Ordinarily, whichever small fry remain in the draw for the quarter-finals of the FA Cup are the ones all the big fish want. Not so Bristol Rovers, for whom a home draw tomorrow would strike fear into whoever follows them out of the bowl.
Indeed, on the evidence of this victory, Rovers will be awkward wherever they play in only their third FA Cup quarter-final appearance. Just as last season, when a glut of fixtures following various cup runs resulted in a promotion play-off win, Rovers are just starting to hit their stride.
Rickie Lambert's deflected goal six minutes from time was a long time coming as it followed numerous spurned chances for the League One side. With the striker having had a goal disallowed for pushing in the 70th minute, the rousing cheer which greeted the real winner was as much in relief as rapture.
That the low free-kick was helped past the Saints' goalkeeper Kelvin Davis by his own left-back, Jermaine Wright, lent some uncertainty as to who might claim the glory but Lambert, celebrating his 26th birthday, was happier to receive than give. "Of course it was mine," he said. "It was going in the bottom corner so in my eyes if it's on target it's got to be your goal."
It was a deserved present for Lambert, whose presence had unsettled the Southampton defence all match. But as the Rovers manager, Paul Trollope, conceded, his side's true strength comes from the collective. "We haven't got a lot of individual brilliance but we do play well as a team," he said.
"We were really pleased with the first half and created some good chances. In the second half, when they had chances, we had to defend and we did that well."
Had Rovers indeed been forced to a replay on the plush St Mary's surface it would perhaps have handed the advantage back to their opponents who never looked comfortable on or off the ball here.
Fulham had already come unstuck in the muddy hell that is the Memorial Stadium in round three and Southampton's exit was no less inglorious. Without a manager and lacking leadership on the pitch, the Championship side's indecisiveness in replacing the now Scotland manager George Burley must surely give way to urgency if their slide is to be halted.
Jason Dodd, charged with caretaker duties alongside John Gorman, was merely apologetic to the Southampton fans for another wasted journey. "Bristol just wanted it more than us which is hard to believe really," he said. "We knew it was going to be difficult on that pitch but it was the same for both sides. Maybe we're short on confidence because of not winning games but we just didn't turn up. Now we've got to prepare for a massive home game [against Plymouth on Tuesday]."
Quite how they will do that is unclear. They are unlikely to be given any more time on the ball than allowed them by Rovers, who hustled and bustled from the off. After only five minutes the Rovers captain, Stuart Campbell, volleyed wide following a flicked on throw-in on the right. From then on Rovers tended to favour that side of the pitch, and with good reason.
For starters, that quadrant boasted the most grass – a precious commodity on a surface just as used to line-outs as through balls. It was also the territory of unlikely Southampton left-back Wright, whose reliance on his right foot and his poor positional sense gave Rovers constant encouragement.
Both Lambert and his strike partner Andy Williams should have opened the scoring before half-time and after such a high-tempo display it was hardly surprising that they lacked the same bite in the second half. But still the visitors never looked like finding the net, other than when Wright found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.Reuse content