Football: Saints cling to vision of future

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The Independent Online
There were echoes of the past and visions of the future at The Dell on Saturday but the immediate present dominated everything during Southampton's 2-0 win over Blackburn Rovers. The football was nervy, the behaviour fractious, the spectators fearful. Just another day in the relegation dogfight.

Only when it was over, and winners, losers and neutrals had done their Premiership maths, could a sense of perspective intrude. At times The Dell seems a timeless ground. It may have an electronic scoreboard but, with its cramped wooden seats and long-serving star player, it is a throwback to the days when the likes of Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse devoted their careers to small time clubs with corrugated iron roofs.

There was an echo of those times in the presence of Ted Bates, former player, manager, chief executive and director, now a vice-president, who completed 60 years at the club on Saturday. Bates, now 79, was manager for 18 years, an inconceivable period today. One of the first managers to invest in a youth system, he took Southampton from the old Third Division to the old First on as slender resources as they have today.

Then, however, restrictive contracts meant a club could keep the players it developed. Bates recalled: "It would hurt me if I was managing today - when players move more often - and somebody I brought through from a youth wanted to go when I wanted him to stay."

Players now have more freedom, greater ambition and wider horizons. There are four current Premiership players whom Southampton would have preferred to retain: Tim Flowers and Jeff Kenna, who were in Saturday's opposition, Alan Shearer, who used to be, and West Ham's Richard Hall.

The same economics that dictated their departure mean clubs like Southampton, with their tiny ground, cannot compete with the big city clubs. Surviving relegation, having a cup run, and knocking over a big gun or two, as in defeating Manchester United 6-3, has become the summit of their ambition.

Which brings us to the vision of the future. It belongs to the new chairman, Rupert Lowe, whose affinity with the club goes back all the way to October when his property company was involved in a reverse takeover with Southampton. On Saturday Lowe envisaged Southampton being in a European super league.

This was hard to imagine watching Francis Benali and Richard Dryden but there is a new stadium being proposed, an ambitious pounds 40m development off the M27 with athletics track, indoor arena, restaurants and 25,000 seats. Southampton, claimed Lowe, "has the potential to become one of the leading clubs in Europe".

This is bold talk, and admirable in many ways. The South Coast is in danger of becoming a footballing backwater and a complex like this could give a focus to the area and reduce the number of Manchester United shirts on the streets of Hampshire.

There are a few doubts, however. As well as going for lottery funding this, said Lowe, required fans "redoubling their commitment to the Saints" and taking part in a "fund-raising drive" as the club's directors cannot make it happen on their own. Maybe not, I'm sure most supporters will be eager to help, but those directors who have made sums in excess of pounds 1m from the club's recent stock exchange listing - who include the outgoing chairman Guy Askham and the FA chairman Keith Wiseman - could set an example by ploughing their profits into the club.

All this is not, apparently, dependent on surviving in the Premiership but any length of time in the Nationwide would certainly affect potential income, not to mention the share price. How keen might the money men be then?

Such matters were far from the players' minds as they battled to save Southampton from slipping out of the top flight for the first time since 1978. Southampton, aided by passionate support, were the more committed and their endeavour was rewarded when Egil Ostenstad beat Ian Pearce and pulled the ball back for Robbie Slater to score.

Gradually, Blackburn matched Southampton's energy and their greater poise, and with Tim Sherwood prominent, earned control. Had Kevin Gallacher's spectacular 71st-minute goal not been curiously ruled out Saints could now be looking at relegation. Instead Le Tissier, who had only been on the pitch seven minutes, scored with an apparently innocuous cross which went past Flowers with the possible aid of a deflection off Colin Hendry. Two minutes later Sherwood spat at Jim Magilton and Blackburn's chances disappeared with him.

Since Southampton have played better this season and lost through defensive errors, playing poorly and winning was a relief. Maik Taylor, the goalkeeper signed in January, has become a big influence. As on Saturday it was not what he did but what he did not do which counted, no crosses were dropped, no rash decisions made, no mix-ups with defenders. His dependability has spread confidence, as has a timely run of four wins and three draws from seven games with clean sheets in three of the last four. With a difficult trip to Aston Villa to come, Southampton may still need other results to survive, but if they do, next year should be better as the many new players will be bedded in.

Rovers, who still need a point or three to be safe, can do Saints a favour in earning them against Middlesbrough on Thursday. Then they can prepare for next season, probably without Graeme Le Saux or Jason Wilcox. Blackburn are discovering, and Southampton may note, that wealth may attract players but only the prospect of honours can keep them.

Goals: Slater (21) 1-0; Le Tissier (74) 2-0.

Southampton (4-3-1-2): Taylor; Van Gobbel, Lindekvam, Dryden, Benali; Oakley (Neilson, 56), Magilton, Slater; Berkovic (Le Tissier, 67); Evans, Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Maddison, Basham, Beasant (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (3-5-2): Flowers; Berg, Hendry, Pearce (Wilcox, 81); Kenna (Ripley, 85), Flitcroft, Sherwood, McKinley, Le Saux; Pedersen (Warhurst, h/t), Gallacher. Substitutes not used: Marker, Given (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

Bookings: Southampton Slater; Rovers McKinley. Sending-off: Rovers Sherwood.

Man of the match: Taylor. Attendance: 15,247.