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  1. Stade Rennais were not one of the powerhouses of French football, nor the European game. They had never before reached a European final, and like my Southampton side, were blazing a new trail by even reaching the final four. They had qualified for this year’s edition by virtue of lifting the Coupe de France last season, but were by no means guaranteed to make it again next season, locked as they were in a three-way fight for the final qualification spot with St Etienne and Auxerre. On paper, that most misleading surface on which to play football, we were clear favourites. It was our job to make sure we translated that status – earned by virtue both of our superior squad and our strong position in the Premier League table – into a first-leg league, while our visitors arrived with the express purpose of nicking an away goal and making sure they could take us back to France with the tie still in the balance. Whereas we were hoping to win the tie at the first time of asking, our opponents’ job was more akin to not losing it. As such, our usual 4-2-2-2 lined up against a deep-lying 4-1-4-1 system, the French side happy to allow us plenty of possession before looking to strike on the counter. It was a sensible ploy, both playing to the situation and preventing us using our own pace in transition, but it did not result in the most entertaining of first halves. The closest either side came to breaking the deadlock came just before the half-hour, with surprise starter Canini clipping a ball to the edge of the box for Escalada to volley just wide, but that was as good as it got in a drab first 45 minutes. We needed a goal to get things moving, and so at the interval I urged my men to take the extra risk. I had seen little for our visitors in the first half to suggest that their threatened counter-attack would be particularly damaging, and so our midfield screen of Blanc and Woodward were encouraged to press higher, stealing the ball whenever possible and feeding the front four at every opportunity. Had the opening goal come as a direct result of increased pressure, I would have been hailed as a tactical genius. Instead, it came as a result of an error, and I was no less pleased. Under very little pressure, Sebastian Borges played a 30-yard pass straight into the path of Boyd Clarke rather than his goalkeeper, and our striker needed no second invitation to bury it into the back of the net. We had been gifted the opener, and would make the French side pay. From the restart, Woodward carried out his new instructions to the letter, gambling by getting tight to his man and being rewarded when his well-timed stretch won the ball just inside the visitors’ half. He couldn’t recover possession, but Blanc could, and he set Shaw free down the left as we moved forward at pace. His first cross was well blocked, and his second was nodded away by a French defender, but the ball had barely cleared the edge of the area before it was met by the right boot of Adam Bright, which sent it high into the top corner of the net for our second goal in as many minutes. Given our opponents’ complete lack of attacking threat – they were yet to record a shot on goal, let alone on target, by this point in the match – we could have been forgiven for assuming at this stage that our passage to the final was all but secure. However, I had seen too many lapses in concentration from my men over the course of the last two seasons to rest on our laurels at his point. 10 minutes later, when full-back Emmanuel Bernard diverted substitute Jacobson’s shot beyond his own goalkeeper for 3-0, we could at last begin to think about the final. Rennes did manage one shot in the end, although it did not trouble Hamish Jack between our posts, and the 3-0 final score was perhaps flattering to our visitors, who had been thoroughly overwhelmed by the occasion and not looked remotely threatening. While we would have to be professional in France – and I would not accept anything less from my men – we could begin to think about preparing for our likely opponents in the final. PSG had overcome Sporting by the same 3-0 scoreline in Paris, and so all but the most adventurous of gamblers was betting on us meeting the Parisians in Hamburg on May 10th. It would be the biggest match in Southampton’s storied history, and yet it was now entirely within our grasp.
  2. It would certainly appear that way... -- On this occasion, I did give the players some time off. They had earned it with the exertions over the past week, and indeed over the rest of the season, and had put themselves in a position from which we were strong favourites to claim a coveted Champions League spot. That had been the unspoken desire ever since the start of the season, and everything else that came with it – namely, a Europa League run to the semi-finals and possibly beyond – was a wonderful bonus. I chose to use the self-imposed free weekend to treat my family, and mercifully the weather held for us. It was always a gamble in the English Spring, but a weekend under canvas across the Solent on the Isle of Wight was exactly what the doctor ordered. Spending time with my wife and daughters meant my mind was forced away from the minutiae of the football club and back to the joys of family life, and as we enjoyed the sights of sounds of Ryde’s esplanade and the castle at Carisbrooke, I felt more refreshed than I had in a long while. Rebecca in particular seemed to be at her happiest on our short holiday, perhaps in part due to us dressing it up as a belated 11th birthday present to her. Rachel and I had, of course, spoiled her rotten on the day itself, but whether we were exploring the nearby beaches and simply kicking a ball around the campsite – something she was showing quite the degree of skill at – she was in her element. I suspected that, as we boarded the ferry to return to Southampton, a few years ago there would have been tears as our break came to an end. What’s more, I would have sympathised. Instead, I was forced to return to the day job, putting the players through their paces in the days leading up to our clash with Chelsea. We would travel up to London the day before and watch the Manchester derby as a squad – both to build on the strength of our team spirit and ensure there would be no last-minute travel issues – before taking on the Blues in a game which, if we won, would guarantee us entry to next year’s Champions League. The day before, United and City put on a classic. A red card apiece, a penalty for either side, and a dramatic late winner for Diego Simeone’s men meant that the Citizens would be crowned champions if we fell to Chelsea, and that we would retain our runners-up spot regardless of our own result. That was scant consolation as Rafinha put the Blues ahead after just 18 minutes, and even less of one when he outmuscled Carl Bateson before netting our hosts’ second on the half-hour mark. We went into the break 2-0 down, and staring at our first Premier League defeat for 18 games. I would love to say that we emerged a new team in the second half, swatting aside our adversaries and roaring back to turn the game on its head, but it would not to be. Adam Bright did cut our arrears, bending in a brilliant free-kick within 10 minutes of the restart, but within five minutes more defensive confusion allowed Chelsea to capitalise and restore their two-goal advantage. We pushed hard for a lifeline but could not break them down, and with five minutes to go conceded a fourth on the break to add insult to injury, slumping to our biggest defeat in a long time. It could not have come at a worse moment. It meant City were champions once again, 11 points clear of us with only nine available. It meant we stayed two points ahead of United, while both Tottenham and Liverpool remained lurking, six points behind our nearest challengers with a game in hand. We remained favourites for Champions League qualification, but could not afford to switch all of our attentions to the Europa League just yet. Nevertheless, we would have to switch temporarily, as Stade Rennais prepared to make their trip to England. A good win in the home leg would give us one foot in the final – a thought which few Saints fans would have dared dream of at the start of the season – while defeat would leave us with a huge amount of work to do in the away leg. The stakes were as high as they had ever been, and in many ways it would be the team who dealt best with the pressure who would emerge victorious. We just needed to make sure it was us.
  3. The week of that conversation with Rachel had begun with a late show against Lokomotiv, not one but two injury time goals giving us a 3-1 lead to take to Moscow, and would contain no fewer than four matches as the fixture calendar continued to throw games at us. After playing on the Thursday in Europe, Sunday saw us in league action against rock-bottom Sheffield United, where a sublime solo goal from Gideon Cohen just after the break earned us all three points in an otherwise tedious game. The visitors recorded just two shots on goal, while only a handful of our near 30 efforts troubled the goalkeeper, and there was little else to report. While we were putting the Blades to the sword, headlines were being made in London, where Fulham fought back from 1-0 and 2-1 down to shock Manchester United and claim a shock 3-2 win. That defeat all but ended any lingering hopes the red half of Manchester had of claiming the title – City were a full eight points clear with six games to play to United’s five – but it also had interesting implication for my Saints. Coupled with our win over the league’s bottom side, the Fulham result meant that, with just five games of the season remaining, we were level with United on 69 points. We were 14 goals behind on the tiebreaker, but perhaps more importantly were a full seven points clear of Liverpool in fourth, even if the New Anfield club had played a game less. So, after Loko on Thursday and Sheffield United on Sunday, we were back in action on the Tuesday, this time hosting the West Ham who had knocked us out of the FA Cup at the beginning of March. On that occasion they had stifled our creativity and forced us into a poor performance, and once again the Hammers seemed to have our number, controlling the majority of possession and taking three shots of their own to every two we mustered. However, as the clock continued to tick over, neither side managed to break the deadlock. That is, until the 87th minute, when a firm but fair challenge from Vandinho robbed Daniel Circuit of the ball deep in our own half. The Brazilian surged into midfield before feeding the ball inside to Blanc, and after shifting the ball past his opposite number with his first touch, our French international released a curling pass which arced perfectly between the two West Ham centre-backs. Boyd Clarke, who had only been on the pitch for 10 minutes or so as a replacement for the injured Carlos Henrique, made the most of his fresh legs to beat his man to the ball, and after bringing the pass under controlled, sent an accurate shot beyond the outstretched leg of the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. It was an absolute steal, but somehow we had found a way to win. The following day, as we trained in Moscow for the second leg of our Europa League quarter final, Arsenal did us a huge favour by holding United to a 2-2 draw at the Emirates, leaving us two points clear of the Red Devils with four games to play. Despite missing Henrique to the injury picked up against the Hammers, it was the confidence boost we needed, and with a 3-1 lead in the bag from the home leg, two goals in two minutes from two Welshmen – Jacobson and Ross Ifan – on the stroke of half-time were enough to see us cruise into the final four of the Europa League. Our reward would be a two-legged tie with Stade Rennais, the French side having held Feyenoord to a goalless draw in Rotterdam before overwhelming them at home to progress by the same 5-1 aggregate scoreline as ourselves. Were we to get past them, our potential opponents in the Hamburg final would be another French side – super-rich Paris Saint-Germain – or Portuguese outfit Sporting, with the Lisbon side having the advantage of the second leg at home. That was an advantage we conceded to our opponents, and thus one we hoped would not prove decisive. So it was with cautious but heightened optimism that a frantic first week of April drew to a close, with my Southampton into the Europa League semis and sitting second in the Premier League. Of course, after a week which had brought four matches – and four crucial victories – in just eight days, we now had a full 11 days before our next outing, a tough trip to Chelsea the day after the eyes of the nation were occupied by the Manchester derby. I was more than happy to concede the spotlight to the champions and their rivals – as long as continued to perform, I could not have cared less who did or didn’t take notice of us.
  4. “What is it darling? Something seems to be bothering you?” Rachel had been unusually quiet over the last couple of days, and it was beginning to worry me. I was reasonably confident it was nothing to do with the girls – both Bethan and Rebecca were thriving at school and were continuing to grow into confident young women, albeit far too quickly for their dad to comprehend – and my wife’s own work, volunteering to give language lessons, was under no particular pressure. “It’s nothing dear, honestly. I’m just a little tired, that’s all.” I could see a deflection as well as anyone, and that was as clear as they came. I took Rachel’s hand in my own, squeezed it gently to reassure her, and waited for her to speak. I did not need to wait particularly long before her concerns came tumbling out. “It’s the future, really. That sounds ridiculous, but that’s what it is.” “How do you mean darling?” “I mean with you doing so well…” “That seems like an odd thing to worry about” “I know, but I do. I know Southampton aren’t supposed to be fighting for the Champions League, or with one foot in the Europa semis. I know they weren’t before you got here, and I know people will be looking at the difference you’ve made and thinking about their own clubs. Every move you’ve made has been a step up, and I wonder if there’s another one to come.” “Rachel my love, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. First of all, I don’t think I’m quite held in the regard you seem to think I am – Dean hasn’t been in touch with approaches from anywhere else. Secondly, I’m happy here. I know I was happy in Seattle too, but Southampton was a chance to come to the Premier League, and there is no higher level than this.” “What if there is though Owain? Let’s say you win the Europa League – and that isn’t completely far-fetched – and qualify for the Champions League, and one of the big teams on the continent has a bad year and sees you as the man to pull them back into position again. I don’t know, one of the Madrid teams, Bayern maybe…” “Bayern are 10 points clear in the Bundesliga…” “That isn’t the point, and you know it. I worry about us moving again, about lifting the girls out of another home and dropping them in a foreign culture where they don’t speak the language. I’m worried enough about you going to Moscow next week, let alone moving somewhere like it. I just think it’s time for us to be settled, but I don’t want to stand in your way either. That’s what wrong.” I paused before replying. There was every chance Rachel’s concerns were valid – if everything went to plan, it made sense I would have admirers in high places – but I had had few thoughts about moving on from Southampton. Very few, in fact – they had treated me very well, the pressure on me was entirely of my own production, and life in Hampshire was good to us. Without dismissing my wife’s fears, I attempted to assuage them. “Rachel Williams, I love you. I want you to know that, and that our family is always going to be the most important consideration for me – above personal glory and job satisfaction. There is no job I would take that would make you and the girls unhappy, and quite frankly there is no job I would take at the minute other than the one I have. If Real Madrid called tomorrow and you didn’t want me to take it, I’d tell them thanks but no thanks, and the same goes for Bayern, Juventus, City, and anyone else you can care to think of. I’ve got a job I love here, a family I love even more, and I don’t want to start again somewhere new.” Rachel glanced at me with tears welling in her eyes. Without saying anything, she lifted my hand to her lips and gave it a lingering kiss. I knew everything I needed to know – my wife was satisfied, and so was I.
  5. Not that I know of - although winning the Europa won't be easy given the other side of the draw. Two plans should be enough! -- “Owain, you must be relieved to have held onto that one? It looked at times like Newcastle were going to take a point or even more.” I afforded myself a smile – the Guardian journalist was right. We’d led three times against the Magpies, been pulled back twice, and very nearly on a third occasion as well. They had deserved a point, but not managed to claim one. “Relieved is right, I think the Newcastle fans have every right to feel a little bit aggrieved there. Of course it’s easy for me to come out and say that having won the match, but if they carry on playing like that for the rest of the season, there’s every chance they’ll end up in Europe.” “What are your reflections on your own side’s performance? You looked strong going forward but a little shaky at the back, does that worry you at all heading into the run-in?” “No manager likes to see his side concede goals, and the first one today was definitely not the sort you enjoy seeing your team let in – there’s work to be done there for sure. However, we are confident of outscoring teams ourselves, and you only have to look at the goalscorers today – Blanc in midfield, Hodge from defence and Jacobson up front – and you can see we’ve got options all over the pitch. That’s really important at this stage in the season – you don’t want to become too one-dimensional.” “The Blanc goal was something special, particularly for a man who doesn’t get on the scoresheet very often – is that something you see much from him in training?” “I wish I did! No, Ben isn’t known for his goalscoring, so we’re really pleased for him today. It was a great hit, 30 yards out and beautifully true. He doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves at times, but he’s been brilliant for us this year, coming in, getting used to the way we do things and consistently doing the job we ask of him. He deserves his moment in the limelight.” “Less savoury news about Danny Cavill this week – can you elaborate on your relationship with him?” My brow furrowed at this one – my defender’s transfer request had been unfortunately leaked to the media, and while I had no intention of tearing into my own player, I was not happy with him or his agent. “I can understand Danny’s frustrations – he isn’t playing very much, and every professional wants to be out there on the pitch. I’m a little disappointed his agent has decided to make that public at this stage in the season, but we’ll sit down together and figure things out. Danny’s a good lad who I’ve no doubt can do a job for a number of teams, and I’m not going to stand in his way of first-team football if that’s what he’s offered.” “Finally Owain, you’ve finally got a full week before your next game – will you be giving the players any time off between now and the Brighton match?” “It does seem like a long time since we’ve had anything like a break, so we’ll be glad of the extra time! The players have been told not to come in tomorrow – we’ll review today’s game on Monday and go from there. We are busy, the schedule is tight, but that’s a position we want to be in and if we don’t work hard then we won’t get that chance again. That’s a long way of saying ‘not really’ – there’s no rest for the wicked, after all.” After edging past Newcastle 3-2, we were right not to ease off. We travelled to Brighton a full eight days later and scraped a 2-1 win, the officials not helping our cause by chalking off goals by both Cohen and Mina for marginal offside decisions. Nevertheless, strikes from our Israeli international and his midfield partner Bright saw us collect another three points in our bid for Champions League football, before our attention turned to UEFA’s secondary competition and the visit of Lokomotiv in the first leg of our quarter-final. As March reached its end, it seemed as if our season was only just beginning.
  6. Despite being at home to Nottingham Forest, I was not particularly confident about taking on the Reds. They had knocked us out of the FA Cup last season, and were exactly the sort of midtable side who could pose us unexpected problems. Three minutes into our mid-March clash, I was beginning to wish myself less insightful – Gordon Hunter, who had scored against us at the City Ground in that cup game, was once again celebrating, and we had work to do. But we did it quickly and emphatically, and my half-time the game was dead and buried. Almost from the restart we won a penalty which Clarke coolly converted to restore parity, and as we grew in confidence it was only a matter of time before we hit the front. When we did, it was with a swagger and a force which reminded me of my old Seattle Sounders side, breezing past opponents in short, unstoppable bursts of scintillating football. We went 2-1 up courtesy of an own goal after 30 minutes, and three minutes later Clarke made it 3-1 with his second of the afternoon. Five minutes later he completed his hat-trick thanks to a sumptuous assist from Ifan, and we had accelerated into a three-goal lead in just eight minutes. We carried that into the second half, and two more after the break saw us wind up 6-1 winners and put any thoughts of the West Ham defeat firmly to the back of our minds. The comprehensive win did no damage to our goal difference as we kept the pressure on our fellow Champions League challengers, maintaining our third place with eight games to play. Manchester City were looking unstoppable at the top of the table, but every other position in the top six remained up for grabs. While we still had an eye on Europe in the present campaign, we were looking very good for the top four finish we so desperately craved. Yet Europe would be our focus in our next clash, as Borussia Monchengladbach attempted to overturn our 4-3 lead from the first leg in Germany in the St Mary’s return. Our visitors knew they needed a two-goal win if they were to have any chance of progressing to the last eight, while for our part we simply had to avoid calamity. With four away goals there was little chance of us being eliminated on that front, and any goals we could score of our own would make our opponents’ task even more difficult. In the end, our task was made easier by two excellent from our full-backs, Kenan Kus and Luke Shaw showing exactly why they were such firm favourites with our fans by dominating their respective flanks in a masterful display of wing play. It was the latter who proved instrumental in our opening goal, crossing for Clarke to head in after half an hour, and the former who played a role in our second, his shot parried into the path of Bright to sweep in for 2-0 just before half-time, and that was that. With the Germans’ dangerous wingers shut out of the game by our star men, they barely threatened our goal, and so we booked a spot in the quarter-finals. UEFA saw it fit to draw the next two stages of the competition at this juncture, meaning we were now able to plot our path to the Hamburg final. In the last eight we were handed what most agreed was a favourable draw in the form of Lokomotiv Moscow – a side that we were well-acquainted with from the group stage. At that stage we had won 1-0 away and drawn 0-0 at home, but on both occasions the Russians had seen fit to sit deep and defend. In the high-stakes surroundings of a knockout stage, we had the ability to break them down. If we were to overcome Lokomotiv over the two legs, we would face the winners of the tie between Dutch giant Feyenoord and French outfit Stade Rennais in the semis. While both sides would undoubtedly offer stern competition, neither were a club that we would instinctively be afraid of, and while we simply had to take things a single game at a time, there was no doubt we could dare to dream of a European final. It was quite the dream.
  7. We only drew with Burnley! But yes, it was typical - very much 'after the Lord Mayor's show.' As for your jinx, I'm not sure Owain will thank you for that -- That had not been the plan. Not at all. Given our run of form, to have taken the lead a quarter of the way through and somehow end up losing the game was not acceptable. Not only that, but there would be no second chances – our FA Cup run was over, our hope of a domestic trophy all but over for the season, and thanks largely to our own complacency. West Ham should not have caused us too many problems, and indeed in the opening stages we had dominated them. We had taken a deserved lead through cup specialist Jacobson, his textbook diving header beating the home keeper to put us ahead, but instead of pressing our advantage home, we slackened the pace, reducing the tempo to one which our hosts could keep up with, and finding ourselves unable to respond when the Hammers began to assert themselves. They levelled before the break and afterwards, despite my urgings to my players to wake up and keep going, we were unable to wrestle the game away from the hosts. Hamish Jack was our best player on the night, a damning indictment of our poor performance, but even he was unable to stop West Ham booking their place in the last eight of the competition. It was Daniel Circuit who got the goal, stealing ahead of Hodges to turn in a cross and dump us out of the cup with just 20 minutes left. Given that the Hammers were sat in the bottom five of the Premier League and were more likely to find themselves relegated than lifting the cup, our defeat had to count as a shock. It was our first loss of the calendar year, our first failure in 18 matches, and an unwelcome reminder that despite our lofty position in the league, we still had a lot of work to do if we were to cement our position as a top side in regular contention for silverware. It was the sort of result which threatened to send me spiralling into self-doubt, and on this occasion I genuinely wanted my players to share in the moment – to give them time to reflect on their abject display and light a fire beneath them in response. However, March was simply not the time of year we could afford any time to wallow in self-pity – we had a trip to Germany for the first leg of our Europa League clash with Gladbach, and then would be back in league action against Forest on the Sunday. In short, there was no time for us to think our way out of what could potentially become a tricky situation – we would have to act our way out of it. It was precisely in moments that this that I was to earn my crust as a manager, handling the players as best as I could whilst also making the necessary and ruthless changes to make sure we didn’t make the same mistakes twice. Every team lost on occasion, but if we were to go out of the Europa on the back of FA Cup failure, the knives would no doubt be sharpened in the press. As such, I rang the changes as we travelled to Germany, and was rewarded with a much higher calibre of performance in the opening stages. However, it had never been the opening moments of a match I was worried about – we were always strong starters – and on this occasion our hosts were equal to us. As we looked to be heading in goalless at the interval, the referee’s assistant inexplicably failed to lift his flag for Ricardo Silva, allowing the Brazilian to fire beneath Jack and put us behind. Trying desperately not to look despairing, I urged my men to redouble their efforts before the break. My attempts to hide my emotions may have been weak, but my men were not, and having previously been happy with a neutral 0-0 after 45 minutes, we instead took an away goal advantage. Two full minutes of possession from the kick-off saw the Germans chasing shadows, and one of those shadows in the form of Adam Bright slid the ball into the bottom corner to eliminate the deficit. That was just what we needed to kick on, and just what our hosts needed to spark a manic second half. Four minutes into it, Callum Jacobson bent in his 20th goal of the season from the edge of the area, and five minutes later, we found ourselves with a 3-1 lead after Boyd Clarke took Woodward’s pass and drilled it through a crowded penalty area. Of course, never ones to make things easy for ourselves, we did not hold on to our advantage for long, first conceding a free-kick which Jack pushed behind, and then leaving Liridon Lekaj free to nod in Gidion Zelalem’s corner to make it 3-2 with 20 minutes to play. At 3-2 up we were happy, but not completely so – three away goals were an excellent return, but a fourth would put us in a commanding position going into the home leg. As such, we gave the ball to the in-form Jacobson, and the Welshman sent our travelling fans into ecstasy with a sublime chip over a backpedalling goalkeeper from a full 20 yards. Of course, a two-goal lead was too much to ask for, the Germans pulling a third goal back in injury time to conclude the scoring in a truly spectacular game. With four away goals and the lead we would be hot favourites to make progress, but I only hoped for something a little less end-to-end in the return. Neither my body nor my brain could deal with a repeat.
  8. Your answer awaits... --- “We saw a very different approach from your Southampton side today, was that based on a weakness you’d seen in the opposition or something you’ve been working on for a while?” The very first post-match question got to the crux of the matter, and for once I was quite happy to play along. After taking a sip of the branded water by my right hand, I addressed the journalist in question. “It wasn’t a weakness we’d seen in City, far from it – it was just the only way we could see of playing that would minimise the gap. We played to our pace today, stayed compact, and we got the result we were looking for.” “Owain, before the season there were few who would have put Southampton in the running for a Champions League position, but if you look at the table today that seems a real possibility. Was that always the aim this year, and can you hang on?” “That’s two questions in one, but I’m in a good mood so I’ll let it slide. The Champions League is where everybody wants to be, of course, but the owners of this club have always made it clear to me that as long as they can see progress, they’re happy to let me get on my job. As for hanging on, I’m not sure that’s the question we have to be asking ourselves. We’re only actually two points off the top of the table now…” “Are you suggesting you can mount a title charge?” “If you’d kindly let me finish, that isn’t what I’m saying at all. City have their games in hand, so that two points could easily become eight and there’s nothing we can do about that, but we have to be looking up rather down. We’re five points clear of Spurs and only one behind Liverpool, so rather than glancing over our shoulders we’re focused on chasing down the teams ahead of us.” “Finally Owain, you’re back in action on Thursday against Bordeaux and go into that game with a 3-0 lead – if you were offered the choice of winning the Europa League or qualifying for the Champions League, which would you take?” “I’m not going to give you an answer on that, simply because at this moment in time I think it’s entirely possible that the club can do both. We’ve put ourselves in a strong position in the league with 10 games to go, and if things go well in midweek we’ll be in the last 16 in Europe. I’m not going to sacrifice one for the other – this squad is good enough to fight on both fronts.” Things did go well enough in midweek, goals from Lloyd Collins and the rarely-seen Danny Cavill cancelling out two Bordeaux goals to see us through 5-2 on aggregate and keep the good mood around the squad going after our hard-fought 2-1 win in Manchester. City would recover well, taking out their frustrations by thumping Championship outfit Blackburn 4-0 in the League Cup final to win the first domestic silverware of the season, and after watching the game we prepared to take on Burnley at St Mary’s the following day. Perhaps inevitably, having defeated the best side in the country and then crusied through on the continent, we came unstuck against the Lancashire outfit, conceding midway through the first half and then again in the second, Kenan Kus shoving his man at a corner to gift them a 2-0 lead from the penalty spot. However, we have proven ourselves to be made of stern stuff, and so when Jacobson pulled one back 10 minutes later we had hope. More than that, we had a point – Cavill, starting just his fifth league game of the campaign, glanced in a free-kick five minutes from the end to tie things up, and a disappointing afternoon at least ended on a positive note. Spurs had won to close the gap to three points, but we weren’t worrying about anyone else – still unbeaten since our Boxing Day defeat at Old Trafford, we were simply focused on ourselves. If Southampton kept on winning, we would be everyone else’s problem, and that was very much the plan.
  9. The game was 11 minutes old when we made things interesting, and I allowed myself the privilege of a smirk. Simeone, clad in trademark dark suit with only the sky blue of his club tie adding any colour to his attire, stood with arms folded in the dugout, trying his hardest not to allow any emotion to cross his expression. We were still 80 minutes from achieving anything, but we were going to fight for every one of them. It was our first real attack of the match, and it bore the blueprint of my pre-match plan perfectly. City had worked the ball forward well, full-backs advancing deep into our territory as they looked for the kill. Henrique and Woodward were almost deep enough to be acting as third and fourth centre-backs, but our shape held strong. When the cross came in, the hosts having been forced wide by our compact centre, Hodge was able to not only clear wide with the header, but direct it into the path of Kus. Our captain charged off like a man possessed, opposition players struggling to keep up and finding it impossible to get a foot in. Then, when the time was right, he released a pass forward from inside his own half, with Escalada the theoretical target. The only problem being that the Argentine was offside. Knowing this, he peeled his run and his marker away from the ball, allowing it to run behind the City defence and into the space rapidly being eaten up by Adam Bright. At 30 yards out he still had a lot of work to do, but his legs kept him ahead of the pursuing defenders, and his presence of mind allowed to place a shot beyond the home goalkeeper as he made himself big. We had drawn first blood, and now the champions had to come and get us. And come for us they did, Hamish Jack forced into a flying save to deny our old nemesis Yu an equaliser two minutes after the restart. The Chinese forward looked dangerous, as did his strike partner Mirko Gramaglia, and it was all we could do to ride out the next five minutes without shipping an immediate leveller. Jack would need to have one of his best games in a Southampton shirt if we were to hold on to a one-goal lead, but the early signs were promising. Two minutes after those five had elapsed, the unthinkable happened. Another City attack petered out in the final third – this time Woodward’s timely interception meaning that the hosts didn’t even have the opportunity to put a ball into our box – and once again we were away. This time Jacobson, the former United man who was booed every time he touched the ball, dropped deep to receive the pass out of defence, and his aim was no less lethal than Kus’ had been. This time the ball was into the left channel but the target was the same, and Bright carried it deep into the final third. Fronting up his man, a successful dummy allowed him to dribble into the area, and his next move was sensational. Cutting back onto his right foot and leaving a sliding defender for dead in the process, he wrapped his foot around the ball to send a flashing shot low in at the near post which left the keeper completely wrongfooted. With 20 minutes gone, we were leading the champions 2-0 on their own patch. It was almost too good to be true. And so, four minutes later, we handed City a lifeline. Another attack, this time led by Gramaglia, saw the hosts invade our box in numbers, and it seemed a matter of when, rather than if, they would score. The shot came in from the Italian, only to be blocked by a sliding Aswad Payne. Unfortunately for our centre-back, the shot had cannoned off his raised arm as he had gone to ground, and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Gramaglia took responsibility and smashed the spot kick home down the centre of the goal, and our lead was cut back to one. Somehow, despite the constant pressure from Simeone’s men, we did not crack further before the break. Bright played like a man possessed, occupying seemingly every position on the field at various points in time, and I have little doubt that, had we given him Jack’s gloves for a spell, he’d have made a couple of saves. Our defensive screen of Henrique and Woodward put in arguably their best 45-minute display of the season, with the latter going some way to show why we had paid so much money to lure him across from Stoke. At the break, there were plaudits to be given out, and concentration to be maintained. We knew that even a single break in focus or slip of foot would let City back into the game, and we could not escape the fact that if they scored once, a further goal was not unlikely to follow. We would have to defend as a team, stick to the plan, and carry it out flawlessly – it was a huge ask, and I would soon find out whether or not my men were capable of living up to it.
  10. It was raining in Manchester. It always was – looking back over my career, there were very few matches – mainly those played in May or late August – there were very few occasions on which I had managed a team in Manchester and not been rained on. I suppose I should not be surprised – there is no smoke without fire, after all. This was the one fixture which every team looked for at the start of the season – the day away at the Etihad which they could almost write off, at least in the case of 90% of the league. For the very top sides, it was a day for which they would have to plan to perfection if they hoped to get a result, and for arguably the first time as we were sitting in the top four, we could consider ourselves one of those sides. There is little I can say about Diego Simeone’s side that has not already been said. Not content with possessing some of the finest individual footballers on the planet, the former Atletico boss had transformed his side into a ruthless football machine, churning out crushing win after crushing win in a manner that no-one in the English game could really remember. Personally, the 6-1 defeat they had handed to my Saints last season was the worst loss I had endured as a manager, and in my darkest days I still had nightmares about Yu Shuming. In the current campaign, they had dropped points on a few more occasions than they would have liked, but despite that and having played two fewer games than their rivals courtesy of their participation in the Club World Cup, they had taken top spot in the Premier League and did not look like letting it slip. They had won 3-1 at St Mary’s earlier in the campaign, and all the signs pointed to them easing past us on home turf. That was, unless I was able to come up with some way of stopping them. Going toe-to-toe with the champions and trying to out-slog them seemed futile, and yet that was how we set up for most game, confident that our attacking prowess could overwhelm the majority of sides. Against City, it was the sort of approach that saw us get so badly beaten last season, and dumped out of the League Cup in a 4-1 loss earlier on in this campaign. I was torn – on the one hand, playing to your own strengths rather than attempting solely to counter your opponent was one of the first principles any football manager learns, and yet in this instance it seemed as if our very strengths were our greatest weaknesses. City would tear us apart on the counter if we went at them too hard, and so we needed a gameplan which relied on us not to create an abundance of chances, but to take them when they did come. It was something we had not always done – Escalada, Clarke and even the in-form Jacobson could all be profligate at time – but it was the only way we could play. And so it was decided. We would push hard for 10 minutes, trying to catch Simeone’s side unawares in the opening moments, and then conduct a tactical retreat. We would play deeper, giving City the ball in midfield, and look to spring a runner whenever possible. Whether through Cohen, Bright, Escalada or even one of our full-backs, we had pace in abundance, and that would have to be our primary weapon. Of course, it would need to be backed up with clinical finishing and defensive discipline, but it would be pace that we would depend on. As the referee blew his whistle to get things underway, I only hoped my thoughts were correct.
  11. The next week, without trying to sound overly dramatic, was a crucial one for us. It would begin away at Middlesborough in the cup, see us take a midweek flight to Bordeaux in the Europa League, and finish with a Sunday afternoon trip to Manchester City and Diego Simeone’s all-conquering champions. The three opponents were playing at three very different levels, and by Sunday night we would have a very good idea of which one we were operating at. Third-tier Boro were on paper the easiest of our three opponents, but with the possibility of an FA Cup quarter final ahead of them, we could not afford to take them lightly. That said, I had no hesitation in putting out a rotated side, and what followed was an end-to-end game to delight the neutral and further convince me that Callum Jacobson would play a key role in the future of Southampton Football Club. His first goal came after just three minutes, a cool side-footed finish from Vandinho’s low cross. His second came 15 minutes later, a similar strike from five yards further out which should have put the game to bed there and then. However, to Middlesborough’s credit they fought back, and a penalty to halve the deficit after half an hour made my half-time team talk that little bit less comfortable. I needn’t have worried. Although Dominic Calvert-Lewin grabbed a second for the home team five minutes from the end, it was Jacobson who was the hero of the day. My fellow countryman claimed the match ball with a cheeky low free-kick not long after the restart that embarrassed the leaping Boro wall, and as if three goals were not enough, he added a fourth midway through the half to cap off a remarkable personal performance. I afforded him a standing ovation by bringing him off with 10 minutes to play, and his haul booked us a trip to West Ham in the last eight. One down, three to go. Jacobson had to start in France, but my dilemma was who to play with him. We had little time before the City game and so another shadow side was my instinct, but if they failed to perform, we could be out of the tie before taking it home to St Mary’s. In the end, the league focus won out, and it was very much a second string that took to the field against Bordeaux. If the gamble failed, I would be in the firing line – this was a winnable tie. Although it was only late February, there was a warm breeze blowing in from the Bay of Biscay, and in contrast to previous European adventures, there was no scent of hostility from the home fans. Perhaps it was a cultural thing, perhaps it was because their own side had not expected to get this far – either way, we took advantage. Of course it had to be Jacobson who got us started, heading in an Ifan corner with the clock barely showing double figures. The second goal was a special one – Lloyd Collins, who I had spent so much money on as a 16-year-old from Blackburn, had seen his Southampton career get off to a flying start only for the young starlet to break his ankle in a reserve game against Hull, and he had been struggling for fitness ever since. This was his first first-team appearance since that day, and it was marked with a goal. Again Ifan was the creator, his weighted ball slicing through the home defence and allowing Collins the space he needed to lift a delicate finish over the onrushing keeper. The celebration with his team-mates told me everything I needed to know – here was a young man who loved to play, and he was going to be awfully good at it too. That settled things before the interval, but a third goal after the break gave us one-and-a-half feet in the next round. Vandinho almost certainly did not mean for his left-wing cross to evade everyone and bounce past the goalkeeper at the far post, but his first Saints goal meant we would almost certainly be taking part in the last 16 of the Europa League. Two down, one to go – and it was by far the most difficult of the three.
  12. As we kicked off against Fulham, the hope was real. In the weekend’s early game, Spurs had been beaten 2-0 by Manchester United, meaning that a win over the West London outfit would put five points worth of daylight between us and our Champions League rivals. While the Europa League and FA Cup were obviously competitions we were aiming to win, the league had to be our focus. The fans expected nothing less, and we had a real chance to achieve something. A quarter of an hour into the game, midtable Fulham caught us cold, right winger Bryce Harding getting on the end of a cross after drifting in behind Shaw. Whilst the small travelling contingent began to celebrate, the linesman on the far post cut short their jubilation by raising his flag, and we were mercifully reprieved. It was a welcome relief, but a necessary warning – the visitors were not able to roll over for us. It forced us to toughen up, and Henrique and Hossam, getting a rare start in front of the defensive line, were given instructions to close their playmakers down more quickly. It took us a while to fashion a chance of our own, but in the meantime we were at least able to stifle Fulham’s creativity, leading to midfield trench warfare rather than the free-flowing stuff we had witnessed in recent weeks. Ten minutes before the break, Escalada collected a pass from Kenan Kus some 25 yards from goal to the right of centre, and thumped a drive high towards the top corner of the Fulham goal. Their goalkeeper stood helpless, frozen in the centre of his line, thanking his good fortune as he watched the ball crash off the crossbar and bounce a good 10 yards back out into play. It was the closest either side got to breaking the deadlock, but proved the catalyst for us to get the ball under control. Gradually we increased our share of possession, and for all Fulham’s early intensity, they were on the back foot when the whistle came for the break. After it, we continued in much the same vein, passing and probing as we looked to find the space we needed to create the one chance we were searching for. Ifan thought it had it but saw his final ball deflected off course by a desperate defensive lunge, and then his replacement Cohen saw a shot clip the same man’s heel and drift just wide. Into the last quarter of the match, the scoreboard still showed no goals, and we were faced with a choice. Against Everton earlier in the year, we had dominated, thrown away a two-goal lead, and then been forced to go gung-ho to grab a third and winning goal. Here however, we were in control without scoring, and I opted against any change to the system. Four minutes after making my third and final like-for-like change – sending the lesser-spotted Nestor Mina on in place for Jacobson – my confidence paid off. After striking the bar in the first half, it was Escalada who made the decisive breakthrough. The Argentine forward rode his luck after a heavy touch came back to him after a tangle of legs with a defender, but he seized his opportunity with both hands, moving into the area before shooting through the legs of the goalkeeper who had narrowed the angle in vain. One goal was all we needed, and despite not playing particularly well, we had found a way to win once again. We were on a roll, and we were getting the breaks. Three days later, we hosted Arsenal, and we found ourselves on the other end of such a game. In a far more even affair, we had huffed and puffed through the second half, and finally took the lead through a deflected Gidon Cohen effort with just 10 minutes to play – surely a short enough period of time for us to hold out and secure another narrow win against one of the league’s better sides. Not the case. As soon as they had conceded, the Gunners switched gears and came us hard, perhaps surprised by their own inability to score given the recent record between the two clubs. Hamish Jack had his busiest spell of the match in the closing stages and performed admirably, but he could do nothing about the equaliser. With a mere 30 seconds of the three added minutes remaining, Guido Vadala’s goalbound effort took a deflection off the back of the turning Leighton Hodge, sending it looping up and over our Scottish goalkeeper to hand the visitors a point. It wasn’t undeserved, but it was cruel. It brought up 10 unbeaten league games, but given the circumstances, it was a bittersweet statistic to take solace in.
  13. “Darling, you’re frustrated aren’t you?” Rachel was on the money. I had no real reason to be given the nature of the game we had played the day before, but nevertheless I was frustrated. Our winning run was at an end, but that wasn’t all that felt wrong. “Of course I’m frustrated. We’ve been doing so well – we’ve been winning all month – and then that happens. I thought we were on to something.” My wife sighed – she’d been here before. I was beating myself up again even though I had reason to do so, and it was up to her to inject an element of reason into my mind. “Owain, you were away at Liverpool. Aren’t they top of the table at the moment?” “I know, I know. We fought well. I mean, we fought very well. It’s just a shame about the rest of the 90 minutes.” “Your team went away, to New Anfield, and equalised not once but twice. I think, after winning for so long, you need to cut the guys some slack – they can’t give you more than they’re capable of every week. And you still didn’t lose!” “I know darling, I know. I can’t be hard on them – and in my defence, I didn’t tear into them afterwards. It’s just – we’ve dominated so much lately, and to have it happen to us for once makes me question everything all over again.” “Like what exactly?” “Whether I’m overly attacking, whether I’m inflexible, whether some of the players are good enough, whether we can ever take down the very top sides. You know, the usual.” The slight laugh was perhaps unfair, but it came out nevertheless. Rachel at least knew I was listening, but my own awareness of the situation wasn’t doing either of us any favours. “Owain, we’ve been through all this before. You know you aren’t thinking straight, you know you’re being too hard on yourself, and you know you need to pick yourself up before the next one. You’re in the Champions League places, and a month ago you were lamenting the fact that that was impossible. You’re going to drive yourself mad if you keep moving the goalposts – sometimes you’re going to have to be satisfied.” She wasn’t wrong, and we both knew it. We hadn’t set the world on fire on Merseyside, but twice we had put something together to pull ourselves back on level terms to cancel out goals from Pirulito and Stanojev. We’d been outshot 22-6 and thoroughly outplayed, but we’d still taken a point from the league leaders on an off-day. We were still unbeaten in 2028, and we were still in the top four. And yet. My mind couldn’t resist the temptation to dive into the dark spaces, and Rachel was doing her best to stop me taking the plunge wherever possible. Without her I’d have been swimming around in the gloom, and even if I did slip in from time to time, her influence was strong enough for me to stay conscious of the need to escape it. I continued to wrestle with my thoughts for a couple of days, but on the Staplewood training pitches, it was business as usual. By the time we hosted Fulham five days later, my focus was as clear as it had ever been. Life went on.
  14. With momentum under our belts, the Southampton train kept on rolling. As Krueger’s words of faith and hope continued to ring in my ears, so did the team he owned continue to do the business on the field. We were less than convincing in the FA Cup at Hull as we made our debut in this year’s competition, but Nestor Mina’s goal earned a heavily-rotated XI a 1-0 win and a date with another Championship side, QPR in the next round. After that, we finally returned home to St Mary’s, where we put on quite a show for the locals in a demolition of Stoke. We did not come through it without adversity – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain equalised Jacobson’s opening goal within a minute of the Welshman scoring, and Luke Shaw’s uncharacteristic lack of discipline saw us have to play out the final 35 minutes with just 10 men. Nevertheless, a Ross Ifan curler had us 2-1 up long before then, and the Potters were unable to cope even with 10 Saints, a short-handed brace from substitute Boyd Clarke earning us a 4-1 win and lifting us to 4th place – at least until the following day when we were knocking down once again. Four days later Clarke scored once again, this time grabbing the second goal in a routine 2-0 win over lowly Aston Villa. This time there would be no unnecessary drama, no goals conceded, and nothing hindering our route to three more points. A personal highlight was the first appearance in red and white of new signing Vandinho, who excelled in the absence of Shaw and reassured me of both his obvious potential and existing abilities. The Brazilian got the nod again at home to Spurs three days later, where we would go head to head with the Londoners with the winners securing or moving into the final Champions League spot. It was the first time in a while we had taken on a team from outside the lower reaches of the Premier League, but with Spurs facing problems in a key area, I had a plan. Injury and suspension had left our visitors in a spot of trouble in defence, and their solution was to place their faith in 17-year-old Rourke Griffiths in the right-back position. He had made a grand total of three substitute appearances for the first team in the past, and so my men were instructed in no uncertain terms to focus their attacks down the Irishman’s flank. Just 10 minutes in, Vandinho burst past him before providing a ball for Bright to tuck home, and in the second period we struck again down our left to seal the win. Luke Shaw, on as a substitute after his suspension, got into the penalty area, lost his man and smashed home a rebound 20 minutes from time. Job done, plan successful, and we were into the top four having completely outplayed one of our rivals for those spots. Not content with marching on in the Premier League, the cup also gave us an opportunity to give a chance to those on the fringes of the team. With QPR struggling at the wrong end of the Championship I felt confident enough to shuffle the pack significantly, and the backups delivered in front of a buoyant St Mary’s crowd. Jacobson continued his excellent record in the cups courtesy of a fine assist from debutant Dmitri Nikulin, and his goal came between a fizzing strike from Acuna and a first Southampton goal for young centre-back Lilian Bouillot from a late corner, sending us confidently into the last 16. The draw there was kind too – Middlesborough, battling for promotion from League One, would be our hosts, with a path to the quarter-finals seemingly within our grasp. Success, as they say, breeds success, and our first choice side were raring to go away at Watford. A mere six minutes was all it took for Jacobson, one of the few to retain their place from the cup game, to open the scoring, and from then on it was all one-way traffic. It seemed that our games these days were often feast or famine – either we dominated, scored early and won comfortably, or controlled play but struggled to break teams down – and this one was a curious mix of the two. Watford managed just three shots all game, but we had to wait until stoppage time to put the game to bed, Clarke hurling himself between two defenders to head home a second, ruling himself out for a couple of weeks in the process after landing awkwardly. His injury aside, life was suddenly looking very rosy for Southampton. After the Premier League approached two thirds of the way through, we were well placed to upset the apple cart and make real progress – progress I had deemed impossible not long ago. Liverpool were top of the table with 51 points from their 24 matches, but had played a full three matches more than Manchester City and had just a two-point lead. Our win over Watford had catapulted us to third with 48 points, one ahead of United albeit having played two more matches. We had two points on Spurs, sitting just outside the top four, and six and 10 respectively on Chelsea and Arsenal in pursuit. If we could maintain our position, it would be a remarkable achievement – and yet thanks to my boss’ backing, I had hopes of going even further.
  15. That conversation with Krueger had, I later realised, unleashed something within me that had always been there. The self-doubt and lack of confidence would always be there, but having a man of his stature effectively give me an ultimatum based on his belief in my abilities – it was exactly what I needed to hear. You are used to hearing it from loved ones – Rachel had never been anything less than an absolute rock in good years and bad – but it somehow becomes much easier to listen to the words come from someone more with a more ‘objective’ point of view. Of course, Krueger was not entirely objective, far from it – I had been his appointment, employed to best manage a valuable asset and ensure that it outperformed expectations. He was very much invested in my success, as it meant he too would benefit financially and reputationally, but he was far enough removed from my own emotional circles to give me the reinforcement I needed. I carried that belief into our next league game against Everton, another road trip against a basement dweller. Having fired up my men in the dressing room with an unusually charged team talk, we overcame an initial wave of attack from the Toffees to eventually take a grip on the match. As we took hold of possession, so our midfield line slowly advanced towards the home penalty area. As we took advantage of territory, so came the opening goal – a nonchalant swish of Adam Bright’s right boot lifting a curling strike into the far corner of the net to give us the lead. Just over 10 minutes later, on the very stroke of half-time, we doubled our advantage. Boyd Clarke had been dropped to the bench for a rest, and his replacement Callum Jacobson did his best to stake a claim for his regular spot. Bright was again involved, collecting Shaw’s pass and clipping a ball into the Welshman’s path for him to finish high into the top corner. A 2-0 lead at the interval was an excellent position for us to be in, and I was content in my side’s performance. I was even more content when we moved to the hour mark with the scoreline unchanged, and with Everton not particularly threatening. The relegation battlers had barely created a shot on target, and the only way they looked like getting back into the game was a Southampton error – which we duly delivered. Henrique was the guilty party, allowing a routine pass from midfield partner Woodward to slip under his foot, allowing the hosts to break from within our half. Ryan Jackson was first to the ball and wasted no time in playing through Victor Stang, who surprised Jack with an early strike that skidded its way beyond our goalkeeper to cut the deficit. From the restart Everton pressed immediately, and all of a sudden we had a fight on our hands. A fight that apparently, we didn’t want to win. With 10 minutes of the game remaining, our defenders fell asleep at a free-kick, allowing the aforementioned Jackson to sneak in round the back and prod home at the far post. We had blown a comfortable lead in just nine minutes, and unless we could get our act together quickly, had thrown away two precious points. Still emboldened by Krueger’s pep-talk, I threw caution to the wind and trusted my instinct. Clarke came on for the struggling Henrique, leaving our defence with a single shielding midfield player and three man in the box ahead of our two playmakers. We had less than 10 minutes to grab a goal, and everybody was instructed to go for it – we were no position to waste time. With Everton also believing they could get a third and complete the comeback, we were due a bout of end-to-end action, and suddenly the draw looked highly unlikely despite the scoreboard reading 2-2. It was almost the home side who stole it, Stang shooting from a similar position to the one from which he had found the back of the net. On this occasion however, we were indebted to our Scottish goalkeeper, whose full-stretch dive saw him tip the ball onto the post and into the grateful path of Acuna at right-back. As Goodison groaned, so our Paraguayan quickly made the transition from defence to attack, finding Woodward who fed a pass into Ifan 40 yards from goal. It would have taken something special to score from there, and I doubt it even crossed his mind. Instead he found Escalada dropping deep for a quick return ball, before slipping the ball to Bright on the right of the Everton area. A quick dummy shook off one of the two men marked him, before our opening goalscorer stabbed a cross into the centre of the box. Two defenders converged on the ball only for each to leave it to the other, and arriving to crash home the bouncing ball from eight yards out was none other than Callum Jacobson, claiming a brace for himself and all the points for his side. With just two minutes remaining there was no time for the Toffees to find another equaliser, and I raised my fist high in jubilation at the final whistle. We had played well, thrown everything away with a few moments of madness, and then found our resolve to fight back and claim a third. My own confidence, while obviously shaken by the two Everton goals, had held firm and been rewarded with the late winner, and we were up to 5th in the table. So much for feeling under threat.
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