If Arsene Wenger's side were expecting their hosts to be genial after a relaxing mid-season break on the west coast of Ireland they were under a misapprehension as Southampton returned with a whirlwind display of determination and commitment. They played the champions at their own game, hustling, bustling and harrying their way to an important point.
Even the Southampton mascot was in on the deception. Before the match Super Saint, the dog, sat relaxed in the centre circle, throwing his out- sized furry paws to the heavens with an air of buffoonish exasperation at the task in hand. His team were a lot less affable and bared their teeth from the start. "We couldn't let up against them. Every time they picked up the ball I wanted one of my players in their face," Dave Jones, the manager, said.
Jason Dodd and Scott Hiley, in midfield, were exceptional in this regard as was a more experienced campaigner. Since his transfer from Chelsea, Mark Hughes has not scored in 28 games and has now been booked a record 15 times this season. But if supporters might occasionally wonder if the time is approaching when it would be kinder to take the old war horse out and shoot him, it was Hughes's will, bravery and sheer bloody-mindedness which set the tenor of Southampton's performance.
His physical battles with Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira were frankly heroic, but the Frenchman's refusal to shake hands after the match suggested that he took Hughes's fighting spirit personally, an ungracious response from a player with a six-inch height advantage over the combative Welshman. Hughes it was who came closest to scoring as he scraped a cross by Egil Ostenstad from under his feet and struck the post and later had a diving header saved by David Seaman.
In orchestral terms Arsenal retained the services of their main performers but were missing their conductor and principal soloist, with Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars absent after the Netherlands' mid-week friendly against Argentina. The first half was as discordant a composition as one might imagine from two teams who needed a victory so much; Arsenal lacked creativity while the extent of Southampton's ambition stretched only as far as inhibiting their opponent's expression.
"It's two points dropped for us," Jones said afterwards. "We're the home side and we've got to take three points." A bold sentiment given that the visitors were the champions, but Jones had a point. Southampton have an appalling away record but remain unbeaten at home in 1999.
With planning permission now granted for a new 32,000-seat stadium in the St Mary's district of the city, it may be too late to hang an intimidatory "This is the Dell" placard on the tunnel wall, but Southampton are acquiring a reputation with their tidy home run.
"Some teams would have lost here today," Wenger quite correctly noted afterwards. And there, but for the width of a post, went Arsenal.
Southampton (4-4-2): Moss; Colleter, Monkou, Lundekvam, Hiley; Ripley (Benali, 65), D Hughes, Dodd, Bridge; M Hughes, Ostenstad (Beattie, 54). Substitutes not used: Monk (gk), Williams, Stensgaard.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Keown (Bould, 86), Winterburn; Vieira, Parlour, Ljungberg (Boa Morte, 65), Diawara (Vivas, 77); Anelka, Kanu. Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Grimandi.
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).
Bookings: Southampton: Colleter, Monkou, M Hughes. Arsenal: Vieira.
Man of the match: M Hughes.
Attendance: 15,255.Reuse content