Others' nightmare, Southampton's dreams
I like to remain neutral whilst watching football matches that don’t feature my beloved Southampton but when Theo Walcott thumped the ball into the back of the net in the 40th minute of the FA Cup final, I couldn’t help myself but let out a loud shriek. In all fairness, it wasn’t as loud as the one that woke up my hungover flatmate when Sadio Mane netted his third goal to complete the leagues fastest ever hat trick against Aston Villa a couple of weeks prior. The reason I let out that shriek wasn’t because it was a decent finish but because it meant that Southampton were one step closer to securing Europa League football.
When the final whistle blew, I hope I was just like every other Southampton fan celebrating the club’s qualification into the Europa League, a competition that is usually greeted with groans and comments like ‘why do you want that?’. Well, I’ll tell you why we want it and I’ll also tell you why I think we have a pretty good chance of doing well in it.
Ronald Koeman’s side finished the season in seventh on 60 points, their highest every points tally and finish in the Premier League. This past season marked the fifth consecutive season that the Saints have improved on the previous season, a remarkable journey for a club that didn’t know if it was going to have a future six years ago. What Southampton have done is not down to luck. What they have done is down to meticulous planning, a drive to be the best they can be in every single area and hard work. That’s why Saints fans are celebrating qualifying for the Europa League rather than complaining about it. We know that participating in the Europa League is the natural next step in the ongoing development of our club.
Qualification into the Europa League is also credit to the club’s longer serving players who have been integral to the club’s revival. Players like captain Jose Fonte who took a risk to drop down into League One from the Championship and club captain Kelvin Davis who turned down playing for West Ham in the Premier League to stick with Saints in League One. Even though seeing Morgan Schneiderlin competing for Southampton next season is a fantasy rather than an actuality, Saints fans can’t begrudge him when, as is looking increasingly likely, he does move. His professionalism and attitude was outstanding last season after the summer fiasco and has done more than his bit to get Saints to where they are today.
But behind the players, there’s a huge network of unsung heroes that have helped steer the club away from uncertainty and towards security. Most notably, Executive Director of Football Les Reed. Even under intense criticism last summer, Reed and his team handled the situation expertly. He oversaw the shrewd recruitment, development of the new, unrivalled training complex and managed the continued focus on youth to help guide the club to such an impressive finish against the odds. Qualification into Europe is a reward to Les’ constant commitment to the club.
It is partly under the stewardship of Reed that Southampton has become such a forward thinking club that are always willing to push the boundaries. In-depth planning for the forthcoming season will have commenced long ago and the club will be exploring every opportunity to ensure the club maintain league form whilst succeeding in the Europa League. This is a club that transport the players’ mattresses from home to the team hotel on an away day and fit winter tyres to their cars when temperatures decline. The club will leave no stone unturned in the quest to enhance performances in all competitions and buck the trend of the Europa League hampering domestic displays.
Also, let’s not forget the experience in the Saints dressing room. Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama starred in Celtic’s heroic Champions League win against Barcelona in 2012. Ryan Bertrand is a Champions League winner whilst new signings Maarten Stekelenberg and Cedric Soares have played in Europe. There is European experience throughout the Southampton squad and that knowledge coupled with the youth and exuberance of youth players that will get a chance to play in the competition could stand in good stead for Ronald Koeman, who himself has played and managed in Europe.
In the space of five years, Saints have swapped midweek coach journeys to the likes of Hartlepool and Walsall with midweek flights across Europe. That’s why the club and the supporters are embracing the competition. As much as I hope and don’t think it will hamper our league form, it’s important to have perspective. The journey from the foot of League One to trying to shatter the Premier League’s top six glass ceiling has been a short one, but it’s been one that has been methodically mapped out. The past five hugely successful seasons have been memorable and qualification into the Europa League leaves Southampton in a good position to continue their rise over the next five years.
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