Southampton were once a fixed name in English football’s big-time, but after 27 years in the top flight they finally dropped down to the Coca-Cola Championship (formerly Division One) in 2005. Under the roof of the majestic St. Mary’s Stadium, the Saints now aim to get back into the heights of the Premier League where they spent so long.
Founded by the St. Mary’s Church Young Men’s Association in 1885, Southampton first played by the River Itchen. They played the majority of their games at The Common, although the bigger games, especially cup ties, were either played at the County Cricket Ground, or perhaps the Antelope Cricket Ground on St Mary’s Road. Success came quickly after the club joined the Southern League. After joining in 1894, they enjoyed years of dominance in the league. They took the title in three consecutive years from 1897-99, and then again in 1901, 1903 and 1904. This fuelled some large-scale expansions at the club, and they moved to The Dell in 1898, a ground where their fans would flock to for the next 103 years. However, the club could not afford to purchase the stadium at first, and had to rent it for a few years, before buying it outright in the early 20th century.
In 1899, the Saints played in their first FA Cup Final, losing 4-0 against Bury at Crystal Palace. They then returned to the Cup Final three years later, but again lost. This time they went down to Sheffield United, losing 2-1 in a Burnden Park replay (Bolton) after a 1-1 draw in the original tie.
Start of the Football League
Just like numerous other football clubs, Southampton’s squad was left somewhat depleted when a number of players were called up for national service for the First World War, but after the end of the war Southampton became members of the newly-formed Football League Division 3. The league was then divided into two regional divisions a year later, with a Northern and a Southern league. They were promoted out of the league at the first time of asking, during the 1920-21 season, entering Division 2.
When a bomb dropped on the pitch at The Dell during the Second World War, creating an 18-foot crater, Southampton had to play their matches temporarily at Fratton Park, home of South Coast rivals Portsmouth, but moved back to The Dell a short while after. They missed promotion to Division 1 by a whisker (just one point) in the 1949-50 season. Southampton then suffered demotion to Division 3 South in 1953, and it wasn’t until 1960 that they returned to the Second Division, netting a stunning 106 league goals in the process.
Saints Marching On
Southampton finally made the big-time in 1966. Under Ted Bates, the Saints came second in Division 2, and prepared for their first taste of top-flight football, against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. For their first Division 1 campaign, Bates brought in Ron Davies, who made an instant impact with a total of 43 goals. Southampton remained in the English football’s top tier for eight seasons, qualifying for European football twice. However, in 1974, they were relegated when three teams dropped down from the top division for the first time, instead of just two sides.
In 1976, Southampton found the perfect way to deal with life out of Division 1. Under the famous Lawrie McMenemy, Saints became only the second non-top-tier side to win the FA Cup. They defied all the odds by defeating the mighty Manchester United 1-0 at Wembley, Bobby Stokes scoring the winner. Their famous Cup Final victory meant they played in Europe the next season, and they reached Round 3 in the Cup Winners’ Cup, before going down 3-2 on aggregate against Anderlecht. This success springboarded a quick return to Division 1, and in 1978 they were back among the elite. They finished behind Bolton Wanderers in the table, and just a point above Spurs and Brighton. In the 1978-79 season, they were in another major cup final, but were beaten 3-2 by Nottingham Forest in the League Cup Final at Wembley.
The Dell boasted some of football’s finest talent over the years, none more well-known than Kevin Keegan. McMenemy somehow prised the twice European Footballer of the Year from Hamburg, and he helped the Saints to their greatest ever season. Also, one of England’s best goalkeepers in history, Peter Shilton, wore his gloves for Southampton. In the 1983-84 season, they came second in Division 1 to Liverpool, and reached the FA Cup Semi-Final, losing to Everton in extra time at Highbury.
Southampton revelled in four seasons of European football in the mid-80s, and in the 1985-86 season they were knocked out of the FA Cup at the Semi-Final stage again, this time losing to Liverpool at White Hart Lane. This sparked Lawrie McMenemy’s exit in 1986, and former Saints player, Chris Nicholls, took charge. In Nicholls’ first season as boss, Southampton reached yet another semi-final, this time in the Littlewoods Cup. Liverpool continued to be their nemesis, as they went down over the two legs.
During the 1988-89 season, Southampton made history by fielding three brothers in the same match, when Danny, Rodney and Raymond Wallace all played in the same Division 1 match.
In 1989-90, Southampton ended the season second in the scoring charts, bagging 71, with one of Saints’ all-time heroes, Matthew Le Tissier, netting 24. Le Tissier, voted PFA Young Player of the Year for his exploits, was Saints’ leading scorer, with his strike partner Rodney Wallace second. Le Tissier was again top of the pile in 1990-91, with 23 goals, before young prodigy Alan Shearer top-scored in the 1991-92 season. Ian Branfoot then took over from Chris Nicholls as manager, taking Saints to the Zenith Data Systems Cup Final. However, they lost 3-2 to Nottingham Forest in extra time at Wembley.
Southampton were fully prepared for the brand new Premier League in 1992-93, but lost the services of Alan Shearer to Blackburn Rovers for a fee of £3.3 million. The transfer proved a crucial one as Shearer’s goals fired Rovers to the Premier League title in the 1994-95 season. Tim Flowers quickly followed Shearer out the door, heading to the same club. Rovers paid £2 million for Flowers, a world record transfer fee for a ‘keeper at the time. Branfoot was sacked in January ’94, and was replaced by ex-club captain Alan Ball.
The legendary Lawrie McMenemy also returned to The Dell, this time as Director of Football at the club. On a nervy, dramatic last day of the 1993-94 season, Southampton avoided relegation, finishing a mere point above Sheffield United. They then had a comfortable 10th-place finish in the 1994-95 season, with prolific marksman and Premier League Player of the Year Le Tissier weighing in with a fantastic 30 goals.
More Last-Day Survivals
In July ’95, Alan Ball left the South Coast for Maine Road, handing the reins over to former youth and reserve coach Dave Merrington. Ball was made to regret his decision to leave The Dell when his Manchester City side fell through the Premier League trap door at the end of the 1995-96 season, dropping down to Division 1. After a nerve-wracking season, Southampton survived relegation by the skin of their teeth, again on the last day of the season, after a 0-0 draw at home to Wimbledon.
Merrington didn’t last long in charge, and the renowned Graeme Souness stepped in ready for the 1996-97 season. For the third time in four years, Saints avoided the drop on the final game of the season, surviving despite a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa. This prompted Souness and McMenemy to stand down, and it was Stockport County boss Dave Jones who filled the void. Saints enjoyed some brief stability in the 1997-98 season, coming 12th in the table, but the threat of relegation loomed again in the 1998-99 season, as they managed just a single point in their first eight games. However, they managed to keep their heads above water and stayed up with a heroic end to the season, winning their last three games. Charlton Athletic were the unfortunate team to go down instead.
After steering Saints away from demotion, Jones’ tenure at The Dell was cut to an untimely end at the start of the new millennium. He was shocked to find himself wrongly accused of child abuse, and Glenn Hoddle was recruited in January 2000. Jones was found innocent.
On the Up
Hoddle left for Spurs in March ’01, after helping Saints retain their Premier League status. First team coach, Stuart Gray, filled in for the final few games of the season. They triumphed in their final league game at The Dell, beating Arsenal 3-2, with Le Tissier’s magical last-minute winner a fitting end to the culmination of a 103-year era at the ground. With a new stadium came a new manager. Gray attained the full-time manager’s position in the summer of 2001, coinciding with the opening of the brand new £32m Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium, able to hold 32,000 fans.
Having won just two out of their first eight games in 2001-02, Gray was swiftly sacked along with his assistant Mick Wadsworth in October. Coventry boss Gordon Strachan was employed, and in his first season he took Saints to 11th place. In his second season (2002-03), Strachan guided them to their best-ever finish in the league (8th). They then reached their fourth FA Cup Final in May ’03, losing 1-0 to Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium.
Boss After Boss
This Cup Final appearance earned Saints a spot in the 2003-04 UEFA Cup, although they came unstuck in the First Round, losing 2-1 on aggregate to Steaua Bucharest. Shortly after, their season got bleaker still when Strachan stepped down from management at St. Mary’s to be with his family. Former Director of Youth and reserve team manager Steve Wigley took over as caretaker manager, avoiding defeat in his two games in the hotseat, before Plymouth boss Paul Sturrock stepped in. However, the managerial merry-go-round at Southampton continued at the start of the 2004-05 campaign, when Sturrock resigned after just two games. Wigley returned, this time as permanent boss, but he was out the door as quickly as he had stepped through it. Following one win in 14 league matches, he was replaced by Harry Redknapp, boss of bitter rivals Portsmouth.
After 27 years in the top flight, and surviving countless relegation scares, Southampton finally dropped out of the top flight in May 2005, after a last-day 2-1 loss at home to Manchester United to finish bottom of the Premier League. Things went from bad to worse. Any player with Premier League class headed straight through the door, and Saints’ fans were left further dismayed by the departure of manager Redknapp in December 2005 to arch rivals Portsmouth.
Dave Bassett and Dennis Wise filled in while the search for a new manager went on. George Burley eventually became Head Coach, and in the first move of its kind, Sir Clive Woodward left his duties with the England rugby team to fill the Director of Football post.
It was without doubt a shock to the system for Southampton. After decades among the elite, life in the Coca Cola Championship seemed disastrous. It hurt Saints’ fans even more, given arch rivals Portsmouth’s replacement of them in the top tier of English football. The struggle to settle into life at a lower level was summed up by a mediocre 12th-place finish in their first Championship season.
Close to Return
At the end of the 2006-07 season, Southampton just sneaked into sixth spot and the play-offs on the last day of the season, helped by five wins in their last seven matches. They set up a semi-final tie against Derby County to secure sixth spot and a play-off place. Having lost the first leg 2-1 at the St. Mary’s Stadium, they forced a penalty shootout at the end of the second leg after winning a thrilling encounter 3-2. Their play-off dream ended in penalties, though, and they now face another campaign trying to escape from the Championship.
With George Burley recently heading north for the Scotland national job, Southampton are on the hunt for a new manager. While club legend Lawrie McMenemy has offered his expertise in the meantime, Saints’ fans will hope a new boss takes the reins soon, bring back the glory days and fulfil their dream of a return to the Premier League.
- FA Cup – Winners (1976), Runners-up (1900, 1902, 2003)
- League Cup – Runners-up (1979)
- Division 1 – Runners-up (1984)
- Division 2 – Runners-up (1966, 1978)
- Division 3 – Winners (1960)
- Third Division South – Winners (1922)
- Southern League – Winners (1897, 1898, 1899, 1901, 1903, 1904)
- Record attendance – 32,104 vs Liverpool Premiership (18 January 2003)
- Highest league win – 9-3 vs Wolves, 2 September 1965
- Highest FA Cup win – 8-2 vs Coventry, 1 April 1984
- Highest league loss – League 8-0 vs Spurs, 2 March 1936 & 8-0 vs Everton, 1 November 1971
- Most capped player – Terry Paine, 809 (1956-1974)
- Most goals in total – Mick Channon, 227 (1966-1977 & 1979-1982)
- Most goals in a season – Derek Reeves, 44 (1959/60)
- Youngest player – Theo Walcott, 16 years 143 days
- Record transfer fee received – £12 million from Arsenal for Theo Walcott (January 2006)
- Record transfer fee paid – £4m to Derby County for Rory Delap (July 2001)