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Back in Britain - Part III of the Owain Williams saga

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Ralph Krueger sat smiling next to me as the assembled press - a collection far greater than I had ever seen in Seattle, even for the Champions League final - took their seats. Some - those who had done their homework, began scribbling immediately as they recognised me, while others parked themselves with a far more neutral expression. To my knowledge, I was still unexpected, but was not causing uproar.

I was happy enough with that. Krueger, chairman of the board and representative of the majority-shareholding and largely-silent Liebherr family, was more than capable of holding a room even at 66, and began by once again placing ‘on the record’ his thanks to Dan Petrescu, whose parting gift before leaving for Leverkusen was that final day win over Newcastle and thereby Europa League qualification. He wished the Romanian the best of luck with his new endeavour, and insisted that he would always be welcome back at the club.

With a couple of questions taken - had there been a falling out over transfer policy? How hard had he personally tried to convince Petrescu to stay? - the focus switched to the main event. Which, not entirely comfortably, was me.

“Ladies and gentlemen, although we have lost a very good manager, I believe we have acted properly and swiftly to appoint one of the best in the business. Sitting to my left is man with six league titles to his name across three different countries, six domestic cup wins, and Champions League titles on two different continents. He is a man that I, and everybody else at this football club, can take to new heights. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the new manager of Southampton Football Club, Owain Williams.

There was a flashing of bulbs as Krueger rose, shook my hand, and presented me with the traditional club scarf for the cameras. After what seemed like an age, we sat back in our seats ready to take questions.

The first was for my new employer, and gave me a taste of what life was going to be like in England. I had, of course, never managed in the country before, and that was the line of questioning. Despite past successes, I was not part of the furniture, inexperienced at Premier League level and therefore immediately an outside with a point to make. Krueger straight-batted the issue with consummate ease, and then it was my turn.

Owain, do you feel ready to lead a club of Southampton’s size? This is quite a step up from the MLS.”

“I believe I am ready, otherwise I would not be sat here today. Seattle was an excellent place for me to grow as a manager, in the North American Champions League and MLS play-offs I was given a taste of the daily pressure of life in European leagues, and I enjoyed enough success to know I could test myself against the best. I’m very grateful to Mr Krueger and Southampton for showing faith in me to do just that.”

“It’s been several years since you managed in the British Isles - are you worried at all that the game will have changed too much for you to adapt to?”

“Not at all. Football is a universal sport, and the changes you’ve seen here in the UK have been felt in the US and in Australia before that. I’m very comfortable with the modern game, and pleased to have arrived at the pinnacle of it here in England.

Owain, the amount of money you now have at your disposal is considerably higher than you’ve experienced in two leagues with wage restrictions. How do you propose to use your transfer budget?”

“Obviously I’m not able to talk about specific players at the moment, but my approach to the transfer market will be the same as it always has been - with an emphasis on quality, youth and a strong core of home-grown players. I will be making changes, but I will not be going crazy just because the league is no longer limiting me.”

“Are you able to tell us how much you’ve been given to spend over the summer?”

“I'm not going to go into the specifics I'm afraid.”

“You arrive at Southampton after a successful season under Dan Petrescu, with Europe secured for next year. What would you consider to be the bare minimum for the upcoming campaign?”

At this point I glanced across to Krueger, who nodded sagely.

“When I interviewed for this job, one of the words that came up time and time again was development. That relates not just to our league position, but the entire football club, and so is difficult to define with a number. However, Mr Krueger and myself are both of the opinion that European football is something this club should be achieving on a regular basis, and that will be my immediate goal.”

Owain, the club have only given you a one-year contract. Do you feel a lack of confidence at all, and is that because of your background managing outside the Premier League?

Krueger stepped in to take the question.

“If I may - the board and I have no lack of confidence in Owain to deliver the results we are hoping for. Our last three managerial appointments have all followed the pattern of a short-term contract followed by a mid-season review, and we have no reason to expect anything else in Owain’s case. Lack of confidence is simply not an issue.”

Owain, one final question please. You arrive as the new manager of a successful, settled team. Presumably you will be bringing in some of your own staff with you, players will come and players will go. How do you bring a team together over a single summer and still finish in the upper reaches of the Premier League?

It was a very reasonable question, and a nice change from the 'inexperience' line.

“It won’t be easy, and I’m very aware of that. However, whilst there will be movement, everybody at the club will be given the chance to show me what they contribute. I’ve also had a very productive meeting with Terry McPhillips, who will be staying on as my assistant, and much of the coaching staff will stay too, at least in the initial period. Players are used to moving around these days, but keeping a core of the backroom team will provide the continuity we need to keep pushing forward. I have no desire to rip the heart out of a successful side.”

--
Welcome one and all to the third installment in my long-running Owain Williams story. If you aren't familiar with the characters and story involved, I would recommend reading Parts One and Two respectively, which will take you through from Owain's appointment as boss of Prestatyn Town in 2013 through to his latest move ahead of the 2026/27 campaign. This was all played out on FM14 so may throw up one or two game-based quirks, but otherwise I hope you enjoy the tale!

Edited by EvilDave

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Southampton's not the club I was expecting Owain to end up at, but I'm sure he'll enjoy plenty of success there.

As with the previous two chapters, I'll be following this one very closely. :thup:

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Ditto to what CFuller has said Dave, looking forward to further tales about Owain

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Owain crosses the border...my goodness me! What's a Welsh fan to do?

Good luck, Dave, looking forward to more great stuff from you.

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What price a European fixture with Prestatyn, or maybe The New Saints? 

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Thank you all for your kind words - it's quite exciting to have Owain back! And @neilhoskins77, I'd love a European reunion, we'll just have to see what the game throws up...
--

“Good morning Clint, how are you getting on? Enjoying my old shoes?”

As expected, Clint Dempsey had been named as my successor over in Seattle, swapping the front office for the dugout in his first managerial role. He had yet to play a competitive game - a huge amount of MLS games had been re-arranged thanks to the World Cup engulfing the nation - but was no doubt still getting to grips with a different pace of life.

“I won’t keep you any longer than I need to, because I know you’ll be rushed off your feet - I am, and it feels like I’ve only just landed. I don’t want to be one of those managers who rips his old club apart, but there is one man I want from you. Any guesses?”

“Can I take three - Perez, Rodriguez, Cho.”

“Third time’s the charm my friend. What’s the price?”

The South Korean playmaker had been a shining star in that Seattle squad ever since I brought him to the States, and I fully intended to make him my first signing for Southampton. He was the one player from that team I firmly believed would be able to make it in the Premier League - particularly as I intended to deploy the same 4-2-2-2 formation - and I suspected he would be keen to have a go. As a designated player, his rights were not owned by MLS itself, meaning Clint and his staff had the final say on price.

“I’ll tell you the same as I told Dortmund a couple of days ago. Eight figures, not a dollar less I’m afraid.”

I did the maths quickly in my head - $10m translated into roughly £6m which, assuming the usual monthly structures to these sorts of things, was well within the £25m+ budget I had been handed by Ralph Krueger. The downside, of course, was that Dortmund could offer Champions League football immediately. If he was to join us - and indeed me, which I hoped would appeal to him after our shared successes - we would need to move quickly, and sell him our vision perfectly.

Away from the club, Rachel and I were having to work hard to find the time to make our new house a home. Just a short journey away from St Mary’s in the luxurious village suburb of Chilworth to the north of the city - which counts none other than club legends Matt Le Tissier and Francis Benali and former residents - the property itself was absolutely stunning and surrounding by similarly luxurious homes - but it made making it feel like ours, rather than a showhome, all the more difficult.

Bethan and Rebecca had both been given places at a highly-rated school a short bus journey further north in Romsey, and although there were only five weeks left of the summer term, were already being introduced to their classmates and teachers. The plan there was for them to join in fully for the final three weeks, spending the two before on a reduced programme of classes so as not to overwhelm them. Rebecca in particular was very pleased with this arrangement as it meant more time in her new room at home, and it was a major concern alleviated. We had only met the headmaster and the two girls’ class tutors, but we could already see why places at the school were so sought after.  

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"Deuce" drives a hard bargain, I see. Good luck getting Cho to follow you to England!

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Indeed he does - it would have been nice to get 'mate's rates,' but I guess Seattle need him as much as Owain's Saints!
--

A similarly-craved commodity, or so it seemed, was Cho Jin-Ho, whose agent had made his client’s demands very clear. We had met them, but also putting in offers for consideration were not only Dortmund, but also Schalke and Italian side Napoli. All three offered continental football - Schalke the only one of the trio not in the Champions League, and when we looked at the quartet of teams in the race, it was very difficult not to put ourselves bottom of the pile.

Ultimately, that was how it turned out. Napoli won the race for the Korean star, the lure of challenging for Serie A honours as well as competing at Europe’s top table proving a more appealing challenge than reuniting with his former boss on England’s South Coast. I called my old maestro to let him know there were no hard feelings - I suspect his agent had made the majority of the decision - and to wish him all the best over in Italy. My first signing then, would not be someone I had worked with before.

The attacking midfield area was one that I still intended to bolster during the transfer window and, after meeting with Terry McPhillips and the scouts, it was by no means the only one. The squad which Dan Petrescu had left behind was one strong in certain areas but dangerously thin in others, and by changing to my preferred tactical system they would quickly needed to be addressed.

Between the posts, we would be alright for the time being. Starting for us the majority of the time would be Scottish international Hamish Jack who, at 27, still had plenty of time left in his career. If we were to reach the very top of the Premier League we would perhaps look to upgrade, but for our current level he was highly competent. The same could not necessarily be said for his backup, Jason Taylor, but he was unlikely to see any significant time on the field.

At right-back, we were also blessed with a strong first choice. In fact, to describe Kenan Kus as strong would be an understatement - he was genuinely one of the best in the world in his position. At just 24 years old the Dutchman had both time and potential to get even better, but the fact that the tabloids were reporting £40m interest from the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid told you just how good he was. Pace, positioning, defensive steel and attacking threat - he really did have it all, and would be the first name on my teamsheet.

That meant less time for another man of Turkish descent, England under-21 international Alisan Toc, and also 26-year-old Constantino Moretti. The Italian was a solid defender capable of playing all across the back four, but he was not particularly happy playing second choice, and with interest from his homeland he was already looking for a way away from St Mary’s.

Left-back was a less clear-cut proposition. On the one hand, Austrian veteran Ylli Salahi was the club captain, had been a Saint for a decade, and was revered by the fans. One the other, he was just a couple of months shy of his 33rd birthday, rapidly losing the pace so essential for a modern full-back, and being paid £80,000 each week for the privilege. His future would be the subject of one of my first big decisions in Southampton, and would no doubt have an impact on the career of Danny Cavill, the 25-year-old waiting patiently in the wings for the chance to show off his own set of skills.

That left the centre-backs, with four players fighting for game time. Of the four, the man most in danger of being moved on to pastures new was 34-year old Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, the ageing Frenchman simply no longer good enough to compete physically in the English league. After that, any two from the three of Japanese international Kenji Nishiwaki at 22, 24-year-old Aswad Payne and the eldest of the three at 28, Mile Jovanovski of Macedonia. All three were more than capable of protecting our goal, with young Nishiwaki probably having the edge over his team-mates in terms of raw talent. If we could keep hold of him, we would be well served for years to come.

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Eventually, having decided that we just didn’t have the time to do it ourselves, Rachel and I called in the painters and decorators. The new home was simply too big for us to do the hard graft ourselves, and so one of the first uses for my newly-inflated payslip was to fork out for the professionals to do it for us. As you might expect for such an impressive property there was no structural work that needed doing, but the sheer amount of walls and ceilings meant it would take us weeks to give everything the necessary coverage of paint. For the professionals, it would take a couple of days, and we didn’t need to be around.

For Bethan, the re-decoration was an adventure. For the first time she was old enough to have a say in how she wanted her room to look, and she simply relished the idea of flicking through countless colour charts, browsing catalogues for furniture and picking her own bedding. In the end we had to hurry her up to make sure everything was ready at the same time, but she was thrilled with the result - a surprisingly tasteful pastel yellow that lit up the entire room when the afternoon sun beamed in through the windows. I was less enamoured with her pink bedsheets, but for a 10-year-old she hadn’t done badly.

Back at the football club, I was continuing my evaluation of the squad I had inherited. As in Seattle, I intended to utilise two midfield players as a screen ahead of the defensive, one to drop deep and distribute, and a second to break up opposition attacks. In which case, we were blessed with the presence of Alejandro, the former Sevilla man capable of spreading the ball across the park from range, and Sebastian Forsberg, the 26-year-old Swede who played like a terrier in the centre of the park and would add a huge amount of bite to our play.

Behind them and full of potential was Egyptian international Emad Hossam, who had already racked up 35 international caps despite being just 22 years of age. Fourth choice, and like Isimat-Mirin before him most likely on the way out of the club, was long-time servant Saphir Taider. A fine player in his day and handsomely rewarded as a consequence, he was now 34 and not able to cope with the pace of the Premier League.

Another group of players who would be prime candidates for transfer were the bunch of wingers left behind by Petrescu. My box midfield did not, of course, utilise wideman, and so unless they were able to transfer their talents infield, would likely find themselves out the door.

The sad thing about that fact was the obvious talent present in one or two of the group. Our only out-and-out flyer on the right, Japanese starlet Shingo Terakawa, was the subject of interest from around Europe and deservedly so, but his poor finishing and reliance on his pace and crossing ability meant his talents would best serve our bank balance rather than our performances. On the left, there was hope for Michael Faure - our 24-year-old Frenchman attracting interest from three Italian sides - due to his ability to play behind the strikers, and veteran Spaniard Peio Salinas - who doubled up as a striker - but for Steve Phillips, a man useful exclusively down the flank, his days seemed somewhat numbered.

My first transfer negotiation out of the club would in fact feature one of our wingers, with Valencia expressing an interest in taking Terakawa to Spain. Given that he would be unlikely to feature in our first-team, and the fact that we were being offered roughly half as much again as we assumed him to be worth in the market - and no less than half of any future transfer fee after negotiation - I, with the agreement of Terry McPhillips, was happy to allow one of our two Japanese international to open contract talks with his suitors. The money coming in would certainly help us in our recruitment drive.

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Even our acceptance of a transfer bid warranted an interview request from Sky Sports News, such was the obsession with the national game which engulfed England - and this despite the fact that the national side was just two days away from its first match at the American World Cup. Why, the interviewer demanded to know, had I been willing to let Terekawa talk to Valencia?

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” I began, lying to lessen the impact on the player - he might, after all, choose to stay. “Shingo is an excellent player and obviously Valencia recognise that, but there are a couple of other factors in play here.

“The first is purely financial. It’s not my business to disclose the figures involved, but Valencia’s offer is a generous one which will benefit Southampton both now and in the future. Football clubs are businesses, as much as we don’t like it, and we have to consider things beyond the present.

“Second is our tactical system. Shingo is a brilliant winger, but after reviewing the entire squad it seems unlikely that we would be using that kind of player. It would be unfair of us to keep him and sit him on the bench, he’s a footballer and needs to be playing. He’ll have the opportunity to do that in Spain if he chooses to move, and I’d wish him very well if he elects to do that.”

It was not a distraction I particularly needed, especially as I was still attempting to get to the bottom of my squad. Having dealt with the defence and the majority of the midfielders, I was now attempting to evaluate the attacking players in our ranks ahead of the Premier League season. With many of them away on holiday or international duty at the World Cup, I was relying heavily on a two-pronged attack of video footage and statistical analysis. Hopefully, it would work itself out in the end.

Two men who I sincerely hoped would be going nowhere were the attacking midfield duo of Adam Bright and Gidon Cohen. Not only were they the only two senior players capable of playing the creative roles behind the strikers, they were also incredibly gifted. Cohen, the 22-year-old star of Israel’s national team, possessed lightning pace and a keen eye for a killer ball. Bright, an England international at the same tender age as his colleague, was missing the World Cup through injury but had all the qualities to become a real legend at St Mary’s - goals, assists, a grafter’s work ethic and a childish joy to his game that endeared him to the fans. Arsenal were sniffing around, but it would take a huge sum to prise him away from us. We would need support in his position, but our starting point was strong.

Spearheading our attack would be Ecuadorian frontman Nestor Mina, who was hitting his peak at 27. Powerful, strong in the air but perhaps lacking a touch of pace, he would be a fine foil for a pacier partner. Ciro Mangini would not be that man - the Italian was 29, far from prolific, and wanted by a host of teams lower down the league than ourselves. Homegrown youngster Adam Roberts and Welsh teenager Jeff Rowbotham both had potential in bucketloads, but we would need to bring in at least one more body up front if we were to make sure we had enough firepower to compete on multiple fronts.

With the seniors finally sorted through and assigned to various mental groups - starters, rotation squad members, promising youngsters and those up for sale - I could finally begin the process of making moves on transfer targets. There were no areas we would categorically not be looking to strengthen if the right man became available, but there were enough areas of concern - up front, attacking midfield, left back - to make June a very busy month for a new manager. Southampton would see plenty of changes, and I only hoped they would come off.

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The first change involved two Italians. June 6th was the date of my first official transfer as Saints boss, which I didn’t think was too bad for somebody in the job less than a week - the advance meeting with the scouts in London really had paid dividends.

Right-back had been one of the areas that I had given a secondary importance - behind Kus, any signing was going to be a back-up, but with Moretti attracting interest and a reasonable fee, and young Alisan Toc looking more suited to a lower-level loan move at this stage in his career, I decided to pull the trigger on a Bosman transfer which I was surprised by the availability of. Davide Canini, a man who at 27 was at the peak of his career with AC Milan, had not had his contract renewed by the Rossoneri - thanks mainly to their other world-class option on the right of defence - and so was free to join us at the start of July. Canini was not quite at that level, but would be a capable reserve and, at just £50,000 each week - a huge amount by my old Sounders standards but very affordable in the Premier League - he was not going to bankrupt the club.

The second Italian was one Ciro Mangini, who had failed to impress me with either his statistics or his video reports. He had joined the club two years ago, and in that time managed just 23 games and a measly two goals. I initially thought I was being harsh on the man but, when we offered him around and only Burnley came back with an offer, I found my thinking justified. Just under £3m was deposited in our account, and we were a striker lighter than the day before. Another reason to keep the scouts busy.

Four days later, we lost another man. Terakawa had spent a good deal of time negotiating personal terms with Valencia, but eventually had agreed a contract with the Spanish giants, and rang personally from the Japanese squad over in the US to thank me for the opportunity and inform me of his decision - an act which almost made me regret the move to sell him. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter was that we would receive £12m for a player who was unlikely to fit into our tactical system, plus half of any subsequent fee. It was a simple decision in the end.

Amidst all the transfer madness, I also got together with Terry McPhillips to figure out the way forward with our pre-season friendlies. With a whole new tactical set-up to install, and more likely a lot several new players to integrate into side after the World Cup, we eventually landed on the idea, very familiar to me from my previous clubs, of utilising the multitude of local amateur and semi-pro to try and drill the squad.

The difference with Southampton was that, rather than playing five or six matches as I had done over in Seattle, we would give ourselves a game every two or three days against as many as 12 different clubs from in and around Hampshire - even including a trip to the Isle of Wight to take on Cowes. Of course, I had no intention of running my players into the ground before the season even started, so many of those matches who involve a mix of senior and youth team players, but we in the end we both agreed it was the only way to truly blend the side together in time.

What that squad would eventually look like, I still didn’t know. Although I had my ideas, much of it depending on our ability to negotiate with players and clubs alike, and the acceptability or otherwise of offers coming in for our own players.

For example, I had not reckoned on Tottenham opening the bidding for Nishiwaki, the second of our two Japanese internationals. Their initial bid came in at £13m for arguably our most capable centre-back. I had no desire to lose him, less so to a team in our area of the league, but I was also keenly aware of the need to rebuild the squad, of the cash to do so. After some deliberation, I got back to Ralph Krueger with a figure I thought was more reasonable - £22m, plus half of his next move - and awaited their response.

The very same day - a particularly busy one - I received news from my chairman that my bid on one of my shortlisted players had been accepted by Real Madrid, and the player himself had decided to speak to me directly rather than through an agent. I smiled at the news - I suspected it would be an easy sell.

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“You may have guessed this from my calling you, Mr Williams, but I’m very keen on the idea. It will obviously mean a big change for my family and I’m aware you can’t pay me what I earn here, but I’m afraid it will be money that decides it. I need to be open about that.”

I was glad of the honesty - a trait all too rare in the modern footballer - but remained convinced that I would have my man. It would cost us, but with the transfer fee a relatively low one at £5m, I had room to manoeuvre on the wage front.

“What do you make at Real, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Before tax? £135k in real money.”

“And you’d be looking for?”

“Good question. Anywhere else, I’d want to match that. Because it’s Southampton, because it’s St Mary’s - £120k would do it.”

Ah. That was higher than I had hoped. Quite a bit higher, in actual fact. Still, I wasn’t prepared to let my top defensive target get away that easily.

“You’ve been honest with me, so let me be honest with you Luke - I can’t offer you that. I can’t offer you that for two reasons - the first is that the board won’t let me, and the second is that even if I could, I’d have every player in the squad coming to me and asking for a new deal, do you understand?”

The silence suggested he wanted me to continue.

“What I can do is offer to make you the highest-paid player at the club, alongside Kenan. I don’t know how that sounds to you, but to me it sounds like the two full-backs, the two first names on the teamsheet, the two top earners, the two fan favourites. I can sort out extras and bonuses with your agent as well, so it won’t be £100k flat. What do you think?”

He paused.

“I think I’m 30 years old, I think my current club is accepting bids for me, and I think the club it all started is offering me a way back to Premier League football. I also think my wife might just want to come home too. I think you’ve got me, Mr Williams. When do you want me over?”

I punched the air with my left hand, trying to keep my right steady as it held the phone. For just £5m, I had secured the signature of one of England’s finest defenders, and a fan favourite to boot. Luke Shaw, after years away with Spurs and Real, was coming back to Southampton.

“That’s excellent news Luke, I’m sure you won’t regret the decision. If you could give me your agent’s details I’ll iron things out, we can have the contracts signed tonight, and if you’re happy we can put you on the first flight out of Madrid in the morning. It’d be good to get the press stuff sorted out before you actually move if that’s OK?”

“Of course, sounds like a plan. My agent is here with me now - I’ll pass you over.”

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As I had both expected and hoped, the press loved the Shaw deal. It was the story they wanted - the former Galactico returning to his boyhood club - combined with the new manager making his mark on the club. Some pitched it as a move to appease the fans, some of whom had expected a higher-profile appointment, others wrote it up as a work of genius on my part, but everybody covered it. The unveiling was, despite the World Cup going on across the Atlantic, very well attended indeed.

Owain, what was it about Luke that made you move so quickly for him?”

An easy one to start.

“I think anyone who has ever seen Luke play can answer that - he’s one of the finest left-backs this country has ever produced. He’s a brilliant defender, offers a great deal of threat going forward, and comes with more than a decade of top level experience that he can share with the rest of the squad. He was always the ideal signing in my mind.”

“Did you consider the fans’ reaction to the deal?”

“Of course - I would never sign a player that the fans directly opposed. But in Luke’s case that was always secondary - I’m sure the Saints fans will welcome him back with open arms. I’m sure he won’t mind me telling you this, but one of the things that helped convince him come back was the passion he remembered from his last time at St Mary’s and the support they give the team, so in many ways they’ve helped seal this transfer.”

“Why do you think Real Madrid were so willing to sell to you?”

Real Madrid are a huge club, arguably the biggest in the world, and they can buy any player they lay their eyes on. They often do, and we’ve seen that with their spending this summer. Their manager is under pressure to sign big names, and when you do that, other players get pushed out. As far as I’m concerned it says nothing about Luke’s ability.”

“And can we expect to see other players coming in the days ahead?”

“I can’t give you any details, but there will be others arriving over the summer, yes.”

The media turned their attention to Shaw, who to this point had simply posed with the shirt and had his picture taken.

Luke, welcome back to Southampton. This must be a little strange for you, being back here?”

“I’m not sure strange is the word, but it’s been a long time and I’m not sure I ever expected it. When Mr Williams here gave me the call though, I was very excited to come back.”

“Do you not feel it was the easy way out for you? Faced with competition at Real, you run to a club where, in the fans’ eyes at least, you can do no wrong?”

Shaw’s brows furrowed.

“I’m not sure that’s fair to me or Southampton. I spent six brilliant years in Madrid, but at this point in your career you have to be looking for first-team football otherwise your body will give up. I had every opportunity to do that at Real - I started more games than not last season - but when your first club comes calling you don’t say no. Mr Williams gave me a vision of a club on the up, and that’s something I’m keen to be a part of.”

“You’re the first signing of many if your manager is to be believed - does that put you off at all coming into such an uncertain environment?”

“No, it doesn’t. As I’ve just said, I believe in the direction the club is going, and I trust the boss to make that happen whoever my team-mates are.”

“Finally Luke, what do think your England chances are like now you’re back in the Premier League?

“That’s not at the front of my mind at the moment, but of course I’d love to keep going for England. Being in the country and in front of the management team every week will help, but there are plenty of options so it’ll be up to Neil Lennon as to who gets the nod.”

Shaw had done well, and after a few more photographs I told him so. He was understandably a little frustrated at the negativity coming from the press, but I already knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t let it get to him. I had a fine defender on the books, and it was a good feeling.

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June 17th 2026 will forever be remembered as one of the busiest days of my life. When I arrived home at around 10pm, Rachel embraced me as a lost child. I had been in touch with her throughout the day, letting her know exactly when I was expecting to be back, but even that didn’t do anything about the fact that I was worked a ridiculous number of hours and missed my family. I would operate from home the next day.

It started with a confirmation of the Terakawa deal, our Japanese winger formally moving to Valencia for £12m at the opening of the Spanish transfer window, and giving my transfer fund a handy boost ahead of silly season. Looking at his highlight reel, Terakawa had been an excellent player for the Saints, but the statistics told another story - 68 games, eight goals and just five assists for a flying winger. Perhaps he would be better off in Spain.

Next came bad news - 15-year-old striker Liam Williamson, identified by my scouts as probably the most talented young forward in England, turned us down. Our bid of £1.5m had been reluctantly accepted by Crystal Palace, but so had corresponding offers from Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle. In the end, the teenager had plumped to stay in London, and his signature slipped from our fingers. We would have to be quicker next time.

Next, a call from Ralph Krueger, and a very pleasant one. The news, straight from the early-morning board meeting, was that there had been a unanimous agreement to improve the club’s facilities, and an investment of no less than £5m would be made in both the first-team and academy set-ups. Krueger assured me that there would next to no disruption at Staplewood, and that I would simply be able to enjoy the advantage of improved facilities in just over a year. That was a long time to wait for anything, but I was not about to look such a gift horse in the mouth.

Bad news followed good. Tottenham had been back in touch, and incredibly they were willing they were willing to meet my somewhat ambitious asking price on Nishikawa, meaning we faced the prospect of losing both of our Japanese internationals. Indeed, not only did we end up losing them both, we ending up losing them both on the same day. My last phonecall of the day was from Nishikawa’s agent, confirmed that the paperwork from Spurs was on its way, personal terms had been agreed, and if I could add my own signature they would take care of things with the FA. It had been very, very quick, and I wondered how much contact there had been before the green light from myself.

Having received the best part of £35m in a single day, we then proceeded to go and spend almost all of it within the same 24 hours. Sky Sports News had practically send up camp outside Staplewood by the time I managed to shove a sandwich down my throat for lunch, and from what Rachel told me when I got home, the official fans’ forum online was going wild with a mixture of anger, excitement and confusion as the news filtered through.

The biggest, and arguably most important of the signings, particularly given Nishikawa’s unexpected departure, was that of Leighton Hodge. Such was his importance that his agent too insisted on the six-figure salary that was quickly becoming a feature of my defensive line. At 25 years old, Hodge had been a mainstay of the Swansea side that was now firmly cemented in midtable, a rock at the heart of their notoriously-mean defence, and now he was a Saint.

He had not come cheap - as well as taking home £100k each week, he would set us back a cool £21m over the next four years, with around £4m of the fee dependent on his performances, and made him one of the most expensive Welshmen of all time. My compatriot already had plenty of international caps, and personally I hoped that, under my tutelage, he would be able to lead the Dragons to further success.

As we parted with two Japanese stars, so we ended the day with two more Welshmen. Having already sealed the Hodge deal, just two hours later I was able to send details to the FA of a second of my countrymen. Of the three signings that June 17th brought with it, this was the one that caught the attention of most of our fans.

Perhaps it was because we won the battle against Arsenal, who had made their admiration known, or perhaps it was simply because the average supporter cares far more about attacking players than defensive reinforcement. Either way, Ross Ifan, a wonderfully creative player at home behind the strikers, would be an excellent addition to our first-team squad, and at just £8m from Celtic was an absolute bargain. The 25-year-old’s wage demands were somewhat more moderate than his compatriot’s - perhaps a due to the relative poverty of the Scottish leagues compared to the English top flight - at £60k per week, and both our Welsh contingent and starting line-up was coming together.

The cheapest of the three at a mere £2.8m from boyhood club Sao Paulo was holding midfielder and part-time centre-back Carlos Henrique. And, if my scout’s reports were anything to go by, we had an absolute steal on our hands. One of the fittest players I had ever seen, Henrique could run box-to-box for 90 minutes and more, had the strength to match his impressive stamina, and could time a tackle with the best of them. He would be the perfect man to shield our back four, and at just 21 years old, we may just have solved our problem for the next decade. Of all the deals done on that manic day, his was the one I was most pleased with.

Three in, two out, and an upgrade to our training facilities made for an interesting day, a long day, and a shattering one. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep, but in the brief reflection I did manage, it had been a very good one.

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The next week, mercifully, was somewhat less chaotic. There was still player movement, but nothing like the mayhem of that first day of transfer madness. I was actually able to spend some time with Rachel in the midst of all the movements, and as the summer began to arrive - June thus far had been horribly wet - we were able to enjoy the local area as a family, Bethan and Rebecca exploring our local park with some gusto.

In that week, we saw four players move on from St Mary’s - two temporarily and two for good. For the next seven months, Steve Phillips and Adam Roberts would ply their trade in the Championship with Hull and Aston Villa respectively, hopefully getting a taste of first-team football and developing into young men who could do a job in our first team.

The more permanent farewells, however, were harder. Neither Saphir Taider nor Nicolas Isimat-Marin had done anything wrong as such, but they were at the wrong end of their careers and were taking home a not insignificant amount home each week in wages. Ralph Krueger had given me the go-ahead to move the pair on, and when there were no takers - even on a free transfer, which surprised me - he took the step of cancelling their contracts and releasing them back into the marketplace.

The reactions of the two could not have been more different. Our French defender, for the last four years little more than a backup player, was not happy. He didn’t speak to me directly, but our chairman informed me that he had been accused of ruining Nicolas’ family, of breaking his son’s heart and of ending his career. I expected a full-length revenge interview in something like L’Equipe, but it never came. Perhaps he realised he was not doing his future employment prospects any favours.

On the other hand, Taider seemed almost liberated by the decision. Even at 34, he was a key part of the Algeria squad which, over in the USA, had defied the odds to not only make it out of the group stage but then upset Turkey to progress to the quarter-finals. Ever the professional, Saphir copied me in on a message to the chairman, thanking us for removing the uncertainty from his mind and allowing him to focus on his national team. He would line up against Russia in the next round and would likely see his World Cup end there, but I admired his drive to win.

There would be one more deal to be done in the final week of June, with us arranging a deal with Mexican side Atlas to bring teenage holding man Jorge Romo to the club on his 18th birthday. In the climate of the day, £1.8m hardly represented a gamble on a player who looked like he had huge potential to grow into, and Romo himself had jumped at the chance to move to Europe so early in his career. Our youth coaches would take good care of him, I was sure.

There were still plenty more irons in the fire, but with three days between the Romo deal and my first match in charge of the club - a low-key trip to Luton without any of our World Cup stars - there was finally an opportunity to take a day away from the office. Terry McPhillips was handed the emergency phone for the day and told to get away from the place as well, and Rachel and I even managed to find a quiet little restaurant to enjoy lunch together with the girls at school. I wasn’t even that well recognised at this stage.

By the time we had finished and left for home, I had a far greater idea of Rachel’s own hopes and dreams for life in Hampshire. At 44 she still felt she was far too young to consider the life of luxury as an option - even though my first month in the new job would have set us up nicely for a long time to come. But at the same time, the idea of rushing out into the world of work again, leaving the kids to fend for themselves on occasion, simply didn’t appeal.

So, she was planning on taking the most logical path in her eyes - getting more involved with the school up in Romsey, and getting herself stuck in with a local social enterprise that aimed to teach basic English to newly-arrived asylum seekers. She had made a few enquiries into entry-level teaching courses, and expected she could effectively volunteer as a part-time job, giving her the flexibility to make sure she could spend time at home and with the girls as necessary.

Despite having been married some 17 years, I could not help admire the size of my wife’s heart. First and foremost, she was a mother, and Bethan and Rebecca occupied top priority whatever she was doing. And yet, despite our bank balance being able to fund the girls for their entire lives, yet alone ourselves, her sense of responsibility and determination to help people meant she couldn’t simply do nothing. She was prepared to give up her own leisure for the sake of others she hadn’t yet met and shared nothing in common with, and I couldn’t help but love her all the more for it.

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Kenilworth Road is perhaps not the venue every football manager dreams of visiting, nor is it necessarily the place you would expect to begin life as a Premier League boss, but for me it was certainly the latter. The first friendly match of a long pre-season would be round the top of the M25 in Bedfordshire, in a town many regard as one of the UK’s least attractive. Short of being the gateway to Eastern Europe courtesy of Ryanair, Luton does not have an awful lot going for it.

Nevertheless, as I took my place in the dugout for my first game as Saints manager, I felt nervous. Not necessarily nervous at the prospect of losing to a League Two side - embarrassing though it would be, we were fielding a team with an average age of 22 - but simply nervous at stepping up, at owning the position I had been entrusted with. Of living up to Krueger’s faith.

Those nerves were settled as early as the sixth minute, a decent crowd in the stadium watching on as Alisan Toc floated a cross from the right onto the head of Nestor Mina, who made no mistake with the finish from 10 yards out. The handful of travelling away fans applauded enthusiastically as our Ecuadorian striker trotted back to the halfway line for kick-off, and in a 120-year-old stadium in the shadow of the UK’s fifth-busiest airport, the Owain Williams era at Southampton was underway.

Mina’s goal remained the difference at the break as my side adapted to the midfield box formation, and a raft of half-time substitutions - allowing me to get a closer look at some of the youth players I had inherited - meant the second period was a little more disjointed. It was one of the replacement, Romanian teenager Dan Cosma, who shone in the second period, supplying the passes for Mina’s second and third goals, and I made a mental note to keep an eye on him in the future. A left winger by trade, he had excelled behind the strikers, and I wondered whether his future might lie in the attacking midfield position.

The score at 3-0 the final whistle blew, and I shook hands heartily with my opposite number. Steve Mildenhall’s side had given him no reason to be either angry or upset, and had put on a reasonable showing against a club three divisions higher than them. I told him as much, he wished me well for the rest of the season, and we got out of Luton as quickly as we could.

The press were, of course, waiting back at St Mary’s, although this time it was a single reporter from the local Daily Echo. Ryan Taggart was the man tasked with getting a few lines for the next morning’s edition, and for once I was faced with a journalist who wasn’t determined to drag me through the mud. As such, I gave him my time.

The next day’s back page led with ‘Williams: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,’ which while a little bit over the top, was followed by an accurate write-up of our little interview. It was good to kick things off with a win, Mina and Cosma looked sharp, we’d be better once we’d bedded in the new system, and I was still working on more new signings. Nothing earth-shattering, but Ryan had done a good job and hadn’t tried to twist my words. I made a note to tell the press office to take it easy on him.

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“It’s an awful lot of money for two teenagers, isn’t it Owain? I don’t want to stand in your way, but you need to be sure of these two.”

Ralph Krueger was understandably concerned given the numbers involved. At the end of the first week in July, I was asked him to sign off on the best part of £10m to sign two teenagers who between them had made just six senior appearances. Yet, I was convinced they would be worth it.

The bulk of the cash would be spent on Welsh 16-year-old Lloyd Collins, who had come through the system at Blackburn. Oozing with talent at such a young age, he was already perfectly happy either behind the strikers or leading the line, and his vision alone made him a very exciting prospect. The fact that he would add to our Welsh contingent did him no harm in my eyes either.

The remaining £3m would be spent on the slightly older Lilian Bouillot of Monaco, who was both fed up of waiting to break into the first team in the principality and seeking to increase the size of his paycheck. A strong centre-back, physically imposing and happy with the ball at the his feet, I expected he would develop into a top-level defender.

My reassurances meant that the chairman was happy to sign the deals off, and although both deals would be staggered to soften the immediate blow, they would take a decent chunk out of my budget. The need for further reinforcement was emphasised when another mixed line-up struggled past non-league Barnet in my second game in charge, and I was left waiting to see how else I would be able to raise funds for further moves.

Before anyone else joined us however, we would wave a temporary goodbye to three more of our young talents. Alisan Toc, Danny Wilson and Matthew Piggott also made their way away on loan for the season, setting up camp in Huddersfield, Hull and Hillsborough respectively for the upcoming Championship season. I wished them all well, and had genuine high hopes for the first two of the three. Piggott, I believed, was at his natural level with Wednesday.

Away from the club, Rachel had already found a teaching course to enrol on, bypassing the local college route and finding a private tutor who promised to qualify her as a TESOL teacher within a month. There were only four others in her class, and if she took to it in the same way she had to the MBA, I had no doubt that it would not be long before she was discussing verb conjugations and conditional clauses with people from all over the world.

She seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of giving something back to the local community, and while there weren’t too many in the Chilworth area that I could imagine being pleased with visiting asylum seeker, Rachel had visions of developing close friendships and introducing some of her students to the family if things worked out. Thankfully, she took my joke about me having work permit problems in good heart - it seemed she was putting a lot of mental energy into her latest venture.

The timing worked too - the girls were a week away from the school holidays, which seemed strange given that we had only just landed in Southampton, and with pre-season kicking in, Rachel would have her hands full. I would try and do my part, in part by sending Terry McPhillips away with the team to some of the smaller friendlies, but I would be a very busy man, and my wife knew it. She was happy with it too, which meant a lot.

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The players who had already returned from the World Cup were called into Staplewood to watch the final. Not just because I felt the need to actually meet with some of the players I had yet to introduce myself to, but because Southampton had a representative in the biggest match in world football.

Michael Faure had missed out on the French squad to go to the States, but would be cheering on his team-mates from the South Coast as they headed out at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. For everybody else in the training, their support would be firmly with the underdog in what was one of the biggest stories in the modern era. Against all the odds, despite being faced with Turkey, Russia and Italy in the knock-out rounds, Saphir Taider’s Algeria had reached the World Cup final.

Of course, Taider was officially no longer a Saint after the mutual termination of his contract, but after a decade at the club he was very much part of the family, and the very fact it was Algeria that had made it to the final made it easy for us to give him our support. There were plenty of plotlines to keep the journalists writing - not least the colonial history between the two sides - but an Algerian victory would be one of the biggest upsets in sporting history.

Sadly, it was not to be, and Faure was the one celebrating at the full-time whistle after a comprehensive 3-0 drubbing of the North African side. A day later - and in a completely unrelated development - the same man would find himself out of the club and indeed the country, Milan placing a simply bid we simply could not reject for a player who fitted into our system only in his secondary position. For £20m plus clauses, he was very welcome to discuss terms.

The following day, by search for funds was over - as well as Faure’s fee hitting our bank account, we collecting another £10m with the sales of Chris Alexander - an unimpressive young winger who managed to draw interest from Nottingham Forest - and Constantino Moretti, who was bound for to join Cho Jin-Ho at Napoli. Neither would be a huge miss to use, and the money was very welcome.

It also meant that I had a significant amount remaining in the transfer kitty, and so my scouts were now given specific instructions to be more demanding in their assessments. We could afford to be a bit more picky, a little more exacting in our search for new players. If we wanted to be competing at the top end of the Premier League, we needed the best. Now, we had the money to go out and get them.

As if to prove that point, we were informed by UEFA - at such an early stage club dignitaries are not even invited to the draw - that our opponents for the third round of Europa League qualifying had been decided. Instead of the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus - the sides some of our departing players would be facing this season - we would be bidding to battle our way past Danish side Brondby and reach the play-off for the group stages. It was not glamorous, and we would need to work to make it to the top.

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I smiled as I pulled my phone out of my pocket. It was Terry McPhillips, reporting back on the latest friendly - his first in complete control - away at Romsey Town, the tiny amateur outfit from the village Bethan and Rebecca went to school in. I’d asked him to send me a summary of events, and the fact that his message contained just four characters told me everything I needed to know. ‘11-0’ was all Terry had to tell me, and I was more than satisfied that even my mixed-up squads were more than enough to overcome local Sunday league clubs.

But we had far more work to do if we wanted to make progress in both Europe and the Premier League, and I had been working through the day to bring in backup. It arrived too - in the form of Marc Holland and John Ruane, a double English signing currying favour with the press as well as improving our depth.

Marc was a goalkeeper, itching to get his chance after an entire career waiting for Thibaut Courtois to get injured at Chelsea. Now 24 and with just a handful of senior appearances to his name, he was available on a free transfer and would fulfil a mostly similar role at St Mary’s. I had every faith in Hamish Jack to remain our number one between the sticks, but Holland was told he would be given the cup games, and he was happy simply to be assured of some first-team action.

Similarly, John Ruane. He had cost us a fee - roughly £6m from champions Manchester City, where he had never made it near the starting line-up - but would again have to be happy with taking up a largely back-up role at first. Still, at just 21 he had time on his side, and my scouts had seen in Ruane the potential to be something special if the stars aligned. He would not solve our striking problems, nor would his signing particularly excite the fans, but he would do a job for now and a more important in the future.

Both men went straight into the line-up for Terry’s next friendly, and John got himself on the scoresheet twice in a 7-0 crushing of another amateur outfit in Totton & Eling. Linked to Marc’s arrival, gameday also saw my first transfer request - now third-choice goalkeeper Jason Taylor suggesting that he would be unhappy sitting so low down the pecking order. It was a fair request to make - I had no desire to ruin the man’s career - and so I accepted his wishes, offering him around to a number of clubs I was led to believe might be looking for a goalkeeper.

Two days later, his bags were packed for Yeovil, and we had £700k more in the kitty and were a goalkeeper lighter. Just a week out from our first leg against Brondby, there was still plenty of work to be done, but I was at least feeling confident that we would have enough for the Danish side.

“How disappointed will you be if you don’t make it to the groups?”

As ever, my wife was both optimistic and confident in my ability to take a hit.

“I’ll be disappointed - I won’t pretend otherwise darling. But I think the board would be more concerned than me, it’s always tricky when you’ve just taken over a club to make a system work.”

“So it’s the league that’s most important?”

“Oh definitely. There’ll only be trouble if we mess up over the year, Krueger seems like a man who knows how things work and he’s not one of these owners who changes manager every year. As long as we’re in the right area at Christmas, I’ll get a new contract.”

“Is that the aim?”

“Until it arrives, yes. When it does - that’s when we start planning for the long haul.”

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Owain, just the single goal for Southampton tonight despite an awful lot of shots. Do you think playing such poor teams in pre-season has made your strikers complacent?”

It was a ridiculous line of questioning, but on the evidence of our first leg against Brondby, the man from the Mirror had a point. The stats would show that over the course of the 90 minutes we had rained no fewer than 30 shots on the Danes’ goal, and so netting just once seemed highly profligate. However, with exactly half of those on target, we could not be accused of losing our shooting boots.

“I’m not sure you can link the two at all to be honest. We’ve been in good scoring form over the last few weeks, and I think that showed tonight with the chances we created. Brondby defended well, their goalkeeper was named man of the match, and even so we managed to get the win.”

“Will you approach the away leg in the same fashion, or will you set up to protect the lead you have?”

“With all due respect to our opponents, I think we have the more talented squad and so we have to look to impose ourselves on them, rather than worry about how they might hurt us. Salinas has given us a good start tonight, but if we scrape through 1-0 I’ll be a little disappointed. We won’t be going there to defend.”

“Can we expect any changes for the second game?”

“We’ve got a whole week before we go to Denmark, so it’s hard for me to say who will and won’t play - we might have two or three new players by then. Whoever we put on the pitch, we’ll be confident of getting the result we need.”

The truth was that even if we only played half as well in the second leg, Brondby simply didn’t have the weapons to trouble us. They had only managed two shots at goal in the first 90 minutes, and even on home soil would not pose a significant threat. Hamish Jack, I expected, would have another quiet evening.

Speaking of which, the following night allowed Rachel and I that rarest of gifts, a free night together. After playing with the girls and putting them to bed - later than usual now the school holidays were in full flow - we opened a bottle of wine, turned on the TV, and simply enjoyed the opportunity to kick back, relax and share each other’s company. It was always the little things that I had missed thanks to my chosen profession, and it made the small moments all the more enjoyable.

Particularly when, the following morning, I had to deal with a disgruntled Macedonian and an Argentine striker who wanted more money than we were prepared to offer him. Having that kind of thought circulating in my mind before going to bed does not often make for a good night’s sleep, but at least on this occasion I had a couple of glasses of wine to give slumber the advantage. Mile Jovanovski could wait.

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Our centre-back, a loyal servant to Southampton after almost 250 league games for the club, was not happy.

His agent had got wind of interest from Benfica, and had gone running to his client to tell him that we had turned down a £9m bid - which I had. I did not particularly want to sell, and if we were to let him go, we would be looking for at least eight figures. I explained this to him, and received a written transfer request in return without even a hint of compromise.

Thankfully for him, the Portuguese club came back to me with a bid of £11m, which I quickly accepted - otherwise Jovanovski would have spent the rest of the season playing with our reserve squad. I would not be held to ransom by any agent, let alone one with ideas above their station. As far as I was concerned, Jovanovski was dead to us now - he would never play again, regardless of how the negotiations went with Benfica.

As it happened, two days later he was off, but by then I had bigger and more important fish to fry - namely putting together a strikeforce. Lucio Escalada would, I hoped, provide the solution to many of those problems, but his agent was also causing me problems, claiming that unless his client was paid a certain amount per week, he would cancel the deal and arrange a move to another European club. I called his bluff.

I knew that we were the only side in for the Estudiantes man, and I was glad of it. At 26, he was never likely to break out of his home league unless we were the first step, and I laboured the point. What I didn’t mention was the fact that at £6.5m, Escalada would be a real bargain. His clinical finishing and ability to bring others into play by dropping deep had my scouts in South America raving about him, and I had few doubts that he would go straight into the starting line-up.

Luckily for Lucio, his man saw sense, agreeing to the £44k per week take-it-or-leave-it contract that I thrust before him. I was delighted - he would provide the perfect foil for someone like Nestor Mina and, given a little time to acclimatise, would be a star on the South Coast. Sadly, because he wasn’t a household name, some parts of the media disagreed.

“For a team looking to Europe, signing someone who has never played outside of Argentina hardly reeks of ambition. What would you say to those fans who would like to have seen a more established player?”

“Of course I’d like to be able to go out and sign Mirko Gramaglia, but he’s at Manchester City earning £250,000 a week, and we can’t compete in those sort of markets. As such, we look elsewhere, and of the players available to us Lucio is one of the very best. I think he’ll become a favourite at St Mary’s, I’m more than confident in his ability.”

“Will his lack of English not make things tricky for him?”

“I’m not sure that’s particularly relevant. Football is a global game, Lucio has already been given a personal tutor, and we’ve got others who speak Spanish in the dressing room. I don’t think it’ll be long at all before we see Lucio at his best in a Southampton shirt, there’s no negativity on my part at all.”

I endured similar questions about whether letting Jovanovski go - another player who didn’t speak English when he arrived, not that it was picked up at the time - was a mistake, but I reiterated my faith in our centre-backs - we had Hodge and Payne, new man Bouillot as well as the versatility of both Carlos Henrique and Emad Hossam to play in the middle of defence - and suggested that other areas of the team had my attention more urgently.

Finally, that shut them up, and I could get on with my job.

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It had been a while since I had sampled a European away game. The last time I had led a side into one of UEFA’s competitions, it had also been in Scandinavia, watching on on the balmy Baltic coast as my Prestatyn side were brushed aside by three goals to nil by IFK Goteborg. I had always enjoyed my jaunts onto the continent with the Welsh club - progress was a dream, and we enjoyed the sights and sounds of our rivals’ hometowns as much as the football on offer.

With Southampton however, things were different - we were not simply there to make up the numbers, hoping to be given one of the weaker sides and spring a surprise. No, we were there to win - we were expected to, in fact, and anything less would have earned me a dressing down from my new employers. Limping out of the Europa League before the group stages was simply not an option, and with a 1-0 lead to protect from the first leg, would be unthinkable.

In the opening game against Brondby, we had come up against some inspired goalkeeping and superb last-ditch defending, but had seen little of the Danish club’s attacking threat. On the outskirts of Copenhagen and with a home crowd behind them, I expected that to change.

The plan was a simple one - hit them early and hit them hard. An away goal would mean the Danes needed three to win the tie, and I was confident enough in my side’s defensive capability to hold out better than that. So, when a slide-rule ball ball from Ross Ifan was clipped beyond the goalkeeper by Peio Salinas inside two minutes, I was absolutely delighted. As far as I was concerned, we were home and hosed.

If there were still any doubts among the small band of travelling fans - Denmark is by no means a cheap trip, even if the flights themselves are easy on the wallet - they were quickly eliminated by another one of our Welsh contingent. Salinas saw a header tipped wide of the post by the keeper, but Ifan’s corner was thundered home by the leaping Leighton Hodge, and after just 12 minutes of the second leg we were through.

Four minutes later Ifan picked up his third assist of the day, this time a free-kick from out wide glanced home by Hodge’s centre-back partner Aswad Payne, and we had a 4-0 aggregate lead before we were even a quarter of the way through the match. Brondby’s players knew the game was up, even their hardcore fans couldn’t muster up the pretence of hope, and we were able to take a foot off the gas and cruise through the half-time break.

In the second half, they changed their approach. Instead of simply resigning themselves, they decided a better plan would be to simply kick us off the park, trying to do as much damage to the visiting Englishmen as possible. It took just 10 minutes for their tactics to pay dividends, a late challenge on Kenan Kus leaving our flying full-back with a twisted knee and facing six weeks on the sidelines.

If I was not impressed then, I was even less impressed when, 10 minutes later and with his number seconds away from coming up on the substitute’s board, Adam Bright went down and went down hard. Not only that, but he wasn’t getting up any time soon.

Mads Jorgensen was the guilty party, and offered little in the way of remorse or remonstration as the referee flashed the red card. It was a horrendous tackle, the ball long gone and Bright unaware of the Dane charging in from behind, his studs clattering into our playmaker and dropping him to the turf like heavyweight’s right hand. On came the stretcher, and off went one of our most talented players.

When physio Emma Gimpel met me after the match, my mood switched from outraged to apoplectic. Bright had not been able to walk off the pitch because Jorgensen’s sorry excuse for a tackle had ruptured his achilles tendon. As such, he would not just miss the next couple of games, but as long as three months. One of England’s finest young talents sidelined by an angry Danish hatchet man, and all because his side had conceded three earlier goals in a European qualifier.

Our victory confirmed that we would play-off against Greek outfit Asteras Tripolis for a spot in the group stages, but at that precise it was the last thing on my mind. My post-match press conference made the headlines the next morning as I tore into the Brondby boss, Jorgensen, and their entire team. I would not be a popular man in Copenhagen the next time we visited, but I did not care.

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Three days later, having calmed down a little, I gambled.

Peio Salinas had scored two of the four goals against Brondby, but I still had my doubts about the Spaniard. He had been at the club for seven seasons, netting 50 goals in 208 league appearances, but only once had he hit double figures in the Premier League - an 18-goal season four years ago. He was at the wrong end of his career at 30 years old, and Russian club Krasnodar were interested in his signature. With £8m on the table, I decided to bite.

The move disappointed the fans as news leaked out onto social media, with one or two of the more vocal online voices wondered what I was planning to do for goals. By midday - the Russian time difference meaning we were all but done with the deal by lunch - some of those calls had even turned into demands for my sacking, but just hours later those same fans were hailing a transfer masterstroke.

Replacing Salinas, an aging Spaniard with a dubious goalscoring record at the highest level who had endeared himself to the fans with his loyalty and personality rather than his performances, was Boyd Clarke, an England international who had proven himself at this level in a lesser team. The difference in the fees meant we were paying just £1m for a significant upgrade, and I was delighted.

Clarke would cost us more than Salinas in the long run, primarily because of his wage demands - he would be the latest member of the £100,000 per week club - but to snap up a striker of his quality for less than eight figures was an opportunity I could not pass up. Aston Villa had suffered their third relegation in eight years in the previous season, and after years of battling away at the wrong end of the Premier League, Clarke had had enough.

Their loss was our gain, and I was more than happy to make the swoop for the 26-year-old. Not only was I keen for a strong British core to my Saints side - something I had hopefully proved with my signings of Ifan and Hodge - but I was also convinced that Clarke’s power up front would work well with the more delicate precision of fellow new boy Escalada. As a front two, I was very happy with them.

His first game in a Southampton shirt would, all being well, come at home against newly-promoted Everton. Darren Ferguson had finally made it to the top flight in charge of the Toffees, but would be expecting a difficult season as his side scrapped to keep their seat at the top table. We would be expected to win, but I was not expecting it to be easy.

Following that, we would host Asteras in the Europa League, travel to Reading three days later for our second game of the league season, and then fly out to Greece for the second leg of our European tie. We would then round out the month back at home to Swansea, before finally earning a break - the staff at least - for the season’s first international fixtures. It promised to be a manic fortnight, and I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into it.

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St Mary’s was full, and my arrival was greeted raucously by the Southampton faithful. I was well aware that I was yet to fully convince everyone in red and white stripes of my suitability for the role - I was still, after all, an outsider - I had yet to do anything majorly wrong, and so for the time being they were right behind me. I had to channel that, because Everton were going to scrap for every chance at a point.

We got underway in my preferred midfield box formation, and immediately set about putting the visitors under pressure. Escalada in particular looked right at home in the rough and tumble of the Premier League, utilising his technical ability to buy the extra half-yard of space he needed to pick his passes and show off his skills.

On the right side of our defence, I quickly saw why Kenan Kus was regarded as one of the finest full-backs in the world. Every time Everton attempted to switch the ball to his flank he was there with a timely interception or crunching challenge, and going forward he was one of our biggest threats. His first cross was a deep one, narrowly evading the head of Boyd Clarke, and his second connected with Gidon Cohen, our Israeli international forcing a save from the visiting goalkeeper. We were on top, one we needed to make it count. Our opponents, on the other hand, were yet to really get going.

It was just as well then, that we took the lead with our very next attack. This time we flew down the left, Luke Shaw making his first Premier League appearance for the club in the best part of a decade and wanting to show the fans what they had been missing. He shaped to cross, instead slipped a perfect pass between full-back and centre-half for Clarke to latch onto, and in turn the square ball across goal was tucked in calmly by Escalada in support.

Just 10 minutes later the half-time whistle blew, and I had a very simple message to convey to my new charges. Keep up the pressure and make sure you hit the target - nothing that the average fan in the stand couldn’t have said, but I needed to make sure my men believed it.

Perhaps I should have asked one of our supporters to give the pep-talk, because 10 minutes after the interval Everton levelled with their first shot on target of the match. Carlos Henrique was a split-second too slow with his challenge to stop a switch out to the visitors’ right, Hamish Jack didn’t know whether to stay or go as the cross was whipped in, and Slovenian international Petar Zikar stooped ahead of his man to head into the net and tie the game at 1-1. St Mary’s was not a happy place, and we needed to do it all over again.

Unsurprisingly however, Everton grew in confidence with the goal, and I could only watch as Ferguson waved his side forward at every opportunity. Jack made one or two more saves to keep us level - neither particularly spectacular - and while we enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, we were not doing anything with it.

With 20 minutes to go, I gambled - Kenan Kus was a superb player but was flagging after his raids down the right, while Boyd Clarke had not had his finest hour up front. On came new boy Davide Canini and Nestor Mina to take their respective places, and we had a quarter of the match less to get off to the start we needed.

Those 20 minutes quickly became 10, and in the blink of an eye it was down to five, much to the frustration of the 32,000 in the stands. Frustration, that was, which suddenly turned to jubilation as, out of nowhere, we worked a rugby-style overlap on the right, and substitute Canini made a memorable league debut by smashing into the top corner from 12 yards out.

Four minutes later, as the clock ticked into injury time, Escalada swivelled on a loose ball in the box to fire low beyond the goalkeeper’s dive, and out of nowhere the scoreline looked relatively comfortable. At the referee’s whistle I consoled my opposite number - Darren Ferguson had not really deserved to lose - and headed into the dressing room to congratulate my team. It was not the prettiest, not the most comfortable, but we had three points to start the season. That was all I had asked for - the rest would follow.

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“How do you feel you coped with the pressure of a league debut?”

It was a stupid question given that we’d won, but I had to answer nevertheless.

“I don’t think today was particularly about me, but the team did what I asked of them and we got the result. There’s plenty to work on, we’ll face difficult games over the rest of the season, but we got it done in the end.”

Lucio Escalada looks like a great signing if today is anything to go by - why do think nobody has brought him to Europe before now?”

“I can’t possibly speak for the rest of the continent, but their loss is definitely our gain. Lucio showed today how good a player he is, and we’re looking forward to more of the same in the future.”

“Do you feel any sympathy for Darren Ferguson on days like today? A newly-promoted side, away on the opening day of the season, and they got sucker-punched in the last five minutes.”

“I spoke to Darren after the match, and told him they hadn’t deserved to lose - and I believe that. On the other hand, there will be games when we’ll concede last-minute goals, or switch off at a crucial moment. It’s part of the game, it happens to everyone, and so you can’t get too emotionally involved with other managers.”

“Finally Owain, you’re in Europa League action on Thursday - will you be rotating the side for Asteras?

“There will be one or two changes, but we don’t want to take our visitors too lightly. There are plenty of managers, and I think it’s a very English approach, who don’t treat the Europa League with a great deal of respect, but it’s a competition I’d very much like to win and we’ll select a squad that I believe is capable of that.”

I never did understand managers that passed up on a chance for European glory. I didn’t understand the press, who either applauded or chastised then on nothing more than a whim. I also had no worries whatsoever that Asteras Tripolis would cause us any great problems.

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As it happened, I was right - our Greek visitors were both technically inferior and considerably less aggressive than Brondby had been in the previous round, and so we were able to put one foot in the group stages with an emphatic 3-0 win. Just as importantly, we escaped without a single injury, and in good shape for a league game against Reading just three days later.

As you might expect, the result brought with it a couple more milestones for new Saints on the block. It took just 15 minutes for Carlos Henrique to net his first goal in red and white, thundering home on the half-volley after a free-kick was not properly cleared by the Tripolis defence, and before the interval he had been joined in the club by Ifan, our Welsh playmaker dinking over the goalkeeper to double the lead. Five minutes from time Nestor Mina completed the scoring, and it would take nothing short of a miracle to deny us a place in the competition proper.

The media response was, as anticipated, somewhat quieter than the build-up had been - after all, we had done our job with the minimum of fuss - and so it was all eyes on Reading for our second league game of the season. Led by none other than Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola, the Berkshire club had finished a respectable 14th place last season, cementing their position as a regular Premier League outfit that had outgrown the relegation battles of years gone by. On home soil, they would give us a stern test.

But it was a test we were expecting, and so, after 40 minutes of holding out against a dangerous attack led by England international Elliot Green, we struck on the counter with a goal straight out of my Seattle Sounders playbook. It had all the hallmarks of a classic MLS goal - the stray pass picked off by one of the holding men, the quick raking pass down the flank, the low cross into the box and a crisp finish from the frontman. Henrique, Kus and Mina played their parts to perfection, and the Madejski fell silent as we led 1-0 at the break.

Ten minutes after the interval, at almost the same moment as Zikar had levelled for Everton the previous week, Reading were level, and I was forced to watch on as Zola embarked on one of his trademark over-exuberant celebrations in the neighbouring dugout. It was an unfortunate goal to concede - Jack unsighted as Green’s shot fizzed through a crowd of players - but it was a just reward for the hosts’ early pressure, and we needed to rediscover our stride.

Rediscover it we did, and once again it was that man Escalada who dug us out of a hole, first bending a delicious free-kick up and over the Reading wall to restore our advantage in the 67th minute, and then playing in Boyd Clarke five minutes later for his first league goal in a Southampton shirt. With less than 20 minutes to go Zola’s men were done, and for the second time in two league games we had taken the lead, been pegged back, and then scored twice in quick succession to walk away with a 3-1 win.

If that was to be the pattern for the season, I would have few complaints. I did not expect to be so fortunate.

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“Can you even remember your first European game?”

It was a strange question for Rachel to ask, but as I prepared to take the squad to Greece to finish the job against Asteras, I didn’t have to dig far into my memory bank to give an answer. After all, my first competitive match as a professional football manager was in Europe.

“Of course I do darling, Prestatyn against Dinamo Minsk. Not the sort of debut every manager gets to make.”

“Do you remember how you felt on that day?”

That was a bit harder. Brow furrowed, I tried to drag back the memory.

“Nervous, I remember the nerves well. At the same time, a little bit resigned - we were only a little Welsh team after all. Nobody gave us a chance, not even me.”

“Do you ever get that any more?”

I paused. Did I?

“Not in the same way. I was nervous before the games against América in the States, that was about as big as they’ve been. The final in China as well, but for different reasons. I can’t remember, not since that first year in Prestatyn, going into a match expecting to be beaten though. I wonder whether it’d be a healthy feeling to have every once in a while…

“Probably not, to be honest. Why do you ask?”

Rachel placed her Kindle on the arm of the sofa and leaned over to kiss me on the cheek.

“No real reason my love. I don’t often get a glimpse of what’s going on in that head of yours - I’m just curious, you know?”

“I guess so,” I said, returning the kiss before standing to continue packing for the trip. “I suppose often I don’t stop to think about what I’m thinking, if that makes sense?”

“Of course it does Owain, most people don’t. I just wonder about these things sometimes.”

In that fleeting moment, I became acutely aware that I very rarely wondered about such things, and it concerned me for a brief second. Until, naturally, my thoughts drifted onto others things, and I all but forgot the sensation.

It was fine with me, it was fine with Rachel, and it had served us both well so far. My thinking was very specialised, and if I worried too much about what was going on in my mind, I had a tendency to bring things crashing down. I had no problem with my wife wondering, but I couldn’t let myself dwell on myself for too long. And for once, I was happy with that as a conclusion.

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“Well gentlemen, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you - that was awful.

“If this was the first leg, I assure you I’d be apoplectic with rage right now, but it isn’t, so I aren’t - we’re through. But I am not happy, and if you ever act with such disdain and complacency towards your opponents in the future, it will be the last time you wear a Southampton shirt. Do I make myself clear?”

The silence in the dressing room told me my message had been received.

“Bear that in mind - I will not be so forgiving in the future. But for now, let’s get packed up and go home. We’re through, and you can show me what you’re actually capable of against Swansea at the weekend. I expect more than this.”

Asteras Tripolis had put up a fight, and we had crumbled. Two goals in the opening seven minutes put us in danger of a humiliating exit at the hands of the Greek outfit, but eventually we had managed to steady the ship, and sealed a 4-2 aggregate win through a Ross Ifan goal in the second half. Still, even with a rotated side it was an unacceptable performance, and if we repeated it we would not last long in the Europa League.

The draw for the group stage took place the very next day, and as third seeds we were always likely to have a tough path to the knockout rounds. We landed in Group F, headed by Champions League regulars Schalke, where we were to be joined by Standard Liege - another side with experience in the premier competition - and Malaga, arguably the strongest team in the fourth pot. It was probably the most wide-open group in the entire competition, and while we were favourites to go through with the German outfit, it would not be easy. Not as simple as our third round League Cup draw, which we discovered would see us away at League One side Sheffield United.

Before then, Swansea. Eddie Howe had, since joining from Newcastle six years ago, established the Jacks as a solid top-tier outfit, with a penchant with attractive if not always effective football. They were a team that often looked better than they were, but were still more than capable of giving even the title-challenging clubs a fright. We would have to be careful.

In the end, we were more than careful - we adapted. We knew Swansea would dominate possession, so we sat back and let them pass sideways. We knew they would struggle for the incisive final ball, so we gave them time on the edge of our penalty area. We knew they would employ a high defensive line, so we punished them on the counter-attack.

Midway through the first half, we scored the rarest of goals for one of my clubs - a long ball goal. Davide Canini, starting after Kus picked up a knock in training, launched a 70-yard ball onto the head of Nestor Mina, and our striker was able to cushion it into the path of Gidon Cohen to sweep home from the penalty spot. It was the first time we had really threatened, and it was brutally clinical.

Then, on the half-time whistle, we caught a glimpse of the future. Canini had already scored one Saints goal as the result of us working an extra man down the right, and the Italian defender was on hand again. Cohen turned provider this time, rolling the pass sideways with the last man committed to a challenge, and Canini plumped for the pitching wedge, lofting a backspinning chip over the goalkeeper to the delight of the St Mary’s faithful. On the stats sheet Swansea had dominated. On the pitch, we were the only team threatening.

With a two-goal cushion, we could afford to be a little more selective in picking our moments, and in fairness to our visitors, they tightened up dramatically in the second half. We had only two more forays forward after the interval - both resulting in Mina forcing saves from the goalkeeper - but remained comfortable until five minutes from time, when Dylan Launey scrambled a corner past Hamish Jack to set up a nervy finish. We held out however, and after three games - none of which had seen us at our best - we were the only side in the Premier League with a perfect record of three wins. It was the best possible start, and the Manager of the Month award topped it off. Life was good in Southampton.

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One of the many aspects of the English game that I had not had to deal with in the US was the regularity of the international break. Over in the States, I was regularly without six or seven first-team players due to international commitments - MLS ploughed on regardless. Here in England, everything ground to a halt.

Of course, with my Southampton side not the dominant domestic force, not every one of my players would be traversing the globe in search of international glory, but the absentees were numerous enough to make full training utterly impractical. Instead, those left behind were given a four-day break before some light fitness work towards the end of the break, in a bid to make sure no unnecessary injuries were accrued.

The break also served to allow me and Rachel some much-needed time together. Life in the Premier League was hectic, and the public scrutiny given to a new manager on the scene meant privacy was largely conceptual. With internationals dominating the back pages however, the Southampton manager and his wife were able to avoid the cameras for a few precious days.

“You aren’t going to win everything this year, are you darling?”

Rachel’s question wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but the playful tone did not suggest a lack of confidence.

“If we do, I’ll be amazed. No team with this number of changes does too much to upset the apple cart, and we don’t have the spending power of some of the big teams.”

“In some ways, I’m almost glad. At least you won’t want to move on again so quickly.”

My wife’s comments were in jest, but I could sense an underlying truth to things. There were times at which Seattle was the final move, but we both knew to turn down a Premier League club would be madness. We’d settled nicely in Chilworth, and moving again so soon would be thoroughly unfair on my family.

“Don’t worry about that - we’re here now, and that’s it. Either I succeed with Southampton and go out on top, or they ditch me and I walk away. I’m not hopping around any more.”

“Not even for Man City?

“Tempting as it would be, no. Not my sort of scene, not with all that pressure.”

I was sincere too. I’d made it to the self-proclaimed best league in the world, and moving about within it would make very little sense. In the grand scheme of things, every club in the Premier League was awash with cash, so moving to a wealthier rival and taking on all the pressure that involved was, quite simply, not worth it in the slightest.

Owain Williams, sometimes it’s as if you read my mind. I can stop worrying now then?”

“You never had to worry to start with darling.”

I was right - Rachel had no cause for concern. Bethan and Rebecca were settling in nicely, they already had friends at school and were fast becoming independent little girls. Not too independent - their mother wouldn’t like that a great deal - but enough that we didn’t feel the need to constantly stress over them.

Meanwhile, things at the club were going very smoothly. Transfer business was doing, the squad was gelling nicely, the results were promising. Next on our list was West Ham away, and my first trip to the Olympic Stadium. I needed the bandwagon to keep rolling.

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After 45 minutes at the Olympic Stadium, I was not a happy man. Matthew Upson’s men led by a single goal - scored from the penalty spot after Leighton Hodge’s ill-timed challenge on scorer Daniel Circuit - but in truth it could have been three or four. The Hammers had comprehensively outplayed us, we were not looking like a team with three wins from three, and we were in danger of being embarrassed.

So, I told them. I told them they needed to buck their ideas, that they couldn’t let a midtable side like West Ham boss them around, and that they needed to prove to the world that they weren’t just an early-season flash in the pan, benefitting from some sort of new manager bounce. I needed a performance for my own sake as much as theirs.

I got the response I needed. Within five minutes of the restart, Escalada tied his man in knots on the edge of the area before bending a low shot into the far corner. The Argentine roared as his team-mates joined the celebrations, and the momentum swung very much in our favour. For the next 10 minutes we dominated the game, but we unable to find the second goal. Gradually the pattern settled - pressure from the visiting Saints, resolute defending from the home side.

Until the deadlock was broken. With 13 minutes to go, Luke Shaw’s pace failed him on the left wing, Alrick Boyd sprinted away from him on the break, ran in on the angle and slotted beyond Hamish Jack to give the Hammers a 2-1 lead firmly against the run of play. Their first half performance may have deserved it, but for a side which had controlled the second period, we had every right to feel aggrieved. But anger does nothing without execution, and the final whistle confirmed our first defeat of the league campaign. It was not easy to take.

Particularly given that, four days later we found ourselves in European action, taking on Champions League regulars Schalke in Gelsenkirchen. This time, it was my men who edged the first half, although the closest we came to taking the lead was a Nestor Mina shot being deflected onto the post. Schalke looked threatening on the break, and we defending too well to let us through without a fight.

They also had Brazilian international Cascao on their side, and his class showed in the second half. The man who had made headlines over the summer by turning down the money on offer at PSG made headlines at the Veltins-Arena for his work on the pitch. It took him three minutes of the second half to head his side in front, and shortly after the hour mark doubled their tally with a crisp volley from the penalty spot.

At that point, our German hosts simply shut the game down with stereotypical efficiency, frustrating our attacking players with simple, stubborn defensive effort. We couldn’t find a way to goal, recording only one more shot on target in the remaining 25 minutes - a Carlos Henrique tester from the edge of the area - and resigned ourselves to beginning our Europa League campaign with a defeat. Elsewhere in Group F, Standard Liege upset Malaga on the road by the same scoreline, and we were stuck to the foot of the four-team group.

If those two results proved anything, it was there was still plenty of work to be done to turn Southampton into a footballing force to be reckoned with.

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September may have begun with a two-week break, but the scheduling thereafter was relentless. Having played on Sunday and Thursday in the league and Europe, we were back in Premier League action on the following Sunday for our third game in a week. Mercifully, our clash with Norwich was at least on home soil at St Mary’s, but already I was beginning to see the need to rotate my men through the year. Not least because on the Tuesday we would find ourselves in League Cup action.

After the match, I was asked by certain members of the tabloid press whether or not Southampton had already peaked for the season. I actually had to ask the ‘journalist’ to repeat himself when the question came in its first form, such was my shock - surely they didn’t actually believe our bolt to be shot already?

In truth, our showing against the Canaries was not one of a team challenging for European places - David Moyes’ team fell behind to Escalada after just 100 seconds, but five minutes later tied things up courtesy of a Lewis Macleod thunderbolt and that was that - nor had we set the world alight against West Ham or Schalke. Out of context, there was a case to be made for us fading away.

But placed in context, it was a ridiculous assertion. This was a team still gelling after summer upheaval, with a new manager arriving from outside the country, and even including three poor results, we were still sat in 5th position. We were in no danger of relegation, no apparent danger even of sliding down into midtable, and were placed higher than Dan Petrescu had left them at the end of last season. Sometimes, I wonder what exactly the press expect - particularly of a manager they were quick to deride for a lack of Premier League experience.

Whatever they wanted, there would almost certainly have been further inquiry had Sheffield United bundled us out of the League Cup at the third round. The Blades were battling for promotion from the third tier, and while their squad was undoubtedly showing promise for that level, they should have been unable to contend with even our second string over 90 minutes.

Which, thankfully for me and my staff, was exactly what played out on the Bramall Lane pitch. I rotated the overwhelming majority of the starting line-up, ensuring that some of the players on the fringe had their opportunity to press a claim, and I was handsomely rewarded. Jeff Rowbotham got us up and running after just eight minutes with a composed finish after being put through by fellow Welsh prospect Lloyd Collins, and from then on our hosts struggled to gain a foothold. Nestor Mina, frustrated at losing his regular first team berth to Escalada and Clarke, reminded everybody of his quality with a second-half hat-trick, and the 4-0 win booked us a home tie with Swansea in the next round. Not to mention the boost it gave to our confidence.

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With the first month of the new school year drawing to a conclusion - something brought into sharp focus by Bethan and Rebecca’s ‘preliminary reports,’ something on the one hand thoroughly unnecessary and on the other highly encouraging - the bedding-in for me at Southampton began to end. Not for much longer would I be able to draw on the new manager card, even though in reality the squad was still getting to grips with itself.

For our next match, we would be going up against two players who had made very different impressions on me. Burnley, who had won just one of their first five games, had leading their line one Ciro Mangini, the Italian striker I had unceremoniously dumped in pre-season without really giving a chance to. He would have a point to prove against his old club and me in particular, but I was confident we would be able to keep him quiet.

Of greater concern for me was the presence of Andrew Perez in the heart of the home defence. For so many years a rock in my Seattle back line, the captain of both club and country, he had taken the opportunity to try his luck in the Premier League with a bargain £4 million move over the summer. He had improved after a shaky start, and I knew that, if he was on form, our forward line would be in for a difficult afternoon.

With that in mind, I chose to start with the attacking quartet who had played so well in the League Cup, and was immediately repaid by Nestor Mina. The powerful striker beat Perez’ defensive partner to a cross from the right to head us in front after just 10 minutes, and the early goal was the difference at the interval. After 65 minutes, Lloyd Collins netted his first league goal for the club on the rebound, and we were home and dry.

There was further scoring - Luke Shaw unlucky to deflect a wayward shot beyond Jack in our goal to cut the deficit, before Boyd Clarke restored our two-goal advantage - but the result was never in doubt, and it allowed my post-match handshake with Perez to be that little bit friendlier. Mangini didn’t hang around to chat, but I had anticipated as much. His manager, Paul Robinson, was much more gracious in defeat.

We returned home for the start of October and our second Europa League group game, welcoming Malaga to St Mary’s. After they too had suffered defeat in their opening game, we were heavily favoured by the media, but the Spaniards proved tougher than anticipated, with the first half passing even and goalless. In the second, we had two penalty shouts turned down and an Escalada strike chalked off for offside, only to concede from a late corner and surrender the point we had. With Schalke winning in Liege we were the only team with nothing to show from our matches so far, and were in real danger of being eliminated at this early stage.

To make matters worse, young centre-back Lilain Bouillot - who had only featured in the League Cup - came to me the following day, explaining that he was feeling a little homesick in Hampshire. His eyes lit up when I suggested he might benefit from some time with his family in France, and I only hoped I hadn’t fallen hook, line and sinker for part of a more elaborate plan. Either way, we would miss him for a month.

That month would begin with one of our biggest games of the season, at home to defending champions Manchester City. The dominant force in English football and a constant threat on the continent, Diego Simeone’s men would be by far our toughest test of my short reign so far. We would need to be at our absolute best to get anything out of them, and yet if we succeeded, we would mark ourselves out as a team to be watched.

Before all of that however, I had a meeting with Ralph Krueger on behalf of the board. While we were generally doing well, I was nonetheless a little apprehensive.

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“Well Owain, what are your thoughts? How are you settling in at Southampton?

It wasn’t necessarily the question I was expecting, but I had an answer ready.

“Thanks for asking Mr Krueger, and thank you for the welcome you and the board have extended to me and my family. We’re already feeling very much at home in Hampshire, and I personally am enjoying working at the club. I appreciated the freedom you afforded me in the transfer market, and it feels like there is the making of a successful team taking shape.”

“Well Owain, allow me to tell you on behalf of the board that we’ve been generally impressed by what we’ve seen so far. There have of course been some causes for concern - I speak about the current Europa League situation in particular, and the West Ham match - but you seem to have the team playing well in a style you have imposed. At the same time, you haven’t torn up our traditions and history - signing a British core and bringing Luke Shaw back was a shrewd move.”

“Thank you Mr Krueger, although I assure you I would never make a signing just to curry favour with the board or the fans - Luke is an excellent left-back and would have been a target of mine for any Premier League team.”

“Of course, I didn’t wish to insinuate anything of the sort. Owain, tell me something. Assuming we renew your contract in December - and at the moment I fail to see anything which would prevent us doing so - what do you think Southampton can achieve this season? What would you be satisfied with?”

I paused. We’d been through some of this at interview, but obviously I had more evidence with which to work at this point.

“In many ways those are two different questions. If every member of this squad performs to their highest ability in every game between now and the end of the season, this club is capable of winning one or two cup competitions and finishing in the top four in May.

“However, for that to happen, we would have to be incredibly lucky and benefit on poor performances from other sides - on paper, we are still behind the Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Chelsea, possibly Arsenal and Spurs as well. Now, that would place us 7th, which would be a good start. I, however, am aiming higher.” 

“I appreciate your honesty Owain. Let me say now that 7th place would be satisfactory for me, and I believe most of my fellow board members also, as long as we saw evidence of development in other areas - progress in the cups, strengthening of the squad, a distinctive playing style, our position within the global game. All of these are linked, I’m well aware, but we take a more complete view of things here at Southampton.

“I’m aware and very grateful - it makes a change from the culture of immediate gratification I often see.”

“With that in mind, Owain, can you tell me how we’re going to do against City?

“Victory would be remarkable, as I’m sure you’re aware how strong their squad is. I’d be happy with a point, and I think if we play well that is a realistic goal.”

“Well good luck - I hope the team performs as you ask them to.”

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Shaking the hand of the sharp-suited Diego Simeone before the referee’s whistle brought everything into focus. Here I was, a Welshman who a decade ago was managing Prestatyn Town, was about to lead his side out against arguably the strongest football team on the planet. This was what it was all about, and on a warm October afternoon I basked in the moment, savouring the St Mary’s atmosphere and mentally preparing for the 90 minutes again.

City were incredible. From the word go they swarmed forward, their sky blue shirts buzzing around our penalty area, slick passes looking to pierce the smallest of gaps to put their team-mates through when in possession, and haranguing my own men every time we did manage to earn possession. Henrique and Alejandro were made to work overtime just to avoid being caught on the ball, and it was obvious from the outset that we had a game on our hands.

And yet we made it to the break unscathed, barely troubling the City goal but succeeding in keeping the ball out of our own. My team talk was simple, with particular focus given to maintaining the high tempo our opponents were forcing upon us, and on heightened concentration. And so it was, just three minutes after the break, that Spanish winger Javier Dominguez ghosted between Payne and Hodge to run onto a slide-rule ball and fire the champions ahead.

But before we could feel too sorry for ourselves, we were back in the game from nowhere. City had led for little more than five minutes when we managed our first genuine spell of pressure, keeping the ball under control in the visitors’ half for a good couple of minutes. Shaw shaped to cross, checked back and played it to Gidon Cohen, who was quickly crowded out by blue-shirted defenders. However, despite his extreme duress, he was able to shift the ball to the right and out of the melee, where Kenan Kus got his head over the ball and drove his shot hard, low and beyond a static goalkeeper. We were level, and the champions had everything to do again.

Everything, it seemed, but score. Again Simeone’s men - Ballon D’Or winners and all - piled on the pressure, and again it seemed our back line was going to hold on. The minutes ticked by, the substitutions were made, and yet nothing was changing on the field - if anything, we were growing used to soaking up the pressure, even looking dangerous on the break with the pace and skill of Escalada up front. The draw I had hoped for with the chairman looked very possible.

Until the 85th minute, when the deadlock was broken in the simplest of fashions. In a game of precision passing and intricate movements, it was somewhat ironic that the deciding goal came from a routine cross into the box, a striker beating his man in the air, and a wrong-footed goalkeeper.

Yet as Boyd Clarke tried and failed to pick himself up off the floor before being mobbed by his team-mates, that was exactly what we had done. Kus’ ball in from the right had found our forward in the perfect position, and he was able to guide his header back across goal and into the net. City were stunned, St Mary’s went wild, and the Premier League sat up and took notice - the Saints were coming.

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They wouldn’t be arriving for a while however, because our momentum was checked by another international break. Again I was left with a skeleton squad to put through their paces at Staplewood, and again I took the opportunity to give those players a couple of days off whilst retreating to Rachel’s company. She was busying herself in the local community - even linking up with the club at times in their social outreach - and was by no means worried about loneliness, which had been an issue at times in Seattle, but nevertheless appreciated having me around.

Unlike my time in Prestatyn, there would be no chance of me taking a break during the season to spend time with my family, and so I was very aware of the need to make effort with my wife and daughters. The demands of Premier League management ensured that my time was the club’s until May, and possibly longer depending on how I was able to sort out pre-season transfers. Christmas, often a low period elsewhere in the world, was one of the business in England.

So during the international fortnight, I divided my time between family, training, and plotting to take down Karl Robinson’s Fulham side, who we were set to visit upon the resumption of the league. The London side were struggling in 16th place, and we needed to make sure that we continued in the same vein as our heroic performance against Manchester City. If we didn’t, Fulham had the ability to punish us across the pitch.

Which, as it happens, is exactly what transpired at Craven Cottage. Early in the first half Hamish Jack chose to punch a corner away instead of attempting the catch, and was left to regret it immediately. Igor Bykov took one touch to control the bouncing ball, and then lashed his second through a crowd of bodies to find the back of the net. The Bulgarian wheeled away in celebration, and we were going to have to come from behind to take anything from the game.

Despite the undoubted effort from my side, Fulham were buoyed by the early goal and were able to match us man for man in midfield. It proved a rare occasion on which I lamented the lack of width in our preferred formation, but I was not about to rip up our playbook. Instead, we pushed and pushed, only to be hit by a sucker punch, Liam Kelly catching one perfectly from 25 yards and punching the air as it ripped into the top corner. At 2-0 the game was done, and after beating one of the best teams in the division, we were beaten by a side flirting with relegation zone.

Almost immediately we boarded a flight to Belgium for a match against Standard Liege which, if we lost, would almost certainly bring an abrupt end to our Europa League campaign. With so little time between matches, with so many competitions to take into account, and with momentum changing every other game, I was beginning to acknowledge just how difficult Premier League management could be.

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The dressing room at half time was not a pleasant place to be for a Southampton player. The Stade Maurice Dufrasne was alive with the songs of the home fans, who had already seen Eduardo Vanzela fire them ahead before Georginio Wijnaldum’s 35-yard free kick was deflected past Jack for the home team’s second. Having already equalised once, we had been unable to do so a second time, and were 45 minutes from the end of our European adventures.

My players got both barrels, and not for the first time this season. Whether they were complacent or simply incompetent I was not sure, but I failed to believe that this was the same team that had beaten Manchester City and was hovering around the top four of the Premier League. Passes were going astray, shots were wayward, and our defending had been suspect at best. We needed improvement in every single area.

And we got it. Just shy of the hour, Nestor Mina, scorer of our first goal, headed a Davide Canini cross into the path of Gidon Cohen, and the Israeli international diverted it beyond the reach of the goalkeeper to tie the game. Even a point would not have done us a huge amount of good in the grand scheme of things, and so from the sideline I waved my men back forward in search of a third.

We found it inside two minutes, and all of the sudden the Standard fans fell silent. Mina again found himself at the centre of all of our good work, breaking into space and firing off a shot which the goalkeeper had to be at full stretch to save. Backing up on the rebound was Clarke, and we had turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead inside 15 minutes. All we had to do now was hold on to what we had. All-out attack could be replaced with something more sensible.

That said, we had already shown in the first half that sensible was not currently our forte. Ten minutes passed with us in the lead, and then we started to get a little bit arrogant. One-touch passing when a second was acceptable, trying to take on one man too many in attack and playing the risky pass out from the back. I could see the danger coming, and so it was no surprise when Vanzela picked off a pass from Canini, took it into the penalty area and beat our goalkeeper to tie the game again in the 79th minute.

We had less than a quarter of an hour to make or break our Europa League season, and so we had little choice but to throw caution to the wind. Off came Alejandro in defensive midfield and on went Escalada as a third striker, desperate to cause havoc in the Standard defence. A point was no good to us now - we needed three, and there was little point in settling for less.

First, there was a scare. Canini again gave the ball away, missed his recovery tackle, and watched from the turf as Vanzela missed a glorious opportunity for his hat-trick. Then, it was our turn, Escalada’s trickery earning him half a yard and the chance to shoot just over the angle of post and bar. The minutes ticked by, and we still needed a goal.

We got it, but only just. With the clock showing 89 minutes, Escalada again did what I had thrown him on to do, causing trouble in the box and receiving the ball with his back to goal. He faked one way then spun and laid the ball off to Ross Ifan, whose first touch freed up Nestor Mina at the back post. His shot was into the ground, and that proved the slice of fortune we needed - the ball bouncing up and over the diving goalkeeper before nestling in the Belgian netting. We led 4-3, and this time it was enough.

Elsewhere on the continent, our group-mates played out another thriller in Malaga, with Schalke surviving a late onslaught to emerge 4-3 winners. That left Group F wide open, with the Germans top with a perfect record from their three games and everyone else racking up a win and two losses. From a position of desperation, suddenly we were back in with a chance. If we missed out from here, we had only ourselves to blame.

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St Mary’s stood as one to salute its new hero, with the obvious exception of a handful of red-shirted fans in the away end. Even the Arsenal supporters, miserable though they were, had to applaud the final nail in their side’s coffin for the afternoon.

Nestor Mina had run the Gunners ragged from the word go, opening the scoring after precisely 26 seconds with a near-post header. But his crowning glory would come on the stroke of half-time when, gambling on a mistake, he strolled onto an under-hit back-pass and, without breaking stride, curled a lob over the stranded goalkeeper from 35 yards and in. It was the icing on a truly spectacular cake.

That there were no goals in the second half did not matter a jot - we were already 4-1 to the good. Mina’s early goal was cancelled out almost immediately by the brilliant Brazilian winger Rodriguinho, but despite the setback we ran riot. Ifan put us back in front on the quarter hour, and before much longer we had a third, Boyd Clarke finding the space to spin and shoot low into the corner. Arsenal looked all at sea, and our Ecuadorian star’s sumptuous fourth sealed the points in emphatic fashion.

Once again, in a game against one of the Premier League’s biggest sides, we had come up trumps and in some style. The press were understandably keen to get the scoop on exactly what had happened to Southampton under my management, and after a rotated squad demolished Swansea by the same 4-1 scoreline to set up another date with the Gunners in the last eight of the League Cup, their praise was effusive.

Owain, your team has scored 12 goals in their last three matches, and there seems to be a real confidence about the players. Considering some of the struggles you faced earlier in the season, what has changed?”

“Well first of all I’d suggest to you that those struggles were generated only by some of you in the media - we dropped a few points, but we played some strong teams and cannot expect to win every game.

“Secondly, the players are simply more used to the system we play, and believe both in its effectiveness and in their own abilities. They’re only doing what they’ve always been capable of - it’s my job to make sure it stays that way.”

“All three of your strikers seem to be finding form at once - are you doing anything different with the likes of Mina, Clarke and Escalada in training?”

“Even if I was, I’m not about to tell you! But no - we keep their confidence high and trust in their ability to score us goals. The system we play encourages the players to get into advanced positions, and it seems to be paying off. All three of the names you mentioned are international strikers, so it’s no surprise they’re showing their class.”

“You’re in the quarter-finals of the League Cup, 4th place in the league and with a chance of European progress - what is a realistic aim for this season?”

“I spoke to the chairman about this recently, and success for Southampton is about more than just league position - we need to be developing the whole club. That said, there is a huge amount of potential in this squad of players, and a good run in the cups and being in and around the European places would be a good season.”

“You’re not determined to claim a Champions League spot?”

“Obviously I and everybody at the club is aiming high, and the Champions League is the pinnacle of the game at club level. That’s certainly what we’re pushing for, but I don’t want to pile undue pressure on the players and say anything less will be a failure.”

“Finally Owain, you’ve got Arsenal again in the quarter-finals. You must be relishing a repeat of Sunday’s performance?”

“Listen, Arsenal are a great side and Roberto Martinez is too good a manager to make the same mistakes twice. We were excellent on Sunday and he’ll be the first to admit his team could have played better, as I’m sure they will do next time. I’m sure it’ll be a great occasion for the fans - two teams who like to get the ball down and play attacking football - and we’ll be trying our best to get the win and move on.”

“One more Owain - can you win this competition?”

“Do we have the ability to win the tournament? Yes, but so does every side left in the draw. All we can do is execute our plan and try and beat the opposition in front of us - we’ll certainly be giving it our all.”

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As if to emphasise my point - that we could not expect to walk over every opposition just by virtue of winning a couple of games - we then struggled away at New Anfield. Our hosts, led by Vincenzo Montella, were flying high and sat second in the league on goal difference alone, and had every intention of lifting their first Premier League crown in decades.

Even with Lilian Bouillot back with the squad after four weeks away with his family - the Frenchman did genuinely seem to have been at home, rather than partying with friends - our high confidence could not contend with the Liverpool attack. It was easy to see how they were the league’s top scorers, and our entire defensive unit found the going tough as we struggled to find a foothold.

In the end we could not, and a goal midway through the first half from the diminutive Pirulito proved the difference between the two sides, the defeat seeing us slip out of the top four as October drew to a close. With the Reds and the two Manchester clubs beginning to pull away from the pack, it was becoming apparent that the best we were hoping for was 4th place, with the Europa rather than Champions League a distinct possibility.

The subsequent board review went every bit as well as the first - Mr Krueger was thrilled by the consecutive four-goal performances, and equally understanding over the most recent defeat. Looking ahead to November, it would be our Europa League future that would likely decided, and my employer was very keen to hear my thoughts on whether or not we could make it through despite those two opening losses.

A big part of that question was answered in our first game of the month, as we welcomed Standard to St Mary’s, knowing full well that they would be out for revenge after our seven-goal thriller last time. My men were given clear instructions not to let the Belgians even half as many chances as they had conjured in the first game, and not to lose their discipline should we take the lead. We could not afford to make the same mistakes again.

This time, the side I sent out onto the field paid attention, controlling the game from kick-off to final whistle. Lucio Escalada set us on the right track midway through the first half by rounding the goalkeeper and slotting home, and five minutes after the break it was a rare goal for Aswad Payne, our centre-back climbing highest to head home a corner and seal all three points as well as a lesser-spotted clean sheet.

With Schalke’s 4-1 win over Malaga, the three points took us to second in the group and closer to progression, but we were forced to put that out of our minds as we welcomed Newcastle just three later. The phrase ‘European hangover’ was sadly the one that dominated the papers the following day - despite taking the lead through Mina, we were pegged back in the second period when left-back Rodrigo Gomez’ cross beat everybody including Hamish Jack. Subdued by the goal, we then shipped a second for a set-piece with just five minutes to go, slumping to 7th as a result.

Injury time also saw our Ecuadorian star ruled out for up to a month with a broken rib, but the first two weeks of his absence would not be felt, courtesy of yet another international break. It was only the beginning of November, and already it felt like I had lost a significant amount of time to the international game. Rachel and I were very grateful of the time together, but I did wonder how much of an impact the constant interruptions were having on our team dynamic.

Nevertheless, as the break reached its conclusion, I realised just how much I had needed it. Just a few months into the job and my sleep pattern was already suffering, my head filled with interlinking thoughts and floating ideas even when I wasn’t at Staplewood. Switching off was a real problem, and something I would have to figure out sooner rather than later.

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Rarely will you find two more different 1-0 wins, let alone within the same week.

For our return to action after the pause for internationals, we travelled to Brentford in the league determined to make amends for our defeat to Newcastle. In Oscar Garcia’s men, we had the perfect opportunity to win back our confidence - in their previous 11 games, they had earned a grant total of zero points. Even worse, the newly-promoted side were yet to find the back of the net. Already they were doomed to relegation and playing like it.

So it came as something of a surprise that we scored only once, Kenan Kus finally breaking the deadlock with 25 minutes to play after more than an hour of total Southampton domination. The Bees seemed determined to break their duck with a goalless draw rather than a win, but even a team set up to defend for 90 minutes could not resist our multi-pronged attack. Where our strikers failed, our midfield stepped in, and when they too fell short, our right-back won us the game.

That was Saturday, and on Thursday it was our turn to play the host, with Schalke the side in town for our penultimate Europa League group game. The Germans had won all four of their previous encounters to qualify with two games to spare, which meant they could afford to rest one or two of their stars for the trip. On the other hand, we knew that there was a chance we could seal our own qualification with a win, or at the very least put ourselves in pole position going into the final round of fixtures.

What followed was a fast and furious encounter, both teams happy to throw men forward with little regard for defensive caution. Schalke had nothing to lose, while we were keen to get the win that would make the final set of games that little less nervous. Both goalkeepers proved to be on top form, and so a frenetic first half somehow ended up goalless.

As the sides tired in the second period, it looked as if that too would fail to find a winner. Shots became snatched at rather than placed, and as energy levels dropped so too did the number of runs being made by the two sets of forwards. The clock ticked past the 90th minute with the scoresheet still blank, and we were ready to head to Malaga with our destiny in our hands.

Then, deep into injury time, Gidon Cohen’s corner was met by the leaping Forsberg inside the six-yard box. Somehow the goalkeeper kept it out with a flailing left leg, but there to prod home the loose ball from less than two yards was Aswad Payne, the winner prompting huge cheers of relief and jubilation from around St Mary’s. Seconds later the final whistle blew, and we faced a short wait before receiving the news from Belgium - Standard and Malaga had shared the spoils, meaning that with one game to go, we were five points clear of the pair in second place. Qualification was secure, and we could relax.

Three days later, I could do anything but. Having taken an early lead at Watford through the boot of Escalada, we then proceeded to concede three goals in 10 minutes before the break, all from corner kicks, to trail 3-1 at the interval. The rocket the players received was, fortunately for them, acted upon, but after Forsberg converted one of our own corners to cut the deficit, it took until the 91st minute before we made it back onto level terms.

Carlos Henrique’s powerful free-kick was more than deserving of a point, but in many ways it served only to paper over the cracks. November closed with Southampton sat in 7th place in the Premier League, making progress in both League Cup and Europa League, and with third round FA Cup clash with third-tier outfit Doncaster to look forward to in January. On the face of things, all was well - beneath the surface, there was still much work to be done.

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This is my first post in this thread since returning from Kyrgyzstan, so please bear with me a moment while I share some thoughts. Owain's story has been by far my longest-running and most involved project on FMS, and started almost entirely as a challenge to myself to develop a character rather than 'just' match reporting - not that there's anything wrong with that! I've been writing his story for two-and-a-half years now, and I'm amazed I've kept anything going that long.

This particular chapter is still young, but to check in on the awards evening and see that Part II had won Best Rest of the World Story was a huge encouragement to keep going. To see Owain, by far the personality I've invested most in on FMS, share Best Character with one of 10-3's finest creations was hugely satisfying given the original aim of the story, and then to see my name next to Writer of the Year was something completely unexpected - there are so many excellent writers on the forums, and I'm hugely grateful that you count me among them. So, in short, thank you to all who voted for little ol' me and my creations.

There's plenty more to come from Owain, but at some point in the not-too-distant future I'll be pausing this to spend some time on a couple of other ideas I've got floating around. For now though, thank you once again for all your support and encouragement - it means to lot to know people are both reading and enjoying my work.
-- 

Owain has, in a very short space of time, shown himself to be committed to Southampton Football Club, and to be a manager who knows how to get the best out of his players. Although we both know that this is an ongoing project, the board members and I are unanimous that he is the right man to take this club forward into the future, and look forward to working with as he leads us down that path.

“Neither Owain nor I will be discussing the financial details of the new contract, but I can tell you that he is now contracted to manage this football club through to the end of the 2029-30 season. I’ll take a handful of questions, but I’m afraid there isn’t a huge amount of time available today - the club has a very important match against Wolves tomorrow, and Owain and his staff need time to prepare for that.”

Although I had wondered whether or not staying with the Saints for the long run would be the wisest decision for my mental health, in the end I found myself with very few other options. If I decided at this point to maintain control only until the end of the season, I would be announcing myself as a liability to any future employer. Not only that, but I already felt like I was a good fit for the club, and as I had discussed with Rachel, our family was nicely settled in the area.

Ultimately it was my wife’s approval that sealed the deal. Bethan and Rebecca were looking forward to their first Christmas in the UK since we had left Prestatyn all those years ago, and were doing well in their new school. Rachel was happy, so were our children, and I made a complete set - turning the club down on those grounds would have flown in the face of common sense.

A three-and-a-half year deal starting at £70,000 per week - numbers which put me amongst the six or seven best-paid managers in England - brought security, stability and a sense of trust, as well as the confidence of Mr Krueger and his board. Dean Thomson saw nothing awry in the deal, and so I signed it twice - first in the privacy of the chairman’s office, and then again for the cameras, scribbling away in front of the press pack. It also put an end to one of my background worries.

To celebrate, we hosted Wolves the following day, and scraped past them by a single, lucky goal. Goalkeeper Will Kendall was the made credited with gifting us the win, his back turning the ball over the line after Forsberg’s first-half header came back off the post. My counterpart John Terry was not a happy man at full-time, having seen an equaliser ruled out by the offside flag, but the decision was the right one and I had little time for his protestations.

We were up to 5th, I had a new deal, and suddenly everything seemed to be running smoothly once again.

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“Can you believe it darling? Our little girl, going to big school. It doesn’t seem like five minutes ago that she was a tiny little thing.”

Rachel was in a reminiscing sort of mood, and with good reason - the girls’ school had sent us a letter, reminding us that Bethan would be moving up to secondary school in the following September, and outlining the key changes that would be taking place.

One of the factors which had influenced our school choice had been that both primary and secondary education took place on the same site, albeit in a different building - meaning that Bethan and Rebecca would still be able to be dropped off at, and picked up from, the same place each day. More worrying for my wife and I was the sheer speed at which this all seemed to have happened - it would not be long before our eldest daughter would be deciding on whether or not pursue a university education or enter the world of work.

Based on her interests and her character, I already had an idea of what she might like to get on with. Although there had been one or two academic blips on her record over the years, she had suffered nothing of the sort since arriving in Romsey, and was excelling in the humanities - literature, arts and drama. Moreover, her favourite pastime seemed to be finding new and often unexpected ways to liven up her bedroom - often with impressive results for one so young. To my mind, she was destined for the world of art and design.

Rebecca on the other hand, although a little younger, was less easy to read. One day she would be impossible to tear away from a book, the next she would show no interest. She seemed at her happiest in nature, whether watching the birds from her bedroom window or enjoying the wild of the New Forest. She was a contented child, but not one you could plot a path for.

Still, even as their father it was not for me to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do with their lives - after all, my experience of the ‘real world’ was somewhat limited. My micro-managerial tendencies occasionally spilled out into their homework or choice of reading material, but Rachel was a constant reminder that I needed to let the girls grow on their own. Too much interference, too much meddling, and I’d become the parent they didn’t want to know.

That was not something I wanted to let happen, and so it was perhaps for the best that I had a demanding squad of professional footballers to manage instead. December would be a busy month, and not only because I needed to get my head around Christmas with my family. My Southampton squad would face no fewer than seven matches over the course of the month, including games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and league leaders Manchester United. We had a real chance to put ourselves into Champions League contention in December, but equally we risked losing sight of the leading pack if we slipped too badly. Either way, it would be a busy time indeed.

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Kevin Kyle had never been my favourite footballer - I was generally a fan of those with a little more finesse than the former Scotland striker - but I had to admire his management career so far. Starting off with a series of unfashionable clubs north of the border, he had then moved to earn his stripes in England, guiding Blackpool to the Championship before taking the job at our next opponents, Stoke City.

His grit and strong work ethic seemed to be the basis for the Potters’ game plan too, as the relegation battlers fought tooth and nail for their point against us. Romanian winger and talisman Dan Grigoras opened the scoring on the break midway through the first half, and although we eventually levelled when Henrique volleyed in Ifan’s free-kick, the home side were suitably disciplined to keep us out for the remaining 20 minutes. Stoke may not have been pretty, but they were effective - a throwback perhaps to the Tony Pulis days of yesteryear.

Late that night, I enjoyed football of the more flowing variety, staying up late to watch my old friend Clint Dempsey and his Seattle Sounders in the final match of the American football calendar. My old club had picked up where I had left off, cruising to the top of the Western Conference and booking their place in the MLS Cup final against Columbus Crew in search of yet more silverware.

At the end of the 90 minutes, I sent Clint a message of congratulations before heading to bed - the Sounders outplayed their opponents from the first whistle, bouncing back from a dubious early penalty call to win 3-1, a brace from Loric Kalenga and a third from Ollie Cosgriff more than enough to lift the trophy. While there was a fleeting moment in which I felt jealous of Dempsey’s success with what remained largely ‘my’ team, I was genuinely pleased for the man - as a fan favourite, any failure risked destroying his reputation. Instead, he had only added to his legend.

I caught up on my lost hours on the short flight to Malaga, where I took a shadow squad for the final game of our Europa League group. Barring a catastrophic collapse for Schalke against Standard, we could not catch the Germans at the top of the group, and were already guaranteed to move on to the knockout rounds in February. As such, I had the chance to hand continental experience to some of those on the edge of the first team, and did so happily.

Those selected did not disappoint either, showing our Spanish opposition that even our second team was good enough to give them a game. After an initial burst of pressure from our hosts, we gradually worked our way into the ascendancy, and 10 minutes before the break found ourselves in front, Lloyd Collins playing in John Ruane and the former Manchester City man making no mistake with just the keeper to beat.

That solitary goal was enough to claim the three points, a fine defensive performance in the second half seeing us home with a clean sheet to go with the victory. The only blemish on our record came five minutes from time, when Collins foolishly clipped the heels of an opposing midfielder when already on a yellow card, leaving us to see out the remainder of the game with 10 men. The Welsh teenager would no doubt learn from the disappointment, but had already shown his undoubted potential by assisting the winning goal.

With the draw for the knockout rounds still a week away, our attention then moved to our next encounter, and the small manner of a cup quarter-final, against no less a side than Arsenal. After thrashing them 4-1 in the league, the Gunners would most certainly be out for revenge, and it was up to us to deny them that satisfaction.

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I was already exhausted by the time we lined up to face Arsenal. Since landing back in the UK from Malaga, I had spent my time preparing the team and also trying desperately to ensure my Christmas shopping duties were carried out to the best of my abilities. Those abilities may have been restricted to a couple of late nights online and mad dash round town, but by the time the Gunners arrived at St Mary’s I felt that at least I was done on one front.

In the first game between the two sides this season, we had taken the lead after less than a minute, and it would have been a brave man to bet on the same outcome this time. Yet, astonishingly, before the visitors had even touched the ball, Kenan Kus found himself in space inside the penalty area, took a touch to steady himself and then powered the ball beyond the goalkeeper. The clock read just 15 seconds.

In the first game between the two sides this season, Arsenal responded in rapid fashion, getting themselves back on level terms within 10 minutes. This time, with fans in the stands wondering just how many goals they were going to see in one evening, the Gunners netted twice in the same timeframe. This time their comeback came through Lauge Klausen, the Danish schemer beating Jack twice in five minutes to turn the tie on its head. After such a strong start, we had it all to do.

Unlike last time, we couldn’t do the job before half-time. In fact, by the time the whistle blew for the interval, some of the spectators were perhaps a little disappointed - far from the feast of goals promised by the manic opening spell, neither side was able to add to the scoring. Roberto Martinez and his men were undoubtedly the happier of the two teams, and the onus was on us to turn things around if we harboured semi-final ambitions.

And we did. Four minutes after the restart, Boyd Clarke muscled his way past a challenge in the penalty area, resisted the temptation to go to ground, and instead sidefooted a shot into the far corner of the goal to restore parity. Six minutes later, Ross Ifan found himself with time and space on the edge of the box, saw no options ahead of him, and so simply lofted the ball into the top corner to put us 3-2 ahead. Martinez shook his head in disbelief in the opposite dugout, and once again our two teams were putting on a real show for the fans.

This time, Arsenal were not dead and buried however, and had little choice but to come at us in a bid to get back in the game. Our rapid-fire double had stunned them - of that there was no doubt - but they had the ability to put up a real fight, and so it showed as slowly but surely we were forced to retreat into our defensive shell, focusing less on adding our tally, and more on keeping the Gunners at bay.

That is, until 10 minutes from the end, when Klausen, on a hat-trick, fired a shot in from 20 yards which had Jack beaten all ends up. Fortunately for our keeper, the ball cannoned out off the post to the feet of Luke Shaw, and suddenly we were away on the break. Shaw fed Henrique who found Ifan, and the Welshman’s ball for Cohen was inch-perfect. So was the finish, and once again we had beaten the Gunners and scored four in the process.

When all the fuss had died down and the obvious questions from the assembled journalists answered, the draw for the semi-finals was made, and it made for interesting reading. While we had been putting on an exhibition against Arsenal, John Terry’s Wolves had taken Manchester United, who had knocked out their city rivals in the previous round, to penalties and won. They would stand between us and the final, with the two-legged tie to be played in the new year.

On the other side of the draw, Burnley would take on Championship leaders Aston Villa for a place at Wembley. By reputation alone we were the biggest team left in the competition, and indeed the odds-on favourites with more than one of the major bookmakers. The annual favourites had fallen by the wayside, and all of a sudden the trophy seemed like a real possibility.

Of course, we could not get carried away - we had only scraped by Wolves in the league, and with a route into Europe at stake they would be ready to put everything on the line to get past us. On the other hand however, it seemed like the door had been opened for us to walk through. We would have to be wary of complacency, but the prospect of silverware in my debut season was an alluring one, and we certainly had the ability to make it happen. If we could beat Arsenal, we could certainly beat the remaining three teams.

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I couldn’t quite believe what I was watching.

Not content with lifting the MLS Cup, Clint Dempsey and the Seattle Sounders had jetted off to Morocco for the annual Club World Cup, representing their continent as holders of the biggest prize available to them.

As North America’s entrants they joined in at the quarter-final stage. Brushing aside local favourites Raja Casablanca 3-0 in the last eight, they were then drawn against the toughest possible opposition in the semis - UEFA Champions League winners Barcelona. It would be one of the most difficult games in the club’s relatively short history, and may expected a hammering.

And yet, as I watched online, Clint’s side were not only holding their own against the European champions, they were beating them. A defensive mix-up in the opening 10 minutes had let Loric Kalenga in to sneak the opener in at the near post, and with time running out for the Catalan side, they had held firm to keep the score at 1-0, troubling their opponents on the break and keeping them honest. As much as I hated to admit it, beating Barcelona on neutral ground would far surpass any of my achievements with Seattle, and I was cheering them on to that end.

Less than 10 minutes later, I had my wish. The referee’s whistle brought an end to one of the competition’s great shocks, and the Sounders were heading to the final in three days’ time. There they would face Copa Libertadores champions Velez Sarsfield, and on the basis of this individual performance, they stood every chance of being crowned world champions. To some, it was a meaningless trophy, but for a club outside of Europe to lift the trophy was still a remarkable achievement.

A couple of days later, we had our own draw to worry about, as the great, good and corrupt of UEFA assembled in Switzerland to determine the knockout rounds of the Champions and Europa Leagues. In the second-tier competition we were always going to be something of a sideshow, but after the likes of Manchester City and United found out their next opponents, attention finally turned to ourselves and the many teams vying for a place in the latter stages.

Given some of the teams that were dropping out of the premier competition into the subsidiary, we dodged a bullet with our draw. On the other hand, we were indeed matched with a Champions League drop-out, and to make matters worse would have to be travel to one of the most hostile grounds in Europe for the deciding second leg. Fenerbahce were to be our opponents, and with no clear favourite for the tie, we would certainly be tested.

If we made it past the Turks, our opponents for the round of 16 would be either FC Basel or Spanish giants Atletico Madrid. All three of our potential opponents were regular fixtures in the Champions League so we were bound to have our work cut out for us, but even so I was quietly hoping that the Swiss outfit managed to upset the odds in their tie. If we made it into the quarters, we stood just as much chance as anyone did of getting to the final.

But before we could worry about all that, we had two more months of Premier League action ahead of us, starting on Saturday with a trip to table-topping Manchester United. The Red Devils were top of the table under long-serving boss Jurgen Klopp, and were hoping to edge out the blue half of the city to clinch the title. If they played to the best of their ability, we could be in for a long afternoon. If we played to ours, we could cause yet another upset.

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Just after the half hour mark at Old Trafford, I had my head in my hands. The words of consolation from assistant Terry McPhillips that ‘he might miss it’ fell on deaf ears and, surely enough, Dann Mutombo crashed home the penalty that brought United level and put them in the ascendancy.

Until that point, we had been the better team. Boyd Clarke had put the act among the United pigeons after just 11 minutes, meeting a free-kick whipped in from the left side to loop his header beyond the reach of the goalkeeper. Our pressure off the ball and pace on it caused Klopp’s men no end of problems, and we were in charge of the match.

Then came the moment of madness. Paraguayan winger Rodrigo Acuna popped on on the opposite flank, took a run at Kenan Kus, and looked to have him beaten. Our captain, however, had other ideas, sticking out his boot to direct the ball into touch without so much as touching Acuna. Of course, he went to ground anyway, and in front of the Stretford End, the penalty was given.

That was the spark United so desperately needed, and despite having cheated their way to parity, they were desperate to take the lead. Hamish Jack became by far the busier of the two goalkeepers, parrying away three attempts in the five minutes after the goal, until the inevitable - Acuna, the villain of the peace as far as we were concerned, drifted in behind Danny Cavill to meet a cross from the left, finding the back of the net and belly-sliding across the drizzle-soaked turf in celebration. The irony was not lost on me.

In the second period, we fought back. Ifan and Bright were our creators-in-chief, and while they enjoyed plenty of time on the ball, everything they played forward to Clarke and Escalada was either a touch too heavy or brilliantly intercepted by the home defence. Midway through the period, Bright elected to take matters into his own hands by unleashing a rising shot from the best part of 30 yards, only to see it crash off the crossbar and out of play. Luck was not on our side.

The final whistle blew with the scoreline unchanged, ensuring United stayed ahead of Liverpool at the top of the table, and leaving us some way short of the Champions League spots in 7th. Shaking hands with Klopp at the end of the game, he was gracious in success, acknowledging that we should have taken at least a point. It’s easy to be kind when you’re winning.

The same feeling of frustration came through three days later when, at home to Chelsea, we squandered an ideal opportunity to collect all three points. Ross Ifan had opened the scoring for us with a well-placed effort in the first half, but with a quarter of an hour to go the visitors levelled without having a shot on target. Aswad Payne was their unfortunate hero, sliding in to cut out a cross and succeeding only in clearing it over the goalline and beyond Jack. Jose Mourinho, back for his third spell with the Blues, knew his side had escaped, but refused to admit it to the press.

That was our final pre-Christmas encounter, with three days before the big day and a fourth before a Boxing Day trip to Tottenham. With the players given a couple of days off to spend with their families, I was already looking forward to seeing my own.

Before then, I was sending yet another message of congratulations to North Africa. Despite taking on the champions of football’s two most powerful continents, two goals from Bheka Sibandze cancelled out an early opener to crown Seattle Sounders the world club champions. Clint Dempsey was breaking new ground with my old side, and deserved all the plaudits he was getting. Well, some of them anyway.

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Christmas was, of course, wonderful. Living on the South Coast we were unlikely to see snow, but it was nonetheless suitably festive thanks to the chilly weather and the efforts of our Chilworth neighbours. Bethan and Rebecca were both far too excited to sleep much later than 6am on Christmas morning, and so they, accompanied by two rather bleary-eyed parents, bounded downstairs to open their presents in the glow of the tree and pale light of the morning.

Both of the girls were delighted with, well just about everything. With money no longer a concern thanks to the generosity of employers both past and current, Rachel and I had to try hard not to simply spoil our daughters with everything they wanted, but this year we had done a reasonably good job. A couple of larger presents each - this year they had both wanted bikes, which suited us nicely - and several smaller gifts kept them entertained through the morning, and hopefully for weeks and months to come.

Rachel’s lunch was both delicious and oversized, meaning that much of the afternoon was spent in a pleasant daze somewhere between a snooze and the waking world. Rebecca seemed quite happy to join her parents in a state of half-nap, while her older sister delved happily into her newest possessions. By the time the evening rolled around as we took our traditional walk around the block to take in the lights, the day was complete.

Rachel neglected to join me the following day, which was understandable given that we were away in North London, but Tim Sherwood - another manager who had returned to an old club - and his side were not in a particular festive mood. First they cancelled out Canini’s goal with a spectacular free-kick from Bright Chioma, and then claimed a point late on, Anglo-Italian striker Tardocchi beating Jack after an own goal had put us 2-1 to the good. The draw was probably a fair result, but to be pegged back twice was somewhat frustrating.

We were not playing badly - we could arguably have beaten all three of our most recent opponents - but suddenly we were without a win in three, and risked being nudged out of contention. We had already slipped to 8th in the table, and so the visit of Gianfranco Zola’s Reading to St Mary’s took on added importance in the final match of 2026.

As such, I feared the worst when Michael Pell, an attacking midfield player on the fringes of the England team, levelled the game with just 25 minutes left on the referee’s watch. We had edged the first half, taking a deserved lead through Escalada, but the equaliser midway through the second period had us preparing for yet more dropped points. Clean sheets were becoming the stuff of legend, and we weren’t being clinical enough at the other end to balance things out.

This time, we did find the breakthrough. After being the fall guy against Chelsea, Aswad Payne had played like a man possessed ever since, and so it was only fitting that the centre-back got the winner. It came with just five minutes to go - far too late for Reading to respond - from an Ifan free-kick, the block cross being recycled back into the area for our defensive stalwart to fire home from eight yards. It was a good way to end the year.

It was a year which ended with Manchester United on top of the Premier League, their 47 points from 20 games one more than Liverpool and four more than Manchester City. Our recent opponents Chelsea were four points further back having played one fewer game, with London rivals Arsenal chasing them in 5th place. Everton had done well to creep into 6th, while we and Spurs sat in 7th and 8th respectively, locked on 32 points and separated by goal difference alone. Watford in 9th were perhaps the final team to harbour any ambitions of Europe, while at the bottom, any two of Norwich, Stoke, Reading, West Ham and Swansea could end up joining the doomed Brentford in next season’s Championship. With half the season still to go, we had everything to play for.

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The first days of 2027 came with a huge pat on the back for my scouting team. The staff I had reporting back to me at Staplewood was far larger than any team I had previously managed, and we had the financial capacity - not that we lacked it in Seattle - to scour every corner of the globe for talent. If the next big thing happened to turn up in Bangladesh or Barbados, we had just a good a chance of spotting him as anybody else.

January, of course, is a time for arranging transfers, for tempting out-of-contract stars to head in your direction and spurn the advances of rivals clubs. Often, this is played out over several weeks, frustrating both player and club alike as the details are hammered out. This time, thanks to our scouts identifying their targets early, we were ready.

On New Year’s Day, we announced the cut-price signed of Callum Jacobson from league leaders Manchester United. The 23-year-old Welshman had not quite managed to break into the first team at Old Trafford, but certainly had the technical ability to score goals aplenty. He would be phased into the rotation on a similar footing as John Ruane, but for just £750,000 and £50,000 per week, he was a bargain even if he never made it past back-up status.

The following day, the Bosman announcements came thick and fast, with two of Europe’s brightest prospects agreeing to swap their current homes for St Mary’s in the summer. The first of those was another striker, Reiner Kramer, who had been identified as one of the top talents in Dortmund’s youth programme. A more adult wage and the promise of semi-regular cup football was enough for the 19-year-old to make the change, and we were delighted to have him on board.

Next came a lesser-known name, Dmitri Nikulin. Having been brought up through the develop squad of midtable Russian makeweights Amkar Perm, he had already begun to excel in the attacking midfield role, despite not yet reaching his 20th birthday. Work permits made the deal that little more complicated than Kramer’s, but for no fee and only a four-figure weekly wage packet, he too would become a Saint in July.

But the third of the signing to be announced that day - his confirmation not coming until a brace from new boy Jacobson had helped us to a 3-1 FA Cup win over Doncaster - was perhaps the most significant of the lot. Defensive midfield was by no means a weakness, but equally with two men shielding the defence, we needed quality of depth to cover injury, suspension, and the large number of competitions we were involved in. Henrique, Alejandro and Forsberg had all played while, but Hossam was more suited to centre-back than midfield.

Benjamin Blanc was a solution to that particular problem. A tough tackler, cultured ball-player and current French international, he was a strong contender to go straight into the starting line-up next season. He came at a price, but even the £70,000 per week we had promised him to persuade him to leave Lyon was a small one for such a talented player. Comfortable both destroying and creating, we had snapped up a top class player for absolutely nothing.

The day ended with the draw for the FA Cup fourth round and, fittingly enough given that we had fielded five Welshmen in defeating Doncaster, we would host Swansea in our next tie. Given that we had stuck four past them in our League Cup encounter earlier in the season, I suspected we would relish that particular match-up more than the Jacks.

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Before we could worry about the FA Cup, we had the League Cup to contend with. Having made it to the final four, we would take on Wolves for a place in the Wembley showpiece, and we were heavy favourites to get the job done. We travelled to Molineux for the first leg, and when Lucio Escalada put us ahead with a curling finish after just five minutes, some of the travelling fans might have been forgiven for expecting the floodgates to open.

But as much as we could be relied upon to score goals, we were also fairly dependable when it came to conceding them. John Terry’s men were not about to give up the hope of early-season silverware easily, and so when veteran winger Ricardo Kishna’s free-kick found the back of the net midway through the second half, it was no less than our hosts deserved. They would come back to St Mary’s level, with everything still possible in a 90-minute shoot-out.

Owain, there are plenty of fans who will be very disappointed to see Sallahi go after so many years of service to the club. Do you feel like you’ve been a bit harsh by selling someone widely regarded as something of a legend at Southampton?

It was the right question to ask, and a difficult one to answer. Ylli Sallahi was rightly a legend at St Mary’s for his decade of service, but hadn’t played a single minute under my management and was eating up £80,000 each week of the club’s budget. I could think of many better uses for £4 million, and the fact that no major club came in for him seemed to justify my actions.

“Of course I have the greatest respect for Ylli, and I wish him all the best with his new club. He’s been an excellent role model while I’ve been here, and some of our younger players can learn a lot from the way he approaches the game.

“When you respect a person you want to see them do well, and unfortunately with Luke returning to the club and Danny Cavill making great strides as well, Ylli hasn’t been able to break into the team. When you get to his age you do want to be playing first-team football, and it simply wouldn’t be fair to keep him here simply to mentor the youngsters. He wants to be playing, and hopefully he’ll get the minutes he needs at his new club.”

“Was it a surprise for you that he chose to leave for China rather than another Premier League or European club?”

“It always raises a few eyebrows when somebody goes off the beaten track, but Guangzhou are a big club and football is only getting bigger in China - I think we show our ignorance when we talk of it as an ‘emerging market’ given how popular the sport already is. He isn’t the first high-profile player to move there, nor will he be the last - and in many ways it works for us as it means we won’t come up against him any time soon.”

“On the other side of things, we’ve had confirmation you’ve signed two teenagers from Mainz today, can you give us any information there?”

“I certainly can, and we’re very excited to have them with us. Wolfgang Schottes is a very versatile defensive player happy in defence or midfield, and having seen him in action I can see that even at 16 he has a real footballing intelligence about him. Jochen Hermann is similar in that he has a vision rare for someone so young, and is a fine playmaker already.”

“With your Bosman signing earlier and now these two transfers, are Southampton focusing purely on finding young players to bring over for low fees? Have we seen the back of your changes to the first team?”

“Like any club, we are always on the lookout for young players with the ability to grow and develop into first team regulars - it’s one of the cheapest ways of building a squad, and it’s what we employ scouts for. However, we also want to be bringing our own youngsters through, and if the right player comes onto the market - whether he’s 16 or 32, English or Zambian, we’d be interested if he fits our squad and comes at the right price.”

“Does that mean there are more deals in the pipeline during this window?”

“If there were, I wouldn’t want to jeopardise them by telling you all the details at a press conference. I’m very happy with the players we’ve got and the way they’re playing, but as I said, if the right man becomes available we’d take a look. We won’t be leaving things until the last minute though, so no need to stand outside the ground on deadline day.”

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I’d missed moments like these. With the possible exception of the Arsenal game earlier in the year, the last truly magic spell I had overseen came back in the States, when they were a semi-regular feature of my Seattle side. For a manager, there was simply nothing like sitting back and watching your team carve through an opponent, knowing that your opposite number was powerless to stop it.

Everton had started well enough, even taking the lead early on through Josh Honeyman, but it was obvious that we were the better team - they barely had another shot in the first half. We had pressed and pressed, but the home side somehow kept us out for the first 45 minutes, the Goodison crowd acting as a wall of sound in front of their goal. It was frustrating, but it surely couldn’t last.

The Toffees held out for 10 further second-half minutes, and then the avalanche began. First it was Kenan Kus, our captain finding himself the man over on the right side of the area and arrowing a shot low through the keeper’s legs. From the restart we hounded our hosts and won the ball back in their half, Escalada playing it to Adam Bright for our second goal in two minutes.

Five more passed, and we had the ball in the net a third time. This time Bright was the architect, his blistering pace carrying him past two men and into the penalty area. Everton’s goalkeeper had little choice but to try and narrow the angle, but in rushing out he managed only to leave the goal open for Escalada. The ball came square, the finish was rolled in, and we were 3-1 to the good.

Finally, we put an end to things in the 65th minute with a more conventional goal, Kus crossing for Mina to head home and net our fourth goal in just 10 minutes. It was truly breathtaking football, a clinic in off-the-ball movement and decision-making, and we had utterly crushed Everton’s spirit.

To their credit, the home side did get one back, a late consolation which prompted little more than ironic cheers from their remaining supporters, but the game was long gone. As our players saluted the travelling fans at the final whistle, I felt a real sense of achievement swell within me. This was my team, playing football my way, and it was working. Not only was it working, but it was beautiful to watch.

Of course, beautiful football can be frustrating football - ask any Arsenal fan from 2005 onwards - and we could not rely on a four-goal blitz every time. Indeed, three days later we racked up 27 shots at the Liberty Stadium only for Swansea to somehow claim a point from a goalless draw - Mina twice striking the same post - and our momentum was checked again. Even so, it felt as if we finally had an identity. I knew what Southampton Football Club stood for, and I was happy to be the figurehead of that. It felt like a significant moment.

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West Ham were struggling, and in real danger of going down. They were one of a handful of times scrapping for their lives at the wrong end of the table, and thus far in January Matthew Upson had been unable to land any of his targets - if, indeed, their manager intended to venture into the transfer market. They came to St Mary’s on a poor run of form, having won just one of their previous six games, and we expected to take advantage of their low morale.

If they weren’t already beaten when they stepped off the coach, they were by the time the clock read 3:07pm. Having already taken control of possession, we put our foot on the gas in spectacular fashion. Gidon Cohen collected a pass just inside the centre circle, played a quick one-two with Seb Forsberg, stretched his legs and then launched a rocket of a shot from 35 yards which flashed through the air, leaving the Hammers goalkeeper grasping at thin air as the net rippled behind him. It was a contender for Goal of the Season, and it broke the visitors’ resistance before it had even began.

Cohen was obviously enjoying himself, and was finding himself on the ball at every opportunity. The St Mary’s crowd hollered for him to shoot on every occasion, and at on such encouragement delighted and disappointed them in equal measure, feigning an effort when 40 yards from goal. He would not leave before netting a second however, and again from outside the area - a curling effort from the edge of the box that clipped the post on its way in. His second goal would be the final score of the day, and capped a thoroughly professional performance from all involved.

Three days later we had a potentially more difficult clash on our hands - the second leg of our League Cup semi-final against Wolves. John Terry had been playing up his side’s chances in the press - even going so far as to claim his players were looking forward to Wembley - and so there was already a bit of bad blood as the match kicked off. With a 1-1 draw under our belt from the first leg, we needed to be careful to make sure we finished with all 11 men on the field.

Terry was booed the moment he stepped foot on the touchline, and that set the tone for the rest of the game. A few strong challenges, particularly from the British players on either side, in the opening 10 minutes gave referee Mark Winterburn plenty of work to do, and to his credit the official managed things well, flashing one yellow card to either side and calling on the captains to calm things down. Eventually they did, but it was the challenges rather than any goalmouth action which would dominate the half-time reports. We went in at the interval locked together, and with 45 minutes to decide things.

It was then that a future Saints hero was born. In the 54th minute, teenage prodigy Lloyd Collins cushioned a fizzing pass on his instep, looked up and flighted a delicate, back-spinning chip over the head of Kendall in the Wolves goal and into the net. In the 56th, he reacted quickest to a ricochet in the opposing box, opened up his body and slotted the ball across the face of goal and into the far corner to make it 2-0. Terry flew into an apoplectic rage at his defence, and I allowed myself a wry smile. Game over.

It wasn’t - we were gifted a third when Ifan’s shot was deflected past the goalkeeper by Brian Shields trying to block, and that was that. Terry refused to shake hands at the final whistle, but I couldn’t have cared less - we were in the final, and we would take on Championship side Aston Villa, the Midlands outfit beating Burnley after matching 1-1 and 3-0 scorelines. We were heavy favourites to lift the cup, and we wanted it badly.

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