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Back in Britain - Part III of the Owain Williams saga


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16 hours ago, SmileFaceGamer said:

Excellent result against city, and typical you lose to plucky old Burnley. But who cares:



A CHAMPIONS LEAGUE TOUR (there jinxed it)

We only drew with Burnley! But yes, it was typical - very much 'after the Lord Mayor's show.' As for your jinx, I'm not sure Owain will thank you for that :D

That had not been the plan. Not at all. Given our run of form, to have taken the lead a quarter of the way through and somehow end up losing the game was not acceptable. Not only that, but there would be no second chances – our FA Cup run was over, our hope of a domestic trophy all but over for the season, and thanks largely to our own complacency.

West Ham should not have caused us too many problems, and indeed in the opening stages we had dominated them. We had taken a deserved lead through cup specialist Jacobson, his textbook diving header beating the home keeper to put us ahead, but instead of pressing our advantage home, we slackened the pace, reducing the tempo to one which our hosts could keep up with, and finding ourselves unable to respond when the Hammers began to assert themselves.

They levelled before the break and afterwards, despite my urgings to my players to wake up and keep going, we were unable to wrestle the game away from the hosts. Hamish Jack was our best player on the night, a damning indictment of our poor performance, but even he was unable to stop West Ham booking their place in the last eight of the competition. It was Daniel Circuit who got the goal, stealing ahead of Hodges to turn in a cross and dump us out of the cup with just 20 minutes left.

Given that the Hammers were sat in the bottom five of the Premier League and were more likely to find themselves relegated than lifting the cup, our defeat had to count as a shock. It was our first loss of the calendar year, our first failure in 18 matches, and an unwelcome reminder that despite our lofty position in the league, we still had a lot of work to do if we were to cement our position as a top side in regular contention for silverware.

It was the sort of result which threatened to send me spiralling into self-doubt, and on this occasion I genuinely wanted my players to share in the moment – to give them time to reflect on their abject display and light a fire beneath them in response. However, March was simply not the time of year we could afford any time to wallow in self-pity – we had a trip to Germany for the first leg of our Europa League clash with Gladbach, and then would be back in league action against Forest on the Sunday.

In short, there was no time for us to think our way out of what could potentially become a tricky situation – we would have to act our way out of it. It was precisely in moments that this that I was to earn my crust as a manager, handling the players as best as I could whilst also making the necessary and ruthless changes to make sure we didn’t make the same mistakes twice. Every team lost on occasion, but if we were to go out of the Europa on the back of FA Cup failure, the knives would no doubt be sharpened in the press. 

As such, I rang the changes as we travelled to Germany, and was rewarded with a much higher calibre of performance in the opening stages. However, it had never been the opening moments of a match I was worried about – we were always strong starters – and on this occasion our hosts were equal to us. As we looked to be heading in goalless at the interval, the referee’s assistant inexplicably failed to lift his flag for Ricardo Silva, allowing the Brazilian to fire beneath Jack and put us behind. Trying desperately not to look despairing, I urged my men to redouble their efforts before the break.

My attempts to hide my emotions may have been weak, but my men were not, and having previously been happy with a neutral 0-0 after 45 minutes, we instead took an away goal advantage. Two full minutes of possession from the kick-off saw the Germans chasing shadows, and one of those shadows in the form of Adam Bright slid the ball into the bottom corner to eliminate the deficit.

That was just what we needed to kick on, and just what our hosts needed to spark a manic second half. Four minutes into it, Callum Jacobson bent in his 20th goal of the season from the edge of the area, and five minutes later, we found ourselves with a 3-1 lead after Boyd Clarke took Woodward’s pass and drilled it through a crowded penalty area. Of course, never ones to make things easy for ourselves, we did not hold on to our advantage for long, first conceding a free-kick which Jack pushed behind, and then leaving Liridon Lekaj free to nod in Gidion Zelalem’s corner to make it 3-2 with 20 minutes to play.

At 3-2 up we were happy, but not completely so – three away goals were an excellent return, but a fourth would put us in a commanding position going into the home leg. As such, we gave the ball to the in-form Jacobson, and the Welshman sent our travelling fans into ecstasy with a sublime chip over a backpedalling goalkeeper from a full 20 yards. Of course, a two-goal lead was too much to ask for, the Germans pulling a third goal back in injury time to conclude the scoring in a truly spectacular game. With four away goals and the lead we would be hot favourites to make progress, but I only hoped for something a little less end-to-end in the return. Neither my body nor my brain could deal with a repeat.

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Despite being at home to Nottingham Forest, I was not particularly confident about taking on the Reds. They had knocked us out of the FA Cup last season, and were exactly the sort of midtable side who could pose us unexpected problems. Three minutes into our mid-March clash, I was beginning to wish myself less insightful – Gordon Hunter, who had scored against us at the City Ground in that cup game, was once again celebrating, and we had work to do.

But we did it quickly and emphatically, and my half-time the game was dead and buried. Almost from the restart we won a penalty which Clarke coolly converted to restore parity, and as we grew in confidence it was only a matter of time before we hit the front. When we did, it was with a swagger and a force which reminded me of my old Seattle Sounders side, breezing past opponents in short, unstoppable bursts of scintillating football.

We went 2-1 up courtesy of an own goal after 30 minutes, and three minutes later Clarke made it 3-1 with his second of the afternoon. Five minutes later he completed his hat-trick thanks to a sumptuous assist from Ifan, and we had accelerated into a three-goal lead in just eight minutes. We carried that into the second half, and two more after the break saw us wind up 6-1 winners and put any thoughts of the West Ham defeat firmly to the back of our minds.

The comprehensive win did no damage to our goal difference as we kept the pressure on our fellow Champions League challengers, maintaining our third place with eight games to play. Manchester City were looking unstoppable at the top of the table, but every other position in the top six remained up for grabs. While we still had an eye on Europe in the present campaign, we were looking very good for the top four finish we so desperately craved.

Yet Europe would be our focus in our next clash, as Borussia Monchengladbach attempted to overturn our 4-3 lead from the first leg in Germany in the St Mary’s return. Our visitors knew they needed a two-goal win if they were to have any chance of progressing to the last eight, while for our part we simply had to avoid calamity. With four away goals there was little chance of us being eliminated on that front, and any goals we could score of our own would make our opponents’ task even more difficult.

In the end, our task was made easier by two excellent from our full-backs, Kenan Kus and Luke Shaw showing exactly why they were such firm favourites with our fans by dominating their respective flanks in a masterful display of wing play. It was the latter who proved instrumental in our opening goal, crossing for Clarke to head in after half an hour, and the former who played a role in our second, his shot parried into the path of Bright to sweep in for 2-0 just before half-time, and that was that. With the Germans’ dangerous wingers shut out of the game by our star men, they barely threatened our goal, and so we booked a spot in the quarter-finals.

UEFA saw it fit to draw the next two stages of the competition at this juncture, meaning we were now able to plot our path to the Hamburg final. In the last eight we were handed what most agreed was a favourable draw in the form of Lokomotiv Moscow – a side that we were well-acquainted with from the group stage. At that stage we had won 1-0 away and drawn 0-0 at home, but on both occasions the Russians had seen fit to sit deep and defend. In the high-stakes surroundings of a knockout stage, we had the ability to break them down.

If we were to overcome Lokomotiv over the two legs, we would face the winners of the tie between Dutch giant Feyenoord and French outfit Stade Rennais in the semis. While both sides would undoubtedly offer stern competition, neither were a club that we would instinctively be afraid of, and while we simply had to take things a single game at a time, there was no doubt we could dare to dream of a European final. It was quite the dream.

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On 09/06/2018 at 13:05, SmileFaceGamer said:

Right, well now we have UCL plan A and UCL plan B. Is there a plan C by any chance incase a bottle job insues

Not that I know of - although winning the Europa won't be easy given the other side of the draw. Two plans should be enough!

Owain, you must be relieved to have held onto that one? It looked at times like Newcastle were going to take a point or even more.”

I afforded myself a smile – the Guardian journalist was right. We’d led three times against the Magpies, been pulled back twice, and very nearly on a third occasion as well. They had deserved a point, but not managed to claim one.

“Relieved is right, I think the Newcastle fans have every right to feel a little bit aggrieved there. Of course it’s easy for me to come out and say that having won the match, but if they carry on playing like that for the rest of the season, there’s every chance they’ll end up in Europe.

“What are your reflections on your own side’s performance? You looked strong going forward but a little shaky at the back, does that worry you at all heading into the run-in?”

“No manager likes to see his side concede goals, and the first one today was definitely not the sort you enjoy seeing your team let in – there’s work to be done there for sure. However, we are confident of outscoring teams ourselves, and you only have to look at the goalscorers today – Blanc in midfield, Hodge from defence and Jacobson up front – and you can see we’ve got options all over the pitch. That’s really important at this stage in the season – you don’t want to become too one-dimensional.”

“The Blanc goal was something special, particularly for a man who doesn’t get on the scoresheet very often – is that something you see much from him in training?”

“I wish I did! No, Ben isn’t known for his goalscoring, so we’re really pleased for him today. It was a great hit, 30 yards out and beautifully true. He doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves at times, but he’s been brilliant for us this year, coming in, getting used to the way we do things and consistently doing the job we ask of him. He deserves his moment in the limelight.”

“Less savoury news about Danny Cavill this week – can you elaborate on your relationship with him?”

My brow furrowed at this one – my defender’s transfer request had been unfortunately leaked to the media, and while I had no intention of tearing into my own player, I was not happy with him or his agent.

“I can understand Danny’s frustrations – he isn’t playing very much, and every professional wants to be out there on the pitch. I’m a little disappointed his agent has decided to make that public at this stage in the season, but we’ll sit down together and figure things out. Danny’s a good lad who I’ve no doubt can do a job for a number of teams, and I’m not going to stand in his way of first-team football if that’s what he’s offered.”

“Finally Owain, you’ve finally got a full week before your next game – will you be giving the players any time off between now and the Brighton match?”

“It does seem like a long time since we’ve had anything like a break, so we’ll be glad of the extra time! The players have been told not to come in tomorrow – we’ll review today’s game on Monday and go from there. We are busy, the schedule is tight, but that’s a position we want to be in and if we don’t work hard then we won’t get that chance again. That’s a long way of saying ‘not really’ – there’s no rest for the wicked, after all.”

After edging past Newcastle 3-2, we were right not to ease off. We travelled to Brighton a full eight days later and scraped a 2-1 win, the officials not helping our cause by chalking off goals by both Cohen and Mina for marginal offside decisions. Nevertheless, strikes from our Israeli international and his midfield partner Bright saw us collect another three points in our bid for Champions League football, before our attention turned to UEFA’s secondary competition and the visit of Lokomotiv in the first leg of our quarter-final. As March reached its end, it seemed as if our season was only just beginning.

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“What is it darling? Something seems to be bothering you?”

Rachel had been unusually quiet over the last couple of days, and it was beginning to worry me. I was reasonably confident it was nothing to do with the girls – both Bethan and Rebecca were thriving at school and were continuing to grow into confident young women, albeit far too quickly for their dad to comprehend – and my wife’s own work, volunteering to give language lessons, was under no particular pressure.

“It’s nothing dear, honestly. I’m just a little tired, that’s all.”

I could see a deflection as well as anyone, and that was as clear as they came. I took Rachel’s hand in my own, squeezed it gently to reassure her, and waited for her to speak. I did not need to wait particularly long before her concerns came tumbling out.

“It’s the future, really. That sounds ridiculous, but that’s what it is.”

“How do you mean darling?”

“I mean with you doing so well…”

“That seems like an odd thing to worry about”

“I know, but I do. I know Southampton aren’t supposed to be fighting for the Champions League, or with one foot in the Europa semis. I know they weren’t before you got here, and I know people will be looking at the difference you’ve made and thinking about their own clubs. Every move you’ve made has been a step up, and I wonder if there’s another one to come.”

Rachel my love, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. First of all, I don’t think I’m quite held in the regard you seem to think I am – Dean hasn’t been in touch with approaches from anywhere else. Secondly, I’m happy here. I know I was happy in Seattle too, but Southampton was a chance to come to the Premier League, and there is no higher level than this.”

“What if there is though Owain? Let’s say you win the Europa League – and that isn’t completely far-fetched – and qualify for the Champions League, and one of the big teams on the continent has a bad year and sees you as the man to pull them back into position again. I don’t know, one of the Madrid teams, Bayern maybe…”

Bayern are 10 points clear in the Bundesliga…

“That isn’t the point, and you know it. I worry about us moving again, about lifting the girls out of another home and dropping them in a foreign culture where they don’t speak the language. I’m worried enough about you going to Moscow next week, let alone moving somewhere like it. I just think it’s time for us to be settled, but I don’t want to stand in your way either. That’s what wrong.”

I paused before replying. There was every chance Rachel’s concerns were valid – if everything went to plan, it made sense I would have admirers in high places – but I had had few thoughts about moving on from Southampton. Very few, in fact – they had treated me very well, the pressure on me was entirely of my own production, and life in Hampshire was good to us. Without dismissing my wife’s fears, I attempted to assuage them.

Rachel Williams, I love you. I want you to know that, and that our family is always going to be the most important consideration for me – above personal glory and job satisfaction. There is no job I would take that would make you and the girls unhappy, and quite frankly there is no job I would take at the minute other than the one I have. If Real Madrid called tomorrow and you didn’t want me to take it, I’d tell them thanks but no thanks, and the same goes for Bayern, Juventus, City, and anyone else you can care to think of. I’ve got a job I love here, a family I love even more, and I don’t want to start again somewhere new.”

Rachel glanced at me with tears welling in her eyes. Without saying anything, she lifted my hand to her lips and gave it a lingering kiss. I knew everything I needed to know – my wife was satisfied, and so was I.

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The week of that conversation with Rachel had begun with a late show against Lokomotiv, not one but two injury time goals giving us a 3-1 lead to take to Moscow, and would contain no fewer than four matches as the fixture calendar continued to throw games at us. After playing on the Thursday in Europe, Sunday saw us in league action against rock-bottom Sheffield United, where a sublime solo goal from Gideon Cohen just after the break earned us all three points in an otherwise tedious game. The visitors recorded just two shots on goal, while only a handful of our near 30 efforts troubled the goalkeeper, and there was little else to report.

While we were putting the Blades to the sword, headlines were being made in London, where Fulham fought back from 1-0 and 2-1 down to shock Manchester United and claim a shock 3-2 win. That defeat all but ended any lingering hopes the red half of Manchester had of claiming the title – City were a full eight points clear with six games to play to United’s five – but it also had interesting implication for my Saints. Coupled with our win over the league’s bottom side, the Fulham result meant that, with just five games of the season remaining, we were level with United on 69 points. We were 14 goals behind on the tiebreaker, but perhaps more importantly were a full seven points clear of Liverpool in fourth, even if the New Anfield club had played a game less.

So, after Loko on Thursday and Sheffield United on Sunday, we were back in action on the Tuesday, this time hosting the West Ham who had knocked us out of the FA Cup at the beginning of March. On that occasion they had stifled our creativity and forced us into a poor performance, and once again the Hammers seemed to have our number, controlling the majority of possession and taking three shots of their own to every two we mustered. However, as the clock continued to tick over, neither side managed to break the deadlock.

That is, until the 87th minute, when a firm but fair challenge from Vandinho robbed Daniel Circuit of the ball deep in our own half. The Brazilian surged into midfield before feeding the ball inside to Blanc, and after shifting the ball past his opposite number with his first touch, our French international released a curling pass which arced perfectly between the two West Ham centre-backs. Boyd Clarke, who had only been on the pitch for 10 minutes or so as a replacement for the injured Carlos Henrique, made the most of his fresh legs to beat his man to the ball, and after bringing the pass under controlled, sent an accurate shot beyond the outstretched leg of the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. It was an absolute steal, but somehow we had found a way to win.

The following day, as we trained in Moscow for the second leg of our Europa League quarter final, Arsenal did us a huge favour by holding United to a 2-2 draw at the Emirates, leaving us two points clear of the Red Devils with four games to play. Despite missing Henrique to the injury picked up against the Hammers, it was the confidence boost we needed, and with a 3-1 lead in the bag from the home leg, two goals in two minutes from two WelshmenJacobson and Ross Ifan – on the stroke of half-time were enough to see us cruise into the final four of the Europa League.

Our reward would be a two-legged tie with Stade Rennais, the French side having held Feyenoord to a goalless draw in Rotterdam before overwhelming them at home to progress by the same 5-1 aggregate scoreline as ourselves. Were we to get past them, our potential opponents in the Hamburg final would be another French side – super-rich Paris Saint-Germain – or Portuguese outfit Sporting, with the Lisbon side having the advantage of the second leg at home. That was an advantage we conceded to our opponents, and thus one we hoped would not prove decisive.

So it was with cautious but heightened optimism that a frantic first week of April drew to a close, with my Southampton into the Europa League semis and sitting second in the Premier League. Of course, after a week which had brought four matches – and four crucial victories – in just eight days, we now had a full 11 days before our next outing, a tough trip to Chelsea the day after the eyes of the nation were occupied by the Manchester derby. I was more than happy to concede the spotlight to the champions and their rivals – as long as continued to perform, I could not have cared less who did or didn’t take notice of us.

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It would certainly appear that way...

On this occasion, I did give the players some time off. They had earned it with the exertions over the past week, and indeed over the rest of the season, and had put themselves in a position from which we were strong favourites to claim a coveted Champions League spot. That had been the unspoken desire ever since the start of the season, and everything else that came with it – namely, a Europa League run to the semi-finals and possibly beyond – was a wonderful bonus.

I chose to use the self-imposed free weekend to treat my family, and mercifully the weather held for us. It was always a gamble in the English Spring, but a weekend under canvas across the Solent on the Isle of Wight was exactly what the doctor ordered. Spending time with my wife and daughters meant my mind was forced away from the minutiae of the football club and back to the joys of family life, and as we enjoyed the sights of sounds of Ryde’s esplanade and the castle at Carisbrooke, I felt more refreshed than I had in a long while.

Rebecca in particular seemed to be at her happiest on our short holiday, perhaps in part due to us dressing it up as a belated 11th birthday present to her. Rachel and I had, of course, spoiled her rotten on the day itself, but whether we were exploring the nearby beaches and simply kicking a ball around the campsite – something she was showing quite the degree of skill at – she was in her element. I suspected that, as we boarded the ferry to return to Southampton, a few years ago there would have been tears as our break came to an end. What’s more, I would have sympathised.

Instead, I was forced to return to the day job, putting the players through their paces in the days leading up to our clash with Chelsea. We would travel up to London the day before and watch the Manchester derby as a squad – both to build on the strength of our team spirit and ensure there would be no last-minute travel issues – before taking on the Blues in a game which, if we won, would guarantee us entry to next year’s Champions League.

The day before, United and City put on a classic. A red card apiece, a penalty for either side, and a dramatic late winner for Diego Simeone’s men meant that the Citizens would be crowned champions if we fell to Chelsea, and that we would retain our runners-up spot regardless of our own result. That was scant consolation as Rafinha put the Blues ahead after just 18 minutes, and even less of one when he outmuscled Carl Bateson before netting our hosts’ second on the half-hour mark. We went into the break 2-0 down, and staring at our first Premier League defeat for 18 games.

I would love to say that we emerged a new team in the second half, swatting aside our adversaries and roaring back to turn the game on its head, but it would not to be. Adam Bright did cut our arrears, bending in a brilliant free-kick within 10 minutes of the restart, but within five minutes more defensive confusion allowed Chelsea to capitalise and restore their two-goal advantage. We pushed hard for a lifeline but could not break them down, and with five minutes to go conceded a fourth on the break to add insult to injury, slumping to our biggest defeat in a long time. It could not have come at a worse moment.

It meant City were champions once again, 11 points clear of us with only nine available. It meant we stayed two points ahead of United, while both Tottenham and Liverpool remained lurking, six points behind our nearest challengers with a game in hand. We remained favourites for Champions League qualification, but could not afford to switch all of our attentions to the Europa League just yet.

Nevertheless, we would have to switch temporarily, as Stade Rennais prepared to make their trip to England. A good win in the home leg would give us one foot in the final – a thought which few Saints fans would have dared dream of at the start of the season – while defeat would leave us with a huge amount of work to do in the away leg. The stakes were as high as they had ever been, and in many ways it would be the team who dealt best with the pressure who would emerge victorious. We just needed to make sure it was us.

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Stade Rennais were not one of the powerhouses of French football, nor the European game. They had never before reached a European final, and like my Southampton side, were blazing a new trail by even reaching the final four. They had qualified for this year’s edition by virtue of lifting the Coupe de France last season, but were by no means guaranteed to make it again next season, locked as they were in a three-way fight for the final qualification spot with St Etienne and Auxerre. On paper, that most misleading surface on which to play football, we were clear favourites.

It was our job to make sure we translated that status – earned by virtue both of our superior squad and our strong position in the Premier League table – into a first-leg league, while our visitors arrived with the express purpose of nicking an away goal and making sure they could take us back to France with the tie still in the balance. Whereas we were hoping to win the tie at the first time of asking, our opponents’ job was more akin to not losing it.

As such, our usual 4-2-2-2 lined up against a deep-lying 4-1-4-1 system, the French side happy to allow us plenty of possession before looking to strike on the counter. It was a sensible ploy, both playing to the situation and preventing us using our own pace in transition, but it did not result in the most entertaining of first halves. The closest either side came to breaking the deadlock came just before the half-hour, with surprise starter Canini clipping a ball to the edge of the box for Escalada to volley just wide, but that was as good as it got in a drab first 45 minutes.

We needed a goal to get things moving, and so at the interval I urged my men to take the extra risk. I had seen little for our visitors in the first half to suggest that their threatened counter-attack would be particularly damaging, and so our midfield screen of Blanc and Woodward were encouraged to press higher, stealing the ball whenever possible and feeding the front four at every opportunity.

Had the opening goal come as a direct result of increased pressure, I would have been hailed as a tactical genius. Instead, it came as a result of an error, and I was no less pleased. Under very little pressure, Sebastian Borges played a 30-yard pass straight into the path of Boyd Clarke rather than his goalkeeper, and our striker needed no second invitation to bury it into the back of the net. We had been gifted the opener, and would make the French side pay.

From the restart, Woodward carried out his new instructions to the letter, gambling by getting tight to his man and being rewarded when his well-timed stretch won the ball just inside the visitors’ half. He couldn’t recover possession, but Blanc could, and he set Shaw free down the left as we moved forward at pace. His first cross was well blocked, and his second was nodded away by a French defender, but the ball had barely cleared the edge of the area before it was met by the right boot of Adam Bright, which sent it high into the top corner of the net for our second goal in as many minutes.

Given our opponents’ complete lack of attacking threat – they were yet to record a shot on goal, let alone on target, by this point in the match – we could have been forgiven for assuming at this stage that our passage to the final was all but secure. However, I had seen too many lapses in concentration from my men over the course of the last two seasons to rest on our laurels at his point. 10 minutes later, when full-back Emmanuel Bernard diverted substitute Jacobson’s shot beyond his own goalkeeper for 3-0, we could at last begin to think about the final.

Rennes did manage one shot in the end, although it did not trouble Hamish Jack between our posts, and the 3-0 final score was perhaps flattering to our visitors, who had been thoroughly overwhelmed by the occasion and not looked remotely threatening. While we would have to be professional in France – and I would not accept anything less from my men – we could begin to think about preparing for our likely opponents in the final. PSG had overcome Sporting by the same 3-0 scoreline in Paris, and so all but the most adventurous of gamblers was betting on us meeting the Parisians in Hamburg on May 10th. It would be the biggest match in Southampton’s storied history, and yet it was now entirely within our grasp.

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That's certainly the plan! PSG will be tough though - if we get there...

We were getting used to playing on both Thursday and Sunday now, having been doing so since the group stages of the Europa League. However, what was still not quite normal was the regularity with which the games being played on the intervening Saturday were of high importance to us. Last week, we had gathered as a team to watch the Manchester derby. This time round, we would once again turn our focus to the red half of the same city, as United hosted a Brighton side chasing down the last Europa League berth.

Of course, our support was with our fellow South Coast side, despite the supposed rivalry between our two clubs. A win for Brighton would ensure that we would stay in second regardless of what went on against Spurs, although we were of course aware that defeat would keep our opponents within striking distance of ourselves. As against Chelsea, a win would guarantee a top four finish, and secure our goal for the year.

Surprisingly, Brighton held us their end of the bargain, a contentious penalty midway through the second half handing them a famous victory at Old Trafford which left United with just a single point from their last three matches. However, for that to mean anything positive, we needed to deliver against Tottenham, and when Nigerian winger Bishiru Hagan beat first Kus and then Jack to open the scoring and send the home fans into raptures, we were up against.

10 minutes later, the same man repeated his trick from the other wing – the two Spurs wide men regularly switching positions to keep our defence stretched – and we were two goals down and struggling. It wasn’t that we hadn’t had enough of the ball – if anything we had edged possession – but we were simply unable to do anything with it, a combination of fatigue and determined, discipline defending from our hosts shutting us out for the entire first period.

That same defensive resolve didn’t last the entire second half, Escalada halving the deficit after just seven minutes, but an end-to-end second period saw no further scoring and we recorded back-to-back league defeats for the first time in several months. As against Chelsea, we could have no complaints – we had simply been outplayed by a better team on the day.

Nevertheless, it did seem that, after a season of competing well on multiple fronts, we were finally running out of steam. With the exception of Europe, where we seemed to excel, we had been struggling to see off even opponents from the bottom end of the Premier League. The likes of Sheffield United and West Ham had given us more trouble than we would have either liked or expected, and against top sides such as our last two opponents, we simply didn’t have the answers.

And yet somehow we were still second, with United behind us also struggling to get results and the chasing pack stumbling at every opportunity. We had two matches remaining in the league, both at home, and if we could overcome lowly Everton, we knew that simply avoiding defeat against United on the final day of the season would be enough to claim the runners-up spot. It was not a position that anyone expected us to be in at the start of the season, and yet it would now be a real disappointment to settle for anything less.

Mercifully, our remaining matches would be a little more spaced out than previous runs of fixtures. After our Sunday clash with Spurs, we would go to France on Thursday, then enjoy a slightly extended break before hosting Everton in the Monday night game. We’d welcome United to St Mary’s for the season finale the following Sunday, before the Europa League showpiece – assuming we made it – on the Wednesday.

It wasn’t ideal, and I had my reservations about taking on Jurgen Klopp’s men in a potential shoot-out for second place just three days before a European final, but it was possible. More than that, it was exactly what lie ahead of us, and for our season to be a success, we would need to come through it with flying colours.

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Owain, a very professional performance from your side out there, and all-in-all a comfortable semi-final for your team. What are your thoughts at having reached the final?”

“Obviously I’m hugely pleased for everyone at the club, it’s a great achievement and I don’t think too many people pegged us for the final when we were qualifying back in September. Rennes are a good team, they’ve done well to make it this far, but we’ve shown more quality over the two legs and we’re looking forward to the final now.”

“I’m sure you already know, but you’ll be playing PSG in that final – do you have any preliminary thoughts on them as a team?”

PSG are obviously one of the biggest clubs in Europe, and it was as much of a surprise to me as to anyone to see them drop out of the Champions League this season. They’ve won Ligue 1 for as long as I can remember, and they’ve got some fantastic players, so we’ll have to be at our very best if we want to beat them.”

“Would you agree that they start as favourites?”

“I think that’d have to be the case, although I’m sure Andre Villas-Boas won’t thank me for saying so. They have resources to outstrip most clubs in the world, and I think PSG will be looking at the Europa League as a competition they should be winning. However, we’re going to make it as difficult as possible for them to do that.”

Nestor Mina got one of your two goals today, and as the season has unfolded he’s been largely used in the cup competitions – will you look to keep faith in the players that have got you to the final, or will you be playing a full-strength team in Hamburg?

“I don’t think it’s fair to Nestor or any of my players to talk about a full-strength or first-choice team – every player here at Southampton is an important member of the squad, and we’re fortunate enough that we do have several players for each position. We’ll see how the players do in training, see which of them might best suit our gameplan, and pick a team from there – I’d certainly reject any notion of having a first-choice team and a cup team.”

“One more for you Owain, you have three matches left of the season, how have your expectations changed to this point? What is your minimum requirement from your team?”

“That’s difficult to answer because expectations are always fluid, and yet at the same time they don’t change – we want to see progress. I think we’ve seen plenty of progress here at Southampton this season, and so it’s already been a hugely pleasing year. However, when you reach this stage in the campaign and you could potentially finish second in the league and win a European trophy, it’s hard to see anything other than that as a disappointment when the players have worked so hard to get there. That’s the key thing – that everybody works hard and does their best. If we get beaten having tried our hardest, all we can do is congratulate our opponents – it only becomes a problem if there’s something lacking in our performance, that’s when I’ll start asking questions.”

“Thanks Owain, and congratulations once again on reaching the Europa League final.”

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With Stade Rennais beaten comfortably 5-0 on aggregate and our place in the Europa League final confirmed, we could return our attentions to the league. We had two games to go – Everton and United at home – but before we took to the field in the final fixture of the weekend against the Toffees, there was plenty of action elsewhere that had interest for Southampton fans.

First up, in one of the regular 3pm kick-offs on Saturday, Liverpool demolished Swansea 4-0 at home to move to within two points of ourselves, albeit with the extra game played. It temporarily jumped the Reds above Spurs into the final Champions League spot, with the North London side not playing until later that evening away at Brighton.

The week before, Brighton had done us a huge favour by defeated Manchester United, and they were arguably the league’s form team as they chased down a Europa League berth. At home to Tottenham in Saturday’s evening kick-off, they continued in much the same vein, taking an early lead and dominating the proceedings, much to the horror of their opponents. 1-0 it remained at the break, but two more goals in the second half gave Brighton an emphatic victory and keep their European dreams alive. More importantly for us, it meant Spurs could no longer catch us – we had qualified for the Champions League.

With that settled, our aim was simply to finish as high up the table as possible, and so on Sunday our focus shifted to our nearest rivals, United, as they travelled to Burnley looking for the win which would move them ahead of us, at least temporarily, in the bid to finish second to City. However, with confidence low after a run of poor results, Klopp’s men twice allowed their fellow Lancastrians to pull back from a goal down, an entertaining 2-2 draw meaning that we could lock down second place with a win over Everton. The stage was set – we now had to go and play our part.

St Mary’s was in fine voice as the two sides walked on out Monday evening, the weekday scheduling doing little to prevent the Southampton faithful turning out in force in a bid to roar their side to victory. We had taken our supporters on quite the ride over the course of the season, and now stood just 90 minutes away from the club’s best league finish since 1984. My men were tired – they had earned the right to be – but one more performance would get us over the line, and I urged them to give it to the fans tonight. Waiting for United to arrive could prove too much of a gamble.

We sought to start strong, dominating the opening exchanges and pushing hard to break down the Everton defence. Henrique returned to the line-up after his brief absence, and his combination of steel and creativity almost proved the difference early on, robbing an opposing midfielder of the ball before playing a ball through which almost met the run of Escalada. We were on the front front, and it seemed like a goal would come soon.

It did – at the other end. Out of nowhere, and under no pressure, the ever-dependable Kenan Kus elected to play a risky ball across the defence to Hodges, who just about reached the ball ahead of Victor Stang, but could do nothing to prevent the Everton striker taking the ball at the second attempt, drawing Jack off his line and placing a shot beyond our goalkeeper for a surprise lead. We had been the cause of our undoing, and would have to go even harder if we were to take all three points.

It did not take long for us to get back on terms. I have already mentioned the difference a fully-fit Henrique made to my side, and he proved instrumental in the equaliser, snaffling a misplaced pass, beating a man and then supplying the ball to Bright, who bent in a low effort from 18 yards out. We were level – now what we needed to do was settle down, establish a rhythm, and then worry about taking the game to the Toffees.

We did the first part of the equation very well, settling into a comfortable tempo which allowed us to keep hold of the ball and deny Everton too many opportunities to hurt us. What we failed to do was create a great deal ourselves, and there was growing sense of frustration at the interval as we traipsed off the field with the score stuck at 1-1, and with my players becoming overly-familiar with the sideways pass.

We needed to somehow get between the Everton lines, and two minutes into the second half that’s exactly what Gidon Cohen managed to do. He lost his marker simply by checking back in mid-run, creating half a yard of space in which to receive Woodward’s pass. He was quickly closed down, but a clever one-two with Escalada allowed him to recreate his opening, and his finish was clean and crisp into the back of the net. Surely this time we would press home the advantage?

No. A simple long ball was our undoing this time, and once again Stang was there to take advantage. Four minutes things went from bad to worse, scorer turning provider for Ole Lundberg to head in at the far post, and we had somehow turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit in the space of 15 minutes. That would have been bad enough, but to do so at home to inferior opposition, and with so much at stake, was simply inexcusable.

We did manage to take something from the game, substitute Mina levelling with a tap-in shortly after coming on, but we were unable to improve on 3-3 and claim the win which would have sewn up second place in the Premier League table. On past occasions, I had been unable to fault my team’s application, however this had simply been a poor performance all round, particularly at the back. Given that our remaining fixtures were against two of the potent attacks in Europe, I was more than a little concerned.

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Going into the final game of the season, the headline news in the Premier League was already written. Manchester City had been crowned champions several weeks ago, surpassing the 100 goal mark and going into the last game of the season had a huge 19 point lead on my Southampton side. At the bottom, Everton’s point at St Mary’s meant that it was a bad season for struggling sides beginning with ‘S’ – Stoke, Swansea and Sheffield United were all relegated, with none of them able to reach even 30, let alone the apparently magical 40 mark.

The first main issue still to be resolved was that of runners-up, a position to be contested between ourselves and final-day visitors Manchester United. Jurgen Klopp’s men had not enjoyed a particularly fruitful run-in, and found themselves needing a win at St Mary’s to overtake us. We had also not been in great form, so a point at home was my no means guaranteed. Whichever team succeeded, it would be the lowest points total for a team finishing second for the best part of a decade.

Also in play was the issue of the final European positions, with Spurs lurking in 5th place and looking to take advantage of any Liverpool slip-up at Wolves with a win over Nottingham Forest to clinch a Champions League berth. Failing that, they were at least guaranteed a Europa League berth, along with fierce rivals Arsenal. Elsewhere, Brighton would host Chelsea, bidding to cap up a remarkable run of form by beating the Blues and jumping over them into 7th, and a place in Europe courtesy of the FA Cup final being contested by City and Liverpool.

Despite all the distractions, our clash with United was undoubtedly the biggest game taking place on the final day of the season, and that was where the overwhelming majority of media attention and neutral interest would lie. A distant second to their old enemies would be scant consolation for our visitors, but for my men it would represent a huge step forward, a shot at the Champions League, a confidence boost ahead of the Europa League final, and a sign that we were genuinely becoming a force in the English game. In short, we had far more to gain than our opponents.

I tried to make that clear to my men in the St Mary’s changing rooms, expressing once again how proud I was of their achievements so far, but that without sealing the deal in this final game, there would continue to be question marks about our credentials as a genuine Champions League outfit. Even if we struggled to a draw, there would be doubts – what we needed to do was go out, take United by the scruff of their collective neck, and give them a beating that would take them a long time to recover from. Last season, we had cost them the title – this time, we had the chance to inflict a defeat which benefitted us as well as scuppering their own hopes.

Whether it was my pep-talk, the capacity crowd, United’s poor form and low morale, and some uncommon combination of other factors, I will never be quite sure, but in the opening quarter of the match it seemed as if my players had been waiting for weeks to put in one final performance. From the kick-off, we were all over Klopp’s men like a rash, winning every challenge and rushing them into mistakes across the park. We were dominant, and wonderfully we took full advantage.

We had barely played 100 seconds when St Mary’s roared in celebration for the first time, a slick passing move ending in Adam Bright slipping a disguised reverse pass into the path of Gidon Cohen, who did not even have to break stride to put us into the lead. Two minutes later, our goalscorer laid on our second, beating his men and sending a low cross skidding to the back post for Escalada to dink over the goalkeeper to make it 2-0 before five minutes had elapsed.

United did not know what had hit them, and it took them some time to recover. We were still first to every ball and full of vigour, and so it was perhaps little surprise that a third goal was not all that long in coming. With a quarter of the match played, Bright determined that his best option 20 yards from goal was to hammer a shot into the top corner, and so we secured our second place by taking a fully deserved 3-0 lead. That was enough – United improved, but not nearly enough, and we were disciplined enough to hold them at a comfortable arm’s length while threatening more ourselves. At the final whistle, St Mary’s erupted in celebration – a best finish in 40 years, a ruthless dismantling of one of the top teams in the land, an emphatic statement of intent – there was plenty to enjoy.

For my players, there was little time to celebrate – after a lengthy lap of honour, it was back to base for a quick debrief and then a flight to Germany the very next morning for the Europa League final. It was a sign of the club’s progress that we were unable to celebrate a record finish due to European commitments, if not a little disappointing for the players. Personally, I was rather pleased – it meant a chance to get home and see Rachel and the girls rather than heading straight out with men half my age.

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An evening with my wife was exactly what I needed before heading across to Hamburg, and the family celebration we shared with Bethan and Rebecca was infinitely preferable to the night out on the town that I would no doubt have been forced to share in with my players had we finished the season there and then. That isn’t to say that it was all fun and games however, and as ever Rachel had her concerns about my own thoughts.

Owain, you are pleased with getting to the final aren’t you?”

“Of course I am darling, no-one expected us to be here – we’ve done really well. Of course I’m pleased.”

“And you’ll still be pleased if PSG win? I mean, I’ve got confidence in you, but if it does go wrong I want you to remember what you’ve just said, what an achievement this is.”

“I know what you mean, and I can’t promise I won’t be disappointed. But I’ll look back with pride, that I can promise.”

“I don’t mind you being disappointed Owain, I mind you being consumed by it. If you lose a match you have no right being in, it isn’t the end of the world. If you win it, I want to hear you say how proud you are – of the players, but of yourself too. You’ve got to give yourself some credit, you know?”

It wasn’t something I was particularly comfortable with doing, but my wife was, as per usual, right. Southampton’s transformation from a side with an outside chance of qualifying for the Europa League to a club looking to bid a permanent farewell to it by lifting the trophy had coincided with my arrival – but even then, I was more likely to pass the glory on to the players, coaching staff, previous regime – anyone but myself.

“I’m not going to blow my own trumpet across town, but I’m be pleased with myself. Not smug – you know me, I can’t do smug – but I’ll be happy. In fact, if we beat PSG I’ll be thrilled.

“But at the same time, I just don’t have it in me to hold onto it for too long. Once we’re back, I’ll be chatting to the scouting team and the board about targets, and as soon as we’re back from our holiday it has to be all about pushing forward again. It’s how I’m wired, and it’s probably a big part of any success we have.”

I waited for Rachel’s reply – it wasn’t perhaps what she was looking for, but it was truthful, and I think she realised that. I suspect she’d realised it years ago, but that was beside the point.

“OK darling, that’s fine – and thank you for being honest with me. I just want you to know that even if you don’t, I believe in you, and I’ll be the one reminding you of all these successes you seem to be able to dismiss five minutes after enjoying them. It’s my job to stop you beating yourself up about every loss, and to keep you enjoying the wins – so just know that whatever happens in Hamburg, I’m still going to be in your corner. And I’d like to think it’s a corner worth coming back to, so do pay attention every once in a while!”

I stifled a snigger as I replied.

“You know I don’t find that easy! No, I do know that, and without it I’d have packed this in a long time ago. Thank you – I’ll try not to go too hard one way or the other after the final.”

“Good, I’ll hold you to that. Now, we should probably get some sleep – you’ve got an early start tomorrow.”

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This was it. Southampton’s first ever European final. We lined up against Paris Saint-Germain at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg as firm underdogs, going head-to-head with the side who had lifted the last 15 Ligue 1 titles and who were consequently regular fixtures in the latter stages of the Champions League. Andre Villas-Boas and his side were expected to hand my men a defeat many had anticipated several stages earlier in the competition, but in a one-off game we had a chance, and that was all we asked.

As much as I had told the media after our semi-final win that there was no first-choice side at Southampton, the eleven that I selected to take on the French side was probably the closest thing to such a team that I could have gone for. Hamish Jack was a given in goal, behind the back four of captain Kus, Hodge and Bateson in the middle, and Luke Shaw getting the nod ahead of Vandinho at left-back. Henrique and Blanc relegated Steve Woodward to the bench as our defensive screen, while it was Ross Ifan who partnered Adam Bright behind the strikers, the pace of Gidon Cohen left for a late impact if required. Up front, it was Escalada and Clarke who got the nod, with both Nestor Mina and Callum Jacobson waiting in the wings should they be required.

As for our opponents, they were simply laden with world-class talent across the pitch. Villas-Boas’ central midfield pairing of Sergi Samper and Paul Pogba was aging but supremely gifted technically, while up front they boasted a two-time Balon D’Or winner in Ukrainian international Andrei Sikorski. He would be their main threat, but we could not afford to focus all our attention on the frontman – they had plenty of other ways to hurt us if we fell into that trap. Indeed, we had to remain focused on the task at hand, that of playing our own game without being forced to adapt too much to PSG’s plans. If we could execute our own plan as we had against United – hitting our opponents hard and early – we stood as good a chance as any. That was the hope as we kicked off against the French side.

Not only was it the hope, it quickly looked like a reality. Pogba and Samper were technically brilliant, but their slowing legs meant that we were able to get at them, and in many ways they were the ideal opponents for a player of Henrique’s calibre. His fierce tackle on the Spaniard earned a roar from the red-and-white striped corner of the Hamburg stadium, and did his sudden surge towards goal. His skidding shot from 30 yards was palmed back out by PSG’s Belgian goalkeeper, Clarke’s attempt on the rebound was tipped onto the post, but neither keeper nor woodwork could do anything about Escalada’s third bite of the cherry, our Argentine striker caressing the rebound over the line from inside the six-yard box to give us a surprise early lead. We had the upper hand, and with PSG now having to come at us, we could put our counter-attacking prowess to good use.

Of course, to counter we needed the ball, and getting it back off our opponents was easier said than done. We had earmarked Sikorski as the major threat, and shortly after our opener he almost restored parity, hitting a swerving shot from the edge of the box that had Jack scrambling to push wide. From the corner, Brazilian centre-back Fabiano came closer still with a thumping header that crashed against the bar before being cleared, and we breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Thus was the pattern for the first quarter of the match, our defence just about holding out against the PSG onslaught as they sought to get back into the match. That was all to change after 25 minutes, when Henrique tried in vain to win the ball from Pogba. He failed, but Blanc did not, and our own Frenchman quickly found Kus with a searching ball out to the right. Our captain burned past his man for pace and bent in a delightful cross to the penalty spot, where Boyd Clarke rose to head powerfully into the far corner. It was the perfect counter, a wonderful goal to watch unfold, and out of nowhere we had a 2-0 lead against the French champions midway through the first half.

Those who had us pegged as major underdogs before the match were now beginning to doubt themselves, and it was clear that PSG were rattled. From the restart, a speculative shot from some 35 yards drifted harmlessly wide of goal, and Villas-Boas’ side were worrying. Unfortunately, Jack’s goal-kick returned possession straight back to our opponents, and that was where our problems began.

Two or three passes later, Sikorski found himself on the ball inside our penalty area, and that was a dangerous position for us to be in. Bateson knew as much as made the tackle, but the Ukrainian was wise to the incoming challenge and shifted the ball to his left foot at the last moment. That left our defender taking man rather than ball, and the Czech official had little choice but to award the penalty. Sikorski smashed it in down the middle, and the momentum shifted to our opponents. At 2-1 we were in a very different ball-game, and our focus was no simply on getting to the end of the half with our lead intact. Somehow, we managed it – all we had to do now was keep our performance up for another 45 minutes.

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The first 10 minutes of the second half passed in the blink of an eye, with the scene being set for the rest of the second half – incessant PSG pressure, determined defending from what effectively became a back six for my Saints, Henrique and Blanc dropping into the defence from time to time to restrict our opponents’ opportunities. All the while, we remained a threat on the break, our full-backs and forwards making sure the French side kept some men back in the event of a counter.

The second 10 saw the first changes made, and while Villas-Boas had little choice but to make more attacking adjustments, our slender lead gave me the luxury of being able to make changes based on an ideal situation rather than an enforced one. Despite the pressure we were under, our system was not buckling, and so the two changes I made were like-for-like, Woodward replacing Blanc to give a little more bite to our defensive screen, and Cohen coming on for Ifan to bring more pace into our attacking quartet. PSG continued to push, but we were holding firm.

The next 10 seemed to drag on and on. Fresh legs for the French side seemed somehow fresher than my Saints, and even those players who had not just been introduced – Sikorski in particular – did not seem to be tiring. With 20 minutes to go, the Ukrainian rose what appeared like several feet higher than our backline to meet a cross from the left, only to see Jack produce a world-class save to deny the striker. The corner cleared, we could again regroup.

Or so we thought. Hodge’s header away was well-placed, landing at the feet of Adam Bright on the edge of our area, who in turn was able to spin away from the incoming challenge and make a beeline for the PSG half. The England international’s pace was electric, leaving the likes of Pogba and Samper trailing in his wake, and with our opponents having committed most of their side forward for the set-piece, we found ourselves in a hugely promising break – if only members of our own side could keep up with Bright. Either that, or he would have to go it alone.

For a while, it looked like that was his preferred option, his head firmly down as he drove towards goal from fully 80 yards out. Sure enough however, his legs could not maintain the pace, and as the first members of the PSG side began to scramble back, it looked as if the opportunity had passed. However, they had reckoned without both Bright’s vision and Cohen’s pace, the former looking up and playing the ball square across two-thirds of the pitch’s width into the path of our Israeli star, streaking along in support. A first touch seized the ball, a second took it out from his feet, and a third lashed it in off the crossbar despite the best efforts of the goalkeeper’s fingertips. There was a moment of silence as the reality of the situation sank in, and then my players and bench erupted with the fans. 15 minutes from the final whistle, we had restored our two-goal lead.

My final change was surprisingly another like-for-like change, Europa League regular Nestor Mina taking the place of Clarke as our focal point up front as we sought to keep hold of possession in the final quarter of an hour. Judging by the wild gesticulations of Villas-Boas in the dugout next to my own, it was clear that PSG were going for broke – and their lack of shape on the field suggested I was right. They had to sacrifice solidity in a bid for goals, and what that meant for us was plenty of work to keep track of their various runners. Cohen and Bright were forced to drop a little deeper than usual but that, along with Kus and Shaw’s attacking instincts being curbed, seemed to do the trick. Try as they might, PSG could not find a way through as the clock continued to tick by.

In the third and final minute of injury time indicated by the fourth official, a long ball pumped into the area fell to the feet of Sikorski. An instinctive shot was blocked by a lunging Kus, and the ball bounced out to Bright, who looked again to run at the PSG defence. Three or four strides in, he was pulled up short by the referee’s whistle. Frustration at being stopped was rapidly replaced by elation – the whistle was final, the game was over, and Southampton were Europa League champions.

We had beaten the French champions and overwhelming favourites, adding them to a long list of victims which included their countrymen Stade Rennais and Bordeaux, Lokomotiv Moscow and Borussia Monchengladbach, not to mention those dismissed in the qualifying rounds and group stages. It may not have been the cream of the European elite, but it was the draw we had been given, as at every stage we had come through with relative ease. Southampton had never lifted a European trophy before now – we had made history, and as the trophy was presented by UEFA president Jan-Henrik Fredriksson, we could finally bask in that glory.

My memories of the rest of the time in the Volksparkstadion are mainly sensations – the sound of the roar from the thousands of Saints fans as Kenan Kus hoisted the trophy high, the lights of the cameras capturing the moment, the metallic taste of the silverware itself. The deep bass accompanying the dressing room celebration, the shock of having an ice bucket poured down my neck, the childish joy on the face of every single one of my players. Our flight back to England was pushed back 24 hours to allow the team the chance to celebrate and, after an emotional phone call to Rachel and the girls, I had no hesitation in joining them. This was one I was not about to forget in a hurry.

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“After what they’ve done this season Katherine, you’d have to be a very brave man to bet against City tonight. Lyon are a good team, but if you compare the two sides man for man, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player in their squad who would get into Simeone’s first team.

“Add to that the history that would come with a win tonight – the first team to retain the Champions League, winning every competition they’ve entered this season – and the fact they’ll be flying high after the FA Cup final last weekend, I think they’re favourites and I think they’ll do the business.”

As a British manager enjoying European success, I was invited into the studio for Sky Sports’ coverage of the Champions League final, which saw Diego Simeone’s Manchester City attempt to beat Lyon for a clean sweep of the competitions they had entered – a feat unprecedented for an English club. Having already completed a domestic treble and added to the trophy cabinet with the Community Shield, European Super Cup and Club World Cup, they now needed the biggest of them all to complete the set.

Joined in the studio by hostess and former England ladies captain Katherine Bracewell, City legend and current Levante manager David Silva and ex-Lyon and Chelsea enforcer Michael Essien, I was able to take in the game from the mobile studio at the Bernabeu in both comfort and excellent, knowledgeable company. Silva in particular was a delight to share a room with, his obvious knowledge and effortless humour suggesting his current club had a fine manager on their hands.

However, the thing that stuck with me from the experience was not a taste of the celebrity lifestyle – after all, I was simply discussing football with other football people – but the events on the pitch. After conceding a goal as early as the third minute, City roared back to take a 4-1 lead at half-time, all but securing the trophy before the interval. Lyon managed to recover sufficiently to grab a consolation late on, but the damage had already been done by then. The sheer ruthlessness of Simeone’s side was impressive, and I said as much in the post-match analysis.

“I think what has most impressed me this evening was just how determined City were tonight. As favourites, after such a long season, and with all the history hanging over them, they would have had plenty of excuses had they been knocked by the early goal. But they were behind for what, five minutes? And then they simply ran away it.

“I don’t think Lyon played badly tonight, but they came up against a footballing force. I don’t know if Simeone can continue to motivate this group of players to do it all again next year, but if he can then we’re all in trouble, because I honestly think they’re one of the best teams ever to have played the game – and I say that as a manager who has been on the wrong end of results against them on a couple of occasions.”

Bracewell was quick to latch on to my comments – was I worried that my Southampton side, or indeed any other club, would be unable to challenge the champions next season?

“Not quite. You look at the gap they put between themselves and everybody else this season, and of course you wonder how on earth you’re going to bridge it. But at the same time, it spurs us on – you look at the best, you see someone like Simeone creating this footballing machine that just keeps on winning, and you learn from it. You figure out how to break their machine, and create your own. As Southampton manager today, I look at where City are and I want to get there – we’re closer than we’ve ever been, and we’ll keep on pushing.”

That seemed to do for my thoughts, with Silva leading the analysis with Bracewell for the remainder of the session. There was just enough time in the taxi between the studio and my hotel for me to send confirmation to the club offices that yes, a pre-season tour of China and Japan would be OK as long as families were accommodated – I was not prepared to spend weeks in the Far East away from Rachel and the girls, and saw no reason for me players to either – and then that was business done for me for the week. It was the week of my wedding anniversary, and Ralph Krueger had been kind enough, after the season we had enjoyed, to let me take the family away and leave football behind for a few days. The Williams clan was coming to Spain.

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We did not stay in Madrid however, and after enjoying the pleasantries of a slow train journey across Spain, I was reunited with my inbound family in the sleepy coastal town of La Mata on the shores of the Mediterranean. Having landed in the English half term week, there were a few more holidaymakers than usual about, but it was by no means overrun, and between the sweeping beach and nearby nature reserve, there was plenty of space outdoors for Bethan and Rebecca to enjoy.

Rachel and I were also able to wind down after a hectic season in which we had not been able to spend as much time together as previously – Southampton was not Prestatyn, and with European fixtures taking up a significant amount of time, my wife had been left with the girls while I had been away on my travels. It was not a situation I was particularly pleased with, but equally not something I could remedy – with UEFA’s competitions taking place midweek, the Bethan and Rebecca could not travel as it would mean missing school. Once or twice a year I would have no complaints, but even with rules on term-time holidays relaxed, I didn’t want my job to prove detrimental to their education.

It was with a heavy heart that I boarded the plane home from Alicante at the end of our week in the Spanish sun, in part because of the sheer enjoyment and rest that had swept over me during our holiday, but also because I knew that as soon as we touched down in England, it would all be over – football would once again take over, and the physical and psychological refreshment would quickly be eaten up by the demands of the day job. Still, I reminded myself, not everyone was so lucky, and I had at least been able to enjoy it while it was here.

I had a meeting with Krueger lined up for the June 1st, in part as a debrief on the season just finished, in part to look ahead to the coming year, and in part to discuss transfer business and whether or not the club would be able to finance my ambitions. I had little doubt that, given the resources available in the Premier League, I would be under very few financial constraints in pursuit of success, but it was at least reassuring to know from the main man himself that the club was not about to throw away the chequebook any time soon.

Before then, I was left to work on my own in my Staplewood office, the players being sent away either on their holidays or to the European Championships in Italy, depending on their place of birth and standing with their national team manager. There would be a reasonable Saints representation at the tournament, with Adam Bright, Boyd Clarke and the returning Luke Shaw all making the England side, and so I would no doubt have a number of tired players returning to training in July. However, so would every other team in the league.

So I got to work with my scouting team, establishing a plan for the tournament and a review of the frankly astonishing amount of footage that they had gathered over the months since January. Some of it would be cut long before I got to see it, but the rest would be pored over countless times as we looked to see who would improve the side as we set about the seemingly impossible task of trying to overhaul City at the top of the table. Krueger had not set that as the target – our meeting was yet to come – but in my own mind that had to be the aim. After finishing as runners-up, why settle for anything else?

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Krueger’s smile as I walked into his office told me everything I needed to know about the tone of our meeting. He was a happy chairman indeed after our second place in the Premier League and Europa League triumph, and was not a man about to make unreasonable demands of his employee. However, he was a man who need to see his investment continue to grow, and so I knew that if there was to be a disagreement, I did not hold all of the cards – there were other managers just as capable as cementing Southampton’s place at English football’s top table.

However, Krueger was not playing that game, and instead began simply by applauding me through the door.

Owain, thank you for coming, and thank you for this past year. It has been a wonderful season to be a Saints fan, and that night in Hamburg – well, you know yourself that the club has never enjoyed anything as special as that. It’s an old cliché I know, but we want you to know that we are genuinely grateful for the work you continue to do – you’re making lots of people very happy at the moment.”

“Thank you for saying so, Mr Krueger. This is a great club to be a part of, and I’m glad that so far things have gone well. I’ll endeavour to keep them heading that way.”

“We don’t doubt it at all, although we also realise that will be difficult. Second place is no mean feat with the calibre of opposition in the Premier League, and to hold it I feel would be asking a lot of you. I want you to know that we are not asking you to do that – we know that from time to time in football, consolidation is what’s required, and we feel that having taken a step up last year, this season might be such a time. There will be no demand from the board to repeat last season – European football is what we ask, and the Champions League would be brilliant.

“Before you reply, I know that you will not settle for anything less than the Champions League, and that is fine – consider it an easing of the pressure from us. However, we are interested in the Europe this season, especially after winning the Europa, and I wondered what your thoughts were on the upcoming campaign?”

I paused for a moment. Leading Southampton into the Champions League for the first time was an exciting prospect, but we were likely to be a low seed and so were at the mercy of the draw as to whether we stood a chance of making progress. I didn’t want to make a rod for my own back – nor did I want to low-ball my employer.

“It’s difficult to say. Our Europa win boosts our co-efficient, and so we’re likely to be third rather than fourth in the seeding, but none of the teams we beat last year, with the exception of PSG in the final, were genuine Champions League teams. With a good draw, we make the knockout rounds, and with a bad one we maybe miss out and finish third in the group – in which case we go all out for the Europa again, I’m not a man to miss out on the chance of a trophy. So I suppose I expect to be in Europe in the new year, regardless of competition. I’d love to say it will be the CL, but can I honestly say Southampton are one of the best 16 teams in Europe right now? I’m not sure.”

Krueger leaned towards me at this point, hunching over his desk with excitement in his eyes. Something I’d said had captured his imagination, that was certain.

“We are though, aren’t we Owain? If we are the second best team in England, who is better? Maybe three or four in Spain, two or three in Italy, Bayern and Dortmund in Germany. We have already beaten the best France can offer. Even if people say we are only fifth best in the Premier League, I think that does put us in the last 16. Not that we expect you to qualify, but I think you need our confidence in you.”

“I suppose you’re right, although because the players are new to the competition, we will always be looked on as underdogs. That is no bad thing, but even a regular qualifier that fails at the group stage every year will see Southampton as a kind draw – that will be hard to overcome.”

“I understand, of course you are correct. Owain, let me ask you about the team. What does it need? Who does it need? Do you have the resources?”

This was probably the most important question of the lot. If I could convince Krueger to hand me a significant transfer budget, there were a number of additions I believed could genuinely push the club on. Even if we were to hold what we had, we would need some improvement – the likes of United, Liverpool and Spurs would not sit idly by and allow us to stagnate. That was how I opened.

“There are a couple of ways we can think about this. The first is consolidation. Every team in the Premier League will be active over the summer, looking to improve. At the top of the league, the margins are small, and a good transfer window can mean the difference between second place and sixth. To stay where we are, we need to move forward.

“To push further, to challenge City and make a run at the Champions League, we need further improvement. Southampton’s star has never been brighter – we are in a position to attract genuinely world-class players to the club, and while they will cost money, the success they can bring will pay for themselves.

“Finally, it’s worth saying to in order to do that, we might have to sacrifice some of the British core we have. The English and Welsh players we have are more than capable, but there are excellent options available elsewhere and I feel that if we restrict ourselves arbitrarily, our rivals will take those options up and leave us behind.”

“Those are interesting thoughts, but largely theoretical. You have said nothing I don’t agree with, but it is hard for me to know what you need. Tell me Owain, where are you key areas for improvement?”

This was something I had an answer for.

“First of all, I would like a new goalkeeper. Hamish Jack is good between the posts, but he is not in the very top bracket, not among the world’s best. I need a man who will earn us points when we do not deserve them. Secondly, a top level centre-back. Hodge and Bateson are a good pairing, but Payne and Bouillot are backup and are unlikely to be more than that. A third quality option gives us depth we need. Finally, up front. Escalada is superb, Jacobson I think will reach his level, and Clarke is fine as a target. But Mina is not Champions League quality, John Ruane isn’t ready, and our young players need another year or two. A world-class striker, someone we can rely on, could be the difference between Champions League and Europa League, silverware or nothing. Finally, there are always youth signings – we need to think about the next generation as well as the current one.”

“And anybody you wish to sell? Apart from Mina.

Danny Cavill will leave, and I’d like to move on the reserve players who are not good enough. I would like to think we can raise an eight-figure sum with something of a clear-out.”

“In that case Owain, there will be no-one at this club standing between you and your targets. Identify your men, and get them signed up as Saints. We cannot afford to stand still, and there seems little point in waiting another year to go for the very best if they will come now. You have our confidence and our backing – good luck for the year ahead.”

That concluded a very positive meeting, and I headed back to my office brimming with confidence. This year would be the year that Southampton took on the world, and I was ready to go and recruit my crew for the journey.

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Before we brought anybody in over the summer, it was time for my cull – which ultimately proved not nearly as emphatic as I might have first thought. On reflection, this was largely due to the excellent work already carried out in the second team by my staff, and even a number of players who were not expected to make it to the first team were deemed worth keeping around – they would make Southampton a great deal of money one day.

However, not everybody would stay a Saint, and the first two moves out of the club were ones that had been forecast for some time. Danny Cavill had ended his Southampton career the moment he had asked or allowed his agent to go to the press about playing time. Still, the Englishman had been professional in his remaining months at the club, and there were no hard feelings. He was no longer good enough for the team, but Aston Villa deemed him worth spending £2.5m on, and the move worked for all parties.

Leaving for an identical fee to another Midlands outfit was Nestor Mina, who had started the season well only to relegated to the role of occasional substitute and cup striker by the form of Escalada and Clarke and the emergence of Callum Jacobson and a first-team player. Wolves were the side to take a punt on the Ecuadorian, and while there was a slight chance that he could come back to haunt us playing for John Terry’s side – I was disappointed to be selling to such an odious man – I was confident we could find better options for the club elsewhere.

Of the reserve options that did depart, there were three – young striker Danny Wilson, who would not be the one to replace Mina in the starting rotation, full-back Turnbull Morrison, and another forward in Matt Redmond, who had somehow held onto a contract until past his 25th birthday despite never reaching anything close to Premier League quality. All three were disappointed to be moving on, but understood our reasons for offering them out, and in the end we earned ourselves a tidy £4m for the trio - £3m from Sheffield United for Wilson the pick of the fees. All three came with 50% sell-on clauses, so if any of them did prove us wrong, we would at least benefit from the misjudgement.

With those three leaving the club, I had envisaged our outgoing business ending with the loan departures of Reiner Kramer, Dmitri Nikulin, Jeff Rowbotham and Arseni Bogatyrev to West Ham, Dinamo Moscow, Brighton and Anderlecht respectively, but it was not to be the case. Instead, I was faced with not one but two departures in the heart of my defence which left me with plenty of thinking to do before we conducted any business in the other direction.

The first was not a difficult decision to make, as Chelsea came in with an unanticipated and unprompted bid for teenage defender Lillian Bouillot. Having missed the first month of his time in Hampshire due to homesickness, and not having developed in the way we might have hoped in his two years with us, the Frenchman was not ready for the first team. However, after some intense negotiating, it was clear that the Blues wanted their man badly, and we emerged a player lighter and no less than £10m better off, with the same sell-on clause attached for good measure. It was a surprising boost to our finances, and a very welcome one.

The second sale was more difficult, as it concerned a player I still had in my plans. Not only that, but Aswad Payne was a Southampton lad, having made close to 200 appearances for the club that had brought him through as a youngster. However, now approaching his prime as a player, he had seen himself become firmly third choice behind Hodge and Bateson, and fancied a change of scenery. More specifically, he wanted to become a rare example of the English footballer abroad – a noble aspiration to which I had no objections.

It left me with decisions to make, and with Bouillot gone it would leave me with just my two senior centre-backs. After much consultation with my staff, we came to a decision – we would utilise Emad Hossam’s versatility and deploy him as a fourth-choice defender, while continuing to shop for another top-level option. Payne, as much as he was valued, could go.

And go he did, not only achieving his dream of plying his trade abroad, but doing so with a handsome wage rise to boot. HSV Hamburg were the side that eventually won the battle for his services, helped no doubt by their willingness to pay him no less than the equivalent of £96,000 per week for the man. With the Germans getting their man and Payne getting his wishes, it was only left for us to be compensated – and the £13m gave us plenty to work with outwards finding a replacement. 

Of course, our targets had been lined up long in advance for selling our own stars – it had simply been a question of figuring out how much money we had to play with, and so establish our clear priorities. With more than £30m raised through sales and a healthy amount added by Krueger and the board, we were now ready to do business.

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The first signing was one that everybody had known about for several months, as Raul Iglesias left the comfort of the Bernabeu to challenge Luke Shaw and Vandinho for our starting berth on the left side of defence. Full of both pace and potential, he would see some game time this season – I suspected mainly in the domestic cup competitions – with a view to ultimately fighting with the Brazilian for the first choice position.

The second was also a Bosman deal, although this was one arranged only at the last minute. There was also a distinct possibility that it was our most important signing of the season.

Almost every successful club side, at least at a European level, has had a top-class goalkeeper. Some have been better than others, but when you think back over clubs that have dominated eras, the majority have had a man between the sticks up there with the world’s best. Hamish Jack had done nothing wrong in my two seasons at Southampton, but he was not at that level, and was unlikely to get there. Someone who was – a man who I had gone in for in January, only to be knocked back – was now a Saint.

Back at the turn of the year, Paolo Beraldi was not interested in swapping Turin for Hampshire. He had six months left on his Juventus contract, and wanted to stay and fight with their Croatian international for the gloves. Besides which, Southampton were not the most appealing club at the time, with no guarantee of Champions League football available.

Six months later, he had clearly lost the battle for the number one spot, making just three appearances in the second half of the season. Champions League qualifiers and Europa League winners Southampton seemed like less of a step down, and we were prepared to meet his £90,000 per week wage demands to lure him to St Mary’s. A 25-time international for his native Italy – a nation which has produced several top goalkeepers over the years – the 28-year-old had years left in the tank, talent in abundance and a point to prove to his doubters. His signing was a huge coup, and one which placed a big red tick against one of my pre-season aims. If Beraldi could gel well with our defence, we would have pulled off one of the signings of the season.

We hoped there would be competition for that title, but two men unlikely to claim it this season were Calum Bagshaw and Damian Alarcon, teenage strikers joined for a combined fee of £6m from the very different clubs of Hibernian and Velez Sarsfield. They would go out on loan for the season to their former clubs with a view to joining us in a year’s time, but with both showing maturity above their years and a great eye for goal, I hoped that by signing them now, we would be saving the club tens of millions in years to come.

A first-team striker was still required and, on the day that Italy lifted the European Championships on home soil after a 2-0 final win over Portugal, we got our man. It had taken weeks of negotiation with his former club, a long time going back and forth with a particularly difficult agent, and longer still waiting for the Home Office to decide to give one of the best young strikers in world football a UK work permit, but eventually Ange Sidibe was given the go-ahead to join us for the third and final game of our Chinese tour.

Sidibe would not play in that final game, but two goals in the first fixture in Japan showed us what we our £15m had bought us. At just 22 the Ivorian had his best to come, but there was little doubt that he was a cut above our existing strikeforce, even the mercurial Escalada. Hardworking, quick-thinking, fleet-footed and equally at home both scoring and creating, we had found a player who could fire my Saints to the next level. He would not play every game in the Premier League European commitments and squad rotation necessitated it – but if he did, he would have been the 20-goal striker every title challenger needs. He would undoubtedly be first choice, and we expected great things.

That left one more gap to fill – central defence – and in the end I did so twice. The first man through the doors was the result of my internal monologue second-guessing itself, and deciding that Hossam was a defensive midfielder rather than a centre-back, and so we needed two reinforcements rather than one at the back. With negotiations for my primary target dragging, I opted for a cheap and versatile option, paying Burnley just £3m for my 24-year-old countryman Mel McGoona, a solid if unspectacular utility defender capable of playing anywhere along the back four. In all likelihood he’d find himself fourth choice on the left and in the centre and third on the right, but with us fighting on several fronts I was happy to have the depth. At £30,000 a week, he wouldn’t break the bank and knew his role within the squad.

That left our main man, and it took until our return from Japan to finally get the deal over the line. Which, of course, meant the press demanded to have their questions answered on the signing.

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All in due course, my friend...

Owain, the Community Shield is only a week away and you’ve made what most would assume is a significant first-team signing. Do you think Harry will have time to get to know his team-mates and your system in such a short period of time?”

Harry is a very intelligent young man, but to expect him to bed in fully within a week is ridiculous – so no, I’m not going to put that pressure on him. He may well play against City – I don’t think the Community Shield is a particularly important competition, and gives us the chance for some good match practice above all else – but it’ll be a little while before he’s starting regularly.

“That said, I think you’d do well to remember that the transfer window is open all the way through to the end of August, so there will be plenty of clubs doing business long after the season has started, let alone a week before the Community Shield. I’m pleased that we’ve managed to get this one done when we have.”

“You say that, but this transfer has been in the pipeline for several weeks now – can you explain why things have been so slow?”

“Trust me, it’s been more frustrating for me than it has for you! It’s always difficult when you’re buying quality, and Hoffenheim had several bids that met their valuation. When that happens, there is a lot of back-and-forth between player, agent and club, and it isn’t an easy decision. I’m just delighted that Harry has chosen to join us.”

“Yes, beating the likes of Manchester United and Bayern Munich to his signature must have been satisfying. What is it that you and presumably the other clubs saw in him to pursue him so strongly?”

Harry Eggen is a high-class defender, and he’s only 22 years of age. He’s a full international already, has captained Hoffenheim to a top six finish in the Bundesliga, and there’s little doubt that he can get even better. You don’t have to watch him for long to see that’s a natural defender and strong leader on the field, and that’s why we’ve been prepared to spend big on him.”

“Does the price tag add any pressure a player? £20m is an awful lot of money to spend on a young defender – is there a risk involved?”

“There’s a risk only in the sense that there is always a risk in football – it’s a contact sport, people get injured, that sort of thing. If you’re asking whether the transfer fee changes the way Harry plays – no, I don’t think it does. As I mentioned he’s a mature young man, he plays the game in a way we think fits our team here at Southampton, and he’s got his entire career ahead of him. You don’t expect me to say anything else, but I think we’ve got a bargain on our hands here, and that’s why half of Europe wanted him.”

“Is that Southampton’s business all done now Owain? There can’t be much left in the kitty after this deal?”

“I’m not going to go into detail about the state of the club’s finances, but it’s worth remembering that we’ve sold £30m worth of talent, so if the right player becomes available I can go and get him. However, before the summer I sat down with Ralph Krueger and told him I had identified goalkeeper, centre-back and striker as key positions to improve, and I feel like we’ve done that. You never say never, but there are no irons in any fires.”

“Finally, the season ahead – last year you surprised everyone with a Europa League win and second place in the league, can you do again? What would be a good season for Southampton?

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – progress. Everybody at the club wants to see Southampton moving forward, and as manager I’m in the best position to make that happen. It’s hard to build on second place without people hearing you’re going for the title, but progress is the name of the game. We won 76 points last season, we’ll aim for more this time round. The same with the cups – we aim to win every game we’re in, and go as far as we can. Every manager in the league will tell you the same – that’s all there is to it.”

“Thanks Owain, and good luck for the year ahead.”

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That's an interesting signing there. I don't know anyone else who in their right mind would spend ~£20million on a young defender. :p

Am I right to presume that Eggen is Norwegian?

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9 hours ago, CFuller said:

That's an interesting signing there. I don't know anyone else who in their right mind would spend ~£20million on a young defender. :p

Am I right to presume that Eggen is Norwegian?

‘Looks embarrassed at feet’


I... I do, it’s the kind of thing I always do

Edited by SmileFaceGamer
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Eggen is indeed Norwegian, and indeed very expensive! Owain found himself with a rather considerable transfer budget and not too many holes in the squad, so Eggen it was - we'll just have to hope he adjusts quickly, although he is very good!

With jet lag to deal with, transfer negotiations constantly ongoing, and two young girls who spent most of the trip suffering from one bug or another, our profile-boosting, sponsorship-raising trip to China and Japan was not one that I’d repeat in a hurry. We wound up with six wins from our six matches, three in each country – a 6-2 hammering of Chinese champions Jiangsu Santy perhaps the pick of performances – and no doubt picked up plenty of extra fans as a result, but for the sake of the players I wouldn’t want to do it again. I’ll have that argument with the marketing team next season.

We had a week between arriving back and the Community Shield, and I opted to go relatively easy on the players during that week – partly allowing them to fully recover from the effects of intercontinental travel, and partly to ensure that I did not run my men into the ground before the Premier League had even kicked off. Several of my men had been on international duty at the European Championships and some, including new signing Sidibe, would head straight off to Olympics in Los Angeles for the under-23 tournament there. A week of lighter duties was the least I could do for my men in the meantime.

Two days before the curtain-raising friendly, we were ‘officially’ labelled fourth favourites for the title by the Premier League’s primary betting partner. That the league still had a betting partner in 2028 was something I couldn’t quite fathom, but their predicted league table made for interesting reading. On the one hand, it was refreshing to see somebody who had faith in our ability to maintain a Champions League position. On the other, we were predicted to line up behind City, United and Liverpool, suggesting the bookies did not think we had done enough to stay ahead of two sides we had overhauled last year.

Needless to say, I disagreed with the views of the so-called experts and their celebrity pundits, and was quietly confident in both my squad and the business we had done over the summer. Beraldi, Eggen and Sidibe were all excellent players with room to grow, and there was little doubt that they improved the side. Not only that, but our existing players had another year of top-flight experience under their belt, the confidence of lifting a major trophy, and a season of duking it out at the top end of the table to draw upon.

In truth, while I had been avoiding publically declaring Southampton to be part of a title fight, I would be disappointed if we did not get closer than we had the previous year. Last time out, City had run away with things and finished 19 points clear, thanks to both their own ruthlessness and a joint stumble over the line by both ourselves and United. It was entirely possible, given the quality of Simeone’s all-conquering side and those around, that improving our points tally by 10 would see us finish third rather than second, but I had real hope in the possibility of us emerging as a contender, assuming we could juggle our domestic and Champions League commitments.

For now though, those thoughts remained firmly in the private domain – to utter them to the press would be madness and lead to my being hounded all season long, while to suggest to the players that they target the title would be an unwelcome distraction at the start of a long season. No, they would instead stay with me until the evidence either proved or dismissed my theory, at which point the facts would speak for themselves.

The first opportunity we had to show what the new-look Southampton side were made of was, of course, in the Community Shield against City, our place handed to us by our runners-up finish in the league and our opponents sweeping the board of all available trophies. I expected little – new signings were not used to the system, others were away at the Olympics – and so I would think nothing even of a heavy defeat, but it would be interesting to see the reaction of my players to the match, regardless of the result.

The joys of the fixture computer meant that we be tested sternly in our opening few games – opening the season at New White Hart Lane, hosting United on matchday three and then European challengers Brighton in our sixth game of the year. If we could come through the opening spell at the right end of the table and with momentum under our belts, we would be well set. A slow start however, and expectations would have to reset. Even before the season started, I was feeling the pressure. I wasn’t sure, but I was unconvinced this was ideal.

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City had beaten us, there was no escaping that. The 3-0 scoreline made it look comfortable, Mirko Gramaglia’s hat-trick – two thirds of which came inside the opening 20 minutes – proving the difference between the two sides as we were simply unable to stop the red-hot forward. However, for those who had watched the game, there was reason for Southampton fans to hope – Gramaglia’s individual brilliance aside, we had matched Simeone’s men for most of the 90 minutes despite having many first-choice players unavailable.

This was the message I attempted to convey the following day at the training ground debrief – and I honestly think most of the men in attendance took home the point I was trying to make.

“Yesterday, Manchester City – that’s Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup and Club World Cup champions Manchester City, one of the most successful club sides in football history, beat us in what is effectively a friendly game. They beat us 3-0, which sounds comfortable, and that will be the headline in most of the papers this morning. We were the underdogs, the upstarts, nobody expected us to win and we didn’t. It fits the narrative.

“But before we sit down and watch a rerun, I want you to think for a moment. At any point yesterday, did it feel like we were being outclassed? Did it feel like no matter what we tried, we were never going to find a way through? Did it feel like City could score whenever they felt like scoring? That they were simply showing off for the crowds?

“Because I never got that impression. From where I was sat, we looked good. We only managed two fewer shots than they did, and actually put one more on target. We split the ball almost evenly, and created chances of our own. One man, Gramaglia, was the difference between our two teams yesterday – that’s one team that nobody expected to even be in the game, and another that has hundreds of millions of pounds spent on it over the years.

“You don’t need me to tell you that we were not fully up to speed yesterday. We’ve got men in LA, we’ve got guys who have only just arrived, who have never played for Southampton before. We’ll get better. Now, City also had men away and new players in the line-up, so we can’t use that as an excuse, but we will get better. We’ll finish chances, we’ll connect with crosses, we’ll communicate better.

“You don’t need me to tell you that we need to improve on yesterday’s defeat – you’re professionals, you lost, you know that. What I’m telling you is that yesterday you performed at a good level despite circumstances, in a game that means nothing against the toughest possible opposition. We will get better – I know we will – and that puts the rest of the division in a dangerous place.

“Next week, we go to Tottenham and they will be expecting to win. We will still be missing the guys in the States, they might have one or two missing as well, but they will look at yesterday’s result and they will think they’re facing a team starting slowly, a flash in the pan that can’t replicate last season’s anomaly. They will be confident, and they will be wrong.

“Because last season was no anomaly, no freak accident, no flash in the plan – you don’t get inexplicable events that last for 60 matches and an entire year. Every one of you earned the successes of last season through hard work and talent, and that has not changed over the summer. This club, Southampton Football Club, is a contender now, and next week I want to prove it to the world. And then, if they don’t get the message, prove it again at Burnley in the week and against United on Saturday. Keep proving it until people have to sit up and take notice and give you the credit you deserve.

“Now, with that in mind, we’re going to watch the game. Then we’re going to talk it through, and nobody is leaving here depressed at the result of a friendly. This is where it all starts. Now, let’s watch the match.”

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On 18/07/2018 at 12:29, withnail316 said:

Hope the big transfer works out and you aren't left with Eggen your face (sorry.)

A good read this, ED 👍

Thanks withnail - and I wholeheartedly approve of the pun!

We were lucky enough to have been scheduled as the Sunday afternoon game on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, meaning that by the time we kicked off against Spurs, we would now exactly how every other side in the league had got on. It also meant another day’s rest after the exertions of the Community Shield, and a chance for my much-travelled players to slowly build their way up to full fitness – not that they were far off, thanks to the expert work of my coaching staff.

However, more importantly it also meant that the chaotic media day – the Friday before the first fixtures of the year when access is demanded to everyone by all and sundry – was a little quieter than usual at St Mary’s, which was much appreciated. With the bulk of the national media attention being on the likes of City, United, Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as the newly-promoted sides, there was little appeal in the two clubs playing on Sunday.

What that meant in practice was that, aside from a handful of morning interviews with the national outlets, the majority of our dealings with the press before the Spurs game were with the local media – a group of people who, while perhaps not nearly as polished as their counterparts in the national gaggle, were on the whole more genuine people, trying their hardest to cover every angle of the club. I was more comfortable in their presence, and their near hero-worship of the players at times was entertaining to all involved.

It was interesting from a managerial point of view to see which of our players commanded the most interest, as it was one of the few indicators we received of how the fans perceived the talent available to me. Luke Shaw was still a popular man as the homegrown boy come good, while Adam Bright was the other Englishman to take the spotlight. Of the new signings, former Juventus stopper Beraldi seemed to be a magnet for the reporters, although whether that was due to their interest in his goalkeeping ability or his photogenic features remains in doubt.

Regardless, by early afternoon most of the press were gone, which allowed me to sit my players down and tell them the team for the trip to Tottenham. For the most part, there would be very few surprises in my selection – Beraldi would make his league debut in goal behind a back four of Shaw, Hodge, Bateson and Kus, with Harry Eggen taking a seat on the bench for the time being, Henrique and Blanc the midfield screen, and Bright and Ifan occupying the space behind the strikers. Lucio Escalada was the obvious choice for a striking berth, but his partner was the one shock I did spring – with Boyd Clarke not quite up to full fitness, Callum Jacobson picking up a knock in training and Ange Sidibe away at the Olympics, I handed a league start to John Ruane, who had impressed with 14 goals on loan at Stoke last season and had earned his chance. Whether he could hold on to a starting position was up to him, but he deserved his opportunity.

With the team named and the substitutes briefed, it was time for a couple more light drills before boarding the team bus into London. Although far from our longest trip of the season, for our first game of the season we would take no chances, arriving the evening before kick-off and making ourselves comfortable in a hotel rather than risking the wrath of the capital’s traffic on matchday. What’s more, with my men having been away for the summer, I was keen to recreate the camaraderie which had categorised my Saints last season, and so an early road trip would do no harm.

On our travels, I made a point of calling Rachel and the girls for a lengthy chat. The start of the new season, with Bethan and Rebecca still on their school holidays, was the worst time of the year from my wife’s point of view, with my work hours increasing dramatically after the refreshment of the summer break. Every year I had felt guilty for not being around as much, but both Rachel and I knew it was impossible – it was the nature of the job, and it was all I could do to be around as much as I could. Even so, it hurt my fatherly pride to be abandoning my family so often – and made me more determined to come home with a win. At least that way it would be worth something.

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Spurs were likely to be one of our main rivals for Champions League qualification, even if the North London were not deemed to be one of the handful of teams capable of fighting for the title. Even so, they would be tough opposition on the opening day of the campaign, and if we were to be taken seriously as title contenders – something I was still keeping to myself for the time being – we would need to show ourselves capable of going away to the Premier League’s biggest sides and getting positive results.

Accordingly, my men were sent out with instructions to go and win the game – over the course of my career I had enjoyed little success in playing for the draw – and it was clear from the outset that the players took it to heart. John Ruane in particular was keen to make his impression after being handed an unlikely start, and it was his physicality that earned us the opening goal after just six minutes.

It started all the way back with Beraldi, who rose well to claim a cross from the Spurs left in commanding style before surveying his surroundings. A quick throw to the right sent Kenan Kus away at pace, and our captain slipped a ball infield to Blanc before continuing his run. Sidestepping one tackle before drawing another, our French creator completed a delayed one-two with a lofted ball to the wing, where Kus bent in a cross which had the home goalkeeper unsure of whether to stay or go. He stayed, Ruane won the header at the back post, and skilfully guided it down into the path of Escalada to gleefully smash home from the penalty spot.

It was a fine start, and while we were unable to add to the lead, the home side were also unable to find a way through our compact and disciplined defensive unit. The rest of the match proved reasonably even, both sides forcing excellent saves out of the opposing goalkeepers – Beraldi proving himself to be a fine signing with a clean sheet on his league debut – and after Carlos Henrique headed over from a corner deep into injury time, the referee’s whistle signalled a winning start to the season for my Saints – exactly the result we had been after, and a sign to the rest of the Premier League that we meant business.

Three days later, on a wet Wednesday night in Lancashire, our next hosts asked some difficult questions of us in a tough first half at Turf MoorBurnley making the most of some ugly weather conditions to disrupt our game and work our defence perhaps more than we would have liked. Goalless at half-time and firmly on the back foot, we had work to do if we were to emerge victorious.

And yet that was exactly what we did, two goals in three minutes just before the hour mark settling the match in our favour. The first came from the penalty spot, Ruane manhandled by my former Sounders captain Andrew Perez before converting the spot-kick himself, and the second came from the head of Leighton Hodge, our centre-back flicking a free-kick into the far corner. There was one more to come, and my hope was that it would be the first of many – having been unable to guide his Ivory Coast team beyond the group stages at the Olympics, summer signing Ange Sidibe had been named among the substitutes and was given a 20-minute run-out for his Southampton debut. In the very last of those minutes, his stooping header from fellow replacement Vandinho’s ball in made it 3-0, and we had turned a tricky situation into a comfortable victory.

We would have tougher tests to come than Burnley, who were expected to take a place at the lower end of midtable rather than fight further up the ladder, but other sides would go to Turf Moor and suffer over the course of the season. It had been a potential banana skin, especially in the adverse weather conditions, and we had negotiated it well.

Next on the list, after just two days’ rest, were another one of the league’s heavy hitters in the form of Manchester United. Jurgen Klopp’s men had already suffered their first defeat of the league season and would be looking to get back on track quickly at St Mary’s, but with the home fans behind us and a side already looking in good form, I was confident we would get the job done. If we managed to get the win, people would begin to take notice of us, and for once I would not mind their admiring glances.

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From the Guardian sports pages

Saints March On As United Struggle To Start

In the highest-profile match of the third round of Premier League fixtures, Manchester United suffered their second loss of the season against in-form Southampton at St Mary’s. In their first home game of the season, Owain Williams’ side recovered well from an early setback to record a comfortable victory.

In the early exchanges it looked as if United were back to their best after defeat to West Ham last time out, the visitors controlling the early stages and taking a deserved lead inside 10 minutes. New Saints goalkeeper Paolo Beraldi should perhaps have done better with the effort, but £35m man Kabir Eronna’s low shot beat the Italian to give Jurgen Klopp’s men a deserved lead.

However, that was as good as it got for the away side, who saw their lead evaporate almost as quickly as it had materialised, a thunderous free-kick from Carlos Henrique levelling the scores for the Saints. After the equaliser the hosts slowly increased the pressure, eventually taking the lead after the interval through new signing Ange Sidibe and sealing the win with a Leighton Hodge header midway through the second half – both men netting in successive games.

Southampton’s win sees them continue their 100% league record, although the injury sustained by England international Adam Bright will no doubt be a sizeable blow to Williams’ plans. As for United, with just three points from a possible nine, it will not be long before serious questions are asked of Klopp and his men.

 More reaction inside…

The Guardian’s man in the stands had got it just about right – despite a shaky start, we had been absolutely dominant against United, and the 3-1 final scoreline was a just reward for a fine performance. The visitors had barely got out of their half in the second 45 minutes, and once Sidibe scored there was only ever going to be one winner.

There were two downsides to the match however, the first being Bright’s injury. Our medical team had immediately signalled for a substitution after he had gone down, and initially it did not look like he would be able to walk off the field. However, he did eventually hobble off, and the initial prognosis suggested we would be without the England man for around three weeks – a significant amount of time at this stage in the season, although one of those would be taken up by an international break.

The other frustration was the performance of Kabir Eronna for United, a sole bright spark in an otherwise dismal showing from our opponents. The Nigerian international had been on my radar over the summer as we looked for a world-class striker, and had in fact topped the list ahead of Sidibe. However, Inter wanted more than we were willing to pay, and when United did agree their £35m deal, we discovered we would have also been unable to meet his £200,000 wage demands. His goal and overall display showed us what we had missed, and that despite our ever-improving stature in the world game, there were still those unwilling to ‘lower’ themselves to play for Southampton. There was plenty of room for us to improve just yet.

Edited by EvilDave
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Amusingly enough, after beating United in the league, we would next face City in European competition – specifically the European Super Cup in Monaco, the clash between the two continental title holders capping off a day on which participants in this season’s UEFA competitions would learn of their group stage opponents. The match came later, but the draw itself threw up an interesting quartet for my Saints.

As third seeds, we would know the identity of two of our opponents before being drawn out of our pot, and with UEFA rules meaning we could not be paired with another English side, we were able to narrow down the possibilities before David Villa chose our ball from the hopper. We were allocated to Group B, which already contained second seeds Krasnodar – the Russian side often flying their nation’s flag further into European competition than their countrymen – and a top seed we were all too familiar with after last year’s Europa League run – perennial French champions Paris Saint-Germain.

The fourth and final side to be drawn in our drawn was Shakhtar Donetsk, the Ukrainian giants who were yet to translate their domestic success into continental progress, barring the occasional quarter-final appearance once every five years or so. They were a side we would be expected to beat at home, but a winter trip to the very edge of Eastern Europe would prove difficult indeed.

All in all, I was happy with the draw. Our top seed was a side we had beaten on neutral territory with the stakes high, and PSG would not be looking forward to our rematch. Krasnodar were a strong side, particularly at home in Southern Russia, but on paper were one of the weaker second seeds, while Shakhtar were, as mentioned, a club we had the ability to beat. Before the draw, I had been hesitant about committing to a goal of qualification to the last 16. After seeing the sides we would be facing, I was quietly confident – I would be disappointed if we failed to make progress, especially given that our most difficult match in theory, away in Paris, would be our very first fixture, giving us plenty of time to steady the ship if we faltered.

With the glitz and glamour of the draw done and dusted, we now focused our attention on the Super Cup itself, yet another glorified friendly which in my mind served little purpose other than to risk injury for the sake of UEFA’s sponsors. I had actually toyed with the idea of refusing the play in the fixture, but decided that official sanction would be the only likely response from the game’s authorities, and I was not willing to dirty the name of Southampton on my own whim.

Instead, I opted to take a shadow side to Monaco to take on City, and it seemed that Diego Simeone agreed in part with my conclusions. However, as holders of the trophy there was evidently at least some obligation on his part to play a reasonably strong team, and that proved the difference in the end. Our second strings played to a draw for 70 of the 90 minutes before the cavalry came off the bench for the Citizens, our former nemesis Yu Shuming twice scoring from corners late on to ensure our opponents held on to the trophy.

To say that I was unconcerned with the result would have been an understatement – the important thing for my Saints side had been to avoid injury ahead of the international break, and we had managed that. That the likes of Lloyd Collins, Emad Hossam and Raul Iglesias had got some valuable minutes under their belts was a welcome bonus, and we could now head into our fortnight off with a view to returning refreshed and raring to go.

Professionally, having an international break after less than a month of the new season is a ridiculous notion. Club sides are unable to build momentum before having their payers whisked away, and it forced the Premier League to schedule three rounds of fixtures within a week of the start of the campaign. On a personal level however, the timing was wonderful – after an intense month of working and travelling, I now had two weeks with just a handful of players on the training ground, which meant I had permission from Krueger and the board to spend some much-needed time with my wife and daughters. Even the idea of it excited me, and the reality was even better.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Not only had Krueger given me permission to take some time out – leaving the handful of players still training at Staplewood in the very capable hands of my coaching staff – he had also insisted on it, telling me that I was not to come back to the club for a week and to make sure I spent some quality time with Rachel and the girls. Go and be a dad, he’d told me, and forget about football for a few days.

Switching off from the sport entirely was not something I could ever really manage if left to my own devices, and so my wife and I devised a plan to do just that. The papers would be kept from me, my mobile phone was to be turned off and hidden in the depths of Bethan’s bedroom, and there would be no cause for me to use my laptop during the week – in fact, just to make sure, it was taken to the club office.

With my electronic equipment firmly detached from my person, it was my turn to execute the next stage of the plan – a luxurious woodland retreat for a week at the Center Parcs resort at Longleat Forest, a vast wooded area with no cars allowed onsite and only the tinkling of bicycle bells and laughter of children to pierce the calm. The firm behind the getaway had often come in for criticism regarding their pricing – you could spot the school holidays a mile away as the costs doubled or more each time – but on Premier League wages that was no problem.

Instead, the four of enjoyed the last week of the school summer holidays in what can only be described as magical surroundings, the hush of the forest leading us to feel as if we were thousands of miles from civilisation. For the girls, both of whom were very much at home in the natural world, it was an escape to the wilderness. For Rachel and myself, it was a much-appreciated and highly-valued time to relax, reconnect, and give a focus to our small family that my job at Southampton simply did not allow on a week-by-week basis. Here, spirited away in the vastness of the woodland complex, I was not a football manager, but a husband and father, and I relished every moment of it.

So much so, that I seriously questioned how much longer I would be able to keep up the living of two lives – one as the consummate professional, building up Southampton into one of Europe’s strongest football clubs, and the other as a family man, trying desperately to do his fair share around the house, care for his wife and raise two daughters into kind, loving and confident young women. It did not seem that the two would be compatible forever, and it was no coincidence that many of the leading managers in the global game had either strained relationships with their families, or no family at all. It was not a position I wanted to find myself in.

And yet, there was no chance of me simply throwing in the towel at Southampton – the club was on the cusp of something special, I had the complete backing of the board, fans and players, and with the occasional exception of long away trips and inexplicable defeats, I enjoyed my work. We never came close to spending my wage packet each week – to do so would have been to live a lifestyle more lavish than ours by several times – but the money I earned meant that neither Rachel nor our children would ever worry about money again. We had more cash in the bank than we knew what to do with, and football was to thank for it.

Not only that, but I had my identity to consider – with so many sportsmen and women and running into mental health difficulties after retirement, and the loss of purpose at the end of careers becoming a regular factor in the depression of former athletes, was that something I was prepared to put my family through at such a relatively early stage? After all, I was yet to turn 50 – although that date was rapidly approaching – and in managerial terms still had many years ahead of me.

To become consumed by such questions while at Center Parcs would have been unfair to Rachel and the girls, and so while I did discuss it over a couple of evenings with my wife and glass of wine, I forced myself to throw them to the back of my mind for the most part. Instead, my thoughts were filled with the sights and sounds of the swimming pool, the climbing wall, cycle outings through the forest and the giggles and squeals of two girls who, while thoroughly enjoying themselves, were on the cusp on finding a chalet holiday with their parents too dull. If we had tried to do the same in a couple of years’ time, I thought to myself, would our daughters want to come with us?

While my monologue continued to do battle with the forces of time, our stay at Longleat eventually came to an end, signalling the start of the school term for the girls and a return to Staplewood for myself. There was plenty to catch up – although the coaches had done a perfect job with the stragglers in my absence – and it did not take long before I was fully back into the swing of things. Still, the week had given me plenty to think about.

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The next fortnight began in unfortunate fashion, with our medical team reporting that Boyd Clarke – who despite only having made a single substitute appearance due to lack of fitness, had been called into the England squad – had made his way back to Hampshire with a double hernia. Such an injury meant surgery, and it meant significant recovery time, meaning we were unlikely to see our physical goalscorer until November at the earliest. It was a good job John Ruane was looking in good shape, otherwise I’d be worried about our depth up front.

Ruane got the nod to partner Sidibe in our first game of the month, which was also our third away game of the young season. Having beaten Spurs and Burnley on the road, the fixture computer send us to the capital for a second time to take on West Ham, who had given us problems in the past but were a team we should be beating. Backed by a raucous home support at their Olympic Stadium home, the hosts were unfortunate not to have a half-time lead after Daniel Circuit’s strike was ruled out for the narrowest of offside decisions, and we had plenty to do to earn the three points.

However, as I have built my team at Southampton, I have noticed an increase in the number of times we have taken points on the back of individual moments of brilliance. Our overall play as a team was developing nicely, but the players I had acquired seemed to have something in them to win the day from nowhere. Lucio Escalada was one such man, and having replaced the ineffective Ruane at the break, took the opportunity to remind me of why he had thus far been one of my first-choice strikers. After being bundled over 30 yards from goal, the Argentine elected to take the set-piece himself, and sent a textbook effort curling over the wall and dipping just below the crossbar to give us a 1-0 lead. It was a spectacular effort that would later be named Goal of the Month for September, and forced the hosts to come at us.

That was where we come into our own, and I plucked Gidon Cohen from the bench with instructions to use his pace and cause some trouble. Five minutes later, our Israeli international wheeled away to the corner flag in celebration after burning past two West Ham defenders on a break, and with just a quarter of an hour to play the points were in the bag. A late strike from home substitute Carl Cummins set up a nervy finale but we claimed the win, and with it the only 100% record in the Premier League after just four matches. We were top of the pile – the hard work now would be staying there.

If Saturday’s excursions were not enough, we had just Sunday to recover before boarding a flight to Paris on Monday for our Tuesday rematch with the French champions. As top seeds in Group B our hosts would be favourites to progress, but even on our Champions League debut there was a confidence coursing through the veins of my players. We had beaten them once in recent memory, and we would draw on that famous night in Hamburg for inspiration as we made our bow in UEFA’s primary competition. We felt like we belonged.

From the outset, PSG were a little more cautious than they had been in the Europa League final, where they had come at us hard only to be opened up on the counter. This time they treated us as equals, and we played like it. For every chance Sikorski had, Sidibe or Escalada had one at the other end. For every time we were harried out of possession, we regained it with an aggressive press. The first 45 minutes passed scoreless in the blink of an eye, neither side giving anything away in a high-tempo and high-quality first half.

The match would be settled by a single goal, and I was delighted to be on the right end of it. Steve Woodward was the source of the move, stealing the ball in a ferocious tackle on Paul Pogba, and then advancing through midfield like a hot knife through butter. He shaped to shoot from 25 yards but, thankfully given his goalscoring record or lack thereof, instead slid a pass through for substitute Jacobson to convert. Our Welsh striker could only hit the post, but Adam Bright, making his return to the side after his injury lay-off, was in the right place to tap in the rebound and give us a crucial away win. Krasnodar’s 3-1 win over Shakhtar in Russia meant we would not top the early standings, but a road win against the top seeds made progression look an awful lot more likely.

Not only that, but we had once again gone head-to-head with a top European club and come out on top, deservedly so. In the Europa final, we had played to PSG’s weaknesses and exploited them. On this occasion, we had simply played our usual game and won out, matching them for possession, territory and chances. Crucially, we had got the goal that mattered, and had capped our Champions League debut with three points. I could not have asked for more than that.

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With the wind in our sails after our Parisian victory and strong start to the season, it was finally time for us to enjoy familiar surroundings once again, our home clash with Brighton just our second game at home of eight so far, if you included the two one-off cup games against Manchester City. Of course, it meant that the second half of our season would see us back at home a little more frequently, and in a league as close as the Premier League such fine margins had the potential to make all the difference. We needed to make St Mary’s a fortress, and pick up as many points as we could on the road if we were to take full advantage.

Brighton themselves were by no means easy opponents, having put together a late surge last season to qualify for the Europa League and followed that up with seven points from their first four games of the new season. They were a club on the rise, even if not as spectacular or rapid a rise as my Saints, and we were to take them lightly at our peril. They had taken bigger scalps than Southampton last season, and we had no desire to be added to their list.

With such warnings ringing in their ears, my men took to the field confident but cautious, which felt appropriate. Harry Eggen made his first league start for the club along Hodge in the centre of defence, while Lloyd Collins got his first league appearance of his season alongside Adam Bright. Indeed, it was the Welsh teenager who came closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight first half, his curling effort from the edge of the penalty area requiring both the goalkeeper’s fingertips and the outside of the post to prevent it going in. The whistle blew with us on top but goalless, and that was a dangerous place to be if we were not careful.

But while we were not blowing teams away, it did appear that we had learned the art of the patient build-up, and after slowly increasing the pressure on the visitors, we finally struck just before the hour mark, Collins sliding a ball between two Brighton defenders for Escalada to curl first-time beyond the dive of the goalkeeper. Five minutes later however, I was left cursing our luck – just two matches after returning from an ankle injury, Adam Bright was forced from the field clutching his arm. It looked broken, and Gidon Cohen was called into action from the bench.

Despite the disruption our midfielder’s injury caused, it did not knock us off our stride, and in fact it was left to Bright’s replacement to seal the victory, his electric pace allowing him to beat his man to the outside, check back and send a skidding shot across goal and into the bottom corner with 10 minutes to play. Brighton had no answer, and we had our fifth straight league win.

Cruelly, there would be little over 48 hours before we kicked off in our next fixture, the League Cup draw sending us back to New White Hart Lane for the third round of the competition. Like us, Spurs had also been in action on Sunday, so the 7.45pm kick-off on Tuesday night necessitated multiple changes from both sides – only Eggen and Collins kept their places for Southampton, and the result was left largely up to chance. Neither manager can claim to have had a gameplan, and the scoreline proved as much.

We were fortunate, in that while the league fixture had been a tense 1-0, this game was much more open from the very beginning, and as such we were able to catch our hosts in a classic Saints blitz. Gidon Cohen, fresh from his goal in the league, struck twice in the opening seven minutes to get us underway, before setting up Jacobson for our third 20 minutes in. Spurs pulled one back before the break, but fine strike from back-up right-back Rodrigo Acuna put us 4-1 up with 15 minutes to play, leaving a late double from Bright Choma as little more than consolation.

The fans had no doubt had a great time watching the goals fly in in North London, but I took about as little pleasure in a 4-3 cup win as is possible for a manager. It was only September and we were already finding ourselves with players struggling to recover in time for their next match, with fixtures coming thick and fast across the competitions. So far, we had already lost Bright and Clarke to injury – I was worried that by playing so many matches, we would simply wear our players out long before the business end of the season. We had stumbled over the line last year – if we genuinely going for the title this time round, we could not afford to do the same again.

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Indeed, it's already causing trouble and the season has barely started! A new test for Owain to deal with...

Owain, congratulations on the win today, you must be pleased with the performance. A hat-trick from Callum Jacobson out there too, how much of a message does that send a manager?”

“It sends the message that we have excellent strength in depth at the club – having Callum in good form along with Lucio, Ange, John, and Boyd Clarke once he’s recovered gives us the ability to keep the side fresh as we compete across competitions. Callum played a great game today, and he’ll keep his place in the side for Krasnodar on the back of it.”

“In the past you’ve not had the most comfortable of relationships with John Terry – do you take extra satisfaction in beating his Wolves team so emphatically?”

John and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but on a professional level you’re never going to, so you can’t let those differences of personality get to you. My job is to get Southampton winning football matches, and today we won 5-2, so of course I’m satisfied.”

“Do you wish to comment on Terry’s assertion that Southampton are unlikely to repeat last season’s success?”

“I’m not going to get dragged into a war of words, and if I were John I’d be wanting to focus on my own team. What Southampton do and don’t achieve this year is not something he can affect, and in much the same way my comments have no bearing on Wolves’ season.”

“You face Krasnodar on Wednesday night, which will be the first Champions League match to be held at St Mary’s. With both clubs having won in the opening round of fixtures, what are you hoping for from the game?”

Krasnodar are an excellent team, there’s a reason that they were seeded second and they put in an excellent performance against Shakhtar in the first game. It’s going to be a hugely exciting night hearing the Champions League anthem come to Southampton, but we’ll go into the game with confidence. A win for either side puts them in a strong position to advance, and we want to make sure that we’re the ones to take the three points.”

“Finally, you’ve been making multiple changes to your line-up in almost every game so far this season – is this something we will see again on Wednesday, or are you beginning to settle on a first-choice side?”

“I’ve said before that I don’t really believe in a first-choice team, and when you’re involved in as many competitions as we are I don’t think you can afford to. I made nine changes against Spurs because it came two days after our previous game, and while we’ve got a bit longer this time it’s important to keep the players fresh. That’s why we have a squad of players – everyone has their role to play, and while some may play more than others, everybody has to be ready to go at any moment. It’s likely that there will be changes again for Krasnodar, but the team I pick will be one I have confidence in to get the job done.”

Rotation was becoming more and more of issue, and not just for myself but managers around the league. I had to admit to being a little smug after our 5-2 thumping of John Terry’s Wolves, as well as pleased that we had managed to keep our former striker Nestor Mina off the scoresheet – even if he had set up the second of Enes Unal’s goals.

But it was Krasnodar who were the opponents in the biggest game of the week, the side managed by former Arsenal full-back Oleg Luzhnyi arriving in Hampshire for the next round of Champions League fixtures. They were something of an unknown quantity – although my advance scouts had pulled together plenty of information on them – and we were not entirely sure of what to expect, but a goal after just 75 seconds from Cohen, the Israeli finishing off a move that began almost at our own corner flag, certainly settled the nerves. When Jacobson was chopped down in the box on the 10-minute mark, allowing Carlos Henrique to drive home the penalty, we were in complete control.

The Russians and their Ukrainian manager were shell-shocked, and to compound their misery Jacobson drove in a third from the edge of the box with 10 minute still to play in the first half. We reached the break 3-0 up and cruising to victory, with only an aberration standing between us and the win. Fortunately for my players such a catastrophe never threatened, and instead we added to our lead, a Jacobson shot heading well wide until being deflected into the net by defender Sergei Khugaev. Krasnodar did get on the board late on, midfielder Jean Carlos heading in from a corner, but the result had long been settled.

The one dampener on our mood was a big one however. With 20 minutes to go, Luke Shaw had pulled up when sprinting back to make a challenge, and it was immediately clear that he would be unable to continue. Our medical staff took very little time to diagnose a hamstring tear, and that would mean around three months on the sidelines for the Saints hero. Not only that, there was a real possibility, given his age and the effect such an injury would have on his pace, that his days as Premier League full-back had just been ended.

It was a sobering thought, but one we could not dwell on for too long – we had to ready ourselves for newly-promoted Leicester at the weekend. For now however, we could look at our Champions League table with some satisfaction – a shocking performance from PSG in Donetsk had resulted in a 3-0 win for the hosts, leaving the Parisians pointless after two games, the two Eastern European sides tied on three points apiece, and my Saints clear at the top with a maximum six. Our next two games in the competition would be the double-header against Shakhtar, and if we won both, we would be through with games to spare.

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Leicester City were back in the Premier League after winning through the Championship play-offs last season, and under the management of Malky Mackay were thoroughly enjoying themselves in the top division. A couple of good wins early on had them firmly in midtable and clear of the early relegation scrum, although at this stage in the season it only took one or two bad results to see a team drop like a stone through the pack. Even so, they were confident and we had to be alert to the danger.

The King Power Stadium was in fine voice, but unfortunately for the Foxes, crowd noise does not win points in the Premier League – or indeed any other division you care to name. It did not take us long to hit our stride, the unstoppable Gidon Cohen getting on the scoresheet after 10 minutes with a goal for the ages. It had seemed inconspicuous enough, a pass back towards the home goalkeeper on the edge of the area with nobody nearby to challenge, but the keeper’s kick was badly sliced, dropping to the feet of Cohen. Just inside the Leicester half. His first touch controlled the ball, and his second sent it straight back over the stranded keeper and into the back of the net. Our Israeli star simply lifted his hands to the heavens in celebration – he knew he’d done something special.

He was in top form at the moment, his audacious strike marking the fifth game in the row in which he had scored, and midway through the half he doubled his tally, his time turning in Vandinho’s cross from an altogether more sensible distance. Five minutes after the interval we wrapped up a routine win with a curling strike from the boot of Jacobson, and the newly-promoted side had been taught a harsh lesson.

On the other hand, we had made it seven wins in a row, and indeed the only two games we had failed to win in the first two months of the season had been the Community Shield and Super Cup games against Manchester City, neither of which I had taken particularly seriously. It was still far too early to be taking the league table seriously, but our perfect record gave us a four-point lead over fellow unbeaten side Liverpool at the top.

Perhaps the bigger stories were further down the table, where both Manchester United and Chelsea found themselves in the bottom half after the opening few games – a position dire enough for the Londoners to dismiss Phillip Cocu and replace him with former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia ahead of the upcoming international break. We would be the Finn’s first opponents as Chelsea boss, and would be trying to get his new job off to the worst possible start.

Interestingly enough, they were not the only big names in trouble. Diego Simeone had no doubt earned himself years of support from the City board after all his success, but perhaps the biggest shock of all was that the reigning champions, the team who had swept aside all comers last season, had won just three of their first seven fixtures. With two defeats already to their name, the Citizens were already a full 10 points off the pace we found ourselves setting and with plenty of work to do to get back into the race. They would surely improve as the season went on – a squad of such quality could do nothing else – but without the spectre of the champions looming right behind us, our position at the top of the table felt a whole lot better.

For all my complaining of fixture congestion, we were now treated to a second international break of the season to coincide with the end of September, our next game not taking place until October 14th away at Chelsea. With Bethan and Rebecca back at school, the extra daddy-daughter time this afforded would not be truly maximised until the weekends, but it did mean entire days spent in the company of no-one but my wife as I left those yet to gain international honours in the capable hands of Terry McPhillips and the coaching team.

It was wonderful to have such interrupted time with Rachel, and while the questions raised at Center Parcs were broached once or twice, for the first week of the two I was simply her husband, rather than the manager of the team topping the Premier League table. I told myself on a number of occasions that the latter was not something permanent, while the first very much was, and as such it made far more sense to invest my time and emotions in my marriage than my work. It was easy to say on a break, more difficult to enact in the heat of the league season, but I was determined to try nonetheless.

Rachel appreciated that. She had seen my attempts to juggle work life and family time first-hand, and would certainly have said something had the balance drifted too far away from my family. On several occasions, her combination of gentle wisdom and straight-talking had dug me out of a hole, and I was regularly reminded just why I had fallen in love with her all those years ago. For all my complaints, the life of Owain Williams was a good one – and I was beginning to realise it.

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Bethan was getting stressed, and with the international break almost at an end, there was frustratingly little I could do about other than lend us a fatherly ear in an evening. Here was my first child, my eldest daughter, aged just 13, and worrying about the rest of her life because of the choices she felt she was having to make.

The source of these worries was, of course, school, and specifically the fact that she now found herself in the final year of education before having to choose which subjects she would study at GCSE level – successive governments having tampered with the names and natures of qualifications before settling on the old system for the time being. It wasn’t that Bethan wasn’t doing well academically – in fact, she was positively flying in some classes – but that she was overly worried about closing the wrong door and never being able to open it again. Rachel told me she knew where she got it from, and I had to admit she was right.

As work ramped up again, and I found myself unable to put myself in the shoes of a 13-year-old girl, all I could advise her to do was to trust her judgement and go for the subjects she enjoyed the most. To someone who has been through it all before, GCSEs barely seem significant – to someone going through them, they were the most difficult decision of Bethan’s young life, and she was struggling. Rachel was the one able to keep her calm, and privately arranged a meeting with her form tutor to discuss the issue.

While all this was going on, I was preparing my side to take on Sami Hyypia’s Chelsea, with my players returning from their respective national sides in varying degrees of health and fitness. By the end of the week I had almost a full complement to choose from for the trip to London – barring the injured trio of Clarke, Shaw and Bright – and we made the trip confident of getting the Finn’s spell in charge of the Blues off to the worse possible start.

When we arrived at Zola Park, it was clear that the home fans were going to make it difficult for us – our bus was rocked about as it arrived at the stadium, with one or two of the rowdier supporters taking the opportunity to throw stones at the vehicle. No damage was done to either the bus or my players – other than one or two being a little shaken up by the experience – but I was curious as to what had possessed to fans to target Southampton of all teams. We were not a traditional rivals of the Blues, and so I could only suspect jealousy to be the motive – something which brought a wry smile to my lips as I contemplated it.

On the field, the hosts were about as welcoming, a couple of early ‘reducers’ reminding us that as table-toppers we were marked men. Hyypia seemed instantly at home in his new dugout, pacing the technical area and gesticulating at length, and his side seemed to be responding. 15 minutes in, Rafinha smashed in a low shot through a crowd of bodies after we’d done a poor job of clearing a corner, only for the referee to rule that a team-mate had been obstructing Beraldi’s view and give us a free-kick. It was a reprieve we barely deserved.

Shortly after the half-hour mark, we were not so lucky. A mistimed challenge from Vandinho on the left allowed the hosts access to our area, and the ball was cut back from the dead ball line for Agustin Leroy to sweep past our Italian keeper. Zola Park erupted in cheers, and it was no less than they deserved. It was somewhat cruel to those fans then, that on the stroke of half-time a speculative shot from Jacobson looped up off the back of a defender and over the goalkeeper, and that was as good as it got for Hyypia’s men.

We emerged for the second half with a sense of urgency, buoyed by our good fortune and eager to take advantage. Just eight minutes after the restart, Ross Ifan played a pass through which his countryman Jacobson was able to take in his stride, his first touch taking his round the goalkeeper and his second stroking it into the unguarded net despite the desperate slide of a defender rushing back.

Once we had the lead, we were not about to give it up easily, and it cannot have done my Finnish counterpart much good to see Ange Sidibe come off the bench with 25 minutes still to play. His pace and eagerness to get on the ball at every opportunity caused no end of problems for the Chelsea defence, and in the end our Ivorian newcomer got the goal his cameo deserved, a quick give-and-go with fellow substitute Collins on the edge of the box providing the space he needed to fizz a shot past an unsighted and therefore static goalkeeper to seal the match three minutes from time.

That gave us eight wins from eight, and confidence was high as we prepared for another Champions League clash, this time hosting Shakhtar in the first of back-to-back games with the Ukrainian champions. A win here, and we would be a single point away from the last 16 – we were determined to make it.

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“Congratulations on another Champions League victory Owain, your side has taken very well to the competition.”

“It would appear so, but I don’t think that’s a huge surprise. We’re used to playing top opposition every week in the Premier League, and with the experience we acquired in the Europa last season, we’re used to having to perform in the big games.”

“You finished up 2-0 winners in the end, which reads like a comfortable scoreline. Were there any doubts in your mind when Benjamin Blanc put his penalty wide?”

“Did I doubt the ability of my team to see out the game? No, definitely not. However, did I think it might be one of those days? Of course. We started well with Callum’s goal, but when you get a chance from the spot against a team like Shakhtar you’ve got to take it. Ben knows he should have done better, and they did come back at us for a few minutes afterwards, but in the end our bench got us another goal and that was enough for us.”

“With PSG picking up their first win of the campaign against Krasnodar, your Southampton are in a strong position to qualify for the knockout rounds now, with just a single point required. Are you surprised at how the campaign has gone so far?”

“No, I think that would be unfair on my players. Of course we’ve benefitted from the other sides taking points off each other, but we had an excellent win in Paris and two very professional performances at home, so we’ve done the hard work. There’s still more to do, beginning in a fortnight’s time in Donetsk, but we’ve given ourselves every opportunity.”

“The other teams in your group each have three points, and you’ve now played each of them once – do you have a prediction or a preference as to which team progresses with you?”

“First of all I’ll repeat that we haven’t qualified yet, although obviously I understand that we’ve favourites to do so given our position. Secondly, all the teams in this group are capable of qualifying – that’s why they’re in the Champions League to begin with – and it’s not for me to pick a favourite. If you go by seeding and history it’s hard to see past PSG, but they’ve struggled at times so it really it wide open. That’s the beauty of the competition.”

“Finally Owain, we saw a brief run-out for Adam Bright this evening, is he now ready to play a full part after his injury?”

“Yes, our medical staff have given him the all-clear and he’s raring to go. Adam has been unlucky with injuries so far this season, but he’s conducted himself very well and has been thoroughly professional in his rehabilitation. He’ll be considered with everybody else for a start against Aston Villa at the weekend, and hopefully he’ll steer clear of the treatment table for a long while now.”

Adam Bright’s 10-minute cameo had capped off another good Champions League night for us at St Mary’s, with a brief spell of Shakhtar pressure after Blanc’s missed penalty the only time our early lead looked under threat. Once Escalada wrapped it up, I’d been comfortable enough to throw our England international on, and he’d looked as good as he could have done in a short space of time.

I wasn’t about to announce my proposed line-up to the press several days in advance – I’d seen it backfire enough times in the past, and never understood why coaches in other sports felt the need to announce their intentions in such matter – but I was indeed planning on starting Bright against Villa. He’d worked hard to come back from two injuries now, and on his day was undoubtedly one of our best players. Against a side in the lower reaches of the Premier League, he’d have every chance to show what he could do.

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If there had been any question marks whatsoever over Bright’s abilities as a footballer, he had move quickly to erase them. Despite missing both of the first three months of the season, he had taken the chance given to him against Villa with two hands, and after just 15 minutes of our league encounter had the St Mary’s faithful singing his name in celebration of a special footballer.

He had already opened the scoring minutes earlier, providing Sidibe with a shooting opportunity and then following in the Ivorian’s shot to tap home the spilled ball. His second on the quarter hour was somewhat more spectacular, the England man leaping several feet off the ground to control a ball over the defence from Woodward, bringing it down as he landed, and almost in the same motion lofting a clever toe-poke into the top corner of the Villa net. It was a moment of sheer brilliance, and we were glad to have him back.

He was not alone in impressing for my Saints, and we caught the Villans out in a classic Southampton blitz which extended through much of the first half. Not content with Bright’s two comeback goals we pressed on, and shortly after the half hour we made it 3-0, summer signing Harry Eggen leaping highest at a corner to send a powerful header flashing beyond the keeper. Four minutes later, with the visitors having to come forward to have any hope of salvaging a result, we found ourselves with men over on a lightning break, and Kenan Kus took full advantage with a blistering strike from the corner of the area to make it 4-0. That was the score at the break, and the game was over.

We weren’t done though, and eight minutes after the interval we executed the script perfectly for Adam Bright to walk away with the match ball on his return from injury. The goal itself was rather different to the his spectacular second – his first-time effort from Iglesias’ pull-back somewhat scuffed into the corner of the net – but he was clearly delighted with the hat-trick, and made a point of celebrating with me and my coaching team on the touchline, which was a nice gesture.

Before the game was out there was time for two more goals – the first a penalty coolly converted by substitute John Ruane, and the second a disappointing consolation from a late Villa corner to make the final score 6-1. It was an emphatic performance from the entire team, and while we would face tougher opposition than the visitors over the course of the season, our ninth consecutive league win was perhaps the most spectacular of them all. We were growing in confidence, I was growing in confidence, and I needed Rachel to keep me grounded. She duly obliged.

“Darling, your Saints are playing pretty well at the moment, aren’t they?”

“They certainly are, probably the best they’ve played since I’ve been here.”

“Do you think you can win the league?”

“If we can keep it up, I think we can. Some of the football has been exquisite.”

“Can I ask you a favour, darling?”

“Of course my love, what is it?”

“Please remember it’s only October. Enjoy the wins now, but don’t just assume they’ll keep coming. You need to keep working, and not get carried away – and when you lose, don’t let the world cave in.”

She was right, and I knew it – but keeping myself and my players grounded was going to be far easier said than done.

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6 hours ago, EvilDave said:

 “Darling, your Saints are playing pretty well at the moment, aren’t they?”

“They certainly are, probably the best they’ve played since I’ve been here.”

“Do you think you can win the league?”

“If we can keep it up, I think we can. Some of the football has been exquisite.”

“Can I ask you a favour, darling?”

“Of course my love, what is it?”

“Please remember it’s only October. Enjoy the wins now, but don’t just assume they’ll keep coming. You need to keep working, and not get carried away – and when you lose, don’t let the world cave in.”

She was right, and I knew it – but keeping myself and my players grounded was going to be far easier said than done.

Watch the next match be a defeat

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18 hours ago, SmileFaceGamer said:

Watch the next match be a defeat

You'll have to wait and see...

The League Cup was our next port of call after the Villa thrashing, with Brentford making the trip to St Mary’s for our last 16 clash. We were, of course, heavy favourites for the tie, but with the next seven days seeing us in Premier and Champions League action, I had decided to make several changes to the side. Part of my reasoning was to make sure that our key man were fresh for the more prestigious competitions, the other part was simply to ensure that the whole squad was seeing playing time – for example, Hamish Jack would return between the posts for the first time since our third round clash with Spurs.

One man who was determined to take the chances thrown his way was John Ruane, who was fighting his way into first-team contention after some strong showings a year on from his season-long loan at Stoke. What he perhaps lacked technically he made up with sheer, bloody-minded determination and hard work, and it was refreshing to see such a player succeed. 15 minutes in against the Bees that willingness to work earned him the opening goal, hurrying a defender into thumping a clearance against him before chasing down the loose ball and slotting home. It was excellent forward play, and he rightly took the plaudits.

Shortly afterwards we grabbed a second, which was a very different goal indeed. No fewer than nine of the Southampton players on the field were involved in the patient passing move that ended with Lloyd Collins scooping a delicate shot over the diving goalkeeper from eight yards out, and our passage to the last eight seemed to be secure. In the second half we made sure of it, two close-range efforts from Ruane earning him our second match ball in as many games, and Brentford adding a modicum of respectability to the scoreline with two goals in the last five minutes. Arsenal would stand between us and a place in the semis, and we were already nearing the business end of the competition.

On the back of a hat-trick, Ruane kept his place in the line-up for the visit of Everton in the league, and this time it took him all of two minutes to open his account, a bullet header from Vandinho’s near-post cross not allowing the visiting keeper any time to react. Before the break it was 2-0, Carl Bateson nodding in a free-kick for his first goal of the season, and with the Toffees offering very little by way of resistance, we looked to have the points wrapped up.

Indeed, all the Merseyside outfit could offer in the second period was violence, with midfielder Juan Seida shown a straight red card for a vicious scything challenge on Blanc that saw our French midfielder stay down for several moments before being cleared to play on. By the time the Spaniard was given his marching orders we had added a third through Escalada, and comfortably saw out the remaining time to record our tenth successive league victory.

Our perfect record kept us atop the Premier League pile with a maximum 30 points, but close behind us and also unbeaten were a Liverpool side who had only been denied a win on two occasions, leaving them four points off the summit. Three points further back were our next opponents Arsenal, who had been beaten just the once, and rounding out the top four were surprise package Fulham, who had won seven and lost three of their opening 10 fixtures. Elsewhere, Manchester City were recovering from a slow start to sit in 6th with 18 points, while United and Chelsea still sat in the bottom half – at Old Trafford, much like Zola Park beforehand, rumours were beginning to swirl about the manager’s job.

Such thoughts were far from Ralph Krueger’s mind as I picked up my third consecutive Manager of the Month award from the league officials, and with every passing win my belief that Southampton could actually win the league were growing stronger. There was still a long way to go, but it was impossible to miss the fact that we were going very well indeed.

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On 17/08/2018 at 15:31, SmileFaceGamer said:

The league is on its way... but so is Owain?

I couldn't possibly comment...

“Hello darling, how are you doing? I just wanted to let you know that we’re about to board the plane, so I won’t be able to talk for the next few hours.”

“I’m glad you made it back to the airport OK darling, it doesn’t look like you had much fun out there?”

“I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to Donetsk any time soon – the city isn’t much to look at, and the football wasn’t great either. It was so frustrating!”

“Don’t worry too much darling, you can’t win every game, remember? Besides, the Sky Sports commentators said you only needed a draw to qualify – that’s got to be worth celebrating, right?”

“It is, you’re right – I just wish we could have done it in a bit more style. What was the other result in our group, do you know? I’ve struggled getting the internet to work on my phone out here.”

Krasnodar beat PSG 2-0, so they’re second in the group now.”

“Wow, PSG are really struggling. Anyway, enough about football – have the girls been OK with you tonight?”

“They’ve been fine – I may have taken them out for tea as a bit of a treat, but Bethan has been so much better since I went in to school. I think just knowing that she can talk to the teachers about it, and that she can change her mind in the first couple of months, it’s made such a difference.”

“I’m really glad she’s perked up, it seems mad for a child to feel so much pressure at that stage of life.”

“Me too, it’s too harsh on them. What time are you due back, by the way?”

“Don’t wait up for me darling! It’s about four and a half hours in the air, then I’ve got to get home – it’ll be the small hours before I’m back. Get yourself to bed and I’ll try not to wake you up when I come in.”

“OK darling, have a good flight. I love you.”

It was always a relief to hear Rachel’s voice after our European away games, and after a particularly stodgy 0-0 draw in Donetsk, that was especially true. Shakhtar hadn’t made too many efforts to break us down, but had defended very well against our in-form attack, and had ended up with the point they had no doubt set out to get beforehand.

The draw did mean, as my wife had pointed out, that we were now guaranteed qualification to the last 16 – our 10 points put us atop Group B ahead of Krasnodar with six, and while Shakhtar on four could theoretically match our tally, our record of a win and a draw in our two fixtures meant we had the tiebreaker locked up. PSG were struggling with just three points from their four matches, and would need to win their final two games to stand any chance of making it through.

That was not something I was going to lose any sleep over – indeed, one of those two games was at St Mary’s, so we would be looking to deal the French side a knockout blow, removing a genuine Champions League contender in the process. If we could beat the Parisians in our next outing, we would be confirmed as group winners – which in turn would earn us a seeded spot in the last 16 with the second leg at home. The way things had one thus far, I was very much enjoying managing in UEFA’s top competition.

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We were now into November – the point in the English season at which it almost becomes worth looking at the league table, the scouts begin to head out in advance of the January transfer window, and the games start to come thick and fast. At least, after an international break. We had just the one match before the two-week lull, but it was a huge one – away at the Emirates to take on third-place Arsenal, who had lost just one match in their opening 10.

Our previous fixtures against the Gunners had been goal-heavy affairs, with both myself and Roberto Martinez committing to an attacking style of football and the forwards on either side outclassing their opposing defenders. That had made for great entertainment for the fans and nervous times in the two dugouts, with the Spaniard and I showing a mutual respect for one another’s commitment to our respective styles of play. However, until this point Arsenal had been either in a group of teams just out of reach ahead of us, or in a chasing group too distant to worry about. This year, they were looking like serious challengers for our position, and that made our clash in North London a crucial one.

“Gentlemen, Arsenal can hurt us – of that there is no doubt. They have players who can turn a game in an instant, that can score and create goals from anywhere on the field. They are an excellent side.

“However, you are a better side. We can hurt them in any number of ways, and in the form you are in, I want you to go out there and show Arsenal what real attacking football looks like. We do not have to change to counter them – they need to adapt to us, to make changes to handle the Saints.

“You know the plan by now, and you’ve executed it in every game this season. Hit them hard, hit them early if we can, and make sure they stay hit. Carlos and Steve will watch the defence, so you front four can cut loose. Kenan, Vandinho, you know when to go and when to stay, but don’t be too cautious – we don’t want to invite them on to us. Go out there, and show this crowd that their Gunners do not have a monopoly on the beautiful game – that we at Southampton know how to play!”

Arsenal kicked the game off, and immediately worked the ball from front to back and to front again, maintaining possession for the opening two minutes and advancing into our half. A heavy touch from Lauge Klausen allowed Vandinho to win the ball for my side, and immediately we were away, my midfield surging forward in transition. A 40-yard diagonal ball found Bright in full flow, and he reached the edge of the area in the blink of an eye. With the home defence backing off, he knocked a pass sideways into the path of Cohen, and our Israeli international stroked a low shot beyond the wrong-footed goalkeeper to open the scoring with our first attack. The small pocket of Southampton fans in the away corner burst into celebratory song, and we were away.

A stunned Arsenal tried to work their way back into the game, again enjoying a couple of lengthy periods of possession without ever threatening to make a breakthrough. As the clock ticked into double figures we came forward again, this time taking a more measured approach, and again Bright found himself on the ball 20 yards from goal. He fizzed a pass into the feet of Jacobson and went for the return, only to open his legs and step over the pass from the Welshman. With the home defence caught out by the dummy, Ange Sidibe found himself with plenty of time to open up his body and bend his effort in at the far post.

Two early goals left the Gunners with plenty to do, and two minutes later we flooded forward again, this time Brazilian star Rodriguinho the guilty party after giving the ball away in midfield. Sidibe dropped deep to collect a pass, dragging his centre-back marker with him, and before the error could be rectified our summer signing played a sumptuous pass into the vacated space. Bright was there in a flash, a last-ditch covering tackle failed to knock him off his path to goal, and with a swing of his right boot we led 3-0 with just 14 minutes on the clock. It was jaw-dropping football.

The blitz would end there – my opposite number Martinez wisely decided that the best option was to withdraw slightly for fear of having the game put entirely out of his side’s reach – but the damage was already done. Our heavily outnumbered supporters were winning the vocal battle in the stands against the stunned Gooners, and on the field we were playing with a swagger that demanded respect. My players knew they had the match sewn up, and the confidence was clear for all the see.

We took our three-goal lead to the break, and after applauding my men on their arrival into the dressing room, simply urged them not to do anything stupid in the second half – the Gunners were still capable of retaliating. In the end I needn’t have worried – a deflected strike from Rodriguinho put them on the scoreboard, but that was all our hosts would get from the match. With 20 minutes to play, I withdrew Sidibe to give Boyd Clarke his first taste of first-team action since his hernia operation, and he put himself about well in the closing stages.

It was a fine win to begin the month with, and I now had the prospect of a much quieter week as many of my players headed off to play with their respective nations. There would be one fewer than usual disappearing on their travels – our medical staff informing me that Carlos Henrique had tweaked his groin and would be unavailable for two or three weeks – but that was the only dampener on the morale of a team that was sky high. As I returned home for a week containing more time with Rachel than usual, so was mine.

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“Did Bethan tell you she’d settled on her GCSE subjects?”

“She decided already? I didn’t think they had to submit their choices until after the Christmas break?”

“They don’t, but she wanted to get it done and stop thinking about it. I think a few of her friends had done the same, and she wanted it finished.”

“I mean, if she knows what she wants to do then that seems sensible. What has she gone for then?”

“Well really it’s a question of what hasn’t she picked – you know how they like to stretch them at Romsey. There are already compulsory subjects – two lots of English, maths, the three sciences, IT, and I think they have to do some religious studies as well – and then it was a case of figuring out which others she wanted to go for.”

“And what did she pick?”

“Well, she couldn’t settle on one language, so she’s gone for French and Spanish, obviously art was her first choice, and then she picked textiles over woodwork and history ahead of geography and statistics.”

“What on earth is statistics doing in with history and geography? And am I right in thinking our little girl is going to be doing 13 GCSEs?”

“You did – she’s going to be much more qualified than either of us…”

“Come on now…”

“Well OK, she’s going to be much more qualified than you! I’m not sure if they get a qualification for the religious bit, but it’s still compulsory, so it might only be 12.”

“‘Only’ 12 GCSEs. I don’t know Rachel, the things they put the kids through these days…”

“Listen to you darling, you sound like an old man!”

It was great to spend a bit of time with my wife, and also to spend some quality time with both Bethan and Rebecca, who both seemed pleased to have their dad around a little bit more. International breaks were great for the purposes of recharging my batteries, and with Krueger and his colleagues insisting that I did just that, it was an excellent opportunity to put football further back in the mix of thoughts than it often was.

Not only that, but it was a huge relief to hear that our eldest daughter had got to the bottom of her GCSE conundrum, even if it did seem like the solution had been to simply take all the subjects. That she would go for both art and textiles was never in doubt – it was becoming increasingly obvious that those were the subjects Bethan was most passionate about – and I was pleased to see her enjoy both of the foreign languages she was being taught. I had never had much of an aptitude for it, and felt I had missed opportunities because of it – I didn’t want my daughter to feel the same way, and was glad she hadn’t needed any nudging in that direction.

All too quickly however, the break was over, my players returning to Staplewood to continue their assault on the Premier League, Champions League and whichever other trophies we were thrown into. We were having a remarkable season already, but it was still very young indeed.

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I couldn’t put my finger on the problem, and that was the most frustrating part. Actually, the second most frustrating part. By far the worst part of the experience was watching the smug figure of David Moyes grow in confidence in the opposing dugout, standing tall in his technical area and applauding his Norwich side every time they completed a pass, made a tackle or fashioned even half a chance at goal. His team were not looking particularly threatening, but then neither were my Saints.

Worse, we looked lethargic. In the opening 45 minutes I did not see a group of players refreshed by a change of scenery on an international break, but a team which would have benefitted hugely simply by having the two weeks off. Gone was our midfield bite and creative spark, and in truth we had looked no better than our 16th-placed hosts. The Canaries were matching us stride for stride, and that was concerning.

The second half would get no better, and while Moyes had even fewer opportunities to congratulate his side on creating, I had precious little to get excited about either. The introduction of neither Escalada nor Ross Ifan from the bench succeeded in bringing about the moment of inspiration the game was so badly lacking, and instead the points were shared in a goalless draw which, had it not meant a landmark first failure to win of the season for my table-toppers, would certainly have been shown last on any highlights of the weekend’s action.

Our perfect record had come to an end, and yet surprisingly we had inched further away from our rivals. It added to the frustration that our performance was so insipid having watched Liverpool go down 3-1 at Arsenal the previous day, ending the only other unbeaten run in the Premier League, but nevertheless we could take some solace in the fact that we were able to extend our lead at the top of the table to five points after 12 games each. If we could maintain that game to the end of the season, I would forgive the occasional poor performance – even if it did mean handing a point to David Moyes.

With so many of my players apparently needing a break, it did not take long for me to confirm my initial suggestion of fielding a much-rotated side for our Champions League clash with PSG. The French side were having a poor campaign and needed a win to stay alive, but we were already qualified and knew that we were likely to go through as group winners even if we were somehow beaten at St Mary’s. It was an uncharacteristic gamble, but one I was willing to take given the circumstances – I simply could not risk running too many key players into the ground so early in the campaign.

In the opening stages, it was apparent that there was something wrong with Andre Villas-Boas’ side. They looked a shadow of the team that had pushed us so hard in the Europa League final just a few months beforehand, and even with their Champions League survival on the line they were not able to rise to the occasion. On the other hand, we had one man who did so in a very literal sense – forgotten summer signing and defensive utility man Mel McGoona made his Southampton debut in the heart of the back line, and opened the scoring after 21 minutes with a glancing header from countryman Ifan’s corner.

We expected the visitors to come at us hard after the goal, and especially in the second period, but my Portuguese counterpart seemed unable to rouse his troops into action. Even the ever-dangerous Sikorski seemed to drift in and out of the match, our second-string defence able to handle the Ukrainian with relative ease, and when the second goal came it was no surprise that it was a second for my Saints. As if to sum up PSG’s night, it came from a defensive error – an underhit pass leaving the goalkeeper in no man’s land, and allowing Boyd Clarke to roll the ball into an empty net to seal the win late on.

It meant we were officially crowned winners of Group B, with Krasnodar’s 2-0 win in Donetsk putting the Russian side through as the second-place finishers and leaving only the consolation prize of Europa League spot to be decided on the final matchday. PSG’s failure to make the knockout rounds for the second year in succession, coupled with a closer-than-usual title race in Ligue 1, was enough to cost Villas-Boas his job, and I was only pleased that my own club were somewhat less demanding that the Middle Eastern backers of our opponents.

Indeed, with my job security at an all-time high, I had the freedom to focus entirely on overcoming the next obstacle in our path – which was none other than defending champions Manchester City and their star-studded line-up. It would be quite the match.

Edited by EvilDave
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