When Jay Rodriguez scored the second of his two goals against Newcastle United back on March 29th 2014, he was in red-hot form, having scored five goals in the past four matches.
A beautiful through ball by Gaston Ramirez put Rodriguez through, and his powerful finish past the hapless Rob Elliot yielded his 17th goal of the season, and was the last of a prolific run: he was showing just why the-then 24-year-old was looking set to be named in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad for England.
And then it was gone.
An awkward landing during the Saints’ next fixture away at Manchester City saw Rodriguez, born just thirty miles north of the Etihad stadium in nearby Burnley, had cruelly ruined his World Cup dream; he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
The hard work started not long after, and all the while Rodriguez was in the treatment room the very environment around him would change beyond all recognition.
The Staplewood training ground he saw as his work office was given a £40m upgrade so the environment had changed quite literally, but the manager who had turned him into a goal machine, Mauricio Pochettino, was gone that summer. His backroom staff of Jesus Perez, Miguel D’Agostino and Toni Jimenez followed him to Tottenham.
The two teammates he had linked up so well on the pitch with, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, had not only left him behind to go to the World Cup but had both completed moves to Liverpool to a combined sum of £29m. Three more in Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Artur Boruc would go too.
But whilst the club had employed Dutch legend Ronald Koeman to replace Pochettino (Graziano Pellè and Dusan Tadic for Lambert and Lallana), somehow kept hold of Morgan Schneiderlin and finished an unlikely seventh after being tipped for relegation, Rodriguez was still injured.
After rather ambitiously given a return date of December 13th, ironically against his hometown club Burnley where he started his career, it would be April 29th 2015 before he returned to full training. He had missed the entire 2014/15 season.
Southampton desperately needed him last season at times, too. When Pellè had a 15 game goal drought after scoring six in his first eight, looking increasingly weary as he ploughed on through the barren winter, Koeman would have loved to have given the Italian a rest and led Rodriguez lead the line. It was a fine four-point difference between Saints in seventh and Tottenham in fifth.
But the club stuck by him. Whilst his name was still being touted as a target for Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham (Pochettino remains a fan), his four year contract was coming to its final year and Southampton were looking likely to lose a striker touted for a £20m fee the year previous for nothing the next summer.
But Rodriguez is looking to repay Saints’ faith in him, signing a four-year extension in May to end the transfer speculation. In his first game since Manchester City, Southampton’s first match of preseason against RB Leipzig yielded two goals.
And whilst it would be naïve to assume just off the back of that 45 minutes that Rodriguez is back to the level he was at in the first half of 2014, especially as his game relies heavily on his rapier-like speed, he will effectively be like a new signing for Koeman and Saints.
Added to a front line of Pellè and Tadic; not to mention Sadio Mané, Shane Long and literal new signing Juanmi, Koeman has a front line full of options for his Southampton side, very handy as the Saints will look to navigate their first European campaign since 2003.
Whilst Southampton have lost Nathaniel Clyne to Liverpool for £12.5m, and Schneiderlin is expected to go to Manchester United for £27m too, it is a big season for Rodriguez to return. His sole England cap came against Chile in November 2013, and if he can match the kind of return that Theo Walcott made after a similar injury, adding to that cap would mean a successful return.
As Koeman looks forward to his second season at St Mary’s after a positive first year at Southampton, the Dutchman will be hoping the notoriously difficult follow up will be rather more Oasis’ “What’s the Story” than The Stone Roses’ “The Second Offering”.
With Rodriguez returning, a big fan of The Smiths, Koeman will be very confident of building on the foundations of the year before, with the striker hoping to relight a fire that burned bright in 2013/14. He will be hoping it will be a light that never goes out like it did that fateful day at the Etihad.[separator type=”thin”]
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