Southampton is off to a flying start in their return to the Championship. With nine goals scored to just three allowed the Saints are top of the Championship table and face a run of home fixtures against some of the potential top clubs in the division.
Following 27 years in the top flight of English football, Southampton has spent the last two seasons in League 1, ostensibly because of a 10 point deduction they’d received during the 2008-09 season. With considerable financial troubles, the Saints have seen the sales of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Kenwyne Jones and, most recently, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the past 5 years. In that span the club suffered relegation from both the Premier League and the Championship and saw their parent company go into administration. Following last seasons second place finish and automatic promotion, the Saints are starting this season strongly as they push for successive promotions and a return to English Premier League action at St. Mary’s.
Under manager Nigel Adkins Southampton has won each of their first three Championship matches and their Carling Cup match against Torquay. They currently sit atop the Championship table on goal difference and, together with Brighton and Derby, are one of just 3 clubs to win every match. Their most recent win this past weekend saw them score 5 goals in a lopsided 5-2 win over Ipswich which saw a Rickie Lambert first half double and an Adam Lallana second half double sandwiched David Connolly’s 42nd minute strike. This was the latest in a string of wins dating back to the end of last season, where back-to-back 3-1 wins over Plymouth Argyle and Walsall ensure their promotion. The Saints won 14 of their last 17 matches in League 1 to finish just 3 points behind winners Brighton. Now, following an opening day home win over Leeds 3-1 and 1-0 away win at Barnsley, The Saints are beginning to contemplate what a return to top flight football would mean.
The recent sale of Oxlade-Chamberlain may well have been necessary to sustain the forward momentum of a club that invested heavily, by lower division standards at least, in a rebuild that started with new owner Markus Liebherr taking the club out of administration through the purchase of SouthamptonLeisure Holdings Plc with his company DMWSL613 Limited. Over the past two seasons in League 1 The Saints have brought in several players for large fees including Rickie Lambert. Lambert, a purchase made by former Saints gaffer and current Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, has been worth every penny of his fee, reported on The Saints own site as “in excess of £1 million”. Prior to this season, his time at Southampton has seen Lambert score 51 goals in 90 league appearances over two years. His two goals in the most recent match were his first in the league this season, but built on his season account in all competitions, having opened with a goal in the 4-1 League Cup win over Torquay United. He has recently signed a new three year deal that will see him play in Southampton through age 32 -hopefully in EPL.
Lambert is just one of several costly players who were added as the club searched for promotion and Premier League action. Former Chelsea youth player Jack Cork signed a contract with the club where he once played on loan and the Saints have also added Burnley’s Danny Fox for a reported 1.8m fee. They’ve added these top signings to the core who have been with the club through their League 1 campaigns and the combination of the new signings with returning players have them sitting top of the table early. From the Daily Echo:
Defenders Dan Harding, Danny Butterfield andAaron Martin have all had their deals automatically renewed for another year. Striker David Connolly and midfielder Oscar Gobern also look set to remain, with the club revealing they are set to start discussions over new contracts. That follows on from the news earlier this week that centre-half Radhi Jaidi has signed a one-year extension to his St Mary’s stay.
After his well constructed side banked nine points from the first three matches of the season, manager Adkins will hope a favorable schedule keeps his troops firing on all cylinders. Three of their next four matches come at home, with Millwall the first opponent. Millwall was close to the Championship playoffs last season, finishing the year in 9th, level on points with the Saints following opponent – Leicester City, an away fixture. After returning from Leicester the Saints have two matches, hosting Nottingham Forest and Birmingham. These two clubs will prove to be much stiffer test. Forest did make the Championship playoffs and Birmingham is recently relegated from the Premier League though Millwall has already met Forest, winning a home fixture 2-0 on August 13. Each of the last two seasons the Saints have posted exceptional home records, 16-4-3 at St. Mary’s in 2010-11 and 15-5-3 in 2009-10, and will need to replicate that again in the higher division if they’re to build upon their recent success.
Over the summer Forest strengthened their team with the arrival of George Boateng, Andy Reid and Jonathan Greening but the results have yet to materialize. A 1-1-1 record through three matches is bolstered by their only win, a 1-0 result over Doncaster who in all three matches has suffered that same score line. Similarly, Birmingham have not played well, losing opening day 2-1 to Derby County before a narrow 1-0 home win over Coventry. City has played only two matches, the third being postponed because of scheduling conflicts with Birmingham’s continental schedule. With the Europa League fixtures to contend with as well, Birmingham may have opened their Championship season a bit distracted. Their first Europa League match against C. D. Nacional set for Thursday August 18, and the return leg at St. Mary’s on the 25th, they will know if they’ve qualified for the group stages well in advance of their match with the Saints. Although the extra fixture congestion may see Birmingham run out an understrength squad, a win for Southampton would still be another step towards promotion. Southampton playing these three home fixtures could well provide them the edge that they need to see off their opposition in matches that will go a long way towards determining their end of season fate. To build on last season’s momentum they will rely heavily on their new signings.
Jack Cork’s career path has much more in common with his new teammates than those at his former club. Despite having been with Chelsea since childhood Cork’s playing days have taken the 22 year old to Scunthorpe, Bournemouth, Watford, Coventry, and Burnley in addition to his 2008 loan stay with the Saints where he earned 23 appearances. He clearly feels that signing with Championship club was his fastest route to a regular place in a Premier League side. Though he had captained both the U-18 and Reserve side at Chelsea Cork himself told the Saints’ website “I’ve been wanting to get away for a while and have been waiting for the right move.” Cork called his move “a massive decision” and there is no doubt that his acquisition is just that for the club.
Cork, at right, started the clubs first match of the season and played the full 90’ as the Saints enjoyed their first opening day win in more than a decade. Rested in the Carling Cup match in favor of fellow new arrival Steve De Ridder, Cork returned to the midfield and played well in the 1-0 away win over Barnsley. That match also saw Connolly and Lambert combining to score the lone goal, with Connolly heading home a Lambert chip. The latest match again featured Cork playing the full 90’. With the impressive strike tandem of Connolly and Lambert drawing most the attention around St. Mary’s Cork has been overshadowed at times but he is not the only one.
Brazilian Guly Do Prado who signed with the Saints following a successful half season loan spell, which saw him score 11 goals in all competitions, including 9 in League 1, has yet to earn a full match, getting just 71’ in the win over Ipswich, 70’ v. Barnsley and 64’ in the opening day match with Leeds. The depth of this club is apparent and should provide Adkins with a welcome headache as he looks to build a squad capable not just of promotion but one which can keep Southampton playing with England’s elite and without risking financial collapse. The Saints remember all too well that it was the insolvency and decent into administration of their former parent club that sunk them into League 1, forcing the sale of many of their star players and budding talent. While a quick ascent to the Premier League would certainly assuage the fears of short term financial uncertainly, careful management and skillful player evaluation will keep Southampton fighting for a position at the top long after this season. The rebuilding that started under Alan Pardew looks to have grown from that foundation with Adkins at the helm.
Though it is certainly getting a bit ahead of the procession to declare the season done and dusted in August, the flying start coupled with a favorable run of matches have the Saints building on an unbeaten run in League and cup play that stretches back to April 16th. With the strength of the squad largely under the age of 30 the Saints look primed to make a run at a return to top flight football.