Southampton are back where they belong, showing an abundance of promise under the wing of Ronald Koeman. However, the south coast club has been to hell and back over the past decade, enduring two relegations and even fighting for its very existence.
Admittedly it has been a character-building chain of events, but was it all really necessary?
The name of Matt Le Tissier is synonymous with Southampton – and loyalty. Seldom has the legendary sharpshooter needed to venture much further than his Jersey birthplace to fulfil his life ambitions. He married his childhood sweetheart and spent his entire career within a stones throw of the island on the other side of the English Channel.
As a midfielder renowned for near-immobility, his return of goals was phenomenal. Naturally, the bigger clubs such as Tottenham and Manchester United frequently knocked on the door and, in 1990, Le Tissier resisted the chance to join Spurs but the rumours persisted for years to come. In 1994, it was United’s turn to be linked to Southampton’s talisman…
WHAT IF… Matt Le Tisser had moved to Manchester United in 1994?
On 1 August 1994, the devastating news broke that Matt Le Tissier, the man who was the heart of Southampton, was moving to Manchester United for an astonishing fee of 7 million GBP. Naturally, Saints fans were outraged at such a development and called for the resignation of board and manager.
Much of the transfer money was spent on a young Swedish midfielder by the name of Fredrik Ljungberg, who had caught the eye during a scouting trip. It was believed that his versatility would be key to restoring the creativity and goalscoring prowess that Le Tissier provided. Unfortunately, he was injured in a pre-season training match, and would miss the first few weeks of the new season.
Two new strikers were purchased with the remainder of the money. Dean Saunders arrived from Aston Villa, along with a 21 year old striker called Kevin Phillips, who was putting in some impressive performances with non-league Baldock Town. Although the addition of Saunders was welcome, fans criticised Alan Ball for a lack of ambition with the signing of Phillips.
The new look Southampton team took to the Dell pitch on 20 August 1994 against feared title contenders Blackburn Rovers. Saunders started alongside Neil Shipperley in an ambitious two-pronged attack. The first half was an unprecedented disaster for Le Tissier-shorn Southampton, and Blackburn were 2-0 up by half time, with Shearer and Sutton having scored a goal apiece.
After a dressing down from Alan Ball, Southampton pulled a goal back through Ken Monkou from a corner, but failed to really threaten an equaliser. Changes were made by Ball, who brought on Kevin Phillips to replace Neil Shipperley. A minority of the disillusioned crowd refused to cheer Phillips onto the pitch, but their attitudes were soon to be changed.
Immediately after the substitutions, Phillips picked up the ball from midfield and nutmegged Stuart Ripley with his very first touch, before using his physique to outmuscle and outrun Colin Hendry. From 20 yards out, Phillips smashed the ball with his right foot, and it flew past Tim Flowers into the top left hand corner of the net for 2-2. The crowd at The Dell went ballistic with joy and disbelief, and this spurred Southampton to a flying start.
Meanwhile, Le Tissier was finding it surprisingly hard to settle in at Old Trafford. With Alex Ferguson going all out for the title, Le Tissier was often deployed as a support striker behind Eric Cantona. Rumours of a rift between the attacking duo were well-founded as Le Tissier’s creativity and long-range were hampering the productivity of Cantona, who preferred to run and score quickly. Eventually, Sir Alex Ferguson grew weary of Le Tissier’s daring do and transfer listed his star signing.
No sooner had Big Ben rung in the year 1995, Blackburn came in with a bid of 4.5 million GBP. Ferguson was understandably reluctant to sell Le Tissier, but with the club in dire need of reshuffling, the deal took place. With Le Tissier in the team, Blackburn were unstoppable, and comfortably overtook Newcastle and Nottingham Forest to lift the 1994/95 league title. Over the next few years, Le Tissier would go on to become a Blackburn legend.
Meanwhile, Southampton had completely forgotten about Le Tissier, as the Saunders-Phillips partnership saw an exciting blend of experience and youthful virility which relieved Southampton of their usual relegation fight. Phillips in particular was instrumental, and scored 24 goals in 1994/95, helping the Saints finish an excellent 5th. Fredrik Ljungberg was also a revelation when he regained fitness, repeatedly stunning defences with his pace and accuracy in crossing.
With the dividends from a high finish and an FA Cup run to the semi final, Alan Ball was able to muster funds from the board for another scouting trip across Europe – this time for youth players who would secure the long term future of the club.
Ball’s first port of call was France, where he persuaded a 15 year old Steed Malbranque to join his youth team after some impressive youth level performances. In addition, Ball also brought back 17 year old Louis Saha from Clairefontaine. Both players impressed enough in their trials to stay at Southampton, and were joined four years later, in 1999, by a Togolese striker called Emmanuel Adebayor.
Starting together in the youth setup, the three young upstarts gelled and played highly attractive football as the new millennium dawned. Gordon Strachan took the reins from Alan Ball seamlessly, bringing some respected internationals into the side to play alongside the trio. Southampton’s slick, fast-paced playing style quickly became a marketing tool of Sky Sports. Eventually the global influence of Sky, combined with Southampton’s move to the state of the art St Mary’s Stadium, proved sufficient enough to attract Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and his patronage in 2002.
With the almost limitless funding, Southampton finished second in 2002/03 before romping to the 2003/04 Premier League title by 15 points, etching their name into history. After his retirement in 1999, and untimely death in 2007, a statue of Alan Ball was erected outside St Mary’s Stadium.
Kevin Phillips remained with the Saints until his retirement in 2014, having been the frontman in three title-winning campaigns, scoring an astonishing 438 goals in his twenty years at Southampton. On 20 August 2014, the twentieth anniversary of his Southampton debut, a statue of Phillips was unveiled next to that of the late Alan Ball.
Exactly a year later, on the night of Blackburn’s Europa League tie against Danish side FC Midtjylland, a statue of Matt Le Tissier was unveiled outside Ewood Park.