept that things are going to be harder here than they have been elsewhere. Trust yourself, and give yourself a bit of grace.”

“That’s easier said than done, and you know it.”

“It is, but it still needs saying. You’re one of the best at your job, Owain. Start thinking like it.”

It was tough love, but there was no question that love was exactly what it was.

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Just a week after Rachel’s pep talk, I was left to contemplate how ridiculous my job was at times. Three times my Southampton side had taken to the field in three different competitions, with three completely different results achieved despite reasonably similar teams being sent out each time. Yes, there had been rotation to avoid excessive fatigue, but there was surely no rational explanation for the huge variation in performance we had experienced.

First there was the Europa League clash against Lokomotiv, the Russians heavy underdogs for the tie and playing as such. They sat deep, inviting us to come and break down their heavily-bolstered defence, and despite possessing the greater talent, we failed to rise to the challenge. Andrei Semenov’s side got the draw they came for a left for Moscow with a point, while we were left disappointed with ours – even more so given that the other match in our group has seen Aberdeen go to Metalist and win by a frankly unbelievable scoreline of 7-4. I know which match I’d rather have watched.

Three days later, we were in London for what would go down as a classic for all the wrong reasons. Our matches against Arsenal in the previous season had all been laden with goals, and this one was no different. As early as the 9th minute we were behind, only for two identical and spectacular Escalada set pieces to give us the lead by the midway point of the first half.

Had that been it for the first period, we would have been happy, but instead the game was only just getting warmed up. Three minute after our Argentine star’s second, Dutch forward Robert Ban nodded beyond Jack to tie the scores, and after a further three lashed a crisp right-foot volley into the back of our net to make it 3-2 before the half-hour mark. A 10-minute period somehow managed to pass without any further scoring before Nestor Mina restored parity with a well-taken goal, only for Ban to complete a perfect hat-trick with a left-foot tap-in three minutes from the break. Of course, there was still time for long-time Arsenal target Adam Bright to make it 4-4 before the interval, and when the whistle did eventually go, everyone inside the Emirates was already thoroughly exhausted.

As were my players, and without wishing to make excuses, it did indeed seem as though our exertions against Loko had done more harm than good. The second period was more sedate than the first – it could hardly have been more so – but with a quarter of an hour to do, substitute Guido Vadala slid a shot into the bottom corner to hand the advantage to the hosts once more, and as we wearily pursued yet another equaliser, we were caught on the break in the dying moments by another Dutchman, Marco Peters. 6-4 was a scoreline nobody had expected, but while it was a spectacular game to watch, it was an awful one to manage. Not only that, but the dropped points moved us down to 8th in the table – far from where we wanted to be.

With barely any time to recover from the end-to-end frenzy of the Arsenal game – and the press certainly hadn’t, continuing to hound me for comment at every available opportunity – we were in action for the third time in a week, staying in North London for a League Cup clash with Spurs. In this one too we were hit with a double-whammy in the second half, conceding twice in four minutes at New White Hart Lane, but on this time we had already done our job, a brace from Jacobson adding to a 20-yard chip from Bright and a penalty from Bright earning us a comfortable lead and passage into the quarters long before Jose Torres’ intervention.

And so as we approached our final match of October, we found ourselves in the rather odd position of having scored eight times in our last three games and yet having picked up just a single win. Burnley, sitting high in fourth after a superb opening to the season, would be our hosts at Turf Moor, and once again we flew out of the blocks. Six minutes was all we needed to set Clarke up for the opener, and 20 minutes later he had a second, this time a fine header across goal. Carl Bateson made it 3-0 when powering in a corner, and a skidding drive from Escalada seconds before the whistle confirmed the victory.

A late Paul Holmes consolation was unable to stop us jumping up a place in the Premier League table at the end of a hectic and thoroughly inconsistent month – exactly the sort which led me to doubt the amount of control I had over my team and their results. Still, I was forced to tell myself at regular intervals, I had a group of players, a board, fans and a family who all believed I was somehow the right man for the job, and as long as I had their confidence, I had to continue. And so continue I would.

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There are some ties which make a manager glad to be in charge of a team in European competition – the Madrids, Milans and Munichs of the world that spark the imagination and conjure up images of historic finals and battles between football’s titans. Equally, there are some games which do not quite evoke the same romanticism. Far be it from to disparage our opponents, but I would go so far as to say that an away day in Moscow in early November is not on the wishlist of many a would-be manager.

But as the temperature plummeted to single figures and we made our way out onto the pitch at a sparsely-populated Cherkizovo, that was the task we faced, and mercifully we made our way through. The Europa League had not seen us at our free-flowing best, and the same was true of this one, the hosts repeating their sit-and-defend tactics of the first fixture in Hampshire, and our attack lacking the creativity needed to pull them apart. Luckily, fortunate was on our side, and a spot of penalty area pinball late in the day saw the ball land at the feet of Nestor Mina, who gleefully smashed home to secure us three points – three particularly valuable points given the two we had lost last time out.

A late flight home from Moscow was required given the time turnaround to our next game, in which we welcomed newly-promoted Brighton to St Mary’s. Gary Bowyer’s men had surprised many by coming up through the Championship play-offs last season, and we enjoyed a solid start to top flight life, sitting in 8th before kick-off. It was our job to put them firmly in their place, and when Escalada bent in a dead ball just seven minutes into the game, it looked as if a trademark Saints start would bury the newcomers before they got going.

But to their credit, Brighton refused to buckle, and while we endured a large slice of bad luck – Payne nodding a corner against the crossbar and Escalada seeing a curling effort clip the outside of the post – we were unable to add to our lead in a fast-paced opening. As we crossed the half-hour mark we were forced to settle into more of a regular rhythm, and the Seagulls grew in confidence as the referee’s whistle blew with the score remaining just 1-0.

That all changed just 40 seconds after the interval, as the visitors caught us completely cold from the restart. Four or five quick passes somehow pulled our defensive screen to pieces, and the Premier League’s only Armenian player, winger Levon Poghosyan, was given the freedom of St Mary’s to cut into the area and fire past Jack. Five minutes later, Luke Shaw had to be brought off after painfully twisting a knee, and things went from bad to worse.

They continued to deteriorate when we were forced to make a second change due to injury, Aswad Payne unable to return to the field after a sickening clash of heads in the Brighton box. A post-game scan reassured him that there would be no ill effects, but he would sit out the next two weeks of training while the majority of his teammates headed away on an international break as a basic precaution.

The match ended in a frustrating 1-1 draw against the newly-promoted outfit, and while they remained just one place beneath us in the table, it was nevertheless a poor result. Brighton are exactly the sort of side that my Saints needed to be beating comfortably in order to push on into the upper reaches of the table, and yet we were not showing the cutting edge we needed to be taken seriously as a contender. We needed to put a run together, and quickly, if we were to harbour Champions League or even title ambitions in the near future.

The next two weeks were, as previously mentioned, a bit of a break as most of my charges travelled the globe with their countries. There were training sessions for those left at Staplewood – it would have been foolish to simply neglect the rest of my players – but the training was less intense, allowing me to spend a bit more time with the girls than usual and Rachel to thereby to get a bit of rest. It was the refreshment and change of pace I needed after more frustration on the pitch, and gave the sense of perspective I so often lacked when buried neck-deep in work. I dread to think where I would have been without my family.

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“Congratulations Owain, you’ve qualified for the next stage with a game to spare. How do you rate your chances in the Europa League this season?”

It was a welcome reminder of our success to receive after our win over Metalist in chilly Ukraine. Boyd Clarke’s goal had been the difference on the night, and we had booked our place in the knockout rounds a game early. A home clash with Aberdeen would now have no consequence to my men.

“It’s obviously great to be through at this stage, and we can think about rotating the side a little for the Aberdeen game. However, it’s far too early to think about how far we might go given the number of teams still involved, and the fact that there are always surprises in Europe. Nobody expected Basel to beat us last year, but they did – being favoured doesn’t always mean you win.”

“In your opinion, would you rather face one of the bigger teams – perhaps a team dropping down from the Champions League – early on in the competition, or save them for the final?”

“I think it’s very presumptuous to even be thinking about the final at this stage, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself as a manager otherwise complacency slips in. As with every competition, the draw is something you have no control over, and if you want to win them you’re going to have to beat the big teams eventually. We’ll do our homework whoever we draw, and take things a round at a time.”

“Your schedule is very busy at the moment – a win over Nottingham Forest at the weekend, tonight’s game in Ukraine, you’re in action against Newcastle on Sunday, and then in midway at Sheffield United. There are other countries taking a breather now – do you think it would benefit the English game to have a winter break?”

It took most of my self-control not to laugh – I simply couldn’t believe that this one hadn’t been settled by now. No matter how hard people pushed, the FA were never going to sacrifice their festive football calendar, and if that meant teams playing every three or four days for months at a time, there was nothing they could do. I did my best to be diplomatic.

“I think each country has to find a way that suits their calendar and their history, and in England there’s a rich history of football over Christmas and New Year – it hasn’t stopped the Premier League being one of the strongest in the world.

“If I were to change anything, it would be the timing of the international games – we’ve just had a two-week break for a couple of friendlies that nobody really benefits from, and if we’d had that time with the players we might not be looking at such a busy schedule, but it is what it is. Other than in Europe, everybody else has the same issue to deal with it, and it’s the team who deals with it best that will reap the rewards.”

Fixture congestion and fatigue was, of course, a problem, but if it was a problem that we had it simply meant that we were playing well enough to stay in contention on multiple fronts. With Europa League progression, that would only continue, and I hoped it would be a recurring theme through my Southampton career – if we were facing a pile-up, it was only because we had been winning plenty.

The games mentioned by the reporter in Ukraine did indeed come thick and fast, but we made it through unscathed if not in top form. A 3-0 win at Forest was followed by the 1-0 in Europe, and we continued by conceding and scoring late equalisers against Newcastle and Sheffield United respectively. As against Brighton, both of these were sides we should be aiming to beat, sat 16th and last in the Premier League, but our circumstances had to be taken into consideration. We had not lost, we were still on the tail of 6th place, and we were still in contention in the Europa and League Cups. There were far worse positions we could have found ourselves in.

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6 hours ago, EvilDave said:


“I think each country has to find a way that suits their calendar and their history, and in England there’s a rich history of football over Christmas and New Year – it hasn’t stopped the Premier League being one of the strongest in the world.

“If I were to change anything, it would be the timing of the international games – we’ve just had a two-week break for a couple of friendlies that nobody really benefits from, and if we’d had that time with the players we might not be looking at such a busy schedule, but it is what it is. Other than in Europe, everybody else has the same issue to deal with it, and it’s the team who deals with it best that will reap the rewards.”

Fixture congestion and fatigue was, of course, a problem, but if it was a problem that we had it simply meant that we were playing well enough to stay in contention on multiple fronts. With Europa League progression, that would only continue, and I hoped it would be a recurring theme through my Southampton career – if we were facing a pile-up, it was only because we had been winning plenty.

Logic would dictate that you have it better. Other than in Germany of course. The fixtures missed have to be played somewhere else after all

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You're right in a sense - it does save a backlog towards the end of the season - but at the same time it's a pain to be playing three games a week so early on! Besides, Owain likes a good moan...

The start of December meant it was time for Rachel and I to start thinking – or indeed panicking – about Christmas, and planning how best to surprise Bethan and Rebecca without pandering to their every desire. With both developing their interests – our eldest daughter in art, fashion and design, and her younger sister in the unusual combination of the natural and sporting worlds – we had plenty of ideas to work with, and in many ways that made it even more difficult. Not only that, I somehow had to find the time to locate the perfect treat for my wife.

That time wouldn’t come on the fifth day of the month, which was largely spent giving mundane responses to various questions about the FA Cup draw. We had been pitted away to Championship side Hull City in a fairly underwhelming but very winnable Third Round match, and would be expected to make progress to the latter stages. However, we would also be targets for an upset, and with the Tigers in good form, we would be hoping they fell away before our clash in January.

The following day, we made our way to the Olympic Stadium to take on tenants West Ham, who were struggling at the wrong end of the table and thus were the ideal opponents for us to return to winning ways against. That all sounded fine in theory, but the reality proved to be a little tougher – just six minutes in, Gary Towey beat a poorly-executed offside trap to receive a pass from midfield, and took the ball round Jack to give the home side the lead. We were sluggish, lacking ideas, and second to every ball – it was little surprise that we stayed a goal down to the interval.

At half time, I gave my men both barrels. We simply could not afford to keep dropping points against side battling relegation, to throw away goals through sheer incompetence, and flattering to deceive. There would be no point in going toe-to-toe with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City if we couldn’t get past Newcastle, Sheffield United and West Ham, and when the fixture list was kind we had to take advantages. I made no substitutions – the ones who had got us into this mess would have to dig us out – and told them not to get on the bus without three points.

It was not a threat I made regularly, and my players took it to heart. It had taken West Ham six minutes to score in the first half, and we matched it in the second, Escalada clipping a ball to the back post for strike partner Mina to slide in and tap home, and nine minutes later the two combined again with the same result, Mina this time bundling over after a low driven cross from his fellow forward. Shortly afterwards, our Argentine assist-maker was replaced by Callum Jacobson, and within five minutes of his introduction the Welshman made it 3-1, killing a fizzing pass with his right foot before stroking home with his left. That was that, and everybody retained their seat on the bus back to St Mary’s.

It was there that we would take to the field in what was almost a dead rubber against Aberdeen in the Europa League. We were guaranteed progression to the last 32, but needed a point against the Scottish outfit to go through as group winners. For our visitors, only three points would see them through – anything less, and a win for Lokomotiv over Metalist would edge them out.

Despite the myriad possibilities, in the end things worked out rather simply for those following along. A shadow Saints squad controlled proceedings at St Mary’s without managing to find the back of the net, instead settling for a rare goalless draw and the point that saw us top the group. In Moscow, the hosts romped to a 4-1 win over their Ukrainian rivals to pips the Scots to progression, and that was the group stage done and dusted. The next day, the next two rounds were drawn, and it could have been much worse. Our opponents in February would be Bordeaux, and if we made it through that particular double-header, we would take on the winner of the Borussia Monchengladbach vs Kuban Krasnodar tie in the last 16. Beyond that, we would have to wait and see, but the path that far seemed negotiable, at least in theory.

Surprisingly, we had a near two-week break before our next match – perhaps a concession by the FA given the hectic Christmas schedule that awaited us – and that was the time Rachel and I chose to do our joint Christmas shopping. We were relatively happy that the girls would be pleased on the morning of the 25th, and that in itself was enough to satisfy both me and my wife. Rachel had some extra shopping to do – she had decided to purchase gifts for the small group of asylum seekers in her long-term English class – but for the most part, I was done. It was a relief far greater than it had any right to be.

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I’ll admit it – I laughed.

The Daily Echo was not the most prestigious newspaper in the country, but the local rag had done themselves proud in the wake of our League Cup defeat to Manchester City. While Diego Simeone’s men marched on to what looked like another highly successful campaign, the Hampshire paper instead chose to focus on our own ambitions for the year, their picture of my men with heads in hands after Pablo Nicolau’s hat-trick goal captioned with the headline: “Saints’ Quadruple Dream Crushed.”

Of course, we were never going to be a winning a quadruple – even City and their seemingly infinite riches would not dare to publically declare themselves prioritising every available trophy – but it was nonetheless disappointing to give up on our trophy with such a whimper, even in the face of superior opposition. We had been hugely unlucky three days prior to the City game against Chelsea, forced to share the points after a late equaliser from our visitors and two disallowed goals for Escalada on marginal offside calls, but against City we were simply outclassed. The 4-1 result was a fair reflection of the play, and with Adam Bright’s goal coming in the 92nd minute, our hosts will have been disappointed not to claim the clean sheet.

That was our last game before Christmas, and while Boxing Day presented us with a difficult trip to Old Trafford, I arranged a single training session on the morning of 23rd and then told the players to report back on Boxing Day morning for the trip north. Christmas would always be a time for family in the Williams household, but it was not for purely selfish reasons that I offered my men time off. The happier they were, the better they felt their work/life balance was and the more valued they felt as human beings, the more confident I was of being able to coax a performance out of them when the chips were down.

And so, with only the faintest hint of professional distraction hovering over proceedings, I joined Rachel, Bethan and Rebecca for a somewhat expected Christmas celebration in the Williams family home, the girls finishing school on the same day my side had lost to City, and Rachel having no more classes to teach until the New Year. It was refreshingly simple spending time with the women in my life, and it was a joy to my heart to see that even though Bethan and Rebecca were growing up rapidly – coming up 13 and 11 – they were by no means too old to find it fun spending a few days with Mum and Dad over Christmas.

With presents exchanged, food devoured, board games played and naps taken, the day itself finally drew to an end, and as I draped my arm over the body of my sleeping wife, a genuine feeling of thankfulness washed over me. There were no doubt plenty of other managers who would be enjoying a family Christmas – worrying instead about their job prospects, or their big game tomorrow. The latter was something increasingly on my mind as the day progressed – did we really stand a chance against Manchester United? – but in addition to the stresses and strains of the dugout, I had a loving family I could retreat into and watch those worries melt away. They would be replaced by other, more personal anxieties, but they were somehow more welcome. In the grand scheme of things, they were positively encouraged.

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In answer to my previous question, it was an emphatic no – we did not stand a chance against United at Old Trafford. While the final score was a relatively modest 2-0 to the hosts, it could so easily have been more – England international striker Kirk Forbes scored one but should really have claimed a hat-trick, team-mate Thierry Zola claiming the second and clinching goal just five minutes after the break.

It was a sobering Boxing Day and one which, for the first time in a long while, had me doubting whether I was doing a good job on the South Coast. Since taking over at Southampton, I had delivered the club their first trophy in half a century and secured European football for the second year in a row. However, defeat at United meant that this season, while we retained two games in hand over the competition, we had slipped down to 9th in the table – a far cry from the progress I had promised Krueger when taking over the role. Personally, having reached the Europa League last season, I had targeted the Champions League this time round. Currently, we were a long way from that.

My boss had scheduled a board meeting for January 3rd – after the bank holiday break and our league clash away at Swansea. While I had no doubts over my job security from the board, I was beginning to wonder whether my thoughts of pushing the Saints into the upper echelons of the English game were in fact misguided. If that were the case, Southampton were already the best place they were ever likely to be. Upward mobility had been possible in Wales, Australia and the US, but in England – I had my doubts.

I was determined to try and express my thoughts at the meeting, but we had two games before then that demanded my attention. The first of those was another trip, this time to Wolverhampton, and a meeting with one of my least favourite fellow professionals – a certain John Terry. After calling into doubt the validity of a 3-0 win in the League Cup, the former Chelsea man had taken every opportunity to try and belittle my management. So far his sniping hadn’t particularly paid dividends, and I was keen that such a record continued.

Molineux was not particularly welcoming territory given the animosity between their manager and myself, and it was clear from the outset that Terry had instructed his men to go into the tackle with a little more bite than they might otherwise show. In the opening 10 minutes we each landed one player in the book as my own side responded in kind, and the scene was set for an old-fashioned English battle.

The consequence of which was a stop-start game punctuated more by the referee’s whistle than by any moments of fluid football or individual skill. In a feisty opening 45 minutes, Boyd Clarke came closest to opening the scoring for our side with a looping header back across goal, while at the other Hamish Jack was twice thankful for the presence of his woodwork. We were in a fight.

It was a fight that Terry wanted, but it was a fight that we won. Five minutes after I had told my men to keep pushing on and keep their heads, it was the head of Clarke that powered us into the lead, our striker connecting with Kus’ cross after our full-back had been found in acres of space by Ifan. That meant Wolves could no longer satisfy themselves with kicking us to the ground in search of a point, and it was that tension between enthusiastic defence and need to attack that cost them. Midway through the half, a heavy touch in midfield was snaffled up by Woodward, and our new signing slipped a pass through a surprisingly divided defence for Escalada to latch onto and fire into the bottom corner. The three points were ours, Terry was humbled, and I did not even attempt to hide my delight at getting the better of the former England captain. As wins go, it was one of my favourites. 

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As one year ends, so another must begin, and 2028 began in a fashion familiar to football managers across the globe – with the return of the transfer window. My Saints did not look to be particularly targeted by other clubs, Adam Bright’s everlasting pursuit by Arsenal notwithstanding, and so we were free to conduct our business without too much hassle. I had no desire to alter the balance of my first team too much, but with a whole world of talent outside of Hampshire, there were nonetheless changes to the make-up of the club at the first available opportunity.

With a significant scouting team in place, we were in a position to welcome two players to the club on the first day of the window, their signings having been secured several weeks previous after tip-offs and research. First through the door was 17-year-old Danish playmaker Christian Hansen, followed shortly by Everton Horst, a Brazilian goalkeeper a year his senior. Arriving from Midtjylland and Gremio respectively, the two teenagers would join our reserve ranks for the rest of the campaign as they bedded in – while they both possessed huge potential, there would be no pressure on them to contribute at this early stage.

We were also able to announce a future signing courtesy of the Bosman rule, and while it did not sound hugely significant at the time, I was convinced it could become a key deal for us. With Luke Shaw’s physical abilities declining with age and Danny Cavill lacking the skills needed for a Champions League level defender, I expected 20-year-old Raul Iglesias – who had turned down a new deal at Real Madrid to pursue first-team football with us – to be an important part of the jigsaw looking ahead. I expected us to be needing two new left-backs before too long, and Iglesias would be the first.

The second, I hoped, would be Vandinho. How the 22-year-old Brazilian had escaped the radar of Europe’s top sides I had no idea, but I had a sneaking suspicion we had another Escalada on our hands. He would join us straight away from Romanian outfit Petrolul, and for just £19k per week and a bargain fee of £750k, we had almost nothing to lose if he proved a bust. However, having watched him in action for his club side and in Brazil’s age-group teams, I was convinced we had a real quality player on our hands.

However, there was one man who would not be coming to Southampton, and it was a rejection which stung. Not because it was unexpected – given the calibre of the clubs we were competing against for his signature, it should have been a foregone conclusion – but precisely because it wasn’t. We had seen our hopes built up, only for them to be crushed by the almighty power of the status quo.

Bryan Umpierrez was the man in question, a mercurial playmaking, goalscoring talent who had burst onto the scene at Udinese and lifted the club from the lower reaches of Serie A to contention for Europe. However, the Colombian had decided to move on a reject a new deal, leaving all of the continent’s elite chasing his signature – after all, they could have a superstar-in-the-making for the cost of his wages alone, and nobody wanted to turn that down.

His agent, who did all the negotiating work – and I suspect earned a significant cut for his troubles – had us believe Umpierrez was interested. We were a club on the up, a team his man could be the face of, a project he could get behind. Our offer would have made the 20-year-old one of the best-paid players at the club, and would have all but guaranteed him first team football. We had sold Southampton brilliantly, and we led to believe he had bought it.

Only for him to sign instead for Real Madrid, the Bosman move going ahead on a salary 40% higher than we could possibly offer, but with no promise that Umpierrez would ever reach the starting side at the Bernabeu. It was a crushing blow after we were led to believe the deal was all but done, and a kick in the teeth after all the signs of progress. It was a stark reminder – money talks, prestige speaks volumes, while promise and potential can carry you only so far.

Still, we could be pleased with our business. We had strengthened a key area, and invested shrewdly in our two free youth signings. We now had Swansea to worry about as we attempted to get 2028 off to a winning start and claw ourselves up from our lower-than-desired 7th place. With the Swans struggling just outside the relegation zone, even the fact that we were on the road for our third game in a row did not deny us the favourites’ label. We had a job to do.

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Despite another game three days later and a third match three days after that, it was effectively our strongest team that took to the field in South Wales. We had a bit of momentum after the Wolves win and I had no desire to squander that, particularly given that we were approaching the business end of the season. With our hosts scrapping for their Premier League lives, we could not afford to take them lightly.

It was little surprise, therefore, that we got off to a strong start. Inside the first five minutes Escalada twice stung the palms of the Swansea keeper, while Gidon Cohen sent a scorching long-range effort just wide of the top corner a few moments later. Our defenders were largely spectators in the opening moments, and did not have much more to do as the game progressed – our main concern was finding a breakthrough at the other end.

Midway through the first half, we almost opened the scoring from an unexpected source. A corner from the right was cleared to the edge of the penalty area, where Cohen shaped to shoot and then caught everybody off-guard by instead chipping the ball back over the heads of the mass of bodies rushing to meet him. Everybody except Luke Shaw, who had come forward for the set-piece and stayed up, sprinting beyond the defence to turn the lofted pass beyond the goalkeeper.

His celebrations were short-lived however, as the assistant referee’s flag told Shaw he had made his run half a second too soon, and we remained level. However, two minutes before the interval we did finally break the deadlock, Adam Bright pouncing to finish after a long ball from Bateson was misjudged by a defender. That gave us the lead we so desperately craved, and with the second half continuing scoreless, handed us the three points we needed.

Those points from a dominant victory – we recorded 23 shots to Swansea’s four – lifted us into 6th place, and all of a sudden the league table was looking much better than it had done after our Boxing Day defeat to Manchester United. Their rivals City were running away with the title, but behind them things were very congested indeed. We were a couple of good results away from a Champions League spot, but equally one or two defeats from missing out on Europe altogether, such was the tight nature of the Premier League table. There was still plenty to play for.

Nevertheless, even our improving position in the table did not completely assuage my doubts, and I resolved to take them to Krueger on our return to St Mary’s the following day. The Southampton chairman had never been anything less than perfectly reasonable and open with me in my 18 months in Hampshire, and I had no reason to expect that this meeting would be anything else. It was a new year, a chance to look back on 2027 and plan ahead for the next calendar year. But it was also a chance to share concerns, and if I was having doubts about my own long-term viability at the club, this was surely the place to air them.

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Owain, I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Let me assure you that the board has absolutely no problems with your management, and we can see that you’re taking the club in the right direction. We don’t expect miracles in your first year or even your second, but you’re showing us that Southampton are improving, and that’s all we ask.”

I’d told Krueger of my concerns, but I was not convinced he’d understood the nuance. I wasn’t worried about my job security, more it’s viability.

“What I suppose I’m worried about is how far the club can improve. Last year we were able to play the role of a spoiler in the title race, and that felt good to an extent. But it also feels like that might be all a club of Southampton’s size is able to achieve. Looking at the resources of the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, maybe Spurs as well – assuming one of those sides has a bad season every year, that leaves us 6th. Even with improvement, 5th might be a push. I’m just not sure the club has the capacity to go beyond that, and if that’s the case I don’t know how long I can push against a ceiling.”

There was a silence in the room as Krueger contemplated my thoughts. When he broke the silence, I was unsure how to respond.

Owain, there is no doubt a great deal of truth in what you are saying. Today, Southampton Football Club cannot outspend the teams you have mentioned. We have a smaller stadium, we do not have the London or Manchester location which gives us access to finance and fans, and we do not have the national and international prestige, the history, which draws people to the club. You have found this out yourself with the Umpierrez affair.

“However, if I simply accepted that this would never change, it would be wrong of me to continue in my role. I would be treating this football club simply as a tool to make money, and I could not justify myself to the fans. Carried to the extreme, the entire sport of football would be entirely irrelevant with the exception of a small handful of clubs and their wealthy owners, but nobody would ever suggest shutting down the sport.

“Part of my job is to keep this football club fighting against the odds. Not so many years ago, Southampton were in the third division, but we did not settle with that status quo. We battled back, secured top flight status, and now we are in Europe. That is progress. Not long ago Manchester City were a midtable team, and while they needed money to get to where they are, they did not settle. Even under Simeone, they have continued to push forward.

“We acknowledge that there will be no overnight change, but my thinking in appointing you was that, no matter where you have been, you have taken teams to unprecedented heights – some in a short space of time, some over several years. I believe you are the man to do that with Southampton. If you look within yourself, I think you believe it too.

“But if not, if you have made your peace with the fact that Southampton will never reach the Champions League, let alone challenge for the title, then at the end of this season you can walk away with no repercussions, no damage to your reputation. But if I’m right, you see the status quo as a barrier to be broken, a wall to be crashed through. You take pride in overcoming the establishment. You could never manage one of the clubs you mentioned before. You couldn’t do it. You need the underdog. You need something to fight against. So Owain, my invitation to you is to fight from Southampton. Stay here, put your efforts into toppling the giants, and if it all goes wrong, leave knowing you’ve tried. But don’t leave now. Not without trying.”

There was not much I could say. I sat in reasonably stunned silence for what felt like a long time, Krueger’s eyes boring holes in my face as I waited. Eventually, I felt the trace of a smile begin to crack. Standing, I allowed the grin to spread over my face, extending my hand to my employer in the process.

Mr Krueger, you do indeed know your manager. I’ll keep your offer of walking away in mind, but I am very happy to be fighting alongside you here. I may need to learn patience, I may doubt myself at times, but you’re right – we’ll get there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an Everton match to go and prepare for.”

I chose not to turn and gauge the reaction of Krueger as I left his office. I suspect he may have been more than a little pleased with himself.

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That conversation with Krueger had, I later realised, unleashed something within me that had always been there. The self-doubt and lack of confidence would always be there, but having a man of his stature effectively give me an ultimatum based on his belief in my abilities – it was exactly what I needed to hear. You are used to hearing it from loved ones – Rachel had never been anything less than an absolute rock in good years and bad – but it somehow becomes much easier to listen to the words come from someone more with a more ‘objective’ point of view.

Of course, Krueger was not entirely objective, far from it – I had been his appointment, employed to best manage a valuable asset and ensure that it outperformed expectations. He was very much invested in my success, as it meant he too would benefit financially and reputationally, but he was far enough removed from my own emotional circles to give me the reinforcement I needed.

I carried that belief into our next league game against Everton, another road trip against a basement dweller. Having fired up my men in the dressing room with an unusually charged team talk, we overcame an initial wave of attack from the Toffees to eventually take a grip on the match. As we took hold of possession, so our midfield line slowly advanced towards the home penalty area. As we took advantage of territory, so came the opening goal – a nonchalant swish of Adam Bright’s right boot lifting a curling strike into the far corner of the net to give us the lead.

Just over 10 minutes later, on the very stroke of half-time, we doubled our advantage. Boyd Clarke had been dropped to the bench for a rest, and his replacement Callum Jacobson did his best to stake a claim for his regular spot. Bright was again involved, collecting Shaw’s pass and clipping a ball into the Welshman’s path for him to finish high into the top corner. A 2-0 lead at the interval was an excellent position for us to be in, and I was content in my side’s performance.

I was even more content when we moved to the hour mark with the scoreline unchanged, and with Everton not particularly threatening. The relegation battlers had barely created a shot on target, and the only way they looked like getting back into the game was a Southampton error – which we duly delivered.

Henrique was the guilty party, allowing a routine pass from midfield partner Woodward to slip under his foot, allowing the hosts to break from within our half. Ryan Jackson was first to the ball and wasted no time in playing through Victor Stang, who surprised Jack with an early strike that skidded its way beyond our goalkeeper to cut the deficit. From the restart Everton pressed immediately, and all of a sudden we had a fight on our hands.

A fight that apparently, we didn’t want to win. With 10 minutes of the game remaining, our defenders fell asleep at a free-kick, allowing the aforementioned Jackson to sneak in round the back and prod home at the far post. We had blown a comfortable lead in just nine minutes, and unless we could get our act together quickly, had thrown away two precious points.

Still emboldened by Krueger’s pep-talk, I threw caution to the wind and trusted my instinct. Clarke came on for the struggling Henrique, leaving our defence with a single shielding midfield player and three man in the box ahead of our two playmakers. We had less than 10 minutes to grab a goal, and everybody was instructed to go for it – we were no position to waste time. With Everton also believing they could get a third and complete the comeback, we were due a bout of end-to-end action, and suddenly the draw looked highly unlikely despite the scoreboard reading 2-2.

It was almost the home side who stole it, Stang shooting from a similar position to the one from which he had found the back of the net. On this occasion however, we were indebted to our Scottish goalkeeper, whose full-stretch dive saw him tip the ball onto the post and into the grateful path of Acuna at right-back. As Goodison groaned, so our Paraguayan quickly made the transition from defence to attack, finding Woodward who fed a pass into Ifan 40 yards from goal.

It would have taken something special to score from there, and I doubt it even crossed his mind. Instead he found Escalada dropping deep for a quick return ball, before slipping the ball to Bright on the right of the Everton area. A quick dummy shook off one of the two men marked him, before our opening goalscorer stabbed a cross into the centre of the box. Two defenders converged on the ball only for each to leave it to the other, and arriving to crash home the bouncing ball from eight yards out was none other than Callum Jacobson, claiming a brace for himself and all the points for his side.

With just two minutes remaining there was no time for the Toffees to find another equaliser, and I raised my fist high in jubilation at the final whistle. We had played well, thrown everything away with a few moments of madness, and then found our resolve to fight back and claim a third. My own confidence, while obviously shaken by the two Everton goals, had held firm and been rewarded with the late winner, and we were up to 5th in the table. So much for feeling under threat.

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With momentum under our belts, the Southampton train kept on rolling. As Krueger’s words of faith and hope continued to ring in my ears, so did the team he owned continue to do the business on the field. We were less than convincing in the FA Cup at Hull as we made our debut in this year’s competition, but Nestor Mina’s goal earned a heavily-rotated XI a 1-0 win and a date with another Championship side, QPR in the next round.

After that, we finally returned home to St Mary’s, where we put on quite a show for the locals in a demolition of Stoke. We did not come through it without adversity – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain equalised Jacobson’s opening goal within a minute of the Welshman scoring, and Luke Shaw’s uncharacteristic lack of discipline saw us have to play out the final 35 minutes with just 10 men. Nevertheless, a Ross Ifan curler had us 2-1 up long before then, and the Potters were unable to cope even with 10 Saints, a short-handed brace from substitute Boyd Clarke earning us a 4-1 win and lifting us to 4th place – at least until the following day when we were knocking down once again.

Four days later Clarke scored once again, this time grabbing the second goal in a routine 2-0 win over lowly Aston Villa. This time there would be no unnecessary drama, no goals conceded, and nothing hindering our route to three more points. A personal highlight was the first appearance in red and white of new signing Vandinho, who excelled in the absence of Shaw and reassured me of both his obvious potential and existing abilities.

The Brazilian got the nod again at home to Spurs three days later, where we would go head to head with the Londoners with the winners securing or moving into the final Champions League spot. It was the first time in a while we had taken on a team from outside the lower reaches of the Premier League, but with Spurs facing problems in a key area, I had a plan.

Injury and suspension had left our visitors in a spot of trouble in defence, and their solution was to place their faith in 17-year-old Rourke Griffiths in the right-back position. He had made a grand total of three substitute appearances for the first team in the past, and so my men were instructed in no uncertain terms to focus their attacks down the Irishman’s flank. Just 10 minutes in, Vandinho burst past him before providing a ball for Bright to tuck home, and in the second period we struck again down our left to seal the win. Luke Shaw, on as a substitute after his suspension, got into the penalty area, lost his man and smashed home a rebound 20 minutes from time. Job done, plan successful, and we were into the top four having completely outplayed one of our rivals for those spots.

Not content with marching on in the Premier League, the cup also gave us an opportunity to give a chance to those on the fringes of the team. With QPR struggling at the wrong end of the Championship I felt confident enough to shuffle the pack significantly, and the backups delivered in front of a buoyant St Mary’s crowd. Jacobson continued his excellent record in the cups courtesy of a fine assist from debutant Dmitri Nikulin, and his goal came between a fizzing strike from Acuna and a first Southampton goal for young centre-back Lilian Bouillot from a late corner, sending us confidently into the last 16. The draw there was kind too – Middlesborough, battling for promotion from League One, would be our hosts, with a path to the quarter-finals seemingly within our grasp.

Success, as they say, breeds success, and our first choice side were raring to go away at Watford. A mere six minutes was all it took for Jacobson, one of the few to retain their place from the cup game, to open the scoring, and from then on it was all one-way traffic. It seemed that our games these days were often feast or famine – either we dominated, scored early and won comfortably, or controlled play but struggled to break teams down – and this one was a curious mix of the two. Watford managed just three shots all game, but we had to wait until stoppage time to put the game to bed, Clarke hurling himself between two defenders to head home a second, ruling himself out for a couple of weeks in the process after landing awkwardly.

His injury aside, life was suddenly looking very rosy for Southampton. After the Premier League approached two thirds of the way through, we were well placed to upset the apple cart and make real progress – progress I had deemed impossible not long ago. Liverpool were top of the table with 51 points from their 24 matches, but had played a full three matches more than Manchester City and had just a two-point lead. Our win over Watford had catapulted us to third with 48 points, one ahead of United albeit having played two more matches. We had two points on Spurs, sitting just outside the top four, and six and 10 respectively on Chelsea and Arsenal in pursuit. If we could maintain our position, it would be a remarkable achievement – and yet thanks to my boss’ backing, I had hopes of going even further.

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  • 2 weeks later...

“Darling, you’re frustrated aren’t you?”

Rachel was on the money. I had no real reason to be given the nature of the game we had played the day before, but nevertheless I was frustrated. Our winning run was at an end, but that wasn’t all that felt wrong.

“Of course I’m frustrated. We’ve been doing so well – we’ve been winning all month – and then that happens. I thought we were on to something.”

My wife sighed – she’d been here before. I was beating myself up again even though I had reason to do so, and it was up to her to inject an element of reason into my mind.

Owain, you were away at Liverpool. Aren’t they top of the table at the moment?”

“I know, I know. We fought well. I mean, we fought very well. It’s just a shame about the rest of the 90 minutes.”

“Your team went away, to New Anfield, and equalised not once but twice. I think, after winning for so long, you need to cut the guys some slack – they can’t give you more than they’re capable of every week. And you still didn’t lose!”

“I know darling, I know. I can’t be hard on them – and in my defence, I didn’t tear into them afterwards. It’s just – we’ve dominated so much lately, and to have it happen to us for once makes me question everything all over again.”

“Like what exactly?”

“Whether I’m overly attacking, whether I’m inflexible, whether some of the players are good enough, whether we can ever take down the very top sides. You know, the usual.”

The slight laugh was perhaps unfair, but it came out nevertheless. Rachel at least knew I was listening, but my own awareness of the situation wasn’t doing either of us any favours.

Owain, we’ve been through all this before. You know you aren’t thinking straight, you know you’re being too hard on yourself, and you know you need to pick yourself up before the next one. You’re in the Champions League places, and a month ago you were lamenting the fact that that was impossible. You’re going to drive yourself mad if you keep moving the goalposts – sometimes you’re going to have to be satisfied.”

She wasn’t wrong, and we both knew it. We hadn’t set the world on fire on Merseyside, but twice we had put something together to pull ourselves back on level terms to cancel out goals from Pirulito and Stanojev. We’d been outshot 22-6 and thoroughly outplayed, but we’d still taken a point from the league leaders on an off-day. We were still unbeaten in 2028, and we were still in the top four.

And yet. My mind couldn’t resist the temptation to dive into the dark spaces, and Rachel was doing her best to stop me taking the plunge wherever possible. Without her I’d have been swimming around in the gloom, and even if I did slip in from time to time, her influence was strong enough for me to stay conscious of the need to escape it. I continued to wrestle with my thoughts for a couple of days, but on the Staplewood training pitches, it was business as usual. By the time we hosted Fulham five days later, my focus was as clear as it had ever been. Life went on.

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As we kicked off against Fulham, the hope was real. In the weekend’s early game, Spurs had been beaten 2-0 by Manchester United, meaning that a win over the West London outfit would put five points worth of daylight between us and our Champions League rivals. While the Europa League and FA Cup were obviously competitions we were aiming to win, the league had to be our focus. The fans expected nothing less, and we had a real chance to achieve something.

A quarter of an hour into the game, midtable Fulham caught us cold, right winger Bryce Harding getting on the end of a cross after drifting in behind Shaw. Whilst the small travelling contingent began to celebrate, the linesman on the far post cut short their jubilation by raising his flag, and we were mercifully reprieved. It was a welcome relief, but a necessary warning – the visitors were not able to roll over for us.

It forced us to toughen up, and Henrique and Hossam, getting a rare start in front of the defensive line, were given instructions to close their playmakers down more quickly. It took us a while to fashion a chance of our own, but in the meantime we were at least able to stifle Fulham’s creativity, leading to midfield trench warfare rather than the free-flowing stuff we had witnessed in recent weeks.

Ten minutes before the break, Escalada collected a pass from Kenan Kus some 25 yards from goal to the right of centre, and thumped a drive high towards the top corner of the Fulham goal. Their goalkeeper stood helpless, frozen in the centre of his line, thanking his good fortune as he watched the ball crash off the crossbar and bounce a good 10 yards back out into play. It was the closest either side got to breaking the deadlock, but proved the catalyst for us to get the ball under control. Gradually we increased our share of possession, and for all Fulham’s early intensity, they were on the back foot when the whistle came for the break.

After it, we continued in much the same vein, passing and probing as we looked to find the space we needed to create the one chance we were searching for. Ifan thought it had it but saw his final ball deflected off course by a desperate defensive lunge, and then his replacement Cohen saw a shot clip the same man’s heel and drift just wide. Into the last quarter of the match, the scoreboard still showed no goals, and we were faced with a choice.

Against Everton earlier in the year, we had dominated, thrown away a two-goal lead, and then been forced to go gung-ho to grab a third and winning goal. Here however, we were in control without scoring, and I opted against any change to the system. Four minutes after making my third and final like-for-like change – sending the lesser-spotted Nestor Mina on in place for Jacobson – my confidence paid off.

After striking the bar in the first half, it was Escalada who made the decisive breakthrough. The Argentine forward rode his luck after a heavy touch came back to him after a tangle of legs with a defender, but he seized his opportunity with both hands, moving into the area before shooting through the legs of the goalkeeper who had narrowed the angle in vain. One goal was all we needed, and despite not playing particularly well, we had found a way to win once again. We were on a roll, and we were getting the breaks.

Three days later, we hosted Arsenal, and we found ourselves on the other end of such a game. In a far more even affair, we had huffed and puffed through the second half, and finally took the lead through a deflected Gidon Cohen effort with just 10 minutes to play – surely a short enough period of time for us to hold out and secure another narrow win against one of the league’s better sides.

Not the case. As soon as they had conceded, the Gunners switched gears and came us hard, perhaps surprised by their own inability to score given the recent record between the two clubs. Hamish Jack had his busiest spell of the match in the closing stages and performed admirably, but he could do nothing about the equaliser. With a mere 30 seconds of the three added minutes remaining, Guido Vadala’s goalbound effort took a deflection off the back of the turning Leighton Hodge, sending it looping up and over our Scottish goalkeeper to hand the visitors a point. It wasn’t undeserved, but it was cruel. It brought up 10 unbeaten league games, but given the circumstances, it was a bittersweet statistic to take solace in.

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The next week, without trying to sound overly dramatic, was a crucial one for us. It would begin away at Middlesborough in the cup, see us take a midweek flight to Bordeaux in the Europa League, and finish with a Sunday afternoon trip to Manchester City and Diego Simeone’s all-conquering champions. The three opponents were playing at three very different levels, and by Sunday night we would have a very good idea of which one we were operating at.

Third-tier Boro were on paper the easiest of our three opponents, but with the possibility of an FA Cup quarter final ahead of them, we could not afford to take them lightly. That said, I had no hesitation in putting out a rotated side, and what followed was an end-to-end game to delight the neutral and further convince me that Callum Jacobson would play a key role in the future of Southampton Football Club.

His first goal came after just three minutes, a cool side-footed finish from Vandinho’s low cross. His second came 15 minutes later, a similar strike from five yards further out which should have put the game to bed there and then. However, to Middlesborough’s credit they fought back, and a penalty to halve the deficit after half an hour made my half-time team talk that little bit less comfortable.

I needn’t have worried. Although Dominic Calvert-Lewin grabbed a second for the home team five minutes from the end, it was Jacobson who was the hero of the day. My fellow countryman claimed the match ball with a cheeky low free-kick not long after the restart that embarrassed the leaping Boro wall, and as if three goals were not enough, he added a fourth midway through the half to cap off a remarkable personal performance. I afforded him a standing ovation by bringing him off with 10 minutes to play, and his haul booked us a trip to West Ham in the last eight. One down, three to go.

Jacobson had to start in France, but my dilemma was who to play with him. We had little time before the City game and so another shadow side was my instinct, but if they failed to perform, we could be out of the tie before taking it home to St Mary’s. In the end, the league focus won out, and it was very much a second string that took to the field against Bordeaux. If the gamble failed, I would be in the firing line – this was a winnable tie.

Although it was only late February, there was a warm breeze blowing in from the Bay of Biscay, and in contrast to previous European adventures, there was no scent of hostility from the home fans. Perhaps it was a cultural thing, perhaps it was because their own side had not expected to get this far – either way, we took advantage.

Of course it had to be Jacobson who got us started, heading in an Ifan corner with the clock barely showing double figures. The second goal was a special one – Lloyd Collins, who I had spent so much money on as a 16-year-old from Blackburn, had seen his Southampton career get off to a flying start only for the young starlet to break his ankle in a reserve game against Hull, and he had been struggling for fitness ever since. This was his first first-team appearance since that day, and it was marked with a goal. Again Ifan was the creator, his weighted ball slicing through the home defence and allowing Collins the space he needed to lift a delicate finish over the onrushing keeper. The celebration with his team-mates told me everything I needed to know – here was a young man who loved to play, and he was going to be awfully good at it too.

That settled things before the interval, but a third goal after the break gave us one-and-a-half feet in the next round. Vandinho almost certainly did not mean for his left-wing cross to evade everyone and bounce past the goalkeeper at the far post, but his first Saints goal meant we would almost certainly be taking part in the last 16 of the Europa League. Two down, one to go – and it was by far the most difficult of the three.

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It was raining in Manchester. It always was – looking back over my career, there were very few matches – mainly those played in May or late August – there were very few occasions on which I had managed a team in Manchester and not been rained on. I suppose I should not be surprised – there is no smoke without fire, after all.

This was the one fixture which every team looked for at the start of the season – the day away at the Etihad which they could almost write off, at least in the case of 90% of the league. For the very top sides, it was a day for which they would have to plan to perfection if they hoped to get a result, and for arguably the first time as we were sitting in the top four, we could consider ourselves one of those sides.

There is little I can say about Diego Simeone’s side that has not already been said. Not content with possessing some of the finest individual footballers on the planet, the former Atletico boss had transformed his side into a ruthless football machine, churning out crushing win after crushing win in a manner that no-one in the English game could really remember. Personally, the 6-1 defeat they had handed to my Saints last season was the worst loss I had endured as a manager, and in my darkest days I still had nightmares about Yu Shuming.

In the current campaign, they had dropped points on a few more occasions than they would have liked, but despite that and having played two fewer games than their rivals courtesy of their participation in the Club World Cup, they had taken top spot in the Premier League and did not look like letting it slip. They had won 3-1 at St Mary’s earlier in the campaign, and all the signs pointed to them easing past us on home turf.

That was, unless I was able to come up with some way of stopping them. Going toe-to-toe with the champions and trying to out-slog them seemed futile, and yet that was how we set up for most game, confident that our attacking prowess could overwhelm the majority of sides. Against City, it was the sort of approach that saw us get so badly beaten last season, and dumped out of the League Cup in a 4-1 loss earlier on in this campaign.

I was torn – on the one hand, playing to your own strengths rather than attempting solely to counter your opponent was one of the first principles any football manager learns, and yet in this instance it seemed as if our very strengths were our greatest weaknesses. City would tear us apart on the counter if we went at them too hard, and so we needed a gameplan which relied on us not to create an abundance of chances, but to take them when they did come. It was something we had not always done – Escalada, Clarke and even the in-form Jacobson could all be profligate at time – but it was the only way we could play.

And so it was decided. We would push hard for 10 minutes, trying to catch Simeone’s side unawares in the opening moments, and then conduct a tactical retreat. We would play deeper, giving City the ball in midfield, and look to spring a runner whenever possible. Whether through Cohen, Bright, Escalada or even one of our full-backs, we had pace in abundance, and that would have to be our primary weapon. Of course, it would need to be backed up with clinical finishing and defensive discipline, but it would be pace that we would depend on. As the referee blew his whistle to get things underway, I only hoped my thoughts were correct.

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The game was 11 minutes old when we made things interesting, and I allowed myself the privilege of a smirk. Simeone, clad in trademark dark suit with only the sky blue of his club tie adding any colour to his attire, stood with arms folded in the dugout, trying his hardest not to allow any emotion to cross his expression. We were still 80 minutes from achieving anything, but we were going to fight for every one of them.

It was our first real attack of the match, and it bore the blueprint of my pre-match plan perfectly. City had worked the ball forward well, full-backs advancing deep into our territory as they looked for the kill. Henrique and Woodward were almost deep enough to be acting as third and fourth centre-backs, but our shape held strong. When the cross came in, the hosts having been forced wide by our compact centre, Hodge was able to not only clear wide with the header, but direct it into the path of Kus.

Our captain charged off like a man possessed, opposition players struggling to keep up and finding it impossible to get a foot in. Then, when the time was right, he released a pass forward from inside his own half, with Escalada the theoretical target. The only problem being that the Argentine was offside.

Knowing this, he peeled his run and his marker away from the ball, allowing it to run behind the City defence and into the space rapidly being eaten up by Adam Bright. At 30 yards out he still had a lot of work to do, but his legs kept him ahead of the pursuing defenders, and his presence of mind allowed to place a shot beyond the home goalkeeper as he made himself big. We had drawn first blood, and now the champions had to come and get us.

And come for us they did, Hamish Jack forced into a flying save to deny our old nemesis Yu an equaliser two minutes after the restart. The Chinese forward looked dangerous, as did his strike partner Mirko Gramaglia, and it was all we could do to ride out the next five minutes without shipping an immediate leveller. Jack would need to have one of his best games in a Southampton shirt if we were to hold on to a one-goal lead, but the early signs were promising.

Two minutes after those five had elapsed, the unthinkable happened. Another City attack petered out in the final third – this time Woodward’s timely interception meaning that the hosts didn’t even have the opportunity to put a ball into our box – and once again we were away. This time Jacobson, the former United man who was booed every time he touched the ball, dropped deep to receive the pass out of defence, and his aim was no less lethal than Kus’ had been. This time the ball was into the left channel but the target was the same, and Bright carried it deep into the final third. Fronting up his man, a successful dummy allowed him to dribble into the area, and his next move was sensational. Cutting back onto his right foot and leaving a sliding defender for dead in the process, he wrapped his foot around the ball to send a flashing shot low in at the near post which left the keeper completely wrongfooted. With 20 minutes gone, we were leading the champions 2-0 on their own patch. It was almost too good to be true.

And so, four minutes later, we handed City a lifeline. Another attack, this time led by Gramaglia, saw the hosts invade our box in numbers, and it seemed a matter of when, rather than if, they would score. The shot came in from the Italian, only to be blocked by a sliding Aswad Payne. Unfortunately for our centre-back, the shot had cannoned off his raised arm as he had gone to ground, and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Gramaglia took responsibility and smashed the spot kick home down the centre of the goal, and our lead was cut back to one.

Somehow, despite the constant pressure from Simeone’s men, we did not crack further before the break. Bright played like a man possessed, occupying seemingly every position on the field at various points in time, and I have little doubt that, had we given him Jack’s gloves for a spell, he’d have made a couple of saves. Our defensive screen of Henrique and Woodward put in arguably their best 45-minute display of the season, with the latter going some way to show why we had paid so much money to lure him across from Stoke.

At the break, there were plaudits to be given out, and concentration to be maintained. We knew that even a single break in focus or slip of foot would let City back into the game, and we could not escape the fact that if they scored once, a further goal was not unlikely to follow. We would have to defend as a team, stick to the plan, and carry it out flawlessly – it was a huge ask, and I would soon find out whether or not my men were capable of living up to it.

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11 hours ago, SmileFaceGamer said:

Wow, very intrigued. Can Owain do it for another 45 to claim a priceless vctory?

Your answer awaits...

“We saw a very different approach from your Southampton side today, was that based on a weakness you’d seen in the opposition or something you’ve been working on for a while?”

The very first post-match question got to the crux of the matter, and for once I was quite happy to play along. After taking a sip of the branded water by my right hand, I addressed the journalist in question.

“It wasn’t a weakness we’d seen in City, far from it – it was just the only way we could see of playing that would minimise the gap. We played to our pace today, stayed compact, and we got the result we were looking for.”

Owain, before the season there were few who would have put Southampton in the running for a Champions League position, but if you look at the table today that seems a real possibility. Was that always the aim this year, and can you hang on?”

“That’s two questions in one, but I’m in a good mood so I’ll let it slide. The Champions League is where everybody wants to be, of course, but the owners of this club have always made it clear to me that as long as they can see progress, they’re happy to let me get on my job. As for hanging on, I’m not sure that’s the question we have to be asking ourselves. We’re only actually two points off the top of the table now…”

“Are you suggesting you can mount a title charge?”

“If you’d kindly let me finish, that isn’t what I’m saying at all. City have their games in hand, so that two points could easily become eight and there’s nothing we can do about that, but we have to be looking up rather down. We’re five points clear of Spurs and only one behind Liverpool, so rather than glancing over our shoulders we’re focused on chasing down the teams ahead of us.”

“Finally Owain, you’re back in action on Thursday against Bordeaux and go into that game with a 3-0 lead – if you were offered the choice of winning the Europa League or qualifying for the Champions League, which would you take?”

“I’m not going to give you an answer on that, simply because at this moment in time I think it’s entirely possible that the club can do both. We’ve put ourselves in a strong position in the league with 10 games to go, and if things go well in midweek we’ll be in the last 16 in Europe. I’m not going to sacrifice one for the other – this squad is good enough to fight on both fronts.”

Things did go well enough in midweek, goals from Lloyd Collins and the rarely-seen Danny Cavill cancelling out two Bordeaux goals to see us through 5-2 on aggregate and keep the good mood around the squad going after our hard-fought 2-1 win in Manchester. City would recover well, taking out their frustrations by thumping Championship outfit Blackburn 4-0 in the League Cup final to win the first domestic silverware of the season, and after watching the game we prepared to take on Burnley at St Mary’s the following day.

Perhaps inevitably, having defeated the best side in the country and then crusied through on the continent, we came unstuck against the Lancashire outfit, conceding midway through the first half and then again in the second, Kenan Kus shoving his man at a corner to gift them a 2-0 lead from the penalty spot.

However, we have proven ourselves to be made of stern stuff, and so when Jacobson pulled one back 10 minutes later we had hope. More than that, we had a point – Cavill, starting just his fifth league game of the campaign, glanced in a free-kick five minutes from the end to tie things up, and a disappointing afternoon at least ended on a positive note. Spurs had won to close the gap to three points, but we weren’t worrying about anyone else – still unbeaten since our Boxing Day defeat at Old Trafford, we were simply focused on ourselves. If Southampton kept on winning, we would be everyone else’s problem, and that was very much the plan.

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