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Back in Britain - Part III of the Owain Williams saga


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“But they’ve only been back two days! How long are we talking about?”

“That’s his season done then?”

“OK, thanks for letting me know. I’ll check in on him later.”

That was the end of Benjamin Blanc for the season. A clumsy fall in training had seen him attended immediately by the physio team, and the conversation an hour later confirmed my worst fears. A nasty ankle injury meant there was no way Blanc was running any time soon, and the experts thought he’d be out for three months – he’d miss the end of our season, and the World Cup to boot. As you might imagine, when I visited him in the treatment later that day, he was absolutely devastated.

With the injury hanging heavily over the squad, we travelled to Brighton – a team who had beaten us in our last meeting, and who were continuing to battle for Europa League qualification. It was a short journey, but it felt like a difficult one, and the mood in the camp didn’t seem good despite our last game being a thumping win over Watford. As it turned out, it was for good reason.

It isn’t that Brighton are a particularly good side – they’re a decent outfit, but they don’t have the same level of talent in their squad as we do at Southampton. However, for reasons I haven’t figured out yet, they seem to have our number this season. Not only did they manage to completely stifle our attack, but they put us under pressure for much of the game. In the 74th minute, Harry Eggen brought Ricardo Gomes down inside the area for a penalty, and as news filtered through of a third goal for a rampant City in the derby against United, our title hopes went up in flames.

When Beraldi then pulled off a superb one-handed save to keep the penalty out it was not a full-blown phoenix moment, but it did at least keep us close to alive. We couldn’t find the goal that would have really have turned things around, but our Italian goalkeeper’s flying stop would be replayed time and time again by various TV channels as a moment that could restart our title bid. It was a strange thing to fixate on, given that City’s thrashing of their neighbours took them eight points clear – even our game in hand would only reduce the deficit to five – but we would take it. Somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, it seemed as if a goalless draw at Brighton had given us the momentum.

Of course, the next day – just a few hours before April Fools’ Day – it was announced that Capital Star Sports had completed their nine-figure takeover of Southampton Football Club, assuming control from the Liebherr family. Oh, and we had City in the Champions League quarter-final in a few days’ time. Nothing about the next few weeks was going to be easy.

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Owain, things couldn’t be more finely poised after that first leg. Are you happy with the performance?”

"Obviously it’s a little disappointing not to have a goal to defend in the away leg, but we played well out there. With a little more luck and a few millimetres, we could be in the lead.”

“Was Jacobson offside?”

“I’m not going to criticise the officials, they have a very difficult job and as I said, it was a matter of millimetres in a split-second. Callum thinks he was on, I’m sure their defender thought he’d played him off.”

“You chose to start Luke Shaw instead of Vandinho today, which was a surprise to a few of us. Can you explain your reasoning behind that?”

“We can’t use the same 11 players every game when we’re playing every three days, and Luke is ready and raring to go. Everybody in the squad is here because they’re an excellent footballer, and just because Luke is a little older than our average that doesn’t exclude him.”

“What’s your game plan for the return leg at this stage? Do you play as if it’s an away game, or a one-off cup tie?”

“I’m not going to give away too much here, and we obviously haven’t prepared for it yet, but it’ll probably be a bit of both. City will fancy themselves favourite with a clean sheet and a home leg to come, but we know one goal can make all the difference in these ties. It’ll also depend on the personnel we have available after Reading. We just don’t know yet.”

“In the other game tonight, Krasnodar won 2-0 in Monaco. Are they a threat to win the competition?”

“Every team that makes a Champions League quarter-final is a genuine contender, and Krasnodar are no different. They’ve built a brilliant club there in very little time, and deserve a huge amount of credit for what they’re doing. And if we have to meet them later in the competition, they’ll be a challenge. But we’ll be up for it.”

At 0-0 after 90 minutes, we’d take on City again in just six days with our continental future on the line. But before then, we’d had another test ahead of us as midtable Reading came to St Mary’s. I made a handful of changes to take on a side we were expected to make light work of. And so, after 10 minutes of putting the home defence under pressure, a slip from Steve Woodward allowed Jaroslav Vrana a clear run at Beraldi, and a cute clipped finish gave our visitors a surprise lead.

It took us a long time to recover, and we were in real danger of heading in behind at the break. Two things then happened – after 37 minutes, a huge roar from the crowd told me that Arsenal had taken the lead against City. Three minutes later, a much louder roar showed its appreciation for Lucio Escalada, our Argentine star curling a picture-perfect free-kick into the top corner of the net. We were level, our nearest rivals were losing, and we had all the momentum we needed.

We capitalised 20 minutes into the second half, Bright and Boakye netting twice in as many minutes as we battered the Royals into submission. When the full-time whistle blew, it was greeted with a song more confident than anything we had heard for several weeks. The seemingly invincible Manchester City had been beaten 3-1 at Arsenal, and we were still in the fight.

We were still losing the fight – we remained five points behind our rivals with a game in hand – but we had rediscovered our form, and they were human after all. If we could manage to knockout Diego Simeone’s men out of Europe, there was the faintest chance that we could deal enough of a blow to their morale to give ourselves a chance in the league.

Of course, there was always the chance that defeat in the Champions League would see us face a backlash in the domestic battle, but it was a risk we would have to take. And of course, this was all assuming that we managed to do something that very few teams had managed all season, and win at the Etihad. If we failed, our reign at home and abroad could come to a very sudden end.

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“It’s been a tense opening half here in Manchester, with neither side creating too much in the way of opportunities. Southampton have sat deep and looked to hit City on the break, and there could be a chance for them here as Henrique looks for Vandinho on the left.”

“The Brazilian skips a tackle, he’s got space ahead of him but he feeds Cohen inside, the Israeli spins and looks for Bright. He’s hit it early, I’m not sure Plant was ready for that…”

“It’s in! Adam Bright’s skidding effort finds the corner, and Southampton lead! Andy Plant will be disappointed with that one, but he wasn’t set and the early shot took him by surprise. They’ve barely seen the City goal, but they’ve struck on the counter and the Saints have a huge away goal.”

City have started the second half brightly, they’ll be looking for the early goal here.”

“They’ve got men forward in numbers and it’s Zimmerman on the ball, slips it through for Mbemba…”

“Penalty! Aziana Mbemba gets the wrong side of Woodward, the challenge brings him down and Manchester City have a penalty to draw level.”

“It’ll be two Italians doing battle here, Mirko Gramaglia against Paolo Beraldi. He starts his run-up, stutters, SAVED!”

Beraldi denies his countryman with a superb save! It’s low to his left but not quite in the corner, and the goalkeeper does superbly to turn it round the post – his team-mates are rightly mobbing him. What a moment that could be in this tie, and it remains Man City 0, Southampton 1.”

“It’s been all City since the break, and they’ve not let that penalty save hold them back. They’re coming again down the right with Gramaglia, and Vandinho is struggling to keep up here. In comes the cross, but Hodge sends it straight back to him.”

“A good clearance, but it’s given the Italian another chance to get the ball in. It’s a low one this time and Mbemba is there! 1-1!”

“Superb ball in at the second attempt, and Mbemba’s run got him ahead of Hodge at the near post for the finish. Beraldi had no chance at such close range, and we’re back on level terms.”

Southampton will still progress at the moment courtesy of that away goal in the first half, but with half an hour still to play you have to fancy City at the moment, they have all the momentum.”

“Five minutes left and it’s still 1-1 here at the Etihad, where Southampton are holding firm against an onslaught from the home side. Diego Simeone has barely sat down all game and is cajoling his players forward, but they haven’t had the final ball at all tonight.”

“There is again, another pass picked off by Carlos Henrique. Now, can the Saints conjure anything from here? Kus is in acres of space on the right!”

“He is, and the Brazilian has found him with a diagonal ball into space. The Southampton captain is racing forward into the final third, and he chops inside as the defender comes across to challenge. What can he do from here?”

Kus looks up, he’s got men streaming into the box as City struggle to get back. One more touch, roll it into the box for Sidibe! They’ve done it!”

Ange Sidibe strokes the ball into the bottom corner, and surely Southampton are through now! They’ve had to defend for their lives at times tonight but they are like lightning on the break – that was all Kenan Kus’ work down the right.”

Southampton lead by two goals to one with four minutes remaining, City need two goals to turn it around, and the holders have surely booked their place in the semi-finals of the Champions League.”

We had indeed – and we were magnificent. The statistics would go on to show that we had little over 30% of the possession over the 90 minutes, but off the ball we fought like warriors and on it we were clinical. We would have gone through without Sidibe’s late breakaway, but the fact that we outright defeated City on their turf was a result that sent a message to the rest of the sides in the competition. Our Champions League win a year ago was no fluke, and we fully intended to defend our crown.

Three days later, I was once again part of a delegation from the club to Switzerland for the semi-final draw, where our path to the San Siro would be made clear. By the time our ball was plucked from the hopper, we already knew our opponents – with Krasnodar taking on Dortmund in the first tie, we were left to face Bayern Munich in the second. The first leg would be at home once again, and after the Bavarian giants had comfortably dispatched Spartak Moscow in the last eight, we knew we’d have a fight on our hands.

Before then, I had more personal matters to attend to. Two of the Saints delegation had requested a meeting on the return flight, and given that their surnames were Wilson and Goldstein respectively, I could hardly refuse them. The problem was, I hardly knew what to expect either.

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Owain, congratulations on a great result in Manchester. That was a great performance.”

“Thank you. The players executed our plan perfectly, so really it’s they who should be taking the credit.”

“Will we beat Bayern?

“They’re probably the strongest possible opponents, but so were City. It’ll be a very difficult tie, but if we play well we can beat them.”

Owain, our relationship hasn’t gotten off to a great start, and I’m sorry about that. Would you let me clear some things up?”

Goldstein, usually the quieter of the two, was behaving in a manner I could only describe as worryingly friendly, and while I had just taken his team into the last four of the Champions League, I was not quite sure what was going on. I nodded, and gestured for him to continue.

“When we last met we differed on a number of things – expectations, funding, and your contract. I’m not going to discuss expectations at this stage, as I believe benchmarking against the previous year a fair way of measuring performance. As to your contract, we will respect the decision of you and your agent – either to leave at the end of the season, or to trigger the extension in your existing deal. Let me assure you, Capital Star Sports believes you are the best man for the job at Southampton Football Club, and we would be delighted if that was the option you choose.

“So to funding. As I understand it, you had concerns about the self-sustainable approach advocated for by CSS previously – that player purchases would need to be funded by player sales. Well, after speaking to our executives in Washington, D.C., I’ve negotiated an agreement by which CSS would also make contribution to an annual transfer fund based on the achievements of the previous season, plus further contributions in recognition of profit made by the football club. I have a copy of the document here for you.”

As he slid me a four-page document, complete with graphs, I sighed perhaps a little too audibly. I had thus far resisted letting my shoulders slump, but I could hold out no further. Wilson caught on immediately.

“Is something wrong, Owain?

“Yes, if I’m being honest. You see gentlemen, my issue was never around being asked to win trophies year after year to keep my job – there are managers under far more pressure than me – or related to Southampton being a sustainable club, as I believe if you run the numbers that I’ve made this club more money in transfer revenue than I’ve spent during my tenure. It’s partly that, actually – the attitude to the whole thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“At no point in this process does anyone seem to have looked at Southampton in any detail other than the balance sheet and summary of accounts. Football clubs in England are not franchises to be bought, sold or even moved. They are community hubs with rich histories, fascinating stories – they have souls. The players are not one entity, nor are the fans. I understand that sport in a business, I’ve been it long enough to know that. But it isn’t just a business. It can’t be. Call me an idealist, but I just don’t see this working.”

We sat quietly, the two Americans taking in my words and I surprised at having the courage to articulate them. Goldstein broke through to draw it to a close.

“I see. Thank you Owain for your honesty. You have your way of working, and we have ours. Let’s end the conversation here for now and see if we can’t accommodate one another over the coming weeks. We’ll come back in May to see whether you’ve changed your mind on the contract.”

“Not until we’ve played our last game please – I need to be able to give the team my full focus and energy.”

“Agreed. Thank you Owain.

And that – whatever ‘that’ was – was that.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Before I had too much time to process the ins and outs of the conversation with the Americans, we had another crucial game in our bid for treble success. Wembley would host both FA Cup semi-finals on the same glorious Sunday, and ours was first. We would take on Spurs for the right to return in May, and after learning their potential opponents, Manchester City and Everton would go head-to-head for the second spot in the final.

Spurs were having a decent if not spectacular season, battling with a handful of other sides for the final European qualification spots. On the other hand, we were chasing three major trophies and unprecedented success for the club, facing major fixture congestion at the business end of the season. That said, we had a full six days before our next game – a home game against Norwich in the league – and so I could afford not to rotate too much. It was a rare luxury these days.

In the opening exchanges, Spurs looked a little shy, almost nervous on the big occasion. We tried to take advantage, pushing hard in the early moments, but couldn’t manage a breakthrough against a well-drilled outfit. As the minutes ticked by, our opponents began to grow in stature, and Beraldi had to make the game’s first major save in the 19th minute, palming a looping header behind for a corner.

Ten minutes later, we were behind. Daan Lamers was tripped in the box by an errant challenge from Kus, and the Dutchman picked himself up to bury the spot-kick and send his side ahead. From struggling to get a foothold in the game, Spurs were now in front, and the confidence their players were exuding was a worry for me and my staff. Short of a quick break from Boakye that ended with a shot flying wide, we offered very little for the rest of the first half, right until the final minute. Then Bright was brought down 20 yards from goal, Kus surprised everyone by taking charge of the set-piece, and our captain made up for his initial error by thundering a shot into the top corner to pull us level.

That goal changed the complexion of the game, and we came out strong in the second half. Just 10 minutes in, Bright managed to send off a snapshot that took a major deflection off Nikos Toloudis and bounced into the Spurs net, handing us a lead we held for all of two minutes. Almost straight from the restart, the same Toloudis rasped a shot past Beraldi from the edge of the box to restore parity, and the two men at fault on either side had redeemed themselves in spectacular fashion.

Four minutes later Spurs led again. This time it was hard to pin fault on anyone, as Lamers timed his run into the penalty area perfectly, steering a first-time finish into the bottom corner to make it 3-2. That goal sprang changes from both benches as they looked to protect the lead and we looked to overcome in, and the final half hour looked finely poised.

The substitutions broke up the flow of the game, and for the next few minutes there was precious little goalmouth action – a welcome reprieve for two well-worked defences. Then, almost from nowhere, two of the fresh players combined to make a difference, Vandinho launching a pinpoint diagonal ball a full 65 yards into the path of Sidibe, who took two touches before firing beyond the dive of the goalkeeper to tie the game with 10 minutes remaining.

We now faced a choice – continue to press for the win and risk being caught out, or play it safe and regroup for extra time. With so many games coming up in such a short period of time, the prospect of an extra half hour wasn’t a particularly appealing one, and so the message to the men on the field was a clear one. We kept going.

And in doing so, we earned another shot at glory. Just four minutes after the equaliser, Sidibe played a delightful chip to the back post for Jacobson to head in from close range, and our fourth goal of the game – the seventh of an incredible match – was enough to earn us a place in the FA Cup final.

A few hours later, we watched City join us after a straightforward demolition of Everton, the league leaders cruising to a 4-0 win. While there was a significant part of me that wished we could dismantle a high quality Premier League side without breaking a sweat, I was also pleased to see that my men could pull it out of the bag when up against it. It was a clash of styles, but that was what made this year’s title race such an exciting one. It would make for a thrilling cup final too.

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Three days after crushing Everton in the cup, City travelled to West Ham in the league and eased to a 2-0 victory that sent them eight points clear with four games to play, although we had a full six to get through. Even so, with every game Diego Simeone’s men breezed through, they took one major step closer to the Premier League title.

After a further three days, we were both back in action. We hosted Norwich in a game which was typical of a late season affair between title chasers and relegation battlers – slow, stodgy, frustrating for fans of both teams. In the end, a single goal would settle it, and it fell our way. A shot from Joey Gelling was well blocked on the edge of the area, and fell kindly for Ross Ifan. His first touch controlled the bouncing ball, his second took him from a standing start to passing his nearest defender, and his third sent a shot arrowing into the bottom corner. One goal was not exciting, but three points were exactly what we needed – especially given what was going on in Manchester.

Further north at the Etihad, City were maintaining their league lead in style. Taking on Nottingham Forest, our title rivals raced out to a 3-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes, added a fourth before the interval, and then refused to let up in the second half. By the time Forest were put out of their misery at the end of the 90 minutes, the scoreboard read 7-0 – the biggest win by any side in the Premier League all season, and a harrowing reminder of just what we were up against.

“Darling, have you had any more thoughts about what happens at the end of the year?”

Rachel’s question sounded innocent enough, and I didn’t think she was after a big conversation sort of an evening. It was probably too late to be starting, even if she did.

“You mean this season? I don’t think much has changed, really.”

“So you won’t work with the Americans?

“I can’t dance to that tune, not for any length of time. They want an investment fund manager, not a football one.”

“Then what?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I think I owe you and the girls some time before anything else.”

“I don’t disagree Owain, I just… I mean, this is assuming you go out on top, right? Beat City to the title, retain the Champions League…”

“It is an ideal scenario, I’ll give you that.”

“But what if that doesn’t happen? I don’t want to doubt you, but the league is out of your hands for starters. Would you go out in defeat?”

“I’m not sure. What makes you ask?”

“Because I need to know what life is going to look like, Owain. I need to know whether in July we’re going to be in Southampton or Spain or somewhere else. I need to know whether my husband is going to be around all summer, or whether we get another two-week break before going back to normal. I want to know what you’re actually planning.”

I paused. These were big questions.

“OK, let’s figure this out. The way I see it, my future at Southampton is either a few more weeks, or three more years – those are the options in the contract, anyway. I don’t think I can work with the new owners for that long, so at the end of the season, I’m leaving. I’m going to make that a promise to you right now. However the season ends, I won’t be at Southampton for the next one.

“If we win it all this year, that might actually be it. I’d leave with a treble, there’d be nothing more to achieve at the club. That’s actually quite an easy way to go out.

“If we don’t… That’s harder. There’ll always be a part of me that wants to win it all, to go down in history, to join the very best. I can’t guarantee I won’t want another shot.”

“I understand, darling.”

“But I want to be fair to you too. How about this – even if we don’t win one of the Premier League and Champions League, I walk away and take at least a year out. Maybe two. It might end up being permanent. But I can promise a year. Does that sound OK?”

“Does a whole year with my husband to myself and my girls sound OK? Of course it does! You’ll be driving us all mad wanting to get back in the game after six weeks, but we’ll deal with that when it comes.”

Rachel had switched from serious to playful, and that suggested to me that she had the answers she wanted. I hadn’t expected to settle my short-term future at this point, and I had no idea how I’d cope with an extended time away from football. But when I heard my wife put it in her own terms, I was more than ready to give it a go.

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The schedule looked hectic from here on out. On April 24th, we hosted Bayern in our first leg, returning to Munich on 30th with a home game against Arsenal sandwiched in the middle. The league season wrapped up on May 12th with a trip to Old Trafford, and before then we’d go to Wolves on 2nd, Fulham on 4th, and host Newcastle on 7th. Once all that was done, we’d take on City in the FA Cup final on 18th and – if we made it – try and defend our European crown in Milan on 25th. Four weeks, nine games, and we could still end up with three trophies, none, and everything in between.

By the time we kicked off against Bayern, we had a pretty good idea who our opponents in the final would be if we made it. In the first leg in Krasnodar, Dortmund had pulled off a superb performance with a 3-1 win, giving them three away goals and a two-goal lead to defend back home. Barring a miracle from their opponents, they’d be lining up for the final at the San Siro.

Before we could worry about that we had some football to play, and the St Mary’s faithful were well and truly up for this one. It was another capacity crowd for the visit of Bayern, and they were in superb voice. Despite the football on show not being particularly great in a cagey first 20 minutes they sang their collective heart out, roaring my Saints on in and out of possession, and giving our German visitors something they may not have been expecting.

I can’t say for certain whether the noise contributed to our opening goal, but I can’t imagine Jens Meyer could hear everything going on in his penalty area for our set-pieces. Five minutes before the break, Ross Ifan swung in a free-kick from wide on the right, and England centre-back Callum Marlow got himself into position to nod it back to his keeper. Unfortunately for him, Meyer had come out himself to collect the cross, and turned to watch in horror as the header dropped into an unguarded net. It was a catastrophe for Bayern, and delight for our raucous fans.

It was a moment of fortune that gave my men their swagger, and we carried it into the second half. We seemed half a yard quicker all over the field, beating the Germans to every 50/50 ball, and eventually we got the second our performance deserved. It came from a substitute – Gidon Cohen had been on for all of five minutes after replacing Ifan for an injection of pace – and the Israeli burst between two defenders and into the area before placing his shot beyond Meyer. There was nothing fortuitous about that goal, and we held a commanding position.

I would dearly have loved a third goal to really put our foot on Bayern’s throats, but when the final whistle blew at 2-0 I was more than happy. I had expected more from the visitors – more pressure and more fight – and with a clean sheet and a two-goal lead, we would return to Bavaria confident – although not over-confident – of finishing the job and booking a place in the final.

It also provided a huge boost to our confidence going into the league game against the Gunners three days later, and it showed immediately. Ange Sidibe, an unused substitute against Bayern, fired us into a lead after 70 seconds before doubling his tally 20 minutes later, and the visitors couldn’t lay a finger on us. We racked up a total of 30 shot to their four, hitting the target with fully half of our efforts, and a third goal was no less than we deserved, Boakye icing the cake in stoppage time to secure the points.

The only slight disappointment was that City were not slipping up, winning their 36thPremier League game of the season with two goals in the final 10 minutes at home to Aston Villa. We remained eight points back with two games in hand, and knew we would need a favour from one of City’s two remaining opponents. We would have made up our games in hand by the time they next played, but they faced a tough trip to New Anfield before wrapping up the campaign away at Leicester. We could hold up our end of the bargain, but we would need something from elsewhere if we were to defend our title. There was still time, but we were running out of chances.

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In Munich, I had decisions to make. Carrying a 2-0 lead from the first leg we were heavy favourites to make it through to the San Siro showpiece. However, we could not afford to be complacent in either our performance or team selection, and that was where I had decisions to make. And there were plenty of complicating factors for me to take into account.

First and foremost were the disciplinary issues. Of what I would consider our strongest line-up, we had three men – Kus, Henrique and Cohen – a single booking away from suspension. Earlier in the competition I would have had no qualms about throwing them in and risking the consequences, but could I really risk three of our key performers missing out on the Champions League final? Could I risk leaving them out and failing to even get there?

Then there was the issue of fixture congestion. Two days after Bayern we went to Wolves, and two days later to Fulham. This was already our third game in six days. While these were finely tuned professional athletes, there was a limited demand they could place on their bodies. A breakdown or injury at this stage in the season risked not only ruling a player out for the run-in but also, as we had seen earlier in the year with Benjamin Blanc, missing a possible World Cup.

In the end, I had to make changes. Raul Iglesias and Antonio Miranda made rare starts at full-back, Woodward came in for Henrique, and Ross Ifan took Cohen’s place behind the front two. It remained a very capable team, but it was undoubtedly weaker than the one that had lined up for the first leg, and represented something of a gamble on my part. In my defence, I didn’t feel I had too much choice.

It was clear from the outset that Bayern intended to throw the kitchen sink at us, and we could do little other than try and soak up the early pressure. My reserve full-backs found themselves having to do a great deal more defending than they were used to doing in the Premier League, but short of an early booking for Iglesias, they held up admirably. We even managed to fashion the best chance of the opening quarter, Sidibe stinging Meyer’s palms from 15 yards. So far, so good.

After weathering the early storm, we began to work our way into the game, and the possession stats became less skewed in Bayern’s favour. We were matching them in the centre of the park with Ifan dropping deeper to help out the defensive screen, and as time ticked by we looked more and more comfortable. That is, until the 44th minute, when Carl Bateson misjudged the flight of a cross and got caught under the ball, allowing Yosuke Nishida to pounce at the back post and lash home on the half-volley. It made for a very different half-time team-talk – stay composed, stay focused, stay in control. That was all we needed to do for the next 45 minutes.

And so of course after just 10 of those 45 minutes, young Iglesias tripped his man after getting too tight, earning himself a second yellow card and bringing us down to 10 men. I had to react, sending Luke Shaw into the fray in place of Sidibe and replacing Boakye with Sidibe as the most capable lone striker in the squad, but it was to no avail – 10 minutes later, after incessant Bayern pressure, an incisive passing move sent Arkadiusz Matuszewski in on goal, and the Polish international made no mistake with a cool finish to level the tie.

We were now 2-0 down on the night, level on aggregate, and at a man’s disadvantage. Perhaps I shouldn’t have rested Shaw with Vandinho suspended, perhaps holding back the three men on yellow cards was the wrong call, perhaps we should have attacked from the off to try and grab an away goal early on. A million thoughts raced through my mind, but ultimately there was nothing my thoughts could do about it. None of it mattered.

None of it mattered, because two minutes later Ross Ifan played a perfect pass between two Bayern defenders for Jacobson to run on to. With Meyer racing from his goal to narrow the angle, our Welsh striker calmly lofted the ball over his arms and into the net, the ball bouncing just before the goal-line before rolling in. The Allianz Arena fell silent aside from a small pocket of jubilant Saints, and from nowhere we had a huge advantage.

Jacobson’s goal meant our hosts needed two in just 20 minutes if they were to make it to Milan. They were up against 10 men, but 10 men riding the high of an almost unthinkable goal, and with no need to do anything other than defend for their lives. After 70 minutes of attacking to get back on level terms, they needed to do it all over again. They simply couldn’t.

We had lost on the night, but one goal was enough. Raul Iglesias’ red card would cost him a place in the squad for the final, but had not cost us our spot. It meant that the next evening in Wolverhampton, as we prepared to take on Wolves in the Premier League, we could sit and watch Krasnodar come agonisingly close to completing what would have been a superb comeback against Borussia Dortmund in their semi-final. Having lost 3-1 at home, they roared back to win 2-0 in the Ruhr Valley, netting their second in the 72nd minute and running out of time to score a third. Having beaten the Germans in the semis last year, we would face them in the final this time round. And, regardless of the outcome, it would be my last game in the Saints dugout.

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Wolves were sitting 17th before kick-off, having endured a difficult season that left them fighting for Premier League survival. As much as I disliked John Terry, his old side were now struggling under the management of Sami Hyypia, and faced the real possibility of relegation. However, that was none of my concern.

My concern was managing a highly motivated and yet hugely tired squad through this game, and then on to the rest of the season. Never before had my rotation skills been tested so heavily, and we would need to make several changes between this game, the Fulham game, and the Newcastle match that followed. We’d then have five days before our final game of the league season, and in those five days I’d be going very light on training – we could take no risks at that stage.

And so with changes aplenty, we stepped out and stepped up at Molineux. Midway through the first half, Adam Bright rolled his man on the edge of the area before sliding a shot into the bottom corner of the net, and Hyypia’s men had no reply, even to our tired legs. By the second half I was already looking to make changes and give a modicum of rest to those who I hadn’t been able to leave on the bench, and for the most part it worked well. Five points behind, one game in hand, three still to play. We’d done our bit.

There was no point in even travelling back to Hampshire before our next game, instead heading straight for West London ahead of our clash with Fulham. They were firmly in midtable and with not a great deal to play for, and my hope was that their lack of uncertainty would send their players on early holidays, and gift us three simple points. It rarely worked that way in the Premier League, but we could dream. Given the quick turnaround, I made a full nine changes to the line-up in a desperate bid to keep my players healthy.

As it happened, we didn’t need a great deal of help. Callum Jacobson, fresh from 90 minutes off against Wolves, fired in a great volleyed opener after just three minutes, and a quarter of an hour later our Welshman grabbed his second with an equally well-taken strike, lofting a shot into the top corner after being seemingly pinned into a corner by two defenders, and we were well on our way.

Frustratingly there would be no hat-trick for Jacobson, as he picked up a slight knock in a challenge just half an hour in, and I had little choice but to bring him off as a precaution. Just before the break, Ben Adlesbury’s shot deflected in off Eggen to halve the deficit, but we still looked relatively comfortable. It proved to be the case – with just under 20 minutes remaining, early substitute Gelling headed in a cross from Miranda to seal the points. We’d won our second game in less than 72 hours, made up our games in hand, and now sat just two points behind City at the top of the table. If we weren’t already, we were definitely at the business end of the season now.

The next day, we received excellent news – Jacobson’s injury was limited to a bruise on his thigh, and so he’d be fine to line up against Newcastle if we chose to use him from the start. It was a big boost, as the Welshman had been in fine form both recently and all season. If we found ourselves in need of a desperation goal at any point over the next few games, he’d be a good bet to find it for us.

The next day – the day before our clash with Newcastle – the squad gathered to watch 3rd vs 1st on Sky Sports as Simeone’s City travelled to Montella’s Liverpool in their penultimate game of the season. What followed was scarcely believable.

In the third minute of the game, Mbemba fired City ahead to understandable groans in the Staplewood player’s lounge. However, Liverpool were quickly on level terms, a rare error by Andy Plant handing the hosts their equaliser. Barely 20 minutes were on the clock when the Reds took the lead, Paolo Misso lashing in a loose ball. This was our dream result – a City defeat would see us top with a win tomorrow. But the game was nowhere near over.

Instead, Liverpool scored again. And then again. At the interval, a dishevelled-looking Simeone marched his men down the tunnel an incredible 4-1 down, with the nation watching their title bid fall apart in real time. As the second half played out, it was clear that City’s fight had simply disappeared, and when Pirulito stroked in a fifth from the penalty spot, the rout was complete. The shock was universal – from the losing side, who didn’t know what had hit them, to the Sky Sports analysts attempting to dissect the game in the studio, to my own players, practically dancing around the training complex. Something incredible had taken place, and we had an unbelievable opportunity before us. All we had to do was grasp it.

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“Congratulations Owain, a professional performance from your side today.”

“Absolutely, I’m really pleased with what the lads were able to do out there. To be back at home in front of our amazing fans made a difference, but for them to do what they needed to do in the way they did it was excellent against a good Newcastle side.”

“How much did tiredness affect your team selection?”

“At this stage in the season, we’re running on fumes – we’ve been playing every two or three days for what seems like forever now, and none of the lads are in peak condition at the moment. Each of them deals with that differently, and that’s where I earn my money as a manager. We had enough legs that were fresh enough to get the job done today, and that’s all that really matters. We finally get more than 72 hours to rest up now.”

“And you’ll do it at the top of the Premier League. How does it feel to hit the summit one game from the finish after all this playing catch-up?”

“It’s a great feeling, but the job is only half-done at this stage. We’ve got an incredibly tough game at Old Trafford, and if we don’t finish the job there then the previous 37 games have been for naught. Obviously we’re in the best possible position, but we’ve got to make the most of that.”

“Did you think you’d be here even a few days ago? You must have struggled to believe the City result.”

“It was an incredible game, but an incredible performance by Liverpool too, we mustn’t lose sight of that. Look, of course we weren’t expecting City to lose in the manner they did, but all we could do was try and hold up our end of the bargain and hope for help from elsewhere. We’ve been fortunate enough to get that help, so the pressure is all on us against United.”

“There are some who are suggesting that United might be a little less motivated than usual on the final day, given a loss would deny their neighbours the title. What do you make of that?

 "I think I’d like to see someone make that suggestion to Roberto Martinez’ face and then repeat it! It’s a ludicrous idea – Manchester United are a team of elite, professional athletes and coaches, and to suggest that they’d deliberately lose a game because a team slightly closer to them might benefit is utter nonsense. They’ll be smarting that they aren’t the ones in our position, and trying to figure out how they might be next year. I’m certainly not expecting anything less than a fully committed performance.”

We hadn’t turned on the style against Newcastle, but we had done enough. A well-rested Richard Boakye netted the opener after 35 minutes, and we held the Magpies comfortably at bay until we could find a second, which we did through Ifan’s stooping header 15 minutes from time. As the media had been keen to point out, we were now top of the Premier League for the first time since the second game of the season, and headed into the final game with our fate in our hands.

We were by no means sure of the title, however. While City travelled to 15th-place Leicester, we had the unenviable task of travelling to Manchester United, fresh off the back of locking up the league’s final Champions League berth. With our lead at the top just a single point, we knew that anything less than a win at Old Trafford would open the door wide for our rivals. Even in the unlikely event that we lost and they drew, they had the goal difference advantage and would take the trophy. A whole season came down to a single game – just as it had last year – and there was little more we could do to prepare. We would go through our motions, our drills and our plans, but in reality it would all be settled on the pitch. All we could do was wait for the whistle.

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“We’re underway across the country now, and the upcoming 90 minutes will decide so much at the end of this remarkable Premier League season.”

“That’s right Scott, there’s so much to play for all over the table. At the bottom, only two of West Ham, Norwich and Wolves will retain their top flight status – the battle to stay in the Premier League goes down to the wire.”

“The Champions League places may already be locked down, but there’s still everything to play for when it comes to the Europa League. Three must be become two once again, as Arsenal, Newcastle and Tottenham do battle for 5th and 6th position, and a spot in Europe next season.”

“And of course, the big one. Champions Southampton go to Old Trafford going a win will see them retain their title, but also that Manchester City are waiting in the wings for any slip-up as they head to Leicester. We’ll be across every game, bringing you every goal as it goes in, and have instant reactions to everything on a thrilling day of Premier League football. Don’t go anywhere, and enjoy the final day of the season right here on Soccer Saturday.

“Time to check in on the title race – Gareth?

“No goals for you at Old Trafford, it’s been a tight game as you might expect. It’s hard to say which side is on top at the moment, it’s been a really even opening quarter and it’s anyone’s game at this point.”

Ciara, who’s on top at the King Power?”

“It’s City pushing for the opener, but after 25 minutes it’s still goalless here. Credit to Leicester, you wouldn’t know they’ve got nothing to play for in the way they’re defending, but it seems like only a matter of time before I’ve got a goal to tell you about.”

“No goals means advantage Southampton as it stands, but there’s still plenty of time left for that to change. Thanks guys, we’ll be back with again soon.”

One of the things I’d been curious about was exactly how the Old Trafford crowd would respond to news of a goal from elsewhere. Of course, their dream scenario would be to celebrate a Leicester strike while beating us, but what if City took the lead? Would they be too dejected to taunt us, or willing to celebrate their closest rivals’ success at our expense?

In the opening half hour against United, it didn’t seem like we were going to find out. We were fortunate enough to be able to pick almost a full strength line-up for the first time in what seemed like a long time – Benjamin Blanc our only long-term absentee after being injured at the end of March – but our hosts were not rolling over, perhaps precisely because the media had been speculating that they would. They had a point to prove, and they were clearly out to claim our scalp.

Then, with just over five minutes to go before the break, a ripple began to move through the crowd. It was hard to know exactly what it meant, but the sound was primarily one of disgruntled United fans. The travelling Saints were sat too far away from my dugout for me to gauge their reaction, but it didn’t take long for the news to be relayed to me. A few seconds after the initial reaction, Terry McPhillips leaned across to give me the news I had been expecting.

City are 1-0 up, Zimmerman. Sounds like they’re dominating.”

“Thanks. Do you think we tell the lads?”

“They’ll have figured it out by now. We tell them at the break, especially if we’re level.”

“Agreed. They know we need a win, and that’ll hammer it home.”

“Are you planning on changing anything?”

“Not yet. I’ll give it to the hour, see what the situation is. If nothing changes, Lucio is the first move.”

“Sounds good boss. Let’s home we don’t need him.”

“So as it stands we will have new champions at the full-time whistle, but that could all be about to change – there’s been a goal at Old Trafford. Gareth?”

“There has, and Southampton have the lead! I think it’s going to go down as an own goal from CacauRoss Ifan has swing in the corner, Hodge has got his head on it, it’s well saved but in the scramble afterwards I think it’s Bright that’s fired the ball into the knee of Cacau from close range and it has absolutely flown in. It’s not pretty, but right on half time the Saints are marching to the title!”

“Have they deserved it Gareth?

“It’s been very even, but they have probably had the best chances so far. United have definitely got it in then to spoil their party though – this one certainly isn’t over yet.”

“There we have it, both our title challengers lead 1-0 away from home at the break, and as it stands Southampton will be your Premier League champions. Still everything to play for, so don’t go anywhere.”

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“Right then lads, great work out there. It wasn’t the prettiest goal, but we’re not in a beauty contest. We’ve kept them out, kept the ball well, and taken the opportunity when it’s come to us – that’s all I can ask of you, so well done.

“But we’re only halfway there, and you know they’re going to come back at us – United will not take kindly to seeing us lift the trophy on their patch. I need you to stay focused, don’t get sucked into anything silly, and be patient. If they push, you’ll need more chances, and if they don’t then we’re champions. Just stay focused, and stick to what you’re doing.

City are winning, and Leicester aren’t going to stop them, so this is all about us now. Ross, if it looks like Carlos and Steve need help, it’s on you to drop back in and give it. Kenan, Luke – don’t get drawn too high up unless the space is there, and make sure your men don’t get the wrong side. We’re sticking with the same team for now, and I’ll look to change things after the hour.

 “You’ve been brilliant all season, all we need to lift that trophy is 45 more minutes of effort. One more half. Give me one more half, and the glory is all yours. Now, stretch yourself out, do what you need to do, and then get out and bring this one home. Terry, over to you”

Terry McPhillips reiterated my brief tactical pointers in slightly more detail, arrows on the whiteboard showing how Ross Ifan was to retreat to a deeper position in the midfield if United had us under too much pressure. My men watched intently as they went through their own personal routines, focused on the task at hand.

My pair of matchday physios quickly did a round of the dressing room, making sure that none of my men were hiding anything that would keep them playing for the rest of the game. None of them were going to try and find an excuse to come off, not with the title at stake, but if there was a niggle we needed to know. I got a thumbs up before they scurried off, and as they did I got a big grin from Callum Jacobson. He’d taken a knock a couple of games ago and had been monitored closely, but our Welsh hitman was fine. That was a relief.

When the referee’s knock came to instruct us back onto the field, we were ready. Looking around at the men who had taken us to the brink of back-to-back titles, I was confident. Captain Kus clapped the team to attention, took his place at the head of the queue, and gave what can only be described as a battle cry as he led the team down back out down the tunnel. We were 45 minutes from glory, and I felt oddly confident.

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“Just a couple of minutes into the second half here at the King Power, and once again it’s all City. The home side have hardly touched the ball, and already they’re under pressure from a side desperate for the points today.”

Simeone’s men going forward again, it’s Zimmerman on the right and Leicester just haven’t been able to lay a finger on the fluid front three of the visitors. He gives it to Gramaglia, and the Italian gives it straight back for a clever one-two. The ball is low, whipped in behind the defence.”

Mbemba! Aziana Mbemba gets between two men, stoops low and there is no stopping what is an excellent header from the striker.”

“The two Leicester centre-backs seemed to leave him to one another, and you can’t switch off like that at this level with players with Mbemba ready to pounce. City double their lead, and you’d have to say at this point the pressure is all on Southampton at Old Trafford. Has the news filtered through yet Mark?

“No reaction in the stands, although there’s a murmur starting to ripple through the crowd. Southampton have started the second half in much the same way as the first – they look confident, but United aren’t giving anything away. Still 1-0 to the Saints, but plenty of time on the clock – and they’ll know that City are holding up their end of the bargain.”

The news soon arrived that City had doubled their advantage, and as far as I was concerned we no longer needed to know what was going on in Leicester. If they scored six more it was immaterial as long as we kept winning, and if they somehow slipped up I didn’t want my men getting complacent. The problem was, I could hardly instruct a crowd of more than 80,000 predominantly United fans to keep quiet about the score. All we could do was play our game.

And with the title in our sight, we were playing well. United hadn’t given up by any means, but we were finding ourselves with a little more possession, more confidence on the ball, and a quickness of thought that was keeping us in front. Each minute that passed seemed to be taking us a step closer to glory, and Roberto Martinez’ instructions from the opposing dugout didn’t seem to be having the desired effect. Woodward, Henrique and the deeper-lying Ifan were controlling the midfield, and as such we controlled the game.

With the hour mark approaching it was the Brazilian who came to the fore, stepping in at the crucial moment to pick up a pass destined for the United front line. Quickly he rolled a ball into the feet who Ifan, who flicked it round the corner to Adam Bright, already accelerating past a defender. Drawing a defender, he practically stopped the ball with a clever backheel, allowing Jacobson to strike cleanly and powerfully towards goal.

Our former United striker, signed for a pittance and deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, raised his arms in celebration only to see his shot tipped brilliantly onto the post by the flying goalkeeper. However, they were quickly aloft once more, this time with clenched fists confirming his celebrations. Rushing in to slide home the rebound was none other than Kenan Kus, our captain racing in from his position on the right flank and beating his man to the loose ball. A quick glance to the linesman saw the flag pointing firmly down at his feet, and we had a 2-0 lead.

I was almost knocked over by a bearhug from Terry McPhillips who, after shouting in my ear for a few seconds in jubilation, quickly got to business.

"Are we changing?”

“Not yet. Five minutes, let’s see how they respond. Get Vandinho warming up – I’m not sure Luke has got the full 90 in him. Lucio too.”

“Will do boss. We’ve got this.”

“I hope so.”

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“Another goal at the King Power, which way has it gone Ciara?

“It’s another for City and another for Mbemba, his second of the afternoon and a well-taken finish too after some sloppy Leicester defending. Still a quarter of the match remaining but this one is over as a contest – pressure on Southampton now, City have done their part.”

“Thanks Ciara – Gareth, what news from Old Trafford?”

“The news is that Southampton still lead by two goals to nil, although they’ve just had a huge let-off. Harry Eggen played a backpass that Beraldi had to sprint just to get a foot to. His clearance fell for Stefansson, and his shot at the open goal from 45 yards dropped inches wide. It’s been United’s best chance, and it was practically given to them.”

“Into the dying moments at Old Trafford now, and with seconds to go Southampton are on the brink of the Premier League title. Gareth, what’s the atmosphere like there?”

“The final whistle has just gone, and Southampton are the champions! The away fans in the far corner are going absolutely nuts, Roberto Martinez has just given Owain Williams a huge hug, the whole Saints coaching staff is spilling on to the pitch, and there’s a warm round of applause from the home fans.”

“They’ll be pleased City have missed out, even if they have been beaten in the process.”

“That’s right, it’s an odd day for the United fans out there. Their side gave it everything out there today, but Southampton showed why they’re the champions for the second year running.”

“A remarkable feat for a club that, until recently, wasn’t considered a real challenger for the big prizes.”

“Absolutely, Owain Williams has been a revelation since arriving at St Mary’s, and if anyone thought that last year was a fluke, they’ve proved them spectacularly wrong. To cling on to City the way they did and then take the opportunity when it came their way was really the stuff of champions.”

“And of course the two sides go head-to-head in the FA Cup final in a week’s time.”

“They do indeed, and it should be a spectacular affair. The two best teams in England, maybe even in Europe, going for the oldest cup competition in the world. It should be quite the occasion.”

“And Southampton’s season doesn’t end there either – they’ve still got the Champions League to play for, how do you see that one going?”

“That’s an odd one, because both Southampton and Borussia Dortmund could easily have lost their semi-finals in other circumstances, so it could be a very different match-up. I think the Saints go in as favourites, especially if the treble is still on. They beat Dortmund in the semis last year, and I fancy them to do it again in Milan.”

“Will they do the treble?”

“I’d love to say yes, I think it’d be wonderful if they did, but I’ve got a feeling City might have too much for them in the cup final – they’ll be out to prove a point and get revenge, and in a one-off match I think Diego Simeone’s men will have enough to finish the year with a trophy.”

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Once again, we had sealed a league title on the final day of the season. Despite Manchester City’s best efforts, we were able to secure a huge win over their biggest rivals and in doing so, pick up the three points we needed to claim the trophy. Even if we won nothing else, it would be a good way to leave the club on a high – although nobody other than the new owners knew of my plans just yet.

The celebrations on the night of our triumph were not as wild as they might have been. Last year, winning the club’s first ever top flight title, the subsequent night had been a blur all but lost to the deserved party. This year, we had done what was necessary. The group was less surprised, more focused, fully aware that we had two more trophies left to claim. I did not need to babysit them or impose curfews – this was a driven, professional group of players, and they were in the zone.

Around the league, emotions were different. City had to settle for a disappointing second place after leading for so much of the way, while last year’s nearly men, Liverpool, finished nine points off the pace. United took the last Champions League place, Arsenal and Newcastle claimed Europa League berths at the expense of Spurs, while at the other end there was last-day drama up to the very end. A 75th minute equaliser and 83rd minute winner for Norwich away at Fulham meant that the Canaries leapfrogged Wolves with just minutes of the season remaining, securing their Premier League status at the last possible moment and relegating their Black Country rivals.

Two days later, as we were settling in to our preparations for the FA Cup final, provisional squads were confirmed for the upcoming World Cup. Staplewood was a buzz of pride and excitement as we had no fewer than 18 players called up for the tournament. Particularly thrilled were the English contingent, called up for their home tournament – Adam Bright, Carl Bateson, Steve Woodward and Joey Gelling – and the Welsh group, playing the closest thing they were likely to experience to a home competition. Hodge, Ifan, Jacobson, Collins and reserve utility man Mel McGoona would all play their part, and they could hardly wait.

That was the beginning of World Cup fever, which would well and truly pick up after the FA Cup for most of the nation, and the Champions League final for Saints fans. The tournament’s return to England, 64 years after its last visit and Geoff Hurst’s famous hat-trick, was generating exactly the level of excitement the organisers had hoped, and would take over the country in the weeks to come.

For Southampton however, we had far more immediate concerns. We were taking on Manchester City in the cup final, the side that we had somehow pipped to the title less than a week beforehand, and who would no doubt be out to redeem themselves after one catastrophic defeat to Liverpool had cost them the Premier League crown. On the other hand, their morale could be at rock bottom, their motivation lacking, and their spirit broken. We could only hope.

With a week to go before the Champions League final, I could in theory have named the same starting line-up for both games. But, knowing that I was about to make my exit and wanting to be fair to the players who had earned me such success on the South Coast, I didn’t just want to put the same 11 men out each team. I could hardly field two completely different teams, but there would be some changes.

Beraldi started in goal, with captain Kus and Luke Shaw flanking a central defensive pairing of Hodge and Miranda. Henrique and Woodward continued their screening partnership in Blanc’s absence, while behind the strikers I chose to hand a start to Gidon Cohen in place of Adam Bright. Leading the line were Escalada and Sidibe. We had talent on the field, but also stars on the bench. If anything went wrong, we had plenty of options. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

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Owain, congratulations. A superb performance from your Saints out there today.”

“Absolutely, the lads were just brilliant today. We had to weather a bit of a storm early on, but once we got ourselves into the game we executed the plan perfectly, I can’t give the lads enough credit for that.”

“We all saw the tears on the face of Luke Shaw when you substituted him towards the end of the game, what does it mean for someone like Luke to win the double with his boyhood club?”

“You’d have to ask him personally, but we could all see the emotion and how much it meant to him. Luke has been a massive part of our success over the last few years, but the FA Cup is a special, special trophy and I think it the sudden realisation of the fact he was able to lift it for the Saints at Wembley just overwhelmed him. He deserved his moment today.”

“You’ve now won every available trophy as Southampton manager – that’s a hugely impressive achievement.”

“Thank you, but I’m only one piece of the puzzle here. We’ve got a fantastic group of players, a massively hard-working staff, and one of the most dedicated fanbases I’ve ever seen. It’s a fantastic club, and the last few years have been incredible.”

“And they could get better yet with the Champions League final against Dortmund next Saturday. Can you make it a treble?”

“We’ll certainly be doing everything we can to make that the case, but it won’t be easy. Dortmund are a great team, they’ve earned their spot in the final, and they’ll be coming to win. We’ve got a plan, we’ll keep working in training, and it’ll all come down to the night. We’re certainly going to Italy to win it.”

Owain, your team scored three great goals today – did you have a favourite?”

“Now that’s a question! They were all brilliant – Gidon picked his spot like only he can, beating Andy Plant from 20 yards is always going to be a special goal. Ross Ifan’s goal was a great team move, but I think the last goal made me smile the most. For your substitute left-back to pop up with a first-time volley in the 93rd minute of a cup final speaks of a complete performance, and Vandinho’s goal capped it off perfectly.”

“Finally, any words for Diego Simeone after these last couple of weeks?”

“Look, Diego doesn’t need my platitudes. He knows his team weren’t quite at the races today, and in many ways that’s almost to be expected – to come so close and miss out in the league is difficult to take. Diego is a great manager, he’s got a great team, and they’ll be back stronger next season, I’ve got no doubt about that. We’ve come out on top this year, but who knows what the future might hold.”

“Thanks Owain – go and celebrate with your team.”

Thankfully, the press hadn’t caught on to my semi-hint about the future. I hadn’t expected them to – they were far more interested in their immediate narrative – but even so it would have thrown a spanner in my plans to tell the players before the Champions League final.

Against City, they were superb. We’d been under pressure for the first 20 minutes and then simply took control – City fell apart when they couldn’t crack us, and 3-0 was a deserved scoreline for a brilliant performance, especially in the second half. Up next, I had arguably the most significant week of my career so far, and possibly the last. That was a thought that was scary, comforting and exciting in equal measure, but it wasn’t going to wait for me to figure out which emotion to grab hold of.

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The schedule ahead of the final was straightforward in principle. After beating City on the Saturday, the players would have a light recovery and analysis day on the Sunday, train normally Monday-Wednesday, and we’d leave for Milan on Thursday afternoon. The rest of that day would be spent on media duties, Friday would give us a chance to get used to the surroundings of the mighty San Siro, and then Saturday was game day. It was nothing we hadn’t dealt with before, and nothing the players couldn’t handle.

However, I’d made things far more complicated for myself. There were at least two, probably three significant conversations that I needed to fit into the week ahead of the final. The first of those would be in the boardroom, with none other than Wilson and Goldstein. I’d asked them not to contact me until after the big game, but with my decision now firmly made with Rachel, I wanted to let them know that they needed to turn their thoughts to a replacement – assuming they hadn’t already.

The two Americans were not surprised, but not happy either – they thought they and their CSS paymasters had made sufficient concessions to keep me on board, and that my requests weren’t particularly reasonable. However, what irked them most was my insistence that I, rather than they, broke the news to the players before the game and the media afterwards.

They wanted to take charge of the situation, which I understood – they were businessmen who were used to getting their own way, and that was why they had invested in Southampton. However, while they were reluctant at first, my insistence that my proposed timetable would give the club the best chance of European success was enough to swing them. It was either that, or my promise not to say anything directly critical of the new regime.

The next conversation, and personally the most important, was with the players. There was only one way I was prepared to make the announcement, and that was in front of all the players and staff together, the evening before we were due to fly to Italy. I chose the Staplewood dining hall – the place the greatest number of people are ever together at the club, and delivered them my news.

It was an emotional moment – I thanked them for their role in the club’s success, for their hard work, for making the club feel like home for me, Rachel and the girls. I told them they’d keep winning, starting with Saturday night, and that they shouldn’t forget the values that had got them here. I told them I’d miss them, and I meant it.

First there was silence, mixed in with what I think were a few tears from some of the players who had been here the longest. Then there was applause, led by a clearly emotional Luke Shaw and Terry McPhillips, the team rising to their feet to salute their outgoing manager.

When it had all died down, I swore them to secrecy and then called it to a close, leaving Staplewood via any number of handshakes, hugs and backslaps. I made it home to make my final preparations for the following day’s flight, and to make sure Bethan and Rebecca weren’t giving their mum too much hassle in their own packing. Rachel was waiting for me at the door as I pulled onto the drive.

“All done?”

“All done.”

“Still sure?”

“Still sure.”

“Well then, Owain Williams, let’s go and win you a Champions League.

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Thursday evening’s press scrum was an uneventful as I’d hoped. UEFA had these things down to a fine art, and in addition to my own press conference, we’d been asked to offer up three players for the world’s media to grill. Two of them were easy enough to choose – Kenan Kus was a regular at these things as our captain, while Luke Shaw always went down well with the fans even if he would be starting the final on the bench. The third was a harder choice, but given that the final was being held at the San Siro, it made sense for us to send our only Italian, goalkeeper Paolo Beraldi, out to face the press. All three were given strict instructions not to mention my imminent departure, and they performed admirably. Luke struggled the most at hiding his emotions, but none of them were even asked about my future.

Friday’s training session was an easy one, UEFA adding to the sense of occasion by allowing both teams onto the San Siro one after the other. We’d drawn the second slot and arrived just as Dortmund were heading back to their hotel, prompting several handshakes and well-wishes, all given with a fierce determination on both sides. Back in the hotel after emerging from the session unscathed, I announced my starting line-up and ran through the tactical plan one more time. The more I could drill it into the players, the better.

There would be a few changes from the side that lifted the FA CupVandinho and Bateson replaced Shaw and Eggen in the back four, Bright and Ifan lined up in the attacking midfield spots, while up front Jacobson returned in place of Escalada to partner Ange Sidibe. Those were the 11 men tasked with bringing the big one back to St Mary’s – they and those ready and waiting on the bench, of course.

That evening in the hotel room, I was slow and methodical. Part of that was for the good of my health – trying not to over-excite myself for too long, controlling my breathing, minimising the stress. The other was simply taking it all in for the final time. I didn’t know when I’d next be preparing for a football match, or even if I’d do it again, let alone one of this magnitude. So I enjoyed the process – laying out my suit ready for the morning, putting my shoes by the door, double-checking my own tactical notes. I ran over the team sheet one final time in my head, then the options I had on the bench. I smiled as I did so – when I joined the club, depth was a real issue. Now, we had players missing out that would walk into most Premier League sides.

With the routine complete in plenty of time, it was time to unwind with Rachel. All four of us had made the trip, and the club had pulled some strings to get us a deluxe family room. The girls were entertaining themselves, understanding that Dad was going through something significant, but equally not wanting to over-involve themselves. Bethan had grown more interested as she’d grown older, but with football being my job, they’d never developed the passion for the sport that I’d had from childhood. I didn’t mind that in the slightest – it was probably for the best. For now, it was good to be alone with my wife.

“How are you feeling about tomorrow?”

“Honestly, I’m not even sure. I’m excited, proud, sad, pleased, nervous – everything. I feel like I’ve done everything I can at this point, but I can’t guarantee anything. It matters more, but equally it doesn’t matter at all, you know?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever fully know, but I think I understand. It’s going to be alright though – you’ve done the work. Whatever happens tomorrow, I’m going to be so proud of you.”

“If we lose…”

Owain, there’s no point in running it all over now. Like you say, you’ve done everything you can. You’re going out on a high. This team wouldn’t be here without you.”

“You’re right, but…”

“It’s OK, you don’t have to explain. Is there anything else you need to do tonight?”

“No, it’s all ready.”

“In that case, let’s get to bed. You’re not going to sleep anyway, so you might as well be rested.”

Edited by EvilDave
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Saturday seemed to last forever. After waking up, it was straight to business – breakfast with the team, a pre-match briefing courtesy of UEFA, the lightest of training sessions and a tactical discussion, the pre-match meal, and then to the San Siro itself. We had two more hours until the game kicked off, but a full 45 minutes of that would be spent watching the pre-game ceremony. We’d then have to warm up once again, and only then would we actually get underway.

Before then, we had the anthem. I’d heard the Champions League theme plenty of times over the last couple of years, but this time it seemed to hit me even harder. It wasn’t just that it would be my last time as a Saint, as manager of the team I had helped to build to this point not once but twice. It was the emotional energy of the players, the roar of the Milanese crowd, the magnificence of the San Siro. I choked back a tear before the players were called over for team photos and pre-match handshakes, and took my place on the sidelines. Before settling down into the zone, I turned to walk over to Marco Rose, who had obviously had the same idea, as we met halfway between our two technical areas.

“Good luck today Owain, may the best team win.”

“You too Marco, best of luck. Let’s hope we have a good game today.”

“I’m sure we will. All the best Owain.”

Friendly but determined – just as I’d expected from the German. We retreated back to our dugouts, convened with our assistants, and then watched as the two teams took their positions. The Greek referee and his team checked their watches, and as the man in black lifted the whistle to his lips, Ange Sidibe rolled the forward for Callum Jacobson, and the 2030 Champions League final was finally underway. It had been a long time coming.

The first 10 minutes, as you might expect for a major final, did not set the world on fire. We looked to force the issue in the opening two minutes with Bright attempting to send Sidibe through on goal, but German international centre-back Bernd Kessler slammed the door in our faces with a perfectly-timed interception before passing to a team-mate, and most the opening exchange was spent with the ball in midfield. That was fine – Dortmund hadn’t troubled us yet, and we were growing into the game.

Our opponents were getting into the groove as well, and the first shot on target of the game came from a man in yellow. Vandinho got bypassed with a clever one-two down our left flank, the cross in was comfortably dealt with by Hodge, but the header fell to the feet of Evanildo on the edge of the penalty area in half a yard of space. He controlled well and fired hard, but fortunately for us his effort was straight into the chest of Beraldi, who held on well. It was a warning shot that we had to respond to.

As Rose clapped his men forwards, I ushered my side into a defensive shape for a few moments, signalling to Kus how long we were to drop back for. For the few moments Dortmund looked like they had the extra energy, we could afford to let them have the ball and pass it around without letting them create any meaningful chances. The only effort was a header that flew comfortably over Beraldi’s crossbar, and before too long it seemed as if the balance of power had shifted back to neutral road once again.

Next it was our turn, and within the space of 10 minutes we turned the screw in a bid to take the lead. First, Ifan curled a shot over the bar from 20 yards or so out on the right. Then, a cross from Kus caused chaos in the Dortmund defence, allowing Jacobson to send a snapshot flying just wide of the left-hand post. Finally, as the clock ticked past the half hour mark, we created the best chance of all.

Some quick thinking from Carlos Henrique saw him take a free-kick almost instantly, setting Vandinho away down the left with the Dortmund defence playing catch-up. He fed Bright, our England man moved forward before laying a pass into the feet of Jacobson, and he in turn found Vandinho continuing his run into the penalty area on the overlap. He got the byline, cut the ball back perfectly for Sidibe, and then raised in hands in frustration as the Ivorian’s shot rebounded to safety off the outside of the post. We had come so close to breaking the deadlock, and yet deadlocked we remained.

That would be the best opportunity of the first half, and after two minutes of uneventful stoppage time the half-time whistle blew with the score remaining 0-0. We’d created more chances, Dortmund would feel that the game was very much up for grabs, and I had one final team talk to try and bring my time at Southampton to a close with a treble. There was nothing overly complicated I could say – the players knew what was at stake – but I’d need to say it anyway.

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“Lads, good work out there. We’re unlucky not to be ahead, and they haven’t given us too much to worry about so far. They can though, so I need you to stay focused on the defensive side of things – they seem to want to come at us through the middle, so squeeze the spaces in our defensive third and don’t let them play through. Drop off if you need, but don’t be scared to look for the break. Kessler will get the interception every time but he isn’t the quickest, so if we can get him in a footrace we’re going to make chances.

“You don’t need me to tell you what’s at stake here. Only one team has ever retained this trophy, and we knocked them out earlier in the year. To win the Champions League once puts us in the history books, to do it back-to-back makes you legends. To do it in the same year as the Premier League and the FA Cup, to claim a treble – that makes you immortal.

“There aren’t as many Saints in the stands as we’d like, but there are millions around the world who are kicking every ball with you out there. Dortmund are no better than Bayern, they’re no better than City, and they’re certainly no better than you. You know what to do, you know the plan, you’ve got the skills to win this. Get out there, and let’s finish this.”

Terry McPhillips took over with a more detailed breakdown of my ‘squeeze the spaces’ instruction, and I watched on with a strange mixture of anticipation and regret. So much of me wanted to stay with this team and lead them to new heights, but deep down I knew I was making the right decision. I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing.

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If the first half was not quite the thriller the fans were hoping for, the second continued in the same vein. Again we tried to hit Dortmund with a Sounders-style early blitz, but their defence held firm and the midfield battle resumed afresh. Our quartet looked to be the more creative of the two, but our German opponents held firm if not also a little cautious – perhaps mindful of the second-leg semi-final hammering we had dealt them last year.

The clock ticked past 60 minutes, then 65, and just before 70 I made my first moves – Marco Rose having made two changes already to try and add some attacking impetus to our opponents. Jacobson hadn’t really been able to get into the game, and so I replaced him with Lucio Escalada, who I envisaged being a little more capable of dropping deeper and making things happen than the Welshman. Also entering the fray was Gidon Cohen in place of Adam Bright, a like-for-like switch offering us pace and fresh legs in a key attacking position. I’d hold one more switch up my sleeve in case we needed to change shape, but this was the time to go for it.

Dortmund had the same idea, and within minutes of our changes they had Beraldi at work, our goalkeeper flinging himself low to his right to keep out a low drive from the edge of the area. Hodge blocked another effort from Evanildo, and it looked as if the Germans were taking the ascendancy.

However, our new men gave us the attacking energy we were after too, and in our next spell of possession we came forward at speed. A ball from Woodward found Escalada dropping deep between the centre-backs and midfield, and in three touches he had Cohen sprinting in behind the defence. Our Israeli substitute took a touch round the goalkeeper, but the angle proved too tight for the finish as his off-balance shot drifted narrowly wide.

The Germans did not learn. An attempted through-ball to the wing was picked off by Vandinho, who quickly exchanged passes with Woodward to move us up the field. He then fed Ifan, who looked up and clipped a delightful diagonal ball into space behind the Dortmund backline. Collecting the pass was not Escalada or Sidibe, but Kenan Kus – our captain and right-back – who had covered an outrageous amount of ground, setting off on his run as soon as Vandinho picked up the ball. His first touch wasn’t perfect, but good enough, and his second sent the ball beneath the sprawl of the outrushing goalkeeper to give us the lead. There were just five minutes remaining.

Marco Rose had little choice but to send his men forward with little regard to defending, and it would prove their undoing. In the first minute of time added on, another Dortmund attack broke against our defensive screen, and we sealed the deal. Henrique fed Escalada, the substitute swept a ball out to the left for Luke Shaw, my final and somewhat sentimental replacement, and then moved into the penalty area to flick the cross beyond Jakub Benzinski to make it 2-0 and seal the trophy, the treble and the perfect ending.

I stood in my technical area, arms aloft in pure joy. The emotions of the last few days, the pressure that had been released with the second goal, everything came out in that moment and a simple punching of the air was all I could manage. After a few moments I had the presence of mind to signal for focus from my team, but it was done – I knew it, my players knew it, and Dortmund knew it too. They had 90 seconds – not nearly enough time to do anything – and before we knew it, the final whistle had gone. We had done it. It was over.

Lifting trophies is not something that ever gets old, especially not Champions League trophies. The players went wild on the winners’ podium, the Saints in the stand enjoyed every minute of our lap of honour, and halfway round it I was joined by Rachel, Bethan and Rebecca. They were on the pitch to support me, but in truth it should have been them soaking up the applause from the crowd. Without them keeping me going, supporting me and putting up with my obsession, there’s no way I’d have been here.

I tried to tell Rachel as much, but all I could find were tears as we slowly completed the lap. As we waved to the fans on the way back down the tunnel, they didn’t yet know it would be for the last time. I did, and it hurt like I had never thought it could. But it was right.

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Back at St Mary’s, it was finally time. Two days after we’d seen off Dortmund, the day after I’d held my last training session with the players – a long and emotional goodbye – before they were officially on holiday or international duty. All that was left to do was tell the world what I’d known myself for some time.

“Thank you all for coming – I know it isn’t long since I saw many of you in Milan, and there’s not much else to say about that. You’ve covered an incredible season for Southampton, but all good things must come to an end.”

A handful of the journalists in attendance gave me a look at that point that told me they’d cottoned on to what was coming. Their looks containing both respect and confusion, but I had to press on. I’d rehearsed this enough, and a pause would let the emotion flood out.

“As our treble-winning season finishes, today I’ve asked you here to announce that my time at Southampton is also at an end. This isn’t a decision I’ve taken lightly, but after conversations with the new owners, with the staff, and most importantly with my wife, I have decided not to extend my contract at the club. After four incredible years, years in which this club has lifted the League Cup, Europa League, FA Cup, two Premier Leagues and two Champions Leagues, the time is right for me to step away.

“I’m well aware that this is unexpected, and there will be plenty of speculation about the reason for my departure, and I’d like to address some of that speculation now. Firstly, I am not leaving for another job – I will taking a sabbatical from football management to spend some much-needed time with my family, and my long-term plans are uncertain. Secondly, this is a genuine resignation – I haven’t been forced out by the club, and the new ownership is supportive of my decision. They deserve the opportunity to chart their own course for this great club, and I wish them the best of luck as they do so.

“Finally, I want to thank those who have made these past four years possible. Ralph Krueger and the Liebherr family, who took a gamble on a Welshman managing in America and brought him to the Premier League. To every single member of staff working behind the scenes at Southampton, whether you’ve been a first-team coach or in the ticket office – I’ve been a small part of this incredible organisation, and the people that make this club work are truly exceptional. Southampton is an incredible, welcoming family, and I’m genuinely sorry to leave you. 

“To my players, who have put in a huge amount of work to learn systems, execute drills, and put in the work day after day in training to be able to deliver on the biggest of stages. I’ve been your manager, but you’ve been my friends, and you are a world class group of players. I believe I am leaving behind the best team in world football, and two Champions League titles proves that.

“Finally, the Saints faithful across the world. Without your unconditional support, without your encouragement, without your songs, your faith and your turning up in blazing sun and driving sun, whether at St Mary’s or the San Siro, this team would be nothing. You deserve all the success you get, and wherever I end up next I’ll be cheering along with you. You’ve made this Welshman a Saint, and that will never change.

“I’ve got time for a handful of questions, but I’m afraid I can’t stay for too long. It’s my wedding anniversary in three days’ time, and I’m taking my wife and daughters on a much-needed holiday later today. They have the reason I’ve been able to do this in the way I have, and have sacrificed a huge amount for the sake of my career. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m determined to be a better husband and father to them all. Rachel, Bethan, Rebecca, if you’re listening then that’s a promise.”

I took half a dozen questions from the gathered press, and most of my time was spent either accepting their congratulations and well wishes, or reiterating what I’d said about taking a sabbatical and not falling out with the new owners. It wasn’t worth my time telling them Capital Star Sports didn’t really know what they were doing, and quite frankly that wasn’t the story. The one question I wasn’t expecting was whether or not I knew who my successor was going to be. I didn’t have an answer, I hadn’t even thought about it, and I didn’t really know what to say other than to wish them well. It didn’t make the reports in the following day’s papers, and the speculation began in earnest the following day. It wasn’t my problem, and I was fine with that.

The evening after my resignation had been made public, I was heading to the airport with my girls for a week-long holiday which would be the start of my longest holiday in more than a decade, with no set end point. For now, a week camping in the Black Forest would suffice, and I could hardly wait to switch off from football completely. Of course, there was a World Cup coming and I was hardly going to ignore that, but after that I was husband, father and very little else. I couldn’t wait.

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That brings an end, at long last, to this story. It feels a little strange - I started writing Owain at Prestatyn back in 2015, and this thread since 2017. Of course, a lot of that is due to me taking multiple lengthy breaks, but it's a bit odd nonetheless.

Thank you all for reading along, for your supportive comments and encouragement. I've really appreciated it, and probably wouldn't have made it to a conclusion without it. So until next time, thanks again and goodbye!

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