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Back in Britain - Part III of the Owain Williams saga


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From the back page of The Times

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Super Sidibe Stuns City in Five-Goal Thriller

After a spectacular run to begin the season, Southampton have been the story of the Premier League so far, with Owain Williams’ side flying high at the top of the table. However, many have questioned whether last season’s runners-up have what it takes to maintain that form and lift the trophy at the end of a long and gruelling season – yesterday, they answered those questions in emphatic style.

Manchester City arrived at St Mary’s having endured a difficult start to the year, but improving each week. In past seasons, the Saints have endured difficult days against Diego Simeone’s champions, and with the visitors out to prove a point, it appeared than the pretenders to the crown were about to be taught a humbling lesson in what it takes to win the Premier League.

Harry Eggen has been a rock in the Southampton defence since his big-money signing from Hoffenheim in the summer, and can count himself unlucky to be credited with City’s first goal after 23 minutes, Mirko Gramaglia’s driven cross bouncing in off the heels of the Norwegian with Yu Shuming ready to pounce. However, if he was unlucky with the first he was undeniably at fault for the second eight minutes later, caught watching the ball rather than the man as Shayron Zimmerman found space to head beyond Paolo Beraldi.

If anyone had questions as to the constitution of the current league leaders, they were answered emphatically. It took just four minutes for Southampton to halve the deficit, a crisp finish from Adam Bright finding the corner after excellent work down the right from Kenan Kus. With the home crowd increasing the volume, their heroes duly obliged, levelling the match before the break with a contender for goal of the season.

There appeared to be little danger for the visitors when Ange Sidibe dropped deep to pick up the ball 35 yards from the Manchester City goal. With the Saints faithful somewhat desperately urging him to shoot, the £15m man duly obliged, firing a ferocious, dipping shot that very few goalkeepers in history would have had a chance at stopping. City and England’s number one Andy Plant is an excellent stopper, but he is yet to take his place among the all-time greats, and could only watch aghast as the ball whistled into the top corner. Southampton were level, and not only that, they were on top.

The second half was one of those periods of play which are difficult to explain to a non-football fan without having them watch the game – little goalmouth action, but two excellent teams going all-out against one another for the win. Clarke came off the bench to head wide, Gramaglia almost doubled his tally, and Plant was forced into a superb save by Sidibe, diving low to his save to keep out the striker’s goal-bound effort.

With three minutes of injury time signalled by referee Mark Batley, it appeared for all the world as if the points would be shared – particularly after the first two elapsed without anything resembling a shot on goal. Nobody dared leave St Mary’s early though, and the home fans were duly rewarded with a moment which, if the Saints do go on to lift the title, will be replayed time and time again in years to come.

It started with Vandinho’s timely interception at left-back, the Brazilian leaving Zimmerman in a heap and emerging with the ball. It continued with a raking pass to Cohen, who cushioned the dropping pass into the path of Bright. As if in slow-motion, the midfielder attempted to beat his England team-mate Plant with a stinging shot from the edge of the box, only to see the goalkeeper get a strong hand behind the ball – but not strong enough. As the stopper scrambled in a bid to gather the spilled shot, in rushed Sidibe to lift the ball high into the roof of the net with just seconds to spare.

Last season, Southampton surprised many in achieving their highest league position in decades. This season, if their current form is anything to go by, they could surprise even more by clinching a maiden league title. If they do so, Owain Williams will be able to look back on yesterday’s match as a real watershed moment. Faced with their toughest test of the season, they came through with the fight and determination demanded of champions. A 4-0 thrashing would have somehow been less impressive – the Saints are now real contenders, and have earned that label.

 

 

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The piece in the Times had given us real confidence, although being officially tagged by one the nation’s leading newspapers as title challengers shone a little too much of the spotlight on my Southampton side. City were not a team at the peak of their powers – there were rumours swirling that Simeone was struggling to motivate his all-conquering side of last season – but they still represented something, and we had beaten that something in the most dramatic of fashions.

Fortunately, we were not forced to endure the full force of the nation’s media glare thanks to events taking place elsewhere. Specifically, at Old Trafford, where a 2-2 draw against lowly Aston Villa had been the last straw for the Manchester United hierarchy. A record of just three wins from their opening 13 games of the season left the Red Devils mired down in 15th place, and while nobody was seriously entertaining the idea of them being drawn into a relegation battle, it was deemed a drop too far for Jurgen Klopp. The charismatic German had been popular with the Old Trafford for his entertaining press conferences and insistence on attacking football, but results had turned them against him, and it was time to go. With little ceremony, Klopp was sacked just two hours after the final whistle – he had held the job for more than eight years.

Speculation was rife as to his successor in one of the most sought-after jobs in world football, and I was careful to stay well away from it. It was made relatively easy thanks to Southampton’s lofty league position – nobody seriously thought I was about to jump ship from the league’s top club to one in the bottom half of the table, even one as big as United – and on the rare occasion that the question did come up, I answered honestly. I had zero interest in leaving St Mary’s, and personally saw no appeal in the Old Trafford post.

What I did have interest in was the draw for the third round of the FA Cup, which took place the evening after our momentous win against City. With all of the Premier League teams entering at this stage, it was the time for the remaining non-league sides – Gainsborough Trinity, Kettering Town and Banbury United – to entertain dreams of a famous away day at a Premier League giant. As the first balls were drawn from the hopper, it occurred to me that for the first time in a long time, my Saints might be considered one of those giants. It was a pleasant thought.

As the ties were drawn one-by-one, seemingly with the pace of the draw decreasing as to increase the tension for the sponsors, so it seemed that Southampton were destined to be the last team out. In fact there were four ties remaining when our name was finally selected, paired away at Championship makeweights Hull City. We would travel to Humberside in the first week of 2029 for the tie, in which the hosts would no doubt be out to cause an upset. As for the non-league minnows, only one of them would get their wish – Gainsborough and Banbury ending up with League One and Championship opposition respectively, before Kettering landed their big day away at Newcastle.

The very next morning, I took a heavily-rotated side to Southern Russia for our final Champions League group game against Krasnodar. With nothing at stake – we were confirmed as group winners, our hosts also through as runners-up -  I was more than happy to use the match as a chance to hand some of our fringe players a run-out, while playing the likes of Boyd Clarke back into fitness and form. We had done the same against PSG and wound up 2-0 winners, so I was not concerned about a humiliating defeat. Even a narrow loss would provide us with valuable experience.

That was precisely what we got, an entertaining half seeing us trade four goals with our Russian hosts – Bateson and Clarke both heading in on our part – before things slowed down in the second half. The hosts had one more goal left in them, and of course it had to be a former Saint who came back to haunt us. Peio Salinas, the ageing Spaniard I had discarded after just a few weeks at St Mary’s, shot past Hamish Jack with 15 minutes to go, and had a smug, satisfied smile on his face when we shook hands at the final whistle. In terms of the group, it meant nothing – PSG’s 2-0 win over Shakhtar earning them Europa League football in the Spring in the only result of note – but it was frustrating nevertheless.

We had to wait two weeks until the draw for the knockout rounds – in order to let the Europa League catch up – but the news on our return to England gave my players plenty to talk about. Having heard me rubbish the idea of dropping down the table in order to take hold of the Old Trafford chalice, one man had done just that – and from an old rival to boot. That man was Roberto Martinez who, after a decade in the Emirates hotseat, left the third-placed Gunners to take up the United job. I could not understand the Spaniard’s logic, but I wished him luck nonetheless – as long as he wasn’t facing Southampton, of course.

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Lloyd, I honestly don’t know what to say. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s OK boss, I appreciate your call. I’ll be fine, you know.”

“I do, but the next few months are going to be hard. You’re not going to be able to do much for a while, and then the rehab work will be slow. It’s going to take time.”

“I know boss – it’s not all that long since the ankle break, remember? I’ll be back, and I’ll be even better, mark my words.”

“I’ll hold you to that Lloyd. Don’t rush yourself back though – what we don’t want is for you to come back too soon, over-exert yourself and end up back on the sidelines. Take it steady.”

“I will, thanks boss. The boys will keep winning without me – you make sure of that.”

Lloyd Collins was putting a brave face on things, but I could tell from the occasional quiver in the teenager’s voice that he was struggling. I’d brought him on with half an hour to play of our tight 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest, hoping that he’d be able to unlock the visiting defence and give us an insurance goal. Instead, he lasted barely 10 minutes before having to be stretchered off – a torn calf muscle ruling him out for a minimum of three months.

It was a tough break for the young Welshman, who had already missed a significant portion of his Southampton career with a broken ankle not long after signing for the club. I’ll admit to having something of a soft spot for Collins – not only was he a hugely talented footballer with the potential to take both club and country a long way, but he had been my first serious investment in youth since taking over at St Mary’s. At more than £6m for a 16-year-old, he had been something of a gamble, and I felt it up to me to make sure he lived up to his potential.

One man who had not done that was Adam Roberts, a young striker whose failure to progress meant he was unlikely to ever break past the likes of Sidibe, Escalada, Clarke and Ruane into the starting rotation. We’d given him every chance, he’d failed to take them, and we were no longer prepared to keep him on the payroll. Relegated Stoke were however, and after they approached us we were more than happy to arrange a £1m sale for January. Although I would never say as much to either club or player, I thought we had the better end of the bargain.

It was a feeling shared by Chelsea fans as a strange managerial merry-go-round came to an end. After seeing Manchester United fire Jurgen Klopp and replace him with the Gunners’ long-serving Roberto Martinez, the North London side had taken their time to find a replacement. Surprisingly, their choice was none other than Chelsea flop Phillip Cocu, the Dutchman surprising fans on both sides of that particular rivalry by being unveiled as the new man in charge at the Emirates.

At St Mary’s, the geography of the club meant that we shared no fierce rivalries with clubs in the same division, but even so, I found it very difficult to imagine a former Portsmouth or even Brighton man being unveiled as my successor. As far as I could remember, only Harry Redknapp had crossed the South Coast divide, and that had not gone down well with either set of fans the first time, let alone the second. Then again, I cannot imagine many men being insensitive enough as to refer to his employer’s arch-rivals as their ‘spiritual home.’

Thankfully, it was not something I had to worry about, with my Saints drawing plaudits by the week and my job security unquestioned. I had a meeting scheduled with Ralph Krueger in the first week of January, but this would be purely to assess the season so far and establish targets for the rest of the year. The very fact that managerial movement was going on at Old Trafford, Zola Park and the Emirates was testament to the fact of those sides’ struggles – although Arsenal’s switch had been forced upon them – which in itself was in part due to our own rise up the table. All we had to do now was stay there.

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“Darling, I told you this would happen eventually. You can’t let this get to you – every team will have a slump. You didn’t expect to go through the season undefeated, you can’t reasonably have demanded that of the players, and you certainly can’t expect it of yourself. Now pull yourself together man!”

Rachel was on top form, and as ever she was perfectly correct in her assessment. With so many matches to play, so many potential slip-ups, so many teams upping their games against us, a defeat had to come eventually. It had done, we were still top of the table, and the fans were still delighted with the season we were having. But I wasn’t happy.

“I know, but we’ve been dire. Two goals in four games, out of the cup – and only one of the games was against a top side. I don’t know what’s happened – the instructions haven’t changed, the players aren’t any more tired than usual, it’s just stopped working.”

Newcastle are top six too, aren’t they? And Watford aren’t far behind…”

“We shouldn’t be losing to Watford, wherever they might be. We’re better than them.” 

“Even so darling, my point stands – if the players see you wallowing in self-pity, they aren’t going to pick themselves up for you. Show them some strength, a bit of fight, and I guarantee they’ll come through for you.”

“I know. It’s the doing it that’s the problem.”

As I begrudgingly accepted my wife’s advice, I thought back over the four games that made up the ‘slump’ Rachel had mentioned. It had started the week after our win over Forest, away at Brentford, where the rub of the green had not been with us. Our performance had been awful, conceding early and only earning a point through a late Ifan strike, but it arguably should have been more – Escalada saw a goal struck off for offside in stoppage time, and Eggen twice rattled the bar getting on the end of set-pieces. The 1-1 draw was frustrating, but nothing worse.

But it was also the start of a worrying trend of poor performances, which continued into our League Cup quarter-final at Arsenal. I fielded a largely second-string team against Cocu’s Gunners, but even so I expected more of a fight from a group of players looking to make the most of the opportunity. Instead we capitulated, going down 3-0 in a laboured display which very few players emerged from with any credit.

Two days later, just a day before a drab goalless draw at home to Newcastle – in which hit the target with just two of our 12 shots on goal – allowed Liverpool to close the gap to just three points, we found out the identity of our next opponents in the Champions League. After initially coming through a tricky group with flying colours we had been confident, but with our current form we would almost certainly be outsiders against Atletico Madrid. The Spaniards had emerged behind Bayern Munich but ahead of both Napoli and Benfica from a tight Group E, and even with the return fixture at St Mary’s, we would be underdogs across the two legs.

However, the worst was yet to come, and our lengthy unbeaten record in the Premier League came crashing down when we welcomed Watford – the Hornets sitting comfortably but unthreateningly in 8th place at the time – for our 17th game of the league season. We were expected to beat the Hertfordshire outfit despite our recent difficulties and find a way back to form, but instead we treated the home fans to a dire display, looking more like relegation battlers than a team in a title fight.

We started badly, allowing Vaclav Strnad to open the scoring after just two minutes of play. The goal sent St Mary’s into something of a hush, and the nervous tension around the ground clearly had an effect on my players. They were visibly off the pace, and although it was only 1-0 at the break, we had not come close to a leveller. Two minutes into the second half Beraldi allowed a shot to slip through his hands and in for the Watford second, and just after the hour Mo Hajji headed in his second of the evening to leave us facing utter humiliation. Escalada pulled one back with a fine curling effort, but our embarrassment was complete in the 87th when a petulant Henrique earned a second booking for kicking the ball away in frustration, and we were rightly jeered off the pitch in defeat.

Rachel was right – I needed to pick myself up for the team to do the same, but the evidence on the pitch was beginning to suggest that we just weren’t good enough to hold on to our lead in the league. Indeed, that league had now all but vanished – we led Liverpool by virtue of having scored four more goals than the Reds, their 3-0 win over Forest seeing them match both our points tally and goal difference – and we were facing a real battle to stay in the race.

Not only that, but the festive fixture list had not been kind to my Saints. In our next four matches we would travel to surprise Champions League challengers Fulham, host Liverpool on Boxing Day and 5th-place Spurs four days later, before travelling to Old Trafford to take on a resurgent Manchester United – who had already climbed two places under Roberto Martinez – on New Year’s Day. Our only hope was that somehow our opponents would be more tired than we were, that my players could work a way out of their slump, and that I could shake off the dark cloud looming over my head. It would be the last of those problems that would be hardest to solve.

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“Right then gentlemen, it’s about time I said a few words. We’ve not been doing well recently – the results have been poor, the performances haven’t been great, and I get the impression that the general mood around here isn’t all that cheery.”

I’d decided to take the bold step of hosting a team meeting the afternoon before travelling up to Fulham, in a desperate attempt to try and coax my players out of the slump. In itself, such a meeting was not particularly extraordinary – what I hoped would be was the fact that I intended to apologise for my own demeanour.

“First of all, I want to apologise to each of you” – that certainly grabbed my players’ attention – “Since the Brentford game I’ve been moping around here as if a family member had died, and that simply isn’t fair on you all. You’ve been incredible this season, and I’ve got no right to complain. So I’m sorry.

“Secondly however, it’s time to knuckle down. For four months now, this club has been the talk of the Premier League, even of Europe – we’ve been swatting teams aside for fun, making history in the Champions League, and putting ourselves in a position from which we could genuinely win the title. I don’t think I’ve said that to you yet – I believe that together, we have what it takes to be at the top of the table at the end of the season. We’ve already proven we can beat the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, City, Spurs, United – the list goes on. There is no reason we cannot claim that title.

“But if we’re going to do it, I need each one of you to fight through the fatigue. Some of have played more games already this season than some leagues have in their whole campaign, and they haven’t been easy games either. We’ve been going twice a week all season, and it isn’t going to slow down. But every team around us is doing the exact same, and they’re going to be shattered too. You’ve already proven you’re better than them when fully fit, and when I look around the room now I see a group of players who are better than them when they’re tired too.

“Tomorrow, we go to Fulham. Fulham are having a great season by their standards, and if they make it into Europe they’ll be heroes at Craven Cottage. We are aiming higher than that, and I want you to show it. There will be fans in the away end who risk having their Christmas ruined if we fall off the top of the table, who have spent their hard-earned money following us around and effectively paying our wages. You don’t need me to tell you this, but those are the people we need to turn things around for.

“Now, if there is anybody in the room who does not think we can beat Fulham and go on to win the title, I want you to say so now, and I can start looking for a replacement in January. That is the level this club is now operating at, the sort of ambition I need you all to have, and your performances need to match. As do mine. Now, we’re going to get on that bus to London and tomorrow we are going to silence Craven Cottage. Let’s show them what we can do.”

I had no idea what sort of response my little speech would earn, nor would I ever know how far I could attribute any subsequent performances to my words. However, the coach trip to London seemed to be a little more lively than in recent weeks, my players having a bit more a buzz and an excitement about them – something I put down to their manager introducing the idea of a title challenge in public for the first time. I was yet to go to the press with the same words – I wanted to see how we were positioned in January – but there was no doubt my players were motivated by it.

What I needed to do now was to hold my end of the bargain, to keep my head held high even if Fulham were to hand us a thrashing, and to ensure that regardless of our results, I was every bit the consummate professional on both sideline and the training ground. Rachel had been right – my sulking was helping nobody – and with the stakes suddenly so high, I had little choice but to keep my doubts to myself.

Besides, if I continued to sulk under my cloud, I would not only ruin the Southampton fans’ Christmases, but Rachel’s, Bethan’s and Rebecca’s. That was a prospect I was far more worried about, and I only had four more days to make sure I avoided it.

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I named a line-up that was close to my strongest at Craven Cottage – our form allowed us little alternative. It was a strong team, a team more than capable of beating even an in-form Fulham side, but the fact was that we were not performing and could not simply expect to turn up and expect the hosts to roll over. As league leaders, nobody was rolling over for us anymore – we had targets on our backs, and more often than not our opposition was upping their game against us. We had to work for our wins.

Yet this time there was a spring in my players’ step, my recognition of our title credentials giving them a confidence boost which I had underestimated. Our front four in particular looked dangerous in the opening exchanges, and we quickly established control over the game. It seemed only a matter of time before the opening goal came, and it came quickly – just 11 minutes in, to be precise. The presence of full-backs Vandinho and Kus in the penalty area caused the Fulham defence no end of problems as we overloaded the box, and they were forced to leave men unmarked. One such man was Adam Bright, and he steered the Dutchman’s square ball through the legs of the goalkeeper from close range to give us the ideal start.

The goal gave us the boost we needed, and even at 1-0 it was difficult to see Fulham getting back into the game, short of a gift on our part. It was exactly the kind of mistake we had been making in recent weeks, but this was a different Southampton side on display, and 15 minutes after Bright’s goal, his attacking midfield partner Cohen drilled in a shot from 18 yards to double the advantage. Just before the break, a loose ball in the area was slotted home by the Israeli international, and at 3-0 the game was as good as done.

The third goal matched Liverpool’s score in their win over Watford earlier in the day, meaning that our slender advantage at the top would be retained if we managed to keep a clean sheet through the second period. Not only did we succeed in keeping the Cottagers at bay – keeper Beraldi having very little to do thanks to an excellent defensive performance – but we added a fourth goal of our own, Escalada completing the rout by getting ahead of his man at the near post and flicking another cross from Kus between the woodwork and the goalkeeper. Our whole team celebrated with gusto, mobbing the Argentine before he knew what had hit him, and the message was clear – Southampton were back, and we meant business.

The mood on the way back to St Mary’s could not have been more different from the prevalent feeling in the camp over the previous week. There was music and laughter that we had sorely missed as the players relived the win, and as some of them checked the league table on their mobile devices, there was a genuine thrill at seeing our lead nudge ever-so-slightly larger – we now led on goal difference rather than goals scored. Not only that, but the players knew that an away win on December 23rd meant two days off and Christmas with their families before the crucial clash with Liverpool on Boxing Day, and that was enough to lighten everybody’s mood.

I include myself in that, and although it was all too brief – as the festive period always is for a manager in the English game – the two days spent exclusively with Rachel and the girls was a much-needed opportunity to hit the pause button on all things football, treasure the important things in life, and help Bethan and Rebecca create memories which would hopefully be a source of happiness throughout their lives. It would not be long before our two daughters would be holding Christmas in their own homes – they would be 14 and 12 next year – and so I made a point of cherishing each moment we were together. As I’ve said before, I will not always be a football manager but I will always be a father, and although I need nudging in the right direction at times, it always a joy to play that second role more fully.

Of course, it was over all too quickly, and before I knew it I was back at the stadium on Boxing Day morning, ready to put my men through their paces in a light training session before the arrival of Liverpool in our top-of-the-table clash later that day. It really was the easiest of sessions – I had no intention of risking injuring my players on the day of such a key match – but it was clear that there was no festive hangover lingering in the squad. If Liverpool wanted to beat us, they would have to rely on their performance on the field. We were not about to beat ourselves.

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“So, a goalless first 45 minutes at St Mary’s in this Boxing Day meeting between the top two sides in the Premier League, but there’s been no shortage of action on field. James Ward-Prowse, your thoughts on that first half?”

“Yeah, it’s been a good game out there even without the goal. I thought Liverpool started brightly, but Southampton didn’t let them through and after that first 10 minutes or so it’s been very even. I wondered whether the hosts might look to strike early as they so often do, but they didn’t really get much of a look-in.”

“It’s been a bit of a feisty one as well, not too much Christmas cheer being shown with tackles flying around – you can tell the stakes are high in this one. Two yellow cards to either side so far, and it could so easily have been more.”

“I think Chris Blackett has done an excellent job refereeing the game – he’s let things flow where possible, but at the same he’s been firm when players have crossed the line. I thought Curtis Bateson was a little bit lucky to stay on the field as you could easily argue Pirulito would have been through on goal, but the officials have had a good game so far.” 

Southampton have probably had the upper hand since the break, and here they come now on the attack with Woodward, the holding man stepping forward in possession. He finds Vandinho, and they’ve got numbers forward here.”

“Yes, Liverpool have to be careful here. The full-back checks back and finds Blanc, and that’s a dangerous ball in, but it’s head away by Garza to the edge of the box.”

“It’ll break to a Southampton shirt though, and Adam Bright is on the ball 20 yards from goal. Dummies the shot, and Cohen is unmarked if he can pick him out…”

“He can! Gidon Cohen with a fine finish, and with just over 20 minutes of the game to play it’s the Saints who have the lead, and just listen to that crowd roar!”

“They’ve deserved that for the way they’ve played in this second half, and Liverpool are really up against it now. Unless they can find a way back into one, Southampton are going three points clear at the top of the Premier League.” 

Bateson has tripped Misso there, and he could be in trouble here…”

“He’s off! Chris Blackett shows the Southampton man his second yellow card of the afternoon, and Liverpool will have an extra man for the final 12 minutes as they try and get back into this.”

“I don’t think Bateson can have any complaints there – both fouls have been worthy of yellow cards, and he’ll have to hope his team-mates can hold on to their lead without him.”

“That is a nasty tackle by Garza, and the Southampton players have not reacted well to that at all – the Spaniard is having to be taken away by his team-mates.”

Escalada is just about getting back to his feet, which is good to see, but what is the referee going to decide? It’s red! Enrique Garza is sent off, Liverpool’s numerical advantage lasted just three minutes, and this one will finish 10 against 10!” 

“That’s it, the final whistle blow and it’s Southampton who get the three points here today. A few weeks ago there were plenty questioning whether Owain Williams’ men could go all the way, but they’re three points clear and have just beaten their closest rivals. Final thoughts James?

“It’s been a great game to watch, and I think the right result in the end. Southampton were the better side in the second half, and got the goal that mattered. I’m still not sure about the title, but I’m be cheering them all the way – it’d be great to see them do it.”

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The win over Liverpool confirmed what I had suspected after the victory at Fulham – we were back, the slump was over, and the Southampton that had taken the league by storm for the first 15 games or so was more than capable of doing the same in the second half of the season. That last win had wrapped up the first half of our fixtures for the year, and looking ahead to our expected run-in, there was one game which stood out more clearly than any other – Liverpool, at New Anfield, on the final day of the season.

There would be plenty of football played between now and then however, beginning with our final game of 2028 as we welcomed Champions League chasers Tottenham to St Mary’s. After our win against our closest challengers we were favourites to overcomes the North Londoners, but at the same time we had to be careful – we were heading to Old Trafford just 48 hours later, and so I needed to strike the right balance between making sure we got the result without wearing my team down in advance of the United game.

With that in mind, it was a mixed side that took to the field against Spurs, with our opponents also taking the chance to rotate a few fringe players into the line-up. Earlier in the season our League Cup clash had been somewhat farcical for the number of changes made on either side, and while this was not nearly as comprehensive, it was worrying that it had happened again so soon.

Beraldi retained his place in goal behind a back line of Vandinho, Hodge, McGoona and Acuna, with Blanc coming in for Woodward and Henrique returning from suspension. Ross Ifan replaced Bright alongside Gidon Cohen with Bright dropping to the bench, in support of a front two of Escalada and Jacobson. We had plenty of big names on the bench – Kus, Eggen, Woodward, Bright and Sidibe were all regular members of the starting line-up – and so I was hopeful that, even if things did not go our way initially, we had the strength in depth to turn things around with our replacements.

Any fears I had of tiredness allowing Spurs to overrun my men were ill-founded, and as the opening stages of the match played out it was apparent that it was in fact our visitors who were suffering from the effects of festive fatigue. On another day we could have scored twice in the opening 10 minutes – Hodge heading one off the post from a corner and Jacobson forcing a fine save from the visiting keeper, with little threat offered by the away side. I wondered how long we would need before the breakthrough, and I would shortly have my answer.

Just after the half hour, Acuna pressed his claims for more regular football with a fine interception and then a curling ball down the right flank for Cohen to chase. He got there ahead of his man, slipped a pass inside for Ifan, and the Welshman rounded off a fine move by finding Escalada bursting through a gap in the defence into the space he needed to beat the keeper low across goal. It was an excellent team goal, it settled any nerves that we may have had, and it left Spurs with a mountain to climb in the second half.

For a side supposedly seeking to qualify for the Champions League, our opponents’ lack of both depth and fight was almost worrying, as the expected response simply never came. Instead we doubled our advantage 10 minutes into the second period, this time Escalada providing the cross for Cohen to finish at the far post, and even after both sides made a number of changes we remained on top. It was one of our substitutes, captain Kenan Kus, who wrapped up the points for my side, sending in a fizzing shot which crashed in off the foot of the post with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot. We finished the scoring at 3-0, and that was that.

After our slump earlier in the month, there was little doubting that we were back in form, having hit eight unanswered goals in our previous four games, all against sides in the top five. It meant that after 20 of our 38 fixtures, our 51 points led the way in the Premier League table – ahead of Liverpool on 48 and Arsenal on 46. Ominously, Manchester City had recovered well from their poor start, and if they won their two games in hand – earned while away winning the Club World Cup once again – they would move to 40 points and the final Champions League berth. To write Diego Simeone’s side off, even at this stage, would be foolish, but we knew what we had to do. If we kept winning, City could win all of their remaining fixtures and would matter not a jot. That was the aim, and it was what we may well need to do to lift the title in May.

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I did not sleep much on the night that 2029 made its appearance. Not thanks to any stereotypical New Year’s drunkenness – lying in a Manchester hotel room, there was little chance of that – but through sheer force of reflection. I had not intended for my thoughts to deny me rest, but the sheer passage of time had forced me, on the eve of our match at Old Trafford, to take stock. Not merely of where my Southampton side were compared to where they had been when I had taken over, but of my managerial career and the state of my own life as a whole. As it turned out, there was enough wrapped up in those areas to occupy me for much of the night.

Thankfully for my sanity, the overall picture was an overwhelmingly positive one. Starting at St Mary’s, there was little doubt that I had brought the Saints on a huge distance in my two-and-a-half years in charge, and we were on course to achieve even greater things. I had taken the key elements of Petrescu’s team, added to them with my signings, slotted them together in a system I was beginning to have something like absolute faith in, and the results had followed. League Cup and Europa League titles, coupled with second place in the Premier League and progress into the last 16 of the Champions League was the evidence for our progress, and we stood a real chance of going even further in my third season.

The same was true of my managerial career as a whole. I had taken my professional bow in humble surroundings in Prestatyn, and even the early shoots of success were visible. We had dethroned TNS as the dominant force in Welsh football, taking the team to unprecedented heights, and I had become a local hero in Denbighshire. From then on, even the turbulent two years in Adelaide had been key to my development, and that had led to landing the job in America. It was amusing to imagine I had once been disappointed to have been rejected for the role of Gibraltar’s manager.

In Seattle, I achieved what I deemed real success for the first time. Prestatyn’s triumphs had been mixed with disappointment, our rivalry with the only professional side in Wales often leading us to second place. In Australia our victory, even our Champions League triumph came against the backdrop of failure at a much higher level, and while I had delivered silverware to the trophy cabinet, my tenure will forever be remembered for the conflict between the manager’s office and the ownership – a conflict that ultimately ended in criminal proceedings for my adversary. Yet in Seattle, with a dedicated team all pulling in the same direction, I had led the team from the bottom half of MLS to two-time national champions and ultimately the best team in the continent. Not only that, but the foundations laid there had allowed Clint Dempsey to maintain the same level of success – I had made lasting changes to the club which had propelled them forward, and that was one of things I was proudest of.

Here at Southampton, I was not yet sure if I had managed that. Our current success could only be labelled as temporary, and the final verdict would no doubt come a long time after I left St Mary’s for the last time. That was something I could not afford to give too much thought to while still being in the moment, but it was nevertheless something I dwelt one from time to time. The idea of a legacy, of being remembered as someone who had left a positive impact, was somehow important without me ever really expressing it.

That left me with life in general to contemplate – by which I mostly meant family, relationships, the things that make us human when every other layer of identity is stripped back. If I were to lose my job, my passport, my hobbies and passions, I would always be Rachel’s husband, Bethan and Rebecca’s dad, and otherwise connected to countless others whose paths I had crossed over my almost 50 years on this planet – another reason for my large dose of reflection. For my family most of all, I felt truly grateful.

Rachel was nothing short of my rock, as cliché as it might seem to say so. Not only had she retained the love and kindness that had attracted me to her so many years ago, but she had blossomed as a mother to our daughters, and had shown a huge deal of grace and patience with my football-induced doubts and depressions. Without her, I imagine I would have given up on the game and myself a long time ago, without achieving even a fraction of what I had done subsequently. There was literally no-one in the world I would rather be married to.

And in Bethan and Rebecca, my wife had blessed me with two daughters who made it a genuine pleasure to come home from work, who in fact made it impossible for me to get truly lost in myself, and whose presence around the family home lifted everybody’s spirits. As Bethan began to enjoy the beginning of her teenage years and Rebecca approached them, I had no doubts that some of the light would soon be replaced by occasional bursts of stereotypical moody darkness, but it was no exaggeration that they brightened the life of both me and my wife. I knew people who struggled with parenthood, who had regrets over their family situation. I could say with the clearest of consciences that I had never found myself in that position.

The only area of life that I was not wholly satisfied in, to the surprise of absolutely nobody who had met me, was myself. In a way I knew this to be healthy – without a desire for self-improvement and personal progress, we simply stagnate – but my own tendency to allow this to drift into morosity and darkness was far from it. I dealt poorly with pressure, applied it excessively to myself, and often allowed my anxieties to cloud my relationships with others. Rachel had grown used to it, but it was unfair of me to expect her to. It was something that, as my 50th birthday rapidly approached, I resolved to do something about sooner rather than later.

Of course, I’d made such resolutions before, and they hadn’t always gone particularly well. It remained to be seen how well I’d get on this time.

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Old Trafford, even with the home team struggling in the bottom half of the table – albeit with improvements evident under Roberto Martinez – was an imposing place to play football. In the heyday of Sir Alex Ferguson, the sheer atmosphere of the venue was enough to give the tenants a one-goal lead in the minds of their opponents, and while the aura of invincibility had well and truly gone, it was certain that our visit to Manchester would be by no means an easy way to welcome in the New Year.

Just two days after our win over Spurs we were tired even with rotation, but United had also played 48 hours beforehand and had needed to make changes to their side, and so it was two sides at 75% strength that went head to head at Old Trafford. I was confident enough in the depth of my squad – we were able to welcome back to likes of Kus and Hodge into our defence, with Bright and Sidibe rejoining our front four, and I was hopeful of taking advantage of a stuttering United who, even with their recent good run, were mired in 13th. A win here, and we would have come through a gruelling four-match run with maximum points and our Premier League lead firmly intact.

We had intended to get after the hosts early, trying to pressure them into an early mistake which we could take advantage of. It was a regular tactic of ours, and I doubt very much that our attempt at any early blitz took anyone in England by surprise any more, but nevertheless we had pulled it off on a number of occasions, and there was certainly no harm in trying as long as we didn’t leave ourselves vulnerable at the back. Even if all we managed was to impose ourselves on the game, it would leave United with no doubts as to our intentions.

As it happened, our initial 10-minute spell did not yield the goal we so desired, but we did not drop the pace by much, and the opener was not far behind. Just before 20 minutes had elapsed, Ifan found himself in space and possession 25 yards from goal, and with the home defence pulled apart by matching runs from Sidibe and Escalada, he needed no second invitation to play the pass through for Adam Bright to race onto through the resulting gap. He made no mistake with an accurate finish into the bottom corner, and we led 1-0 at Old Trafford.

In previous seasons, the United faithful would have roared their side back into the game, safe in the knowledge that their side had the ability to bounce back and win the game from a goal down. This season however, having witnessed their side’s decline under Jurgen Klopp, that confidence was decidedly absent, and there was an unfamiliar hush around the grand old stadium which gave us a welcome boost. We could hear the few thousand faithful Saints in the away end singing their approval, and with it we took a vice-like grip on the game that we were not about to relinquish.

We took the 1-0 lead into the second half, at which point the quality on offer began to deteriorate as legs started to tire. Beraldi was called into action just twice, on both occasions saving comfortably from outside the area, and it was testament to our defence that at no point did the home side get a shot off from inside the box. We looked the more likely to score but failed to add to our tally inside the 90 minutes, only to double the lead in stoppage time – once a United hallmark – when Leighton Hodge flicked in a Kenan Kus free-kick, and the 2-0 win allowed us to start 2029 with an excellent, professional win.

After the match, we had a new problem to deal with. We had known it would happen even before we had chosen to confirm the deal, but it was nevertheless a blow when Ange Sidibe was confirmed as part of the Ivory Coast side for the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. He would be joined on international duty by backup holding man Emad Hossam for Egypt, and we would have to negotiate up to six weeks without one of our starting strikers and a useful squad member. Other sides would also lose key men and so we would simply have to cope, but we would certainly miss them nonetheless. It was another hurdle we had to clear if we were to become champions.

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January is not only a time for playing the game on the field, but for making changes off it. With a single month available to make transfers, I had never been one to make sweeping changes to the first team, but it nevertheless an excellent opportunity to secure the signings of future Saints by keeping an eye on Bosman possibilities.

The day after the United game, we secured two signings – one for now, one for the summer, and both very much for the future of Southampton Football Club. Immediately joining us from French side Marseille, at a cost of just under £2m, was 16-year-old defender Moustapha Dia. He was very much a raw talent, but possessed remarkable pace and strength for someone so young, and I hoped he could be moulded into an excellent centre-back in the years to come.

Joining him at St Mary’s in the summer would be Rene Muller, an 18-year-old who had turned down an extension to him contract at Borussia Monchengladbach to join us in Hampshire. He was a promising young attacking midfielder more in the Ross Ifan mould than that of Bright or Cohen, taking a more technical approach rather than one based on pace, and would be an asset to our reserve side upon his arrival. I had high hopes for the young German, envisaging him either heading out on loan or taking in the early rounds of the League Cup, and hoped he would prove an astute signing for the club.

The New Year also signalled the entry of the Premier League clubs into the FA Cup, and were travelled from one Northern city to another as we headed to second-tier Hull City for our first game in this year’s tournament. We were heavily favoured at the KC Stadium, but as title challengers in the top flight, we were one of the teams that everybody would be looking to scalp for an upset, and so we would have to be one our guard.

Nevertheless, I felt comfortable enough to swap our entire starting line-up, making 11 changes in a decision which would no doubt draw plenty of ire from the fans and press if we failed to get the win. For years, the English media had bemoaned the fact that the League Cup was no longer taken seriously by the nation’s top sides, and in recent years they had unleashed the same argument on the FA Cup, the competition’s rich history adding weight to their protestations. I had no intention of throwing the competition away – I simply thought the side selected could do the job.

I was proved right – quite emphatically in fact – and as I explained to the assembled media afterwards, the team I had sent out was still full of established Premier League and international players. That was highlighted by the scoresheet, which showed a 3-0 win with goals scored by Argentina forward Escalada and Wales star Jacobson in addition to John Ruane, who the more optimistic of Saints supporters were mentioning as an outside bet for an England cap. I didn’t think our back-up striker was good enough for that just yet, but he certainly had the potential if he maintained his hard work.

The draw for the next round had us back at St Mary’s, where we would face another Championship side. We were very familiar with Sheffield United, the Blades having only been relegated from the top flight at the end of last season. We would again be heavy favourites in a fortnight’s time – as we would be any time we were pitted against lower-league opposition, and the expectation was that we continued into the latter stages of the famous old cup.

With Saturday’s job well done, our next task was to take on relegation-threatened Burnley in action, and against a side sat in the bottom three of the Premier League, we put in another highly professional performance. Callum Jacobson made the most of Sidibe’s absence with a goal in each half, his strikes coming either half of a penalty from Boyd Clarke. With Liverpool overcoming Spurs on Merseyside, we maintained a six-point lead having played a game more than our rivals, and all looked good for Southampton.

We wrapped up a fine week with the announcement of another summer free transfer, Juan Calvo arriving from River Plate in his homeland to add depth to our central defensive cohort. The 23-year-old was similar to Escalada in that he clearly had the ability to be playing in a more competitive league than the Argentine system, and if he showed anything like the talent of his countryman at St Mary’s, he would no doubt be a firm favourite in no time.

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Owain, a difficult time for your team out there today, you must be disappointed?”

I took a deep breath before answering the inevitable question from the journalist. I was consciously trying not to sink into one of my all-too-familiar holes after a defeat, and so bought myself a little time to rationalise the day’s events.

“It’s always disappointing to be beaten, so of course I’m not best pleased, but at the same time I don’t think we played badly out. We dominated possession, I don’t remember Brighton testing our keeper beyond their two goals, and they were just more clinical on the day. They took their chances, we didn’t, and we have to go away and learn from it. Congratulations to Brighton though, they had a plan, stuck to it, and got their rewards.”

“The first goal came with the referee’s whistle in his mouth for half-time, does it make a difference to concede at such a crucial moment?”

“I’m not really one for clichés, and in reality there aren’t too many moments in a football match that are more important than others – unless you’re talking about opening the scoring in the 94th minute. We had ample opportunities to score before their goal, we should have been ahead, and we weren’t. That’s why we lost today, not because the goal came right on half-time.”

“Are you aware of the score from Old Trafford?

“Of course, it’s impossible these days not to know what’s going on.”

“With Liverpool winning there, they could go level on points if they win their game in hand. Does that add any pressure to your team over the next few weeks?”

“The pressure comes from being at the top of the Premier League, regardless of who is chasing us. In the next few weeks we play in the league, we play in the FA Cup, we play in the Champions League – the pressure is from within to perform, and what other teams are doing shouldn’t affect our desire to play as well as we can and win.”

I didn’t entirely believe my own answer there – of course Liverpool’s results added to the pressure on us – but I wasn’t about to admit it. Not in public at any rate.

“One more for you Owain – you turn 50 on Friday, so with Sheffield United in the cup on the Saturday, can you tell us how you’ll be celebrating?”

I laughed at the question – it was relevant to nothing related to football, but it was hardly one I could decline to answer.

“It won’t be a spectacular affair, I can tell you that much. I don’t know the full extent of the plans – you’d have to ask my wife that question – but I suspect we’ll have a nice family meal and maybe a small celebration at the club if we beat the Blades on Saturday. I certainly don’t want a birthday party to be blamed for a cup upset, so there’ll be nothing making the front pages in the morning, I assure you.”

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My 50th birthday was indeed marked in the manner I had expected – a perfectly pleasant evening spent with my family at our favourite local restaurant, and while there were a couple of brazen Saints fans who thought nothing of interrupting for the sake of a photo, autograph and handshake, it was an excellent way to spend the evening. Rachel hinted that there might be something else to come after our FA Cup clash with Sheffield United, but anything at the club would be secondary – it was a family moment, and one I would remember fondly.

That allowed me to wake up fully prepared to guide Southampton into the last 16 of the FA Cup, with my main concern being my own team selection rather than the threat posed by our Championship opposition. I had full confidence that any of my first-team squad would be enough to defeat the Blades, but again the issue was the double-edged sword of fitness and playing time. As a result, there was rotation, and once more those entrusted with the task did the job comfortably.

John Ruane was enjoying a run in the team in the absence of Sidibe – whose Ivory Coast side were looking strong over in Tunisia – and it was the former Manchester City man who got us up and running with a goal in just the 11th minute of the match. The visiting Blades simply could not cope with our pace and movement, and shortly after the half hour we killed the tie off, Ruane again the beneficiary with a close-range effort.

Five minutes later, Escalada made a fool of his marker for our third, twisting and turning in the area to beat his man on three separate occasions before lashing a shot high into the net at the near post, and we trotted off at the interval with a decisive 3-0 lead in the bag. A slow, uneventful second half saw no further scoring, and our interests turned to the draw for the fifth round, where we were matched for the third round in a row with Championship opposition. Reading would be the visitors to St Mary’s, and our path to the quarter-finals seemed to be a relatively straightforward one.

However, I was not to escape without my birthday being celebrated at the club, and with Rachel’s blessing, Terry McPhillips had arranged for the players, staff and their partners to party away into the night – with understandable limitations on alcohol intake – as a nod to my landmark’s passing. While I’m not sure how concerned some of the younger players were at their manager’s ageing process, it was a thoughtful gesture from my assistant, made all the more so by his speech in my honour. Terry and I had enjoyed an excellent professional relationship during my time in charge, but his words and actions showed him to be an excellent man as well as a great assistant, and the thanks I gave him in my own mandatory speech were humble and heartfelt.

Two days later, with the party a mere memory, I was informed of what seemed like yet another major injury to my side – although this one would not be nearly as big a blow as those that had ruled out Clarke and Bright earlier in the season. The unfortunate party in this instance was young Mexican midfielder Jorge Romo, yet to make a first-team appearance for the Saints, who had been carried off in a reserve game away at Brighton after tearing his calf muscle. The injury would all but end his season, and it remained to be seen whether he would able to continue his development upon his return.

Like Lloyd Collins before him, I convinced him that the club would be there for him throughout his rehabilitation, that he need not rush back into action, and that he would need plenty of patience over the next few months. Romo was a little less confident than his Welsh team-mate in his ability to bounce back, but he seemed at the very least satisfied with the support on offer.

The following day, on a cold Tuesday night at St Mary’s, we hosted a West Ham side just about keeping their heads above the relegation water in 17th place. With Liverpool in League Cup semi-final action at the same time, it was a chance for us to extend our lead to six points at the top of the table, and I hammered home the importance of doing so to my men. Failure to win would hand the initiative to the Reds, and I was unsure of our ability to play catch-up after leading the league for so long.

Having listened to my instructions, my Saints went out and blew the Hammers off the pitch. Within 12 minutes we led 2-0, Ruane opening the scoring before turning provider for Cohen, and from then on it was a simple procession. A third goal arrived courtesy of Escalada five minutes before the break, and that was all that was needed. In many ways it was a carbon copy of the Sheffield United cup tie – a comfortable win against opponents simply lacking the tools to fight back – and we moved six clear of our closest rivals. Their games in hand would bring them level, but the important thing was to stay on top. For the time being at least, we had done just that.

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In the Saturday lunchtime kick-off, Liverpool dismantled West Ham at New Anfield by the exact same 3-0 scoreline, closing to within three points ahead of our home clash with another one of the relegation battlers, newly-promoted Leicester. We had gathered as a team to watch the game together in the build-up to our own game, and the Reds had looked ominous. We were not phased however – if anything, it made us all the more determined to hold up our end of the bargain.

I watched from the sideline with satisfaction as captain Kus fired us into the lead after just three minutes of the match, the trademark Southampton blitz overwhelming the visiting Foxes in the opening stages of the game. Again against lesser opposition we were showing our class, zipping quick passes around the pitch with ease and leaving the visitors chasing shadows in the early stages of the match.

Not long later, we made it 2-0. Kus was again instrumental in the goal, carrying the ball a full 50 yards up the right wing before giving the ball infield to Clarke. A sumptuous backheel from one striker found another breaking between two Leicester defenders, and Ruane continued his excellent scoring foot by shooting hard between the goalkeeper’s legs to double the lead. As Ruane wheeled away in celebration, it was hard to see any outcome other than a Southampton victory.

However, the second goal seemed to wake up Malky Mackay’s men, and for the remainder of the first half the away side began to work their way back into the game. Paolo Beraldi, a virtual spectator in the opening half hour, was quickly forced into action to keep his sheet clean, and it was the visitors on top when the whistle blew for half-time. We needed the break to regroup and catch our breath, but the interval also gave Leicester the chance to fire themselves up and come up with a plan to get back in the game.

Five minutes into the second half, they did just that. Henrique uncharacteristically gave the ball away inside the Leicester half, but a single long ball over the top left our defence struggling to get back into position. Eggen’s header looked to have dealt with the threat, but a scorching 25-yard effort from the right book of Liam Pemberton flashed beyond the dive of Beraldi to halve the deficit, and leave us with a real fight on our hands for the remaining 40 minutes.

Understandably we retreated slightly as Leicester tried to square the game, dropping deeper into a more compact defensive shape in a bid to kill the visitors’ momentum. Pemberton tried again from range but succeeded only in shooting wide, and as the clock ticked on we managed to squeeze the life out of our opponents’ attacking force until the finish line was firmly in sight.

That is, until the 92nd minute of the match, when one last Leicester attack bore down on our defence. Unable to find a gap through the centre they swung the ball wide to the right wing, and a dangerous, curling cross caused our defenders all sorts of problems. Three men went up for the ball – Eggen, Hodge and visiting striker Petersson – and it was the latter who got the decisive header, sending the ball back across goal and in at the far post to stun St Mary’s into silence.

A split-second later, the silence turned to a mocking roar as the celebrating Leicester side were stopped in their tracks by the linesman’s flag, the official flagging for a push by the goalscorer and ruling out the last-gasp equaliser. Mackay was apoplectic with rage at the decision and in truth he had my sympathy – I had certainly not seen an infringement – but the referee took his assistant’s word, disallowing the goal and thoroughly deflating the visitors. Seconds later the final whistle blew with the score still at 2-1, and somehow we had seen out the win. It had been dangerously close, far too close for comfort, and yet the three points were ours to keep. Ultimately, that was all that mattered.

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From the BBC Sport website

Late Villa Leveller Gives Reds Title Edge

A last-gasp equaliser at Villa Park handed Liverpool the advantage in the Premier League title race, with Southampton unable to match the Reds' win at Wolves with victory over the Villans.

Neither side was on top form in a dull first half, the highlight of which came with Boyd Clarke missing a glorious one-on-one opportunity by stroking the ball just wide of the far post after being sent clean through on goal. The league leaders perhaps edged the opening period, but the lack of a cutting edge meant the first half remained scoreless.

Just 20 miles away at Molineux, a brace from Pirulito inside the opening 10 minutes settled the match decisively for a Liverpool side in fine form after a 3-0 win away at Brighton in midweek, moving them to within three points of the leaders with a game in hand. By the end of the day, that gap was closer still, with the Merseyside outfit now holding the advantage in the race for the title.

That did not look to be the case after 73 minutes, when Ross Ifan saw his effort from 25 yards bend sumptuously around the dive of the Villa goalkeeper and bounce in off the far post to give his side the lead, the Welshman clearly proud of a strike worthy of winning any match. With less than 20 minutes remaining of the 90, a Southampton victory looked the most likely result.

But midtable Villa have made it hard for several of the top sides on their own turf this season, and today proved no different – although they were given a huge helping hand by their opponents. With just two minutes remaining, Brazilian full-back Vandinho sold his goalkeeper short with an underhit backpass, allowing the grateful Aldi Redzovic a golden opportunity to level the match. The Bosnian international duly obliged, sliding the ball under Beraldi to earn a point for his side, and deal the visitors’ title hopes a huge blow.

Southampton retain their place at the top of the Premier League pile by a single point, but the crucial factor now lies in the number of games played. Thanks to their continued involvement in the League Cup, Liverpool have a game in hand which could see them leapfrog the Saints to the summit, a position Owain Williams’ side have held since the opening weeks of the season.

With 12 games still remaining of a thrilling season, there will no doubt be plenty of twists and turns left in the Premier League tale, however there is no doubt that losing the lead after such a long time will be a psychological blow to the South Coast club. Having defied expectations to set the pace for so long, all eyes will now be on Southampton to see whether they can deal with a whole new type of pressure. If they can, we could see an historic title head to St Mary’s. If not, Liverpool will almost certainly be the beneficiaries.

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This was what European football was all about. Forget the day-to-day pressures of the Premier League, forget dropping points at Villa Park and wondering which bottom-half side would do us a favour and take points off Liverpool. This was the Champions League, the absolute pinnacle of club football, and we had every right to find ourselves in this position.

More specifically, we had earned the right to grace the majestic Wanda Metropolitano, the relatively recently renovated home of Spanish giants Atletico Madrid, who would be our hosts for the first leg of our last-16 tie. We would welcome them back to Hampshire in three weeks’ time, and our objective for the day was simply to keep the tie alive heading into that second leg. Having an away goal to our name would be ideal, as would avoiding defeat. If we could keep the tie in the balance, we had a chance.

It was a chance which took a serious hit just two minutes into the game, as Harry Eggen stayed down following an excellent challenge on home winger Gonzalo Reyes. Our Norwegian defender won the ball cleanly, but his opponent’s momentum had led to a nasty clash of knees, and it was my man who had come off worst of the two. So bad was the damage that he was unable to continue, and would in fact be ruled out for the best part of six weeks while his knee recovered. As arguably our best centre-back, it was a major loss on several levels.

Atletico seized on the nervousness that Eggen’s injury created, and began to push us back. Reyes himself almost opened the scoring early on, only a strong wrist from Beraldi stopping his skidding shot finding the corner of the net, before powerful Brazilian forward Franca thought he had broken the deadlock midway through the half only to watch his vicious shot cannon off the post and out for a throw. We were far from our fluid best, and I ventured into my technical area to try and urge my men to relax.

Gradually, we did manage to find a semblance of rhythm, and when we did it was deadly. Our first attack saw Escalada’s shot fizz over the crossbar with the goalkeeper static, and the second found the target with a moment of brilliance. Benjamin Blanc’s ball took three men out of the game before reaching Bright on the edge of the area, and the England international gave the move the end it deserved by hitting a first-time shot on the turn between two defenders and past the keeper. We had the away goal we had so desperately craved, and at half-time we led the mighty Atletico by a goal to nil.

After the break, we again felt the full force of the Madrid attack as they sought to get back into the game, knowing that taking a deficit to England would likely end any chance they had of making it to the last eight. However, we were largely able to match them, keeping them honest enough at the back to ensure that they could not commit too many men to our penalty area, thereby easing the pressure on our defence.

Had it not been for a late – but admittedly correct – offside flag, Escalada might have doubled our advantage midway through the second period, but we were equally indebted to the linesman at the other end, Kus’ slip allowing Reyes in, only to be rescued by the official. We were in a genuinely competitive knockout tie, and it was a sign of how far my Saints had come that we were able to go toe-to-toe with a club of Atletico’s stature.

However, we were not able to take a lead back to St Mary’s to defend, try and we might to repel the Spaniards. There was little we could have done about the goal, a quality move carving us apart, and it was finished with aplomb by Luis Toca, the striker slotting home from 10 yards after finding space in the area and getting on the end of Franca’s low cross. In truth, our hosts deserved their equaliser, but we were determined not to give them anything more than that.

We succeeded in our aim, the Croatian referee blowing for time with the tie finely poised at 1-1, and we knew that if we could keep the Spaniards out at St Mary’s, we would book ourselves a place in the quarter-finals. That had been beyond even our most ambitious of expectations at the start of the season, but with the away goal in the bag and a solid display in Madrid, it seemed a real possibility. It would not be easy, but we had a chance. That was all we had asked for, and it was now ours to take.

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Owain, another comfortable win against Championship opposition, you must be pleased with how your team is handling the FA Cup this season?”

“It’s always good to win games, and to do so without too much fuss is always a relief for a manager. Reading didn’t do much wrong today, but two goals in five minutes makes it very hard to stage a comeback, and we were very professional today.”

Manchester City in the next round, how different will that one be?”

“Obviously City are an excellent side, and I don’t think it’s disrespectful to Reading to say we’ll expect more of a test when they come to visit. We’ve beaten them once this season though, and we’ll have the home fans behind us, so we’ll take confidence into it.”

“Finally Owain, how pleased were you to see Liverpool drop points in midweek? You’re level on points, but they could have taken the lead with a win.”

“If we win the league this season it’ll be because of what we do, not what Liverpool do or don’t do, but on the other hand I think I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t smiled at the news. It sounds like it could have been even worse for them had it not been for the penalty call, but we can’t do anything about that – we have to focus on Southampton.”

Our serene progress in the FA Cup continued with a 3-0 win over Reading, and the following even we gathered as squad to watch Ange Sidibe lead the Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations final against Nigeria. There were cheers when our striker opened the scoring in the first half, nervous moments when the Super Eagles equalised after the interval, and then applause all around as Sidibe struck twice more in extra time to seal both his hat-trick and the title for his nation. It took his record for his national side to a remarkable 20 goals in just 16 appearances, and I couldn’t wait to have him back in a Southampton shirt – he was without doubt a special player.

He would not be nearly fit enough, having played 120 minutes on Sunday evening in Tunisia, to face Wolves at Molineux on Tuesday night, but he insisted on travelling with the squad to the Black Country nonetheless. We were looking for a win to maintain our lead at the top of the Premier League table, while I personally was looking for another win over John Terry – the former Chelsea man had a way of getting on my nerves, and this was as close to a grudge match as I had in the dugout.

Frustratingly, this would be the first time Terry got the better of me and my Saints, even if his toothless Wolves were outshot by 17 to five and barely threatened Beraldi’s goal over the course of the 90 minutes. They had set their stall out to sit deep and defend, and as the game ticked on with nobody troubling the scorers, I began to wish that I could have thrown Sidibe for the final 20 minutes regardless of his lack of fitness. 0-0 did us no favours whatsoever, and two days later Liverpool cruised past Leicester 3-1 to take the outright lead by two points with 27 games played.

In truth it had been a long time in coming after several stutters since December, but we were now facing, for the first time all season, the prospect of having to chase down another side in our bid for the Premier League title. Last season it had been our form in the second half of the campaign that took us from outside the top four to the runners-up spot, and we needed a similar run in the last third of the campaign if we were to lift the title. We now needed other teams to do us a favour, and Liverpool to slip up, and already we had failed to capitalise on their draw against Newcastle. We had a lot of work to do, and having what already felt like a lengthy season, we were only really beginning.

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I turned to Terry McPhillips next to me on the bench, and he could only return my glance with a smile that threatened to split his face in half. The St Mary’s crowd roared its appreciation of a magnificent piece of Southampton football that once again had seen the ball end up in the back of net, and in the opposite dugout Sami Hyypia slumped disconsolate in his seat. The manner of the defeat, the identity of the latest scorer – it was all too much for the Finn.

It sounds as ridiculous to repeat as it was to see at the time – a rapid counter-attack down the Chelsea left seeing the ball eventually worked into the middle, where our forwards seemed to be well marked by their counterparts in blue. Sidibe, looking for a hat-trick in his first match since lifting the Cup of Nations trophy, received the ball in the area but had nowhere to go and few options for the pass – few options that is, until the most unlikely of Southampton shirts made itself available for the ball.

Haring forward at full pace from his position at centre-back was none other than defensive utility man Mel McGoona, and our Ivorian’s pass found the Welshman completely free, nobody having tracked his 70-yard run to the edge of the penalty area. On receiving the pass, he did not even take the time to control the ball, instead hitting what was probably the sweetest strike of his career to thunder a shot through the crowded area and into the back of the net before the bewildered goalkeeper could even move.

I couldn’t help but laugh as our summer signing and rare starter stood stunned in celebration, unsure of quite how to mark his spectacular goal. It was a remarkable moment, one which nobody had seen coming even at 4-1 up against the beleaguered Blues, and McGoona’s rocket for our fifth sealed a result which had been clear as soon as Sidibe’s own 20-yarder had rippled the net inside 20 minutes.

Perhaps as incredibly, there were still more than 20 minutes left to play, and still three more goals to be scored. Just two minutes after McGoona’s career highlight, countryman Ross Ifan snuck one in at the near post to make it 6-1, before Leonel Benitez pulled back a somewhat redundant second for the visitors shortly afterwards. In stoppage time, with the referee about to call time on one of our finest performances of the season, Gidon Cohen reacted quickest to Sidibe’s shot being parried back out into the area, and seconds later the whistle went to end a superb Southampton display. We had not just beaten Chelsea, we had completely dismantled them – at 7-2 and with six different goalscorers, we could hardly have done more.

While doing wonders for both our goal difference and goals scored column – both of which had previously determined the league leaders of the course of the season – our headline-grabbing win did little for the Premier League table, with Liverpool going out on Wednesday evening and comfortably handling Burnley by a score of 2-0 to keep their two-point lead at the summit.

The rest of February would not see us play on the same day as the Reds, with three different competitions converging to create a fixture nightmare. On Saturday we would travel to Liverpool for a league clash with their rivals and bottom side Everton, with the new league leaders taking on Manchester City in the League Cup final the following day. The following Wednesday, Liverpool would travel to Villa to make up their game in hand at the same as we hosted Atletico in our Champions League rematch, our league rivals in action in the same competition the following week. All it meant was that by the end of the year’s shortest month, we would have played 29 games each in the Premier League, and know whether or not we would be continuing our journey in UEFA’s showpiece competition. Things were hotting up, and we were right in the thick of it.

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Thank you once again for voting for Owain as your favourite story character of the past year, and for your continued support for this and my other stories. I'm humbled to be recognised among some truly excellent writers, so thank you for reading, commenting and keeping me going!
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It was not a good weekend for Merseyside clubs. Everton had been rock bottom of the league when we arrived at Goodison Park, and they remained there after the final whistle, two consolation goals in the final 10 minutes doing little to help their struggle to stay in the division. Their performance did little to suggest they would be able to claw their way back up the table in their remaining nine games, but that was none of our concern.

In truth, the game was settled just before half-time, more specifically when Adam Bright fired home from just behind the penalty spot for his second goal of the game. 15 minutes into the second half, he completed his hat-trick from the actual penalty spot after Hodge was clearly pushed at a corner, and five minutes later Sidibe made it 4-0 after a jinking solo run that left the last Everton defender on his backside and waiting for the ground to swallow him up. By this point Goodison was beginning to empty of home fans, and you could hardly blame them.

Late strikes from Lee Main and teenager Josh Honeyman were ultimately meaningless, but proved to be high point of a bad weekend for local clubs. The following afternoon, with the first domestic trophy of the season up for grabs, Liverpool fluffed their lines against a Manchester City side looking to assert their dominance in the cup competitions with their bad start in the Premier League looking like costing them their league title.

Diego Simeone’s men were in charge from the kick-off, taking an early goal through Yu Shuming and never looking back. The one clear opportunity Liverpool fashioned came from the penalty spot in a controversial decision, but Andy Plant swatted away the spot-kick to preserve the lead, and 10 minutes later an own goal sealed the win for the men in sky blue. The League Cup would stay in Manchester, and we could only hope that failure on the big occasion would play on our title rivals’ minds as they looked to preserve their lead.

Of course, our attention was only partly on events at Wembley, with our preparations firmly underway for our second leg against Atletico in the Champions League. Our away goal, scored by Adam Bright in Madrid, gave us an excellent opportunity to knock out one of European football’s perennial challengers, and we knew that a clean sheet would be enough to put us into the last eight.

It was simple enough to say, but we were under no illusions as to the difficulty of the task ahead of us. Atletico were the only side other than city rivals Real and Barcelona to have lifted the Spanish title since Valencia had broken the duopoly in 2004, and had twice claimed the Champions League crown for themselves. For us to knock out such a team would require a performance close to perfect – something like the 7-2 thrashing of Chelsea would no doubt do the job – and the press had made it clear that many were viewing this as yet another test of our credentials as a ‘top’ team and genuine challenger for major honours. I would have hoped that finishing second in the Premier League and winning the Europa League would have done that, but it was apparent that until we repeated the trick, we would continue to be viewed as a one-hit wonder.

That was not a label I, or any of my players, were happy with having given to us, but it was up to us to shake it off. A win over Atletico, progress into the last eight, and continued competition in the league were what was required of us, and that was what we aimed to do.

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Owain, was that the best performance you’ve seen from your Southampton side? I don’t think anybody expected that this evening.”

“It’s certainly up there, and given what was at stake and the quality of the opposition, I think if you put me on the spot I’d probably say yes – it was a superb performance all round.”

“For the first time ever in a Champions League match, Atletico didn’t manage a single shot at goal – how good were your defence tonight?”

“The back four were excellent, there’s no doubt about that – they were first to every ball and stayed disciplined right through to the final whistle. But it wasn’t just their doing – we defended from the front today, and attacked from the back, it really was a team victory out there.”

“And an emphatic one at that – did you ever think you could pull off a 5-0 win?”

“No, but then I didn’t expect to beat Chelsea 7-2 either and we managed that not all that long ago. We were brilliant today, everybody in a Southampton shirt can be hugely proud of their performance, and we’re looking forward to the next round now. I think other teams will be a little warier of us than they might otherwise have been now.”

“If I can pick out one player for a moment, Lucio Escalada scored a perfect hat-trick this evening, just how important is he to this team?”

Lucio is thrilled to bits with tonight, not least because he doesn’t get many with his head! He’s been a revelation since coming to Southampton, and what you saw tonight is what we see every day in training. He’s a brilliant player, and even though we’ve invested in our attack over the years, he’s proven time and time again that he is a top quality striker – he can do it all, and we’re lucky to have him.”

“Can you keep hold of him?”

“I don’t see why not – he’s at a club where he’s enjoying his football, we’re breaking new ground every season, and we’re competing for trophies at the highest level. We have no desire to sell our key assets, and I’d certainly count Lucio as one of those. I’ve no intention of letting him leave, and we’ve had no bids for his services.”

“You’ve booked a place in the quarter-finals with tonight’s win, and Manchester United did the same last night. With Liverpool and Manchester City ahead going into their second legs in strong positions, how important is it for English football to have all their teams doing well in the Champions League?

“It’s obviously a great advert for the Premier League if we’ve got teams regularly in the latter stages of European competition – players will always want to join successful teams, and it adds to the appeal of the competition. Whether it does anything for the national side I’m not so sure – English clubs have done well in Europe for a little while now, and yet the results in the international game haven’t seen much change. I don’t think it hurts, but it isn’t the magic bullet some would think it to be.”

“Is there anyone left in the draw you’d like to avoid, or are you confident after tonight that Southampton could give anyone a game over two legs?”

“That’s an excellent attempt to put words in my mouth but no, there’s no team we’re wanting to dodge – to be the best you have to beat the best, as the saying going. Personally, I’d prefer not to play another English side – part of the excitement of European competition is coming up against sides you don’t play every season in the league, but if the draw throws us together with City, United or Liverpool, then we’ll give it our best shot.”

“Finally Owain, I have to ask you – can Southampton win the Champions League?

“I think at this stage it’s safe to say we aren’t going to be anybody’s favourites, but when you make it to the quarter-finals you’re potentially only five games away from the trophy, so every team left has a chance. Of course we’ll be aiming to win it – there’s no point in competing unless you’re aiming to win – but we also recognise that we’ll be up against teams with a great deal more European experience and a huge amount of quality, so it’s going to be hugely difficult. We’ve had a great campaign, we’ll be back again next season, and in the meantime we’re going to work our hardest to keep this run going.”

“Thanks Owain, and congratulations again on a great win tonight.”

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  • 4 weeks later...

Apologies for the lengthy delay between posts here - I should be back to something more regular between now and the end of this season at least...
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Williams: We can win CL’ was not the headline I had in mind the morning after our 5-0 thumping of Atletico, but in fairness to the journalist in question, it was not a complete manipulation of what I had said. After such a complete performance – five goals, no shots allowed – against a genuine contender and previous winner of the competition, we had proven that we could win the whole thing. Whether we would or not was an entirely different question.

Regardless of our adventures in Europe, our primary focus had to remain on the Premier League, and the first thing I did after escaping the press pack was to check the evening’s domestic results. More specifically, the Liverpool result, and any Saints fans hoping for dropped points at Villa Park were disappointed. The home side had handed the Reds their advantage with their late equaliser in our match earlier in the year, but had no answer to the league leaders in a comfortable 2-0 defeat.

That put the New Anfield side on 73 points with nine games to go, two ahead of us after the same number of fixtures, with Arsenal occupying third place with a distant 61 – albeit having played one fewer match. Rounding out the Champions League places were a recovering City, Simeone’s men 15 points behind us but with three games still in hand thanks to their successful runs in the League, FA and Club World Cups, not to mention their ongoing participation in the Champions League. They remained a threat, but fixture congestion would surely play a crucial role in the remainder of their season. Watford and Spurs came next, but neither were close enough to the top four to have a realistic chance of qualifying, and with us almost 30 points ahead of the latter, they were barely on our radar.

March would open with another competition however, and by far our toughest test in the FA Cup. Having beaten no fewer than three Championship sides by matching 3-0 scorelines – Hull, Sheffield United and Reading all falling by the wayside – we had been drawn against City in the last eight, with the winners of the tie almost certainly joining title rivals Liverpool as the favourites to go on and lift the famous old trophy at Wembley.

Surprisingly, we had a full nine days off before our next game, and so I felt comfortable in naming arguably our strongest squad to take on Simeone’s side, with one or two exceptions – Hamish Jack, for example, would resume his role as our domestic cup keeper – and with a packed St Mary’s cheering us on, we had every reason to believe that we had what it takes to finally beat the holders in a cup competition.

However, 45 minutes after kick-off I was decidedly less confident, and the capacity crowd had been almost silenced by the speed of City’s start. Hitting us with the blitz we so often inflicted on others, Aziana Mbemba had managed to bag himself a brace in the opening 20 minutes, and we found ourselves with a hugely difficult task ahead of us in the second 45. Still, with memories of our famous league comeback fresh in our memories, Escalada fired us back into contention just two minutes after the restart, and our tails were up. Not for the first time, we felt we could get back at City.

It was not to be – on this occasion, Simeone’s side simply put the game on lock-down, adopting a more defensive system in order to keep us at bay, and the remainder of the half was a largely uneventful game in which we controlled possession but showed little sign of finding an equaliser. The visitors were equally unlikely to grab themselves a third, but they had no need for one, and after a second half for the purists, the whistle blew on our FA Cup campaign, sending City to Wembley and no doubt causing their fixture schedulers yet more headaches. I would rather have had their problem than be dumped out, but we couldn’t win them – not yet – and afterwards I tried to put a brave face on the defeat – City had started well and managed the game thereafter, and we could now focus on the league and Europe. I don’t know how many of the assembled press bought it, but that wasn’t my problem to worry about.

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“You’re pleased with the draw, aren’t you darling?”

Rachel was as perceptive as ever, noticing my not-too-subtle happiness at the result of the draw for the Champions League quarter-finals. We had been the sixth team to be picked out in the ceremony in Switzerland, and I had got my wish of avoiding the other English clubs -  Liverpool had landed United in what was bound to be a heated couple of games, while City were paired with Real Madrid in a clash of two of the world’s wealthiest clubs.

Southampton’s name came out next to that of Krasnodar, shortly before PSV vs Dortmund was confirmed as the last tie in the quarter-final line-up, and I was thrilled with the outcome. Not only were the Russians the weakest side on paper still in the competition after coming through their last-16 tie with Benfica 2-1 on aggregate despite a defeat in Portugal, we also had recent experience with the Bulls, having shared a group with them earlier in the competition. In the final round of fixtures, a shadow side had been beaten 3-2 away in a dead rubber, but only after we had comfortably beaten them 4-1 at St Mary’s with our first team. They were beatable – we had proved as much – as were as easy an opponent as we could have hoped for at this stage.

“I am my love, you’re right. Given that we could have ended up with City again, or even Real Madrid, I think we’ve done well to land a team we know we can beat.”

“I’m really pleased you’re confident Owain, but I don’t want you to get carried away – just remember that Krasnodar will probably be thinking the exact same thing about Southampton.

My wife had a point – to everyone else in the competition, we were probably the team they had earmarked as the plum draw, and of all the foreign sides, Krasnodar certainly knew most about our style of play and the players we might use. Everything that we knew about them they also knew about us, and so they would be feeling every bit as confident as we did.

“They will, but don’t worry – I’m not going to be giving any interviews telling people what an easy fixture we’ve ended up with. I’ll tell the players I think we should be winning – I don’t think that’s out of the question – but if anyone says anything to the press, there’ll be trouble.”

Rachel laughed.

“You’ve already told them you’re going to win the whole thing, haven’t you? I can’t see what another declaration of success can do.”

“You know that wasn’t what I said, I was simply trying to be truthful. I still maintain that – on our day, we can beat anybody left in this competition.”

“I know darling, I know you can – I believe in you and I want to see you succeed, don’t ever forget that. It’s just funny – I’ve spent years telling you to have a bit of confidence, and the moment you do, the media run away with it and make you out to be some sort of egomaniac punching well above his weight.”

“I’m not worrying about the press, it’s what they get paid to do after all. I’m not going to get over-confident just because of a newspaper headline or a random draw – for one there’s no way you’ll let me, second I’m not sure I know how to do it, and thirdly, we’ve just got to keep plodding along.

“Well then, Mr Williams, you’d better get plodding – I’ll be keeping my eye on you!”

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The Champions League draw had taken place on the Friday night, and the following day Liverpool had played host to Chelsea in the league. While nobody associated with Southampton was expecting too much from the Blues after our 7-2 demolition job just weeks before, it was nevertheless frustrating to see them hold out for 86 of the 90 minutes at New Anfield before succumbing to a late strike from Pirulito. It was enough to guarantee that the Reds would stay top going into the next round of fixtures, regardless of what we managed at home to Arsenal on Monday night.

What we managed was another thriller against the Gunners which no doubt thrilled any neutral spectators and would be offered up as ‘an excellent advert for the Premier League,’ but in the end left us with a whirlwind of emotions – frustration, jubilation, relief to made but three as Phillip Cocu’s men came to St Mary’s.

We did not get off to a good start, some slack marking allowing Adria Gallego the space to beat Beraldi inside the opening 10 minutes and put us immediately on the back foot. However, Arsenal’s problem throughout the season had been holding onto leads, and shortly after the quarter hour mark we were level, Adam Bright steering one in from 15 yards against his long-term admirers. He would not be for sale – not as long as I was in charge at Southampton.

It stayed 1-1 until the break, and yet despite my warning about starting the second period strong, the opening 20 minutes passed in almost exactly the same way as the opening stages of the first half. A careless trip from stand-in McGoona gave Toni Martin the chance to score from the penalty spot, and the Spaniard duly obliged with a coolly-taken spot-kick. However, the Gunners could not make it stick, and 10 minutes later to the second, Ifan managed to get a free-kick over the wall and under the crossbar from 20 yards out, restoring parity for the second time.

Just as it looked as if we might be able to press on and grab the winner, Carlos Henrique put an end to our hopes. Already in the book after a late lunge just after the break, our Brazilian enforcer was a split-second late on Gallego, the Mexican playmaker making the most of the challenge and getting the desired outcome from the referee – out came the yellow card, followed swiftly by the red one, and we would have to see out the remainder of the match with 10 men. The set-piece was wasted by the visitors, and we began our forced retreat.

Just as City had shut us out of the FA Cup nine days ago, we effectively closed Arsenal out of the game, offering nothing ourselves but allowing nothing past our defence. The Gunners resorted to throwing crosses into the box, and as time ticked by we dealt with them comfortably – until the 89th minute, when Paolo Beraldi inexplicably fumbled a routine ball in from the right, attempting to scramble back into position and then holding his head in his hands as England striker Andrew Martin, no relation to previous scorer Toni, prodded in from all of three yards to make it 3-2 with only stoppage time left to play.

We had just four minutes of additional time to fight back, and the odds were hugely stacked against us – not only were we up against one of the Premier League’s top sides, but we needed to switch immediately from a defend-at-all-costs mentality to all-out attack, with just 10 men to boot. Needless to say, the Gunners were in no hurry to try and add to their tally, and we were forced to largely speculative efforts. In the 93rd minute, Sidibe lined up one such shot from 25 yards, and with memories of his spectacular effort against Manchester City earlier in the season, St Mary’s rose in anticipation, only to see the shot deflected behind for a corner and the opportunity lost.

Lost, that is, until Ross Ifan planted an outswinging corner on the forehead of his compatriot McGoona, and the man who had been the villain of the peace after giving away the penalty was transformed into the man of the moment, his header beating both goalkeeper and man on the post to level at 3-3 with the last meaningful action of the game. It was still not a win, we had still fallen four points behind Liverpool, but we had not been beaten, we had fought back against the odds, and that was something. We had momentum, we had something to hold onto and build on, a spontaneous joy at the late equaliser which we would hope to carry into the rest of the season. If McGoona’s goal against Chelsea had been ridiculous, his strike against the Gunners was inspirational.

Unfortunately for the Welshman, we would have to wait to take inspiration from it, as with the season at a pivotal point, the Premier League took a two-week break for international matches. I was deeply frustrated at being unable to try and claw back the gap to Liverpool the very next day, but with Krueger enforcing his usual policy of making me take the first week to spend with Rachel, it was also hugely necessary. I had been completely absorbed in my job since Christmas, such had been the intensity of the title race and the excitement of the Champions League, and had no doubt neglected my family in the process. I needed refreshment before the final push, but my family also needed me to be present with them. It was the very least I owed them.

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“Darling, I’m not sure whether I’m going to ask you or tell you something, but I think I need to say it. Is that OK?”

Rachel seemed a little nervous about getting something off her chest, but I was only too happy to let her do so. Our week together, with the non-internationals in my squad in the safe hands of my coaches, had been exactly what the doctor ordered, and she’d shown little signs of having worries before springing this on me.

“Of course, what is it?”

“I just want you to know that I know these next few weeks are going to be hard for you. I know you’ve never really been here before, not with Prestatyn, Adelaide or Seattle – certainly not with the stakes so high. I want you to know that I understand that, and that if it means I see a little bit less of you between now and the end of the season, that’s fine.

“But I also want you to know that as well as believing your ability and knowing that you are an excellent football manager, I also need you, and so do the girls. Bethan and Rebecca are used to you working long days, it’s all they’ve ever known, but this is as intense as it’s ever going to get. We all understand – the girls get it too – but I need to know that once the season is over, you’re going to be ours.

“I don’t want to criticise, because you’ve always juggled things as well as you could, but this year I think we’re going to need it more than ever. This summer, I need you more than a week. I need you to be fully here, not thinking about the transfer window while the girls are talking about school. You’ve been great, you really have, but I just needed to say something, just in case… I don’t know… Do you understand?.. I’m sorry…”

I understood – both the words that came from her lips, and the silent tear that fell from her left eye as dropped her head onto my chest. I knew Rachel didn’t mean to criticise – she would have done so before now if that was her intention – but I also knew that I simply couldn’t keep working at this intensity and take my family for granted. There would always be a sense in which I had to compartmentalise my private and professional lives, but I could not let my managerial role simply overwhelm my relationship with my wife and daughters.

Rachel Williams, I love you. I know I’m far from perfect, and I know I must test your patience to the limit at times, but I couldn’t do what I do without you behind me – I really mean that. Thank you for telling me how you’re feeling, for being so honest with me. I can’t promise I’ll be perfect, that would just be setting myself up for failure, but I can promise to try harder, to do better, to be here more. And that’s what I’m going to do. I promise, this summer, you’ll have me, all of me, for longer. That’s all I can do, but I will do it – I promise.”

My wife didn’t feel the need to respond immediately, tightening her embrace and allowing the silence to linger for what seemed like hours before finally uttering her reply. When it came, it was all I needed to hear.

“Thank you darling. I love you too.”

It was the one promise I could not afford to renege on. There was no sense that Rachel was doing anything other than voicing what were deeply-felt concerns, but I knew that I had not been up to scratch as the family man I wanted to be and my wife needed me to be. That had to change, and while Rachel was gracious enough to understand the professional pressures on me, I had responsibilities far greater than Southampton Football Club. As I’d told myself countless times before, I needed to start living up to them.

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The international break came to an end in no time at all, and the Premier League fixture computer had determined that the first game back would be no less a game than the Merseyside derby, on a Wednesday night, giving rock bottom Everton the first shot at blowing a hole in their ancient rivals’ title bid. Unfortunately for their fans, already miserable at the prospect of facing relegation to the Championship, a single Liverpool goal after half an hour settled a fiery game in the visitors’ favour, and we were seven points adrift with a single game in hand.

Both my Saints and Liverpool were in action at the weekend, with our trip to midtable Forest the first game of the Saturday fixtures and Liverpool’s game at Manchester City taking the prime Sunday afternoon slot for the TV cameras. Barring our trip to New Anfield on the final day of the season, it was almost certainly the most difficult game our rivals had left in their run-in, and we desperately needed the defending champions to do us a favour to keep the race alive.

Before we could worry about that, we had to deal with a Forest side who had all but secured their Premier League survival for another season, and were enjoying one of their better runs of the season having earned nine points from their last five games. They were a dangerous team on their day, having outplayed us in the past, and the opening exchanges were a worrying indication of what they might be capable of. Almost inevitably they opened the scoring having dominated the first half, Scottish winger Gordon Hunter firing past Beraldi for his third goal against my Saints on 36 minutes to leave us up against it.

We were better after the break, but it would have been harder to have been worse such was Forest’s supremacy in the first 45 minutes. Somehow, with the second period just eight minutes old we got level, Gidon Cohen slaloming his way into the penalty area and finishing with a powerful shot that gave the goalkeeper no chance, but it was a moment of individual brilliance set against a lethargic team performance. If we had hoped to be refreshed by the international pause, we had been sorely disappointed.

Our title hopes looked to fade away with each passing minute, Forest playing a measured game which made them the more likely to take the lead, and my men looking bereft of ideas against a side we should have been comfortably beating. Escalada replaced the disappointing Sidibe to little effect, the Argentine shooting wide on a couple of occasions without managing to rouble the goalkeeper, while at the other end the tricky Hunter saw a goalbound effort deflected inches wide by the unwitting Hodge, who had turned his back on the shot in a bid to block. The 90 minutes elapsed, and with just a point to show for our efforts, it looked like we were conceding the title to Liverpool.

One last ball was hoisted into the penalty area, several bodies converged on it, and none of them managed to get a decisive connection. Instead, the ball dropped to the ground yards to the left of the aerial scrum, where a striker’s boot smashed it gleefully home in the 92nd minute. The City Ground fell into a stunned silence, Boyd Clarke disappeared under a pile of black shirts, and somehow, from somewhere, we had found a win. The inspiration I had mentioned after McGoona’s last-gasp goal against Arsenal had been found – we had done it again, a second stoppage time goal in as many games earning us all three points against a devastated Forest. We were alive.

Not only were we alive, but we were kicking – the following day, much to the delight of my assembled Saints squad, a confident Manchester City netted twice in the space of four second-half minutes to turn around their game at the Etihad and send Liverpool crashing to defeat, leaving us just four points back of the Reds with a game in hand. The league leaders had six games remaining, we had seven, and we would face off on Merseyside on the final day of the season. City were not completely out of things either, 10 points behind us with two extra games to play, but the media focus was firmly on Southampton and Liverpool, and in particular that last-day game at New Anfield. If it all came down to a single match, the tension would be unbearable.

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Four days later we were in Champions League action – the UEFA competition providing an interesting sub-plot to the Premier League title race with all three top sides and Manchester United all alive in the quarter-finals – travelling to Krasnodar for the second time this season to take on Oleg Luzhnyi’s men for the right to go to the semi-final, the furthest either of our clubs would ever had reached in the elite competition.

When we had headed to Southern Russia before Christmas, the temperature had been closing in on freezing, our second string faced with unfamiliar conditions as they were beaten 3-2 in a meaningless final group game. However, on our return visit we found a balmy April evening awaiting us, the remnant of a Black Sea breeze blowing across the city, and a temperature far more akin to an English summer than you might expect in a Russian city. It felt pleasant, doing a great deal to mitigate the hostility which the home fans attempted to display, and it set the scene rather nicely.

We were confident going into the game – we knew we could beat the Russians, and our last European outing had seen Atletico leave England with their tales between their legs on the wrong end of a 5-0 hammering. As such we started strongly, winning the ball from our opponents almost immediately from kick-off and starting to build patiently from the back, giving every member of our back four and Beraldi an early touch, satisfying both any nerves and odd superstitions.

Not only that, but we went on to score with our first attack of the game. The Russians struggled with the pace and power of Vandinho down the left flank, and the Brazilian managed to squeeze between his man and the byline to bear down on goal from the tightest of angles. Instead of going for glory himself, he cut the ball back from the edge of the six-yard box to Ange Sidibe, who had checked his run to lose his man, and the Ivorian sidefooted home first time with the goalkeeper having no time to react.

The away goal relaxed those of my men still anxious about the occasion, and we went very close to a second midway through the half, Vandinho again at the heart of the attack with a lung-busting run down the left touchline before sending over a teasing cross which Jacobson attempted to steer in at the back post, only for the angle to work against him and the ball to nestle in the side-netting.

1-0 up at the break and clearly in control, I would have been happy had the final whistle blown at half-time – I certainly fancied us to complete the job against the Russians at home, and with the away goal in the bag they would need to attack us and expose themselves on the counter if they harboured any hopes of the semi-finals. However, we had another 45 minutes to go, and so I simply instructed my men to give me more of the same, and sent them back out.

It took us three minutes of the first half to grab a goal, and just six of the second. This time we worked the ball well down the middle of the pitch, Blanc, Woodward, Bright and Ifan all involved before the latter managed to find Jacobson hovering on the shoulder of the last defender. With no offside flag coming, the Welshman had the beating of his man for pace, and calmly slotted into the bottom corner to double our advantage. At 2-0 up away from home in the Champions League quarter-final, it was hard not to start dreaming of the last four.

However, we would not have it all our own way, and three minutes later Brazilian winger Caetano cut inside Kus, dribbled into the penalty area and scorched a shot past Beraldi’s dive to give the hosts a goal from nowhere. It was one of just three shots on target they would register in the second half – indeed, they managed just five in the whole match – but it counted nonetheless, and with the final whistle blowing with the score at 2-1, we could be confident but not complacent heading into the second leg at St Mary’s.

In the night’s other tie, a late winner at New Anfield gave the hosts a 3-2 lead against Manchester United to set up a thrilling return at Old Trafford. The following evening, Simeone’s City gave themselves every chance of making it to the final four despite having arguably the toughest draw of all the English sides with a pulsating 4-2 home win over Real Madrid, with the first legs being rounded out by a rather less eventful match in Dortmund, the home side striking early against PSV and resisting a late Dutch bombardment to take a 1-0 lead to Eindhoven.

Before the return, we would play our game in hand in the Premier League, hosting Norwich at the same time as Liverpool took on City at Wembley for a place in the FA Cup final. After a lengthy season, it seemed as if every competition was beginning to build quickly to its conclusion – we had seven league matches to go and a maximum of four in Europe, while the cup was already down to the semi-final stage. In the next six weeks, everything would be decided – it was our job to do everything our power to decide things in our favour.

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Owain, congratulations on getting the win today – did you need those three points to stay in the title race?”

“I’m not sure it was quite that dramatic, but we would certainly have been making it difficult for ourselves had we not come out on top this afternoon. It was certainly a relief not to have to wait until injury time to find out the result this time!”

“Yes, compared to the last couple of matches this one seemed reasonably routine – did you give your players different instructions at all?”

“No, we stuck to the same plan – we have a great deal of faith in our system – but this time the execution was a little better. The penalty in the first half helped, and we were very professional from then on.”

“Looking at that penalty for a moment, David Moyes has said he thought Shaw went down a little too easily – what was your view of the incident?”

“I think David has the right to defend his players and I have the right to defend mine – Luke is not the type to go flinging himself to the floor at every opportunity, and having seen the replay I think there’s clear contact in the area and as a defender you’ve got to be more careful than that. In the end it doesn’t really matter what either of us thinks now, Rodrigo has buried the penalty and we’ve scored a second, so it’s all academic at this stage.”

“Were you surprised to see Acuna take the spot-kick?”

“A little, but he’s got a good record from the spot in training and I had no doubt he’d do the job for us. He had a good game today, and it’s good to see our strength in depth come through.”

“Are we right to assume than Kenan Kus will return for the Krasnodar game in the week?”

“Not necessarily – that’s a decision we’ll make nearer the time. Rodrigo and all those who played today have given themselves a good chance of being involved on Wednesday night, and we’ll decide on the line-up in due course. A lot could happen between now and then.”

“Finally Owain, you’ve closed the gap on Liverpool to just a single point with six games to go, and everybody is looking towards that final day clash at New Anfield. Is that where your focus is beginning to head?”

“Not at all, I think we’d be mad to be thinking so far ahead. We’ve got five league games and a Champions League quarter-final before then, so our first job is to make sure we keep winning – if we start dropping points, we won’t be in contention heading to Liverpool, and there won’t be a title decider. At the stage in the season we’ve got to focus on the next match, that’s all we can do, and as long as we know that things are still in our hands then that will continue to be the case.”

While Liverpool were edging past City to set up a final with Manchester United in the FA Cup, two goals from a slightly rotated side – a penalty from Acuna and a towering header from Clark saw us comfortably past a poor Norwich side to keep the pressure on at the top of the table. It had been a slight gamble to rest a few key men, but it had paid off and so there were very few murmurings regarding the risks I had taken.

I was most frustrated for Luke Shaw, who was making an increasingly rare 90-minute appearance at left-back after his recovery from a hamstring injury earlier in the year, only to be effectively accused of diving by a bitter David Moyes. There was simply no way the veteran had tried to trick the referee – the replays showed the incident to be a clear foul – and yet I found myself having to defend my man against the slander of the bitter Scotsman. I was only glad we had picked up the three points – to drop them against such an ill-natured man would have been deeply irritating.
 

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‘City Book Semis Spot’ was the headline that greeted us on Wednesday morning as we completed our preparations for the evening’s match against Krasnodar, complete with a photo of Vianney Hemdani with arms outstretched in celebration. His equaliser in Madrid had given Diego Simeone’s side a crucial away goal and with it a place in the last four of the Champions League at the expense of Real, their 1-1 draw in the Spanish capital enough to see them through. There they would be joined by Borussia Dortmund, who played the perfect counter-attacking game to destroy PSV 4-0 in Eindhoven and move through 5-0 on aggregate.

We were strong favourites to join them there, our 2-1 win in Russia the previous week giving us two valuable away goals and the lead as we welcomed Luzhnyi’s men to St Mary’s, and the prospect of a Champions League semi-final coming to Southampton was a very real one indeed. The visitors would have no choice to attack us, which would leave the game open for our dangerous front four to operate in, and very few sides over the course of the season had benefited from an open game against my men.

It wasn’t that Krasnodar didn’t try another approach – they spent the first 30 minutes in a largely defensive set-up, waiting for us to make a mistake rather than forcing the issue – but rather that we simply wouldn’t let them get past us. Beraldi was a safe pair of hands when called on, our defence was firm, and at the other end we looked just as likely to score. When the first goal did come, it did so in some style, and it opened the St Mary’s floodgates.

It had seemed innocent enough, a few quick passes and a striker dropping deep finding Callum Jacobson on the ball 40 yards from the Russian goal. However, what nobody in the stadium expected was for our Welsh forward to look up, see the visiting keeper on the edge of his penalty area, and flight a textbook long-range lob over the goalkeeper and into the top corner. It was a sensational strike, one which would be replayed for years to come, and it gave us the goal we needed to play with a little more freedom. Krasnodar were broken, and we took full advantage.

Five minutes later we caught the visitors out on the break, Shaw picking off a pass deep in our own half and feeding it forward for the attackers to play with. The sheer pace of Cohen was too much for the visiting defence, and he played in Jacobson for his second goal of the evening. Two minutes after that, a counter down the opposite flank ending with Rodrigo Acuna playing a quick one-two with Clarke, hurdling a challenge in the box and surprising the goalkeeper with an early shot low at the near post. The stopper couldn’t get down in time, and we faced into a 3-0 half-time lead with three goals in eight minutes. Barring a disaster, we were Champions League semi-finalists.

Disaster never struck, a late header from Slovenian substitute Michal Lukac providing scant consolation for the away side, who had been beaten fairly comprehensively over the two legs. As St Mary’s rose to applaud its heroes, the magnitude of our achievement began to sink in – we were in the last four of the biggest club competition in world football, and deservedly so. Southampton were a genuine force to be reckoned with, and while we would again be underdogs in the semis, we were potentially a mere three games from glory. It was tantalisingly close.

Friday morning’s draw saw a mouth-watering clash emerge from the first fixture, with Liverpool – who had edged through their two legs with United by a single goal after a 3-2 away win and 1-1 draw at New Anfield – taking on Manchester City, which meant our opponents were already clear. It simply remained to be seen whether we would be home or away first against Dortmund, and the balls fell kindly for us – after the first leg in the famous Westfalenstadion, we would play the return fixture at home. If we reached the final, we would be guaranteed English and therefore familiar opposition, but we could not allow anyone to think that far ahead just yet – we had other work to do.

That work continued on Saturday with the visit of Brentford, whose relegation struggles meant that they failed to come out of their shells, save for a late attacking flurry in the final five minutes. Those five minutes were more nervous than we would have hoped thanks to our inability to put the game to bed, but Vandinho’s goal inside 60 seconds of the first half was enough to see us match Liverpool’s win over Norwich and stay tight to them at the top. With Shaw missing the game with a twisted knee and Clarke with a knock to the thigh, it was no small relief to come out the other side with the win.

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The games were coming thick and fast now, and before I had even noticed that they had started, Bethan and Rebecca’s Easter holidays seemed to come to a close. On the evenings I had been in the office I had made an effort not to work too late into the night to spend time with the girls, but I was deeply conscious of what Rachel had told me during the international break. They understood, but they needed me, and I was looking forward to a moment when I could give them the attention they needed. I did have one idea I hoped would help, but in the middle of a chasing a league and European double, I had no choice but to let it wait.

So instead of spending an evening at home with the family, I was in the industrial city of Dortmund for the first leg of our Champions League semi-final, a sentence that very few people indeed would have imagined me uttering at the start of the season. They had knocked out no lesser sides than PSV and Barcelona to join us at this stage, and with the famous Yellow Wall in full voice as our hosts aimed to book their place in the final, the odds were once again against us. We had overcome them before, but this would be a huge test.

The German side knew what they needed to do, and they had clearly done their homework on my Saints. They had seen our two knockout ties settled by virtue of away goals in the first leg and strong home performances, and so it was little surprise that keeping us off the scoresheet was their primary concern. They would not do so by simply sitting back and letting us come at them however, Dortmund instead dominating possession and simply refusing to let us have the ball in dangerous areas. They were the more threatening side in the first half, and the interval came with the tie still scoreless.

On the hour mark, we finally looked to make inroads into the Dortmund defence, building from the back and working the ball patiently forward to the feet of Adam Bright. He quickly found himself closed down by two German defenders, and in such a way that he unable to play the ball into the space left behind. Instead he went back to Henrique, who switched play right to Kus, and with the defence drifting across to cover he sent a square ball back to Bright, who now had a little more space to play with.

He used it well, finding Sidibe in a threatening position just inside the area. Peeling away from his man, the Ivorian allowed the chipped pass to drop before sending a vicious left-footed volley flying past the helpless German keeper, only to see it thump the crossbar and loop several feet into the air before dropping behind for a goal-kick. It had been a fine effort and excellent technique, but we had not been rewarded. It was as close as we would get.

It was as close as anyone would get until the 86th minute, when the hosts mounted a surprisingly direct attack on the counter after Escalada shot straight into the hands of the goalkeeper. A quick throw bypassed our attacking quartet, leaving their speedy Uruguayan with the chance to run at Kus. Our captain blocked the first cross but was powerless to prevent the winger collecting the ball and sending it towards the penalty spot, where substitute Romelu Lukaku sent the home fans into ecstasy, thumping a header past Beraldi for the opening and only goal of the match.

It was little more than Dortmund deserved for executing their gameplan to perfection, and while we were left thinking what might have been had Sidibe’s volley been a few inches lower, we would have a one-goal deficit to overcome at St Mary’s, and would have to do it without the comfort of an away goal in the bank. Should the Germans score, we would need three goals of our own, and in all likelihood our Champions League campaign would be over. We needed a win, a clean sheet, and a flawless performance.

The following evening, Liverpool delivered something close to flawless as they sent Manchester City back down the M62 on the wrong end of a 3-0 thrashing. An early goal had put the Reds on the right track, a penalty just before the interval doubled the advantage, and a late counter sealed the victory on a famous European night at New Anfield. It would take quite the performance for Simeone’s side to turn things around, and if we were to mount a comeback against Dortmund, our opponents in the final looked highly likely to be our closest rivals in the league. It was a huge ‘if’ however – at the moment, it was the Germans who were most likely to be facing Montella’s men in the Stade de France.

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Watford had been a potential banana skin – the Hornets looked like strong contenders for European football, even if Spurs and United were both threatening their 5th position in the table – and yet we had managed to avoid it relatively comfortably. With defeat in Dortmund weighing heavily on my players’ mind, it was encouraging to see a strong start to the match, and especially to see a return to early goals, Escalada sliding in to tap in a cross inside 10 minutes.

But we would not have it all our own way, and if any of the Southampton fans travelling to Vicarage Road had any doubts about the outcome, alarm bells would almost certainly had been ringing just a few moments later. Russian forward Khachaturyan was left with a little too much space inside our penalty area, and the striker made little mistake with a flashing drive that bounced in off the underside of the crossbar. We had led for just seven minutes, and handed the hosts all of the momentum.

They were unable to take advantage however, limited by a combination of their own profligacy and our resolute defending to just a single shot on target before the interval, after which we netted after precisely 52 seconds. Quite how Kenan Kus managed to work his way from our right-back position into the Watford area so quickly I am not entirely sure, but nevertheless that was where our captain found himself, and his low shot evaded two defenders and the goalkeeper on its way to the far corner of the net.

The Hornets then needed to go for broke, and their desperation played perfectly into our hands. A typical counter with 20 minutes to go allowed Adam Bright to make it 3-1 with a well-taken finish, and moments later our scorer would turn provider, Bright’s through-ball picking out substitute Jacobson to roll in our fourth and add a touch of gloss to a good all-round performance. The win sent us top of the Premier League until Liverpool’s evening game at Forest, and indeed we would remain at the summit until the 88th minute at the City Ground, when a late goalmouth scramble saw the ball somehow end up in the back of the net to hand our title rivals all three points at the death. It was frustrating to see, but we had enjoyed our own fair share of late goals over the course of the season, and so could hardly begrudge Liverpool their own measure of last-gasp glory.

The moment after our own final whistle had blown, all thoughts turned to Dortmund, who would take to the St Mary’s turf on Wednesday evening to determine our European fate. It was, cliché as it may sound, arguably the biggest game in the long history of Southampton football club, had the potential to set up its immediate successor, and had been the talk of the city ever since the end of the first leg in Germany. Our fate was still very much in our hands, our moment had finally arrived, and we simply needed to take it with two hands. It was easier said than done.

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I walked into the post-match press conference only be greeted with applause – the first and only time I can remember it happening over the course of my career. It was impossible to resist breaking out into a grin at the response from the assembled media, and had to take a lengthy sip of my water to compose myself before taking questions.

Owain, how does it feel to be a Champions League finalist?”

I closed my eyes briefly and remembered the agony of having Escalada’s goal struck off inside five minutes, just as we thought we’d got ourselves back into the game. I recalled the ecstasy of seeing Bright bring us back on level terms with a first-time shot just before the break. I saw again the sheer determination to stay on his feet as he rounded the goalkeeper for our second, and heard once more the roar of the crowd.

“It feels incredible, absolutely incredible. To come into the second leg a goal down against a side of Dortmund’s quality and put in the performance we did tonight, particularly in the second half, it was something special. I’m hugely proud of all my players tonight.”

“You’ve done this to Atletico earlier in the season and now to Dortmund, what is it about these European home games that bring out such strong performances?”

“I wish I knew – I’d be giving them it every game! I think the truth is we have a very determined, motivated and gifted group of players, and the combination of high stakes, knockout football and the home fans being behind us seems to bring out the best in them.”

“Was there any point tonight at which you knew you were into the final? Could you relax at all?”

“When Sidibe got the third I thought it might be our night, but you can never be sure – Dortmund were still threatening at that point and an away goal would have changed the complexion of the tie. I think Callum’s goal was probably the point at which it started to sink in, 4-1 on aggregate with 15 minutes to go would have taken some comeback.”

“Your opponents in the final will of course be Liverpool, a side you are very familiar with. How do you think the prospect of the final will affect the Premier League title race, if at all?”

“I think it’s actually more likely to be the other way round. As you know we go to Liverpool on the last day of the league season, and whichever side comes away with the trophy is going to get a huge confidence boost heading to Paris. I think it’s exciting to see the best two sides in England go head-to-head for the biggest prize in Europe, but I don’t think it has any bearing on the title race, no.”

“Do you think you’ll have any issues keeping the players focused on the league now?”

“I wouldn’t think so – the Premier League is a hugely prestigious prize that we’ve been working all year to win, and I’m confident my players are professional enough to keep their eyes on the ball for the next few weeks. It’ll be nice to focus on the one competition for a while after months of jumping between the two, and I’m sure Vincenzo Montella feels the same way.”

Owain, just a reflect for a moment – did you ever imagine when you joined Southampton that you’d have them in this position by now? In three seasons you’ve taken the club from battling for Europa League qualification to Premier League contenders and Champions League finalists, a position they haven’t found themselves in before. Was this always the plan?”

That one needed another sip of water.

“Every football manager is aiming for the top, regardless of what they tell you – it’s why we do the job. When I sat down with Mr Krueger to discuss our ambitions, we both agreed we wanted to see the club moving forward – that was as specific as we got – and I think we’ve certainly done that. Did we aim to reach the Champions League final within three years? Of course not, that would have been wildly ambitious and there are too many factors in play to make that sort of demand. However, with the backing of the fans, chairman and board, the support of the staff and the commitment of the players, we’ve got here a lot quicker than many thought possible, and it’s brilliant to be a part of. Southampton is a special club, the fans deserve every success that comes their way, and it’s an honour to be entrusted with that.”

“You must recognise your own role in the team’s rise, surely?”

“Every club needs a manager, of course they do, and so far the signings I’ve made and the systems I’ve chosen have worked very well. Don’t go away thinking this is the Owain Williams show though, not for one minute – a lot of what makes a club successful goes on behind the scenes, and there are a whole host of people who will never share the limelight that have put in a huge amount of work to get this far.”

“At this stage in the season, would you rather win the Premier League or Champions League?”

“That’s a ridiculous question, and you know I can’t answer that. Both would be firsts for the club, both would be incredible achievements by all involved, and we have a chance to win both – that’s the aim, and we certainly won’t entertain thoughts of sacrificing one for the other.”

“Thank you Owain, and congratulations once again on taking Southampton to the Champions League final.”

I walked out with the same grin still painted onto my face, throat sore from both the match and the media, but delighted. We had turned it round, we had handed Dortmund a Champions League beating, and against all the odds we were into the final. Liverpool would provide us with a huge test, but we had beaten them before and could do so again. They would be thinking the same about us – such is the beauty of football – but for now it would all have to wait for the league to be decided.

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From the sports pages of the Guardian

Last-Ditch Drama As Title Pendulum Swings Again

The race for the Premier League title took another thrilling turn yesterday afternoon as two stoppage-time goals handed Southampton the upper hand with just three games remaining in the season.

In a week which saw both the Saints and Liverpool book their place in the Champions League final, it was little surprise that the two title rivals were not at their best on Saturday, with out-of-form Fulham and European contenders Watford looking to take advantage of any tiredness in the top two sides.

All the early action took place at St Mary’s, where initially it seemed as if the home side had shaken off the effects of any celebrations after Wednesday’s win over Dortmund. Lucio Escalada rolled his man brilliantly in the penalty area to put Owain Williams’ men ahead after just three minutes of the match, and business as usual looked to be the order of the day.

But a rare error from the dependable Harry Eggen allowed Kaveh Mousavi a free header on goal just 10 minutes later, and the midfielder made no mistake, planting his effort beyond Beraldi to tie the game at 1-1. Five minutes later at Vicarage Road, a similarly powerful header from Enrique Garza, the Spaniard getting on the end of a well-worked corner routine, gave Liverpool the lead in Hertfordshire, opening up a three-point gap with the scores as they stood.

It was not long before Southampton responded, and shortly before the interval they took the lead for a second time, right-back Rodrigo Acuna crashing a powerful strike beyond the goalkeeper from 20 yards to restore the advantage. With both title challengers leading at half-time, there was little indication of the drama about to unfold.

With no further action in the opening stages of the second half, the next surprise came in the 65th minute at Watford, where Vincenzo Montella’s men found themselves pegged back by the hosts. Vaclav Strnad did the damage, the Hornets’ leading scorer shaking off his man to level the game at 1-1, and it was Southampton who looked to be having the better day.

That is, until the final 10 minutes at St Mary’s, when a foul by Steve Woodward 25 yards from goal presented a scoring opportunity from the set-piece. Ruben Loftus-Cheek succeeded in beating the wall, and while Italian keeper Beraldi should perhaps have done better, there can be no faulting the midfielder’s strike. Both title challengers were now level going into the closing stages, with the margin for error shrinking by the minute.

It was a margin that disappeared entirely for the Reds in the 89th minute, when the home team capitalised on sloppy play in midfield to launch the final attack of the 90 minutes. With no Liverpool player able to get a foot to the ball, Watford worked it well to Strnad on the edge of the area, and his shot on the turn found its way into the bottom corner to send Vicarage Road into a celebratory frenzy. There was no way back for the visitors, and they would return to New Anfield with nothing to show for their efforts.

At the time of Strnad’s goal, the Reds remained a point clear at the top of the Premier League with Fulham continuing to hold Southampton. However, there would be one final twist in an enthralling day of Premier League action – with news of the Watford goal reaching anxious fans at St Mary’s, a melee in the visitors’ penalty area ended with Callum Jacobson stabbing the ball over the line from six yards with Fulham defenders trying desperately to keep it out, and the turnaround was complete, the Saints moving two points clear at the league’s summit with just three games remaining.

With the advantage now firmly in the hands of Southampton, attention turns to what promises to be a thrilling run-in to determine who will lift the Premier League crown. Both sides face other sides in top four – Liverpool hosting Arsenal on Wednesday evening before Southampton travel to the Etihad on Friday night – before the Reds take on Brentford and the Saints go to Newcastle in the penultimate round of fixtures.

While Liverpool also have the small matter of an FA Cup final against Manchester United to look forward to, their home advantage in the league could prove crucial as Southampton round out their season with three consecutive away games compared to three home ties for Montella’s men. What is becoming increasing clear is that, barring a collapse from either side, the crucial game will come at New Anfield on May 13th. Whichever team goes into that match on top of the pile will be favourites, but with the title decider coming just one week before their Champions League showdown, attempting to make any predictions at this stage seems like a thankless task. Instead, we can all enjoy what has been the closest title fight in many years – and what a fight it has been.

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“It’s an easy take for the goalkeeper in the end, disappointing there from the Gunners. He launches it downfield, and that will be all we’ve got time for here at New Anfield.”

“Full time and it’s Liverpool who hold on in the face of the Arsenal onslaught, those two first-half goals proving enough. It’s Liverpool 2 Arsenal 1, and Vincenzo Montella’s side will go into the FA Cup final with confidence after a solid performance against the fourth-place Gunners here today.”

I switched the radio off, frustrated but not disheartened at Arsenal’s inability do us a favour. It moved our rivals a point ahead of us having played one game more, meaning that we needed to take something for our trip to the Etihad on Friday evening. It was no doubt the game that Liverpool had earmarked as the match which could cost us points, and we would need to be in top form to take anything from it. City had pushed their way past Arsenal into third, and would be determined to stop us in our tracks.

Complicating matters was the fact that we would not even have the chance to return to Southampton before our next encounter – we would head north from Manchester to prepare for our Sunday afternoon game at Newcastle, who would no doubt be looking to do their own damage to our title bid by taking advantage of any tiredness in our squad.

Accordingly, we were taking a larger-than-usual contingent to the City game, with the expectation being that very few players would play the full 90 minutes of both matches. There was going to be rotation – we had no other option – but the decision I had to make was the number of our regular starters to hold back for the Magpies. If we were to taste defeat in either game we would hand the initiative back to Liverpool, but the same would be true if we only managed two draws.

As ever, I discussed the decision with Terry McPhillips, and my assistant had some helpful wisdom to share with me.

“If I were you Owain, I’d just go all-out against City. Don’t leave anybody out, go for the win, and worry about Newcastle later.”

“Won’t everyone be shattered for the second game?”

“Maybe, but if they beat City, they’ll run through walls knowing that the title is in their hands. Besides, the Geordies aren’t nearly as strong as City, so if we can afford to weaken the team anywhere it’s going to be there.”

“And if we don’t get the win at the Etihad?

“Well they’ll just have to make doubly sure of the second game, won’t they? I can see your problem Owain, and I think it’s ridiculous to play two games so close at this stage of the season, but I think you’ve got to trust in the lads. They can handle it, and if they can’t then maybe it isn’t our year after all.”

I wasn’t sold on Terry’s call to rest nobody, but our conversation certainly aided my thought process. It would be a strong side to go to City, and we’d see where we stood after that. Trying to think too far ahead risked derailing everything, and it simply wasn’t a risk I could take.

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Beraldi was the unquestioned starter in goal, with Vandinho and Kus flanking our central defensive pairing of Eggen and Hodge. Ahead of them I gave Woodward and Henrique the nod ahead of Blanc and Hossam, a little more steel in our midfield to combat City’s creativity, while behind our strikers would be the first-choice pair of Bright and Cohen. Ange Sidibe would start up front, and I chose to hand Boyd Clarke the start alongside him, hoping that the Englishman’s physical presence would cause the home defence problems.

Even with third place seemingly secure and little hope of rising any higher, Simeone sent out his own first choice selection for the fixture, his professional pride forcing him to defend his side’s title to the last. With the Etihad in fine voice supporting a star-studded line-up on the pitch, it was apparent that we would have to put in yet another top level performance if we were to emerge unscathed from the battle ahead.

A nervous opening period subsided to an end-to-end encounter early on, and it was not long before the first goal came. It came on the counter, Woodward stepping in to thwart Hemdani as the Frenchman sought to burst into the area, and we were away, Cohen doing much of the carrying as we crossed into the City half before finding Clarke. Our target man for the day held up the ball for the support runners to catch up with play, and it was the first of them, our captain Kus, who cracked a shot past Plant to open the scoring after just 17 minutes. Our travelling band roared their appreciation, and we had drawn first blood.

But both teams were too talented in attack for the game to remain at 1-0 for long, and shortly afterwards Beraldi was forced into a full-length dive to deny Yu a quick equaliser, the Italian showing why we had been so keen to bring him in from Juventus over the summer. At the other hand Sidibe had Plant scrambling with a 20-yard daisy-cutter that glanced the outside of the post, and then the leveller came – a curling ball in behind Vandinho, allowing Mirko Gramaglia a run on a goal which he took full advantage of, Beraldi’s efforts to make himself big ending in vain as the ball nestled in the back of the net. It remained 1-1 at the break, and the match was finely poised for a thrilling second 45 minutes.

The twist was that there would be no explosives in the second period – just a hugely tense spell of football in which neither side seemed willing to take the risk necessary to win the game. That was, until midway through the half, when Adam Bright decided that the time was right to put his head down and drive into the area from 35 yards out. He got past his first man, breezed past a second, and when he got to the dead ball line his clip back to the penalty spot was stopped only by the hand of City full-back Darcy Vines.

Up stepped Ange Sidibe after the protestations of the City players fell on deaf ears, and as the Etihad filled with boos, so our Ivorian striker sent Plant the wrong way from the spot with a calmly-taken penalty to hand us a crucial lead with little over 20 minutes left on the clock. That was the cue for City to pile forward in search of an equaliser – Simeone clearly did not wish to see his title evaporate in defeat, and we found ourselves facing wave after wave of blue-shirted attack from the home team.

We looked to be seeing things out well, fending off several thrusts from the hosts, but once again there would be little drama in a Southampton league game. This time fortune favoured our opponents, Harry Eggen somewhat harshly adjudged to have brought down his man inside the area, and the referee – perhaps with the fierce protests of the City players from earlier in the mind – pointed to the spot to level the penalty count with just two minutes of the 90 remaining.

Eggen saw yellow for dissent, such was the force with which our centre-back pleaded his innocence, but the decision had been made and there was nothing we could do about it. It was left to Beraldi to try and preserve our lead against his countryman Gramaglia, but to the delight of the home crowd the Italian drove his penalty straight down the middle of the goal with our keeper diving to his right, and his spot-kick was the final meaningful action of a highly entertaining game.

The 2-2 draw meant that with just two games remaining of the season, we were guaranteed a title showdown at New Anfield on the final day. After 36 of the 38 Premier League games had been played, both we and Liverpool sat level on 88 points – enough to win the league in most seasons. We held an advantage of five on the goal difference tiebreaker as well as having more goals scored, but we would have to travel in the crucial last-day decider. We were very nearly at the end of our journey, and the destination was still no clearer.

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Over the last 12 hours, I've read the Owain Williams saga from the days of part-time football in North Wales to the eve of the biggest two games (three if you count the potential banana skin of Newcastle) of Owain Williams' career. This is a highly addictive and hugely impressive chronicle, justifiably honoured in the FMS Awards and I offer my sincere thanks for the many hours of work that have gone into writing this. 

Fingers crossed for a fairytale ending to the season.

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3 hours ago, Simply Perfect said:

Over the last 12 hours, I've read the Owain Williams saga from the days of part-time football in North Wales to the eve of the biggest two games (three if you count the potential banana skin of Newcastle) of Owain Williams' career. This is a highly addictive and hugely impressive chronicle, justifiably honoured in the FMS Awards and I offer my sincere thanks for the many hours of work that have gone into writing this. 

Fingers crossed for a fairytale ending to the season.

Thank you, very much - hearing that people are willing to invest so much time and energy into reading my work means a huge amount. Thank you for reading, for commenting, and for your encouragement!
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“I suppose this is the big week then.”

Rachel’s comment was an understatement, but it was true. Having put my men through a light session on the day before our title decider at New Anfield, I returned to the hotel room where I found my wife and daughters waiting for me. They had travelled with us for an away game for the first time in a long time, and their mere presence with me helped settle the nerves that were keeping me on edge.

“You can say that again darling, I don’t think I’ve known anything quite like it.”

The week in the run-up to the game had been manic in itself. It had begun with Liverpool tasting defeat in their second cup final of the season, a single goal from the £35m man Kabir Eronna was enough to settle the FA Cup final in favour of Manchester United rather than their fierce rivals, the two Manchester sides claiming one each of the two domestic cups available.

The following day, a much-changed Southampton side took to the field at St James’ Park for our penultimate game of the season at Newcastle. I had hoped to field a few more of our first-choice side, but the exertions of the City match less than 48 hours earlier meant the plan was simply unfeasible. Instead I placed faith in the depth of my squad, and they came through – eventually. Home goalkeeper Vincenzo Guizzo was named Man of the Match for a series of saves, including a penalty to deny Carlos Henrique after just 11 minutes of the match. However, a second spot-kick was awarded to us five minutes before the break, and on that occasion the Brazilian won the mental battle, placing his kick in exactly the same position as the keeper dived the other way. That was all we could manage, Newcastle could not find the equaliser, and barring an eight-goal win for Liverpool at home to Brentford, we would go into the final day as league leaders.

Unsurprisingly, the eight-goal haul did not materialise, but with pressure nevertheless on Montella’s side to deliver, they came up with the goods – a 2-0 win over the already-relegated Bees meaning that the final match of the Premier League season would begin with our two clubs locked level at the top of the table, a goal difference margin of four the only thing separating our sides. Crucially though, the advantage was ours – meaning we needed only a draw to clinch the title.

“Do you know what I’m going to tell you?”

My wife had a playful look on her face as asked the question, and I suspected I knew what was coming.

“If I know you like I think I do, then you’re going to tell me that even if it all goes wrong tomorrow, you’ll be proud of me, I’ll have achieved a huge amount regardless, and that I shouldn’t let one bad result get me down – especially with the Champions League still to come?”

Rachel smirked at my reply.

“Actually no. I’m going to tell you, Owain Williams, that tomorrow you are going to be crowned Premier League champion. Tomorrow, you are going to beat Liverpool, lift the title, and go into the Champions League final as the best team in England. And I, Bethan and Rebecca, will be right there in the stands to watch you lift the trophy. How does that sound?”

I couldn’t hide my surprise at what I was hearing, and it brought a smile to my lips.

“It sounds brilliant darling, and I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“I will be, you wait and see. Now, you’re got a big day ahead of you tomorrow, we should probably get some sleep.”

I didn’t do a huge amount of sleeping – nor had I expected to. But when the alarm signalled that morning had broken on Sunday morning, I was significantly more confident than I thought I might have been. The nerves were still there, but they were more restrained than I had anticipated. Rachel and the girls waved me out the door of our family room as I left for the stadium, and as I readjusted my tie I felt the moment hit me. This was it, this was what it all boiled down to. This was the time to make history.

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The Premier League had gone all-out to make sure it felt like a title decider. The league trophy had been positioned at the end of the New Anfield tunnel, meaning every single player had to walk past the silverware they were hoping to lift at the end of the 90 minutes. There were fireworks to accompany the managers’ entrances, and the stadium announcer wasted no opportunity to let the capacity crowd know just how important the game about to take was. The stage was certainly well-set.

With the fireworks having exploded into the Sunday afternoon sky – making more noise than spectacle given the bright sunshine over Merseyside – I shook hands with Vincenzo Montella. The Italian flashed me a photogenic smile as we did so, and I leaned in to catch his ear.

“It’s been a long, hard season Vincenzo, we’ve had a great fight. Good luck today, and we’ll see you in Paris.

There was no time for my opposite number to reply verbally, but a quick thumbs-up signalled his appreciation as headed to our respective dugouts. I’d seen nothing from the Liverpool boss to suggest that he was anything other than a class act, and I would have no problems with seeing him lift the title if it was at the expense of anyone other than my Saints. As it was, his success would mean our failure, and I could not allow them to happen.

I glanced to the director’s box as Sidibe rolled the ball to Escalada to get the match underway, raising a smile as I saw Rebecca frantically waving in a bid for my attention. I raised my hand to the delight of my daughter, her sister and my wife, and the Premier League decider had begun.

The opening 10 minutes was, as you might expect on such a big occasion, nervous. Both sides wanted to take their time on the ball, giving everybody the chance to enjoy possession before thinking about doing anything with it, and by no means wanting to take a risk which might mean conceding an early goal. Liverpool were happy to play at a reduced pace, my Southampton side were in no hurry to take a gamble, and the opening exchanges passed relatively quietly.

The first man to make a play was Kenan Kus, our captain leading by example in getting us on the front foot. After collecting a quick throw from Beraldi around 30 yards from his own goal, the Dutchman simply put his head down and shifted through the gears. The first Liverpool man to make a challenge ended up tangled on the floor, and as Kus crossed halfway he began to hit his stride. A second tackler simply bounced off our full-back, and a hush descended on New Anfield as the home fans recognised the threat.

A third man, this time a centre-back, came across to try and rob our skipper of the ball, but fortune favoured the brave as the ball squirmed back into his path as he drew level with the edge of the area. Looking up for the first time in a while, Kus then lofted a ball towards the penalty spot, where a number of players had converged.

Sidibe was the target, and the Ivorian’s strong leap was matched by that of his marker, the ball flicking off the back of the Liverpool man’s head and continuing on its path. As it dropped to the ground, it was met with the right boot of Escalada. 

The Argentine’s effort whistled past the goalkeeper and into the top corner. I punched the air in delight, Escalada was quickly mobbed by his team-mates, and with 13 minutes played we had the lead in the title decider.

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Southampton take the lead with Escalada’s goal, and as things stand Liverpool now need two goals to be crowned Premier League champions. Can you see them getting back into things?”

“I certainly wouldn’t rule them out at this stage, there’s a lot of time still to play out there. I think an early goal is probably the best thing that could have happened to the match to be fair – neither side was looking particularly adventurous before the goal, and I think we’ll see things open up now as Liverpool have to go for it.”

“Do you think there’s any chance of Southampton sitting back on their lead?”

“Not at this point – if we were 70 minutes in I think Williams would be thinking about it, but they aren’t a side set up to defend for an entire match. I think they’ll stick to their guns for now, and if anything does change it won’t be for a while.”

Pirulito on the ball now, Liverpool showing a little more attacking intent since the goal. He’s caused Southampton problems in the past, as will be looking to do the same again here.”

“He’s done well to get past Henrique there, and he’ll take Kus on down the Liverpool left. In comes the cross towards the near post, but Hodge is there and he’ll head that clear.”

“A solid clearance, but it’s come back to a red shirt – comfortable save there for Beraldi, Waters got plenty behind the shot but it was straight down the throat of the goalkeeper.”

“Better from Liverpool though, and Southampton will do well to take that as a warning – Pirulito is looking dangerous, and they’ve got to close men down quickly.”

Waters on the ball for the hosts now, he’s got a little bit of time here. He’ll push forward, and there’s the pass to Misso. Heavy touch there but it’s back under control, but a brilliant tackle from Woodward to break up the play.”

“The England man did really well there to win the ball, and Southampton could break here, they’ve got men streaming forward to break.”

“That’s a glorious ball over the top from Woodward, and Adam Bright come be in here if he gets there first, and he has done…”

“It’s there! A simple ball over the top, a cool finish from Adam Bright, and all of a sudden Southampton lead 2-0 with just half an hour gone on Merseyside. Owain Williams looks absolutely delighted on the sideline, the Southampton fans over to our right are having a whale of a time, and the Saints are just an hour away from a first ever Premier League title.”

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My half-time team-talk was a simple one – don’t do anything stupid, don’t get complacent, keep an eye on the Liverpool forwards and strike on the break if possible. We were halfway there, almost close enough to touch the Premier League trophy, but if any side was capable of staging a dramatic comeback at this stage it was Liverpool at home, and we had to be on our guard to see the job through.

And so, after 15 minutes of the second period, you can imagine my frustration when the Kop’s roar for a penalty was answered with the referee’s whistle in the affirmative. It was that man Pirulito once again, twisting and turning to wriggle his way into the box before going to ground in a challenge with Henrique, and the official deemed the Brazilian to have fouled the winger. Our desperate pleas for a reversal did little to change the referee’s mind, and in front of his own fans, midfielder Paolo Misso had a chance from 12 yards against compatriot and namesake Beraldi.

A long, stuttering run-up ending with Misso sending his penalty high to Beraldi’s left, only for our goalkeeper to get his fingertips to the ball and push it onto the post. Agonisingly, his save proved in vain as the ball bounced off the woodwork back into the path of the taker, who gratefully prodded home to save his blushes and give his team a lifetime at 2-1. Liverpool still needed two goals, our fans booed every blast of the whistle from the referee, and with half an hour to go we prepared ourselves for the coming attacks.

Almost straight from the restart we fired off a warning shot of our own, Bright looking to add to his earlier goal with a difficult low effort from 25 yards that the home keeper did well to get his body behind, snaffling the ball at the second attempt. Our England international was looking lively, and his good form meant that Liverpool had a third man to watch up the field in addition to our two strikers. The more men we could force them to keep back, the easier our job was likely to be.

Any hopes we had of dominating proceedings after the penalty were short-lived, and as New Anfield continued to urge their side on, we found ourselves under pressure once again. This time the danger came in the form of playmaker Rob Waters, a player notorious for his long-range sharp-shooting, who found a pocket of space 30 yards from goal with the ground encouraging him to let fly. He duly obliged, and only a deflection from the unwitting Eggen saw the shot drift off-target, earning a corner which Beraldi punched authoritatively clear. Into the final quarter hour, and we had one hand on the trophy.

As Montella waved his men forward, space began to open up in the middle of the park, and as that space emerged so our threat on the break increased. On one occasion, shortly after Waters had launched another shot from range wide of the post, substitute Ross Ifan found himself very close to being played clean through, only for a last-gasp challenge from Enrique Garza to rob him of a goalscoring opportunity. Into the last 10, and we were almost there.

Pirulito looked to be the main threat from the home side, and his team-mates knew it as well as well did, seeking to get the ball to the diminutive Brazilian as often as possible. He squirmed past substitute Blanc, on for Woodward to help see out the remainder of the game, and then attempted to find a team-mate with a dangerous curling ball into the area that Leighton Hodge had to stretch to get out of the area.

The ball fell to the feet of Vandinho 20 yards from his own goal-line, and our own Brazilian set off on a run of his own. He was quickly joined by Blanc racing upfield, and it was the Frenchman who carried the ball into the Liverpool half. With the home midfield catching up, he laid it right again to the rapid Adam Bright, who took the ball diagonally towards the edge of the area, shaking off one tackle and watching as the Liverpool defence decided whether to back off or close him down.

They chose to close down, but before they could reach him he sent a pass along the line of the penalty area towards captain Kus. With defenders drawn away him by the threat of Bright and Sidibe’s run into the box, our full-back took a touch to steady himself before arrowing a shot across goal, beyond the dive of the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Kus disappeared under a mass of Southampton bodies which included most of my unused substitutes, New Anfield descended into a funereal silence, and I found myself engulfed in a bearhug by Terry McPhillips. With five minutes to go, we had surely sealed the title.

There would be one more attack to fend off, but Liverpool’s heart was no longer in it. Beraldi plucked a cross out of the air before falling dramatically on the ball to kill a few more seconds, and that was the last action our goalkeeper would be required to take. Moments later, with Benjamin Blanc in possession inside the centre circle, the referee lifted his whistle to his lips – Southampton Football Club were Premier League champions.

Vincenzo Montella and Liverpool could feel hard done-by with their record 91 points in the runners-up spot, but this was no time to wonder about what might have been. My opposite number shook me firmly by the hand at the final whistle, his congratulations laden with both sincerity and disappointment. They had been given one last chance to win the title on their own turf, and we had wrenched it from them.

There is something about any trophy presentation which sends a shiver down the spine, but the moment of actually getting our hands on the Premier League was something else entirely. For the Brits in the squad, this was the moment their whole careers had been building to. For the foreign players among us, they were on top of the self-proclaimed best league in the world. For this humble manager, it was the culmination of three years’ work, work which had driven me to the brink of despair, exhaustion and a thousand other emotions besides.

With Rachel in tears in the director’s box and Bethan and Rebecca jumping for joy alongside her, I managed to battle back my own waterworks to hoist the famous trophy into the afternoon sky. To their credit, the Liverpool fans had stayed – both to congratulate my Saints and commiserate their own side – and the rest of that Sunday passed in a blur. I have no idea what I said to the press, no idea what went on in the changing room afterwards. It didn’t matter one jot – we were Premier League champions, and nobody could take that from us.

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Thank you chaps for the kind words - to all come down to the last day was a bit much, but we got there in the end!
--

The papers the following morning were gushing, and made for brilliant reading. Our 94 points made us deserved champions – although there was plenty of sympathy for a Liverpool side that had also pushed past the 90 point barrier and come away empty-handed – according to the nation’s media, and there was almost universal acclaim for myself and my players for forging a title-winning team without amassing huge transfer debts in the process. Several writers noted the relative youth of our side, wondering in their columns whether or not key men would stay at Southampton, and if so whether they could form the backbone of a dominant side for years to come.

Of course, there was the odd dissenting voice – we had relied on late goals in the run-in, had Liverpool not slipped up at various points we wouldn’t have been able to win the league on the last day, City not being in the fight had played into our hands – but on the whole we were the darlings of the press. There were even calls in one more extreme publication for the Saints to name a stand at St Mary’s after me – personally I thought that was something that should be reserved for only the greatest of club legends, and only then after their death – such was the strength of feeling at our title win.

In the end, there had been a significant gulf between ourselves and Liverpool and the rest of the league. City, after getting off to a stuttering start, finished seven points behind the Reds, with Arsenal in the final Champions League spot a further eight points back and 18 off our title-winning total. It was worth noting that their 76 points was the total we had finished runners-up with just 12 months ago – this time, the sides at the top had proven a great deal more consistent.

Roberto Martinez came very close to justifying his jumping ship from the Emirates to Old Trafford, hauling Manchester United from the bottom half of the table to 5th place and the FA Cup trophy, while Spurs edged out Watford on goal difference to round out the top six, both sides earning Europa League berths courtesy of the two Manchester clubs lifting the two domestic trophies. Chelsea could only manage 8th, three points further back.

Elsewhere, Fulham faded badly after sitting in the top four in the early stages of season to finish down in 12th, while there as a huge gap between West Ham in 17th and safety, and the three sides dropping through the relegation trapdoor. Brentford were a full 12 points short of survival, amassing just 26 points over the course of the season, but even that paltry tally was enough to see them finish above both Burnley and Everton, the blue half of Merseyside enduring a torrid season which saw them win just four matches and end on a mere 21 points.

Unsurprisingly, my Saints featured heavily in the various Teams of the Year being floated around in print and online, and we were well represented in the Premier League’s official side, as were our nearest rivals Liverpool. Vincenzo Montella’s side had four players in the starting line-up, and we matched them – Kus and Hodge in defence, Bright in midfield and Escalada up front – and I could not help but feel that with a little less rotation we might have had even more of our men make the season’s ‘dream team.’

Personal accolades were one thing, but every professional footballer – with the possible exception of Cristiano Ronaldo – was far more interested in lifting team trophies, and it was ultimately the league title which would last far longer in the memories of those involved than the media awards designed to inflate their egos. Silverware certainly mattered more to the fans, many of whom had been in tears as we paraded the league trophy though the centre of Southampton the afternoon after our triumph, and to be the first Saints side to be crowned national champions was something that would stay in the history books as long as football was played.

But there was still another prize to be played for, and we found ourselves in the odd position of having the wave of euphoria after our title triumph hit us full on, and yet be unable to fully ride it until after our trip to Paris for the Champions League final. We would do it all over again against Liverpool for the biggest prize in club football, and for perhaps the first time in the competition, we found ourselves as favourites in the wake of our domestic success and most recent encounter. Our season was not quite over, and we had our biggest test yet to come.

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Rachel and the girls were with us, as were the families of all the players – I had no desire to apply one rule to management and another to my men – my wife having been granted special dispensation for Bethan and Rebecca to miss Monday’s school day. We had almost been lucky with the dates, missing their half term holiday by a week, but I had another plan up my sleeve for that particularly holiday – something I, unbeknownst to Rachel, had also discussed with the headmaster – and I had no concerns about the girls missing a single day. Not if the alternative was having them absent for the Champions League final.

We arrived on Friday night, eager to familiarise ourselves with the surroundings of the Stade de France and work through our pre-match routines in the place we would actually be playing the game. Preparation was everything, and I was not about to risk the final and biggest game of the season by having my players unsure of their environment. Everything, from mealtimes to their curfew, was carefully arranged so as to give them every chance of being as fresh as possible for the game itself, while at the same time helping them feel comfortable in the process. It was a fine balance to strike.

On the Saturday morning, while I put the players through their paces in our allotted training slot on the Stade de France pitch, and indeed in the afternoon as I dealt with what felt every media outlet in the known universe, Rachel took the girls to sample the sights and sounds of Paris, a city they had never visited. From my wife’s reports they had thoroughly enjoyed themselves, Bethan in particular loving the opportunity to test out her linguistic skills in a range of shops and patisseries as well as enjoying the artistic feel of the place, while Rebecca’s highlight a brief cruise down the Seine as she soaked up the atmosphere of a new place. I truth, I felt sampling the French capital would benefit them more than then would gain by spending the Monday in school, and so I had no qualms in them skipping the day.

The press conference was reassuringly predictable if not a little tedious – yes, I thought we had every chance of winning the game; no, I would not be changing my plans based on the fact we were apparently favourites; no, I didn’t think last week’s Premier League finale would have a great deal of effect on the final. Watching Montella field largely the same questions in his conference, I was sure he rolled his eyes at a minimum of three of the questions, and I understood entirely where he was coming from.

But it was as much a part of the pre-match routine as the flight out of Southampton, and as an experienced European manager – somehow a couple of runs in the Europa League and a single season in the Champions League qualified me for the title according to UEFA’s various staff members – I was not expected to make a fuss. From the perspective of European football’s governing body, the managers doing their bit for the world’s media was a small price to pay for the exposure and wealth their competitions brought their clubs, which as an argument was hard to argue with. Of course, the suggestion that anyone other than UEFA could organise a football tournament and attract sponsorship was simply out of the question.

Generally speaking, I did not name my name until the morning of a match – I liked to keep my men guessing, and we often went through whole-squad briefings on matchday morning, and I didn’t want players’ attentions drifting if they knew they were only going to be sat on the bench or in the stands. On this occasion however, as for the Premier League conclusion, I decided to name the side on the day before. Those involved needed time to ready themselves for the occasion, those left out needed space to console themselves and rally behind their team-mates, and I needed to let my thoughts escape lest I lost sleep tinkering at the last moment.

In some ways, the team picked itself, whilst in others I had spent far too much deliberating over who to play and who to leave out. In the end, I forced myself to make a decision, and stuck with it. Beraldi was the unquestioned choice in goal, with captain Kus the obvious choice at right-back. Eggen and Hodge had been our first-choice centre-back pairing when available and would get the nod again, whilst on the left I allowed pragmatism to win over sentiment, picking Vandinho over Luke Shaw to complete the back four. Steve Woodward had picked up a slight knock in the league fixture to make my defensive midfield selection of Henrique and Blanc a little easier, with the Englishman still able to take a spot on the bench. Bright and Cohen would be our attacking axis behind the strikers, and the combination of Escalada and Sidibe would start up front.

That left seven spots on the bench, and for the most part they picked themselves. Bateson, Shaw and Acuna meant we had cover for each of our defensive positions, Woodward would be available for no more than half an hour but was too good a player to drop entirely, and Ross Ifan was the easy choice as a third attacking midfielder. Having never opted to carry a substitute goalkeeper on the bench – a decision I had yet to be hurt by – that left two spaces for forward options, allowing me to have both Jacobson and Clarke available depending on the situation emerging on the pitch.

Those were the 18 men charged with winning the Champions League for Southampton, the men who would attempt to create yet more history for their club, and complete a scarcely believable season with double success. The following day, we would find out if they were up to the task.

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The Stade de France looked magnificent in the evening twilight, its red and white lights installed especially for the occasion sparkling against the darkening night sky and fencing off the famous stadium from the rest of the planet. For the next 90 minutes, possibly longer, our world was confined to this 81,000-seater bowl on the outskirts of Paris, and the same was true of everyone gathered inside. Families, friends, rights and responsibilities faded into a distant second place – for the next two hours, the Champions League final was all that mattered.

The competition’s anthem never failed to send shivers down the spine of fans, players and managers alike, and somehow hearing it in the Saint-Denis cauldron amplified its effect even further. I shook hands once again with Montella, watched as the chosen child mascots trotted off the pitch following the two teams’ own handshakes, and took my position in the dugout as the 22 men on the field took up their starting positions. Liverpool would kick off, Kus having won the toss and chosen to kick towards our allotted end during the second half, and the 2029 Champions League final was underway. An exhausting season ended tonight.

With a deafening roar from the stands – the fans in full voice despite the presence of a significant number of neutral members of UEFA’s ‘football family’ – our opponents worked the ball backwards before attempting to mount their first attack, their midfield pairing of Waters and Misso both spending time on the ball and surveying the scene before moving it on to a team-mate. I was not expecting a flying start from the Reds, and unless we could grab an early goal, I was expecting my own side to keeps things time for the opening 10 minutes.

That was exactly what happened, with neither side so much as taking a shot in the opening seven minutes, a midfield battle emerging as the two teams began to try and figure out their opponents. In many ways it seemed strange that we would have to go through this part of the routine, having met the same side less than a week before in another huge game, but we had no guarantee that Montella had sent his men out with the same instructions – indeed, having been defeated in our last encounter it was highly likely that he would have made a tweak or two – and so I had no frustrations in letting my men do the mental work in the opening stages. I would much rather spend 10 minutes pensively than go all-out and concede early on.

Liverpool earned cheers from the crowd for the first shot on target of the match when it did come, star striker David Lemaire the first man to test either goalkeeper with a snapshot from the edge of the area. A well-timed block from Hodge took much of the sting out of the effort, the Frenchman watching as Beraldi was able to simply scoop up what remained of the shot, but it was nevertheless a relief to the fans that the two teams had no simply come to fathom each other out.

Five minutes later we went on an attack of our own, a clever exchange of play down the left confusing the Liverpool defence as Vandinho headed infield while playing the ball to Sidibe drifting out towards the left flank. As the defenders quickly tried to figure out who should be following who, our striker’s ball into the area was met by the head of his partner Escalada, the Argentine flicking his ball just wide of the right-hand post, even if the goalkeeper did have it covered.

It gave us the confidence to go again, and on the second occasion it was Cohen who injected the impetus we needed. The Israeli was able to take the ball to the edge of the area with the opposition defence backing off, but the shooting opportunity never came and instead he found Escalada, our forward drifting deep to the edge of the box in a bid to find space. He was forced wide to the right of the box, but a clever feint gave him the space to clip a diagonal ball into space between defender and goalkeeper, where Adam Bright was able to trap the ball on the stretch and then smash a shot into the back of the net to give us a 1-0 lead after 19 minutes of play. Once again we led Liverpool, and we were ahead in the Champions League final.

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“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like that in such a big game Jason, have you?”

“I don’t think I have Stephen, certainly not in recent memory. It’s a stunningly ambitious effort, as audacious as it is brilliant, and in the end I’m not quite sure how it’s stayed out.”

“Me neither, I’m still stunned.”

“For those of who struggling to follow what’s just happened here, Ange Sidibe has just hit the crossbar from the halfway line in the Champions League final, and Southampton were very nearly 2-0 to the good.”

“There’s no other way of describing it, but that’s what we’ve just witnessed – you’ll have to watch the highlights this evening. There was absolutely nothing on for the Ivorian, nothing at all, and Reinhardt can’t have been more than 12 yards off his line – plenty close enough to get back in time, but he was well and truly beaten.”

“Usually when you see a player try something like that, it’s a big floated lob over a goalkeeper 10 yards outside their area – this wasn’t that, this was an actual shot from Sidibe, hit with power, and it’s very nearly come off.”

“I don’t know what he must have seen to think it worth trying, but if that ends up six inches lower the rest of us can give up and go home, because nobody is ever going to match that goal. As it is, it’s still Southampton 1 Liverpool 0, and Sidibe’s shot is destined for highlight videos for the rest of time.”

It took a good minute after Sidibe’s effort for the Stade de France to calm down – even the players on the field could not quite believe what they had just seen, let along the fans in the stands. It was just as well for the Liverpool defence that the ball had bounced off the bar and looped into the goalkeeper’s arms, because none of them would have been switched on enough had there been a man bearing down on them. There wasn’t of course, hence our striker taking a shot from 50 yards or more, but the mesmerising effect it had on the players was remarkable.

It was all I could do to applaud the effort from my technical area, and as I did so I felt Montella’s gaze transfer to me, as if I had been giving Sidibe extra training sessions in shooting from ridiculous distances. As it was, I was just as surprised as my opposite number – perhaps even more so given that I had never once seen my player attempt such a thing in training – but we could not dwell too long on a single moment. We had a final to win, after all.

There were still 20 minutes of the first half to play, and it would have been remiss of us to down tools for those minutes simply because we had almost witnessed one of the greatest goals of all time. Liverpool were certainly not about give up at this stage, and our regular tormentor Pirulito quickly got himself into the game for the first time, bamboozling Blanc before whipping in a cross which only just evaded the head of Lemaire. It was a warning – we couldn’t afford to rest on our laurels.

10 minutes later, the Portuguese referee somehow found reason to deny us a penalty. I say somehow, because from my viewpoint on the touchline I could clearly see Garza trip Sidibe before getting a foot on the ball, and the television replays would later confirm my judgement. Whether it was some sort of Iberian loyalty pact with the Spanish centre-back or simply a poor decision I was unsure, but there could be no denying that we had been denied a clear-cut and clearly deserved chance at a second goal. The fourth official had a tough job calming me down, and it was only as play developed that I managed to return my attention to the field.

Waters was on the ball for Liverpool 40 yards from goal, and was advancing towards our defensive line inside first-half stoppage time. Renowned for his long-range shooting, I was relieved to see Henrique closing him down quickly, but he had come far enough for Lemaire to be a viable target, and the Frenchman lashed a 20-yard piledriver towards goal that Beraldi could only watch as it whistled past him, smacking against the foot of his left post and rebounding out for a throw-in. It was a fortunate escape, Montella’s head was in his hands, and the woodwork count was level at 1-1 – unlike the scoreline.

Vandinho took the throw to Hodge, who quickly found Blanc in midfield. A simple pass to Bright allowed our England midfielder to stretch his legs as he looked to accelerate, only for his left leg to be taken from under him by Paolo Misso on the stretch. We loaded the penalty area for the free-kick, and Carlos Henrique stood over the dead ball 30 yards from goal.

The Brazilian could have gone for goal with little complaint from his team-mates – save perhaps the two central defenders who had galloped forwards for the ball in – but instead he chose to bend in a ball that put the Liverpool defenders on the back foot. The ball looked to be bouncing between the line of players and the goalkeeper, but nobody in the Stade de France had reckoned for Lucio Escalada’s full-length dive, our striker flinging himself with reckless abandon at the dropping ball and heading it beyond the stunned Reinhardt to double our advantage on the stroke of half-time. We led 2-0 at the break – surely Liverpool could not come back from here? Not having lost the Premier League title on the last day of the season, not having been beaten in two cup finals already this season, not from 2-0 down. The Champions League was surely ours – unless we did something stupid in the second half.

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Got to keep the suspense in there somehow, right? :D
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We didn’t.

The second 45 minutes brought no goals, no late drama, no disputed penalty claims. Instead it brought a sentimental late run-out for a teary Luke Shaw, a standing ovation for opening goalscorer Bright, and history for Southampton Football Club. In our first appearance in the competition, we had gone all the way and lifted the Champions League. The trophy ceremony was as magical as you might expect – the trophy itself weighing a significant amount – and for the second time this season I was welcomed into the press room by prolonged applause.

Owain, how does it feel to win the Champions League?

“Honestly, I can’t even begin to tell you right now. I don’t think it’s properly hit me yet, and I don’t think it will for some time. The players were amazing out there, every single one of them, and it feels incredible. It’s been a long, hard season, and to finish it like this – it’s hard to put into words.”

“Did you ever imagine you’d be completing a Premier League and Champions League double at the start of the season?”

“It’s beyond anything we could have hoped for, it really is. We go into every match and every competition hoping to win, but to come away with the two biggest prizes is an incredible achievement, and one that’ll live long in the memory.”

Adam Bright and Lucio Escalada scored the goals today, but I think the biggest talking point will be that shot from Ange Sidibe – have you ever seen him do anything like before?”

“Never – I was as surprised as the rest of you! It was a great effort, and I think if it had gone in the match would have been over there – it was almost too much. Ange has had a great first season with us, has scored some hugely important goals, and I was thrilled with his performance tonight, as I was with the rest of the team.”

“Do you have any words for Vincenzo Montella? That’s twice in a week you’ve beaten his side to a major trophy, and Liverpool have finished runners-up in every competition they’ve entered this season.”

Vincenzo is a good man and an excellent manager, and Liverpool are a great football club – you don’t become as successful as they’ve been without having something special. This will hurt, of course it will, but they’ll be back next season even stronger, that’s for sure. I don’t take any pleasure in beating particular people, and especially not Vincenzo – I only hope he doesn’t feel too much pain on the back of this.”

“We’ll let you go in a minute Owain, just a couple more questions if that’s OK – you’re the first Welsh manager ever to win the Champions League or European Cup, do you feel like you’re flying the flag for your homeland?”

“I think first and foremost I’m flying the flag for Southampton, but I’m a proud Welshman and if the fact that we can now boast a Champions League title is something that people can be proud of then I’m all for it. I don’t think too much about the personal part of the game to be honest – football is a team sport and so anything I achieve comes as part of a team.”

“Finally, where do Southampton go from here? Can you do it again next year?”

“I think the first thing we do is go home and celebrate! The players need to enjoy their success first, recharge their batteries over the summer and then go again – I know there a lot of people who haven’t seen much of their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers recently, and we need to give people a good break. As for doing it all again next season, it’ll be incredibly difficult but we’ll give it our best shot – that’s all I can ask of my men, and it’s what we’ve done this season.”

“Thanks Owain, and congratulations once again.”

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