Sunday, 1 January 2012

2011: A Year To Remember

What a year it has been for Southampton Football Club! On and off the pitch, the Saints have been breaking records alike during 2011 and are in a great position to emulate Norwich City's achievement of back-to-back promotions from League One to the Premier League. After an eventful 2010 which included winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy at Wembley and a managerial change which kickstarted their promotion charge, nobody would have predicted the amount of success that would come towards the way of the Saints.

Cast your mind all the way back to January where Southampton were in the League One play-off places and completed a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Exeter City at St. Mary's. Now, a favourite amongst the St. Mary's faithful, Richard Chaplow signed on a permanent basis for two-and-a-half years from Preston North End. The 26-year-old would make a big name for himself when big guns Manchester United came to town in the fourth round of the FA Cup. It was Chaplow who scored the opening goal and I remember going up the stairs on the way back to my seat, turned round and saw Chaplow score and the stadium erupted! For those Saints fans who attended the match, the feeling of taking the lead against the Premier League champions was absolutely amazing along with chanting "Who Are Ya!" to the Man United fans which silenced them until they equalised. Despite losing narrowly, the Saints showed the spirit and determination that would continue throughout the rest of 2011.
MIDAS TOUCH: Golden boot of Chaplow fires Saints
into the lead against Man United
February started simularly for the Saints with a victory against Exeter City with two Rickie Lambert headers after coming from behind. The next match was to be fantastic entertainment as the Saints travelled to fellow promotion challengers, Peterborough on one Saturday evening. The neutral fan wouldn't have been disappointed with the amount of goals in the televised game with an incredible 4-4 draw at London Road when the Saints led 4-2 with more than half an hour to go. Nigel Adkins' men went on to record home victories against Carlisle and Swindon with a goalless draw at Hartlepool in between them. Southampton were still in the promotion mix, lying in fifth place in League One at the end of February.

In the same period, a sense of shock was amongst Saints fans as former defender Dean Richards passed away at 36 with losing his battle with a long-term illness. Dean was a rock at the heart of the Saints defence between 1999-2001 putting in some hard fought performances which earned him a move to Tottenham Hotspur. We will miss you Deano! R.I.P

SADLY MISSED: Dean Richards
Two tricky away games awaited the Saints when March came around with Walsall being the first stop of the double header. A match that they dominated throughout the match but still managed to end up on the wrong side of a 1-0 scoreline thanks to a goal from former Manchester City striker Jon Macken midway through the second half. The double header was completed at Colchester where goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dean Hammond secured a 2-0 victory at the Weston Homes Community Stadium. After a straightforward 3-0 home win over Yeovil, Saints were on the road again but this time to local rivals Bournemouth. The pre-match build-up was about this was the first time Saints have travelled to Dean Court in the league since 1960 in the old Third Division. The Saints ran out 3-1 winners that day and the scoreline was replicated in 2011 even though Saints had to come from behind early on through Lauri Dalla Valle's volley. Lee Barnard equalised for the visitors before goals from Dean Hammond and a superb free-kick from Rickie Lambert sealed another important three points on the road. A home victory against Sheffield Wednesday and an away draw at Charlton rounded off a really good March for the Saints.

ON YOUR HEAD!: Lee Barnard heads home
Southampton's equaliser at Bournemouth

Into the penultimate month of the 2010/2011 season, Southampton were facing a fixture overload due to other matches being re-arranged from the winter. The opening game in April is a game that all Saints fans will remember for a long time as the home game against MK Dons was a thriller and full of emotions for everyone inside St. Mary's. With the Dons going 2-0 up shortly after the break, Southampton were in need of a miracle. Nigel Adkins decided to replace Richard Chaplow with Jonathan Forte and instantly, Forte would get the hosts back into the game tapping in from close range. A couple of minutes late, Forte was at it again as he equalised for the Saints with St. Mary's beliving that they can get the winner. Their wish came true as Lee Barnard thundered in the third to complete the comeback and send the fans into raptures. Successive 2-0 wins over Charlton and Leyton Orient moved the Saints into second with two games in hand. One of those games was away to Rochdale where Adkins' men suffered a big blow losing 2-0 at Spotland. A hard-fought win against Bristol Rovers was the perfect way to prepare for the trip to leaders Brighton. It would be another key match in the Saints' promotion season as they came from behind to secure a 2-1 victory which ended the Seagulls' unbeaten home record in the process.

HEADING TO VICTORY:José Fonte scores last
minute winner at Brighton
Successive wins over Hartlepool and Brentford put the Saints into a great position for promotion as May came along. The last away game of the season at Plymouth was set. Everyone knew a win would give the Saints promotion back to the Championship. Two goals from talisman Rickie Lambert and another added by former Plymouth player Ryan Dickson sealed the 3-1 win that guaranteed promotion and the fans could relax and prepare for the celebrations against Walsall at St. Mary's. In front of a sell-out crowd, goals from Guly Do Prado, David Connolly and a superb effort from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put the icing on the cake for the Saints as another 3-1 victory cued the celebration after-party with a pitch invasion after the final whistle. It was a fantastic occasion for everyone connected with the Saints as I remember going onto the pitch a few minutes after everyone else and going towards the Itchen Stand to watch the Saints players celebrate and chanting the famous 'Oh When The Saints Go Marching In'.

CHAMPIONSHIP HERE WE COME: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates his goal against
Walsall with the pitch invasion after the match

 So the 2010/2011 season was over and it will forever live in the memory for all Saints fans as the next step was to see who they would be playing in the first few matches in August. The excitement of when the fixture list came out in June was not to be disappoint as I turned on Sky Sports News to see that Saints would play their first game back in the Championship at home to Leeds United. To start against a fellow former Premier League side was a perfect way to see how far the team have come since relegation to League One back in 2009. As always in the Championship, there are no easy matches with 19 of the 24 clubs in the league have competed in the Premier League before including Southampton.

For the rest of the summer, Southampton have had to handle transfer speculation over teenage sensation, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He is the latest to come out of the Saints Academy which also trained the likes of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale who both apply their trade at Arsenal and Tottenham respectively. Chairman Nicola Cortese was adamant that he didn't want to sell Oxlade-Chamberlain despite the top Premier League clubs interested in his services. Meanwhile, Nigel Adkins began his summer spending by signing England under-21 international Jack Cork from Chelsea in mid-July. Cork had previously played for the Saints back in 2008 on a six-month loan deal and also played under Nigel Adkins at Scunthorpe the previous season. Next to join the squad in July was Belgian winger Steve De Ridder who signed from Dutch side De Graafschap on a three-year-deal.  

In early August, the future of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was decided when he chose to follow in Theo Walcott's footsteps to Premier League giants Arsenal for around £15m. It was a huge loss for the Saints who had a memorable first season with the club scoring nine goals in all competitions. Oxlade-Chamberlain's departure meant the squad could concentrate on the first game of the 2011/2012 season against Leeds. Every football fan looks forward to the opening day of the new season after a football-free summer with the fans having different expectations. Southampton and Leeds has always produced great contests over the years and this fixture would join the selection. A terrific left-footed strike from captain Dean Hammond scored Southampton's first goal back in the Championship before Adam Lallana turned the Leeds defence inside out to curl in the second for the hosts. David Connolly increased the lead to three sidefooting the ball into the bottom corner shortly into the second half. Despite a late penalty from Leeds, It was the perfect performance from the Saints who with their slick passing and attacking threat sent a message to the rest of the Championship that they mean business. After a comfortable 4-1 win victory over Torquay in the Carling Cup, left back Danny Fox signed from Burnley however he wasn't in the squad where the Saints came out on top again, winning 1-0 at Barnsley. Southampton continued their winning run at Ipswich 5-2 and a 1-0 success over Millwall which moved them to the top of the Championship for the first time this season.  However it was fellow promotion rivals Leicester City who ended that run with a 3-2 victory at The King Power Stadium. Dutch defender Jos Hooiveld signed on loan from Celtic on transfer dealine day the day after the Saints finally got the better of bogey team Swindon in the Carling Cup second round winning 3-1.

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Dean Hammond striking the
ball against Leeds to score first goal of 2011/2012 season
Southampton's winning trend continued into September where Rickie Lambert's hat-trick put the Saints on the right side with a five-goal thriller against Nottingham Forest at St. Mary's. More goals was to come for the St. Mary's faithful as a 4-1 thrashing over Birmingham kept up their 100% home record. Saints progressed to the fourth round of the Carling Cup after Jos Hooiveld scored his first goal for the club in a 2-1 home win over League One Preston. Morgan Schneiderlin rescued a point at Burnley in a 1-1 draw at Turf Moor however luck was not to be with the Saints after a 2-1 defeat at Cardiff which was only their second defeat of the season.

BACK FOR MOR: Morgan Schneiderlin scores Saints'
late equaliser at Burnley

The Saints got back to winning ways in October with a 4-0 thrashing of Watford at St. Mary's which included two penalties from Rickie Lambert. It was the Liverpudlian who scored the equaliser at Derby for a well-earned point which set up the top of the table clash with West Ham very nicely. Jos Hooiveld headed the winner before half-time to defeat the Hammers in a tight match at St. Mary's. Next was a trip to Reading where Southampton were given a run for their money as Reading deservedly took the lead however Steve De Ridder thundered in the equaliser late on to secure a point. Nigel Adkins decided to field a second-string side for the trip to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup which worked to no ovail losing 2-0 however the stand out highlight was the terrific first team debut for James Ward-Prowse. St. Mary's was becoming a fortress as the fans saw yet another win but this time over Middlesbrough by three goals to nil to end October on a high.

SUPER STEVE: Steve De Ridder celebrates his goal at Reading

Peterborough were next to come back from St. Mary's with no success as the Saints started November with a 2-1 victory. Coventry was the next destination for Nigel Adkins' men on Bonfire Night where there were goals galore at The Ricoh Arena. The Saints were looking comfortable at 2-0 up with goals from Richard Chaplow and Adam Lallana, however, Coventry hit back with two goals of their own in a short space of time in the second half. Guly Do Prado and Steve De Ridder's goals secured a 4-2 success over the strugglers which ensured the Saints remained at the top of the Championship. The winning streak continued to three matches with a emphatic 3-0 win over local rivals Brighton where Rickie Lambert scored his second hat-trick of the season including two penalties. A third away defeat of the season at strugglers Bristol City was a set back for the Saints but fortunately, they came from behind to beat Hull 2-1 at St. Mary's to cement top place.

HAT-TRICK HERO: Rickie Lambert celebrates
 his hat-trick against Brighton
The Saints started December at bottom club Doncaster, whose striker Billy Sharp was linked with a move to Southampton in the summer. As fate would have it, it was Sharp who would score the only goal of the match to give the Saints their fourth away defeat of the season. Southampton were looking to get back to winning ways when they took on Blackpool at St. Mary's and the match was certainly an eventful one. It all started so well when Rickie Lambert's deflected strike gave the hosts the lead before Blackpool equalised through. Bartosz Bialkowski was given his first league start in over two years and it will be a match which he would want to forget as a calamitous mistake gave the visitors the lead after the ball went straight through his legs from Callum McManaman's strike. The Saints pushed and pushed for that all-important equaliser and they were rewarded in stoppage time when Lambert rose high to head home from close range to save defeat for the league leaders, however, it wasn't enough to save Southampton's incredible home run of 21 consecutive home wins in all competitions. Next up was the South Coast Derby at Fratton Park which was given the name of El Clasicoast in the build up to the match. After an even first half, Rickie Lambert headed in from Danny Fox's free-kick after the hour mark however Portsmouth scored a header of their own from local lad Joel Ward to rescue a point. The Saints faced Crystal Palace on Boxing Day in the first of a double header at St. Mary's where Guly Do Prado's two headers secured all three points but Bristol City would end the hosts' chances of an unbeaten home record in 2011 after a 1-0 defeat.

HEADS UP: Rickie Lambert heads in the opening
goal in El Clasicoast

It has been a fantastic 2011 for Southampton Football Club so to finish off, I've asked fellow Saints fans on Twitter for their favourite memories over the past year:

@Saint_Kayleigh: promotion would be the obvious one, the crazy feeling when we came back from 2-0 down to beat mk dons 3-2, the tuesday night game at Ipswich and signing some quality players!

@littlemiss_dr: Pitching invading on the 7th May. Hearing the cheers and chants of remembrance about Dean Richards in March. Missing my friends 18th to watch the United game. Being constantly astounded when walking up the steps into St. Mary's. Touring the stadium and falling in love with the beauty of it and vowing to have one celebration in my life in the Mick Channon Suite.

@willmcbean: The late winner at Brighton and sealing promotion at Plymouth have got to be right up there!

@Bennew05: 3-2 at home to mk dons. The sheer noise when Barnard ran the ball to the corner flag. Best non goal-scoring moment at SMS.

@MichelleKelly27: May 2011. Beating Walsall 3-1 and gaining promotion to the championship. St. Mary's packed and going mental :)

@hartysaintboy2: winning at Brighton in the last ten mins after going 1 nil down and beating mk dons 3-2 after going 2 down.

@Adam_Walsh1990: Plymouth away, last away game of the season in league 1. Top atmosphere, brilliant result! Basically secured promotion.

I would like to wish all Saints fans, a very Happy New Year and continue to support the lads through to what might be successive promotions!

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