Football: New deal for Dell boys

Saints count on fresh faces on old heads. Andrew Warshaw reports

IF SOUTHAMPTON upset Liverpool in today's first televised Premiership game of the season and go on to produce the kind of form that defied all those who predicted relegation last time round, no one will feel more vindicated than David Howells and Mark Hughes, two of the Saints' five summer signings.

For different reasons the pair found themselves surplus to requirements, at Tottenham and Chelsea respectively, at the end of last season. Christian Gross, eager to build his own squad at Spurs, did not rate Howells enough to offer him a new deal - although any Spurs fan will tell you that the balance of the team was better with Howells sitting in front of the back four. Hughes suddenly found himself pushed down the pecking order of strikers at Chelsea once Brian Laudrup and Pierluigi Casiraghi had been added to the club's ever-increasing list of high-profile foreign imports. Both Howells and Hughes felt they still had plenty to offer, and Southampton's manager, Dave Jones, with money to spend after the pounds 7.25m sale of Kevin Davies, clearly agreed.

Of the two, the peripatetic Hughes might have been expected to settle in more quickly having played in three different countries with Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea. For Howells, a lifelong Spurs fan who joined the club as a trainee, leaving White Hart Lane after 277 appearances was a wrench. Yet such has been the welcome at The Dell that all those years of service in north London have already been consigned to the back of his mind.

"It was disappointing to leave Spurs, of course it was," Howells, who is still only 30 and looks leaner and fitter than ever, said. "Some managers fancy you, others don't. Football is a game of opinions. But it's not something I'm going to get bitter about. I could see it coming. I've got my mind around it and I'm just looking forward to playing for Southampton. Everyone at the club has been fantastic, from the chairman to the cleaning lady. My mind is totally focused on what Southampton might achieve."

Achieve? Southampton? The two may not seem synonymous but Howells, who arrived on a free transfer, chose the Saints ahead of two Premiership clubs and three from the First Division. "It's a big city with a big catchment area. Potentially they could be a big club and that's what I could see in the manager and chairman's thinking."

Howells, whose family will shortly be moving into a new house in Hampshire, has had little contact with his former team-mates. Not for any negative reason, just because of his desire to concentrate on the future. "I spoke to Darren Anderton at the England-Argentina game and I sent Ian Walker a message on the birth of his daughter. Otherwise I haven't been in touch with anyone. I'm sure it will be difficult when we play Spurs and of course I hope they do well this season, but I don't really want to talk about Tottenham any more."

Jones takes the view that Tottenham's loss is Southampton's gain. "We all knew what David was capable of and when he became available we were lucky to get him," he said. "It was a big decision for him: he'd been at Tottenham a long, long time. Sometimes players need a fresh challenge and we're delighted he's here."

The same goes for Hughes, bought for pounds 600,000 to add experience to the forward line after the departure of Davies. Memories are short in football, but if it wasn't for Hughes' crucial goal in the second leg of the semi-final, Chelsea might never have reached last season's European Cup Winners' Cup final and won the trophy.

Yet Hughes, just like Howells, shows no bitterness. "It's the nature of the game," said the Welsh international, who will be 35 in November. "Chelsea have gone out for quality players. The problem with foreigners is when you sign them purely because they're cheaper. But Chelsea haven't done that."

Hughes is impressed by the mixture of experience and youth at Southampton and by the ambition of the south coast club, who have also invested in Stuart Ripley and James Beattie from Blackburn for a combined pounds 2.5m and Scott Marshall on a free from Arsenal. "They are not happy with being simply a homely club. They had a good season last time and are not content to rest on that.

"Beattie is only 20 and could be a great player. At the other end of the scale, there's the likes of me. A successful club is about getting the mix right. It's not just about players, it's about personalities. If you get a good group of lads together, it's amazing how far you can go."

Pre-season has been moderate but the real thing starts now. "Friendly games don't mean that much," Hughes said. "It's when you smell the hot- dogs and the greasepaint that it really matters. We're happy to be starting with Liverpool: the bigger the start for us, the better."

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