Visitors to Southampton's training ground at Marchwood might be confused by a sign next to one of its six outdoor pitches. Thankfully, however, the players ignore the warning that "ball games are not permitted". The place is a hive of activity and there is a sense of purpose in the air. After all, not every week ends with a trip to Wembley.
You might have expected founder members of the Premier League and former FA Cup winners to turn their noses up at the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, but Southampton, having sold out their ticket allocation long ago, will take 44,000 supporters to Wembley for tomorrow's final against Carlisle United. It will be a day when the trauma of the last five years following relegation from the Premier League can be forgotten.
The club formed in 1885 by members of St Mary's Young Men's Association were once a watchword for stability – in 30 years from 1955 they employed just two managers, Ted Bates and Lawrie McMenemy – but until last summer Southampton were in semi-permanent turmoil. When Alan Pardew was appointed he was their fifth manager in 19 months.
The effects of those doom-laden days are still felt – Southampton would be on the brink of the League One play-off positions but for a 10-point deduction for going into administration – but the arrival of a new owner has brought renewed optimism. Markus Liebherr wants to build for the future. The facilities at Marchwood – including an indoor pitch – put those of many higher-placed clubs to shame, but the billionaire Swiss businessman plans a major redevelopment. The notices on the walls of the team meeting room speak of a collective effort. "Nobody is blamed!" one screams. "All of us are accountable."
While Liebherr keeps a low profile, his chief executive, Nicola Cortese, makes no secret of the desire for success. "I have no problem with that," Pardew said during a break from preparations for tomorrow's match. "Markus has ambitions to fulfil – a new training ground, building a new team, investing in the infrastructure of the side and the academy – and Nicola is seeing that out. He's putting pressure on us to deliver. That's his job."
Having brought in several new players last summer, including Rickie Lambert, a £1m striker from Bristol Rovers, and Radhi Jaidi, formerly with Bolton and Birmingham, Pardew was active again in January, when his signings included Jose Fonte, a £1.2m purchase from Crystal Palace. If form has been patchy – a recent 1-0 home victory over Leeds in front of 30,794 was followed by defeat at home to Swindon – that is understandable, given the rebuilding programme.
Nevertheless, Pardew's employers might not always agree. "It's sometimes difficult to explain this league to them," he said. "League One is sometimes not easy to sum up when you go to somewhere like Millwall or to Exeter on a really boggy pitch. It's difficult to explain why we haven't sometimes played as fluently as we should. I'm trying to educate them in what this division's about. I've been in it before. It's a tough, tough world."
Pardew played at the old Wembley in 1990 in an FA Cup final for Crystal Palace, saw Steven Gerrard's injury-time goal deny his West Ham team glory in the final in Cardiff 16 years later and experienced joy and despair with the Hammers in play-off finals. "My biggest high would have been winning the play-off final with West Ham," he recalled. "The club were in a very bad position, way worse than they are now. David Sullivan should have seen the books then. If we hadn't made it the club would have been in big, big trouble."
Tomorrow's final might seem small beer in comparison, but Pardew said it would be a special day. "I'll be leading out a fantastic club," he said. "This club has had great players and managers in the past, so it will be an honour to do that.
"The team have been fantastic this year. After that 10-point deduction we've had to build as we've gone along. The players I inherited who didn't get a game have been solid throughout. In a way I get to reward them with this game because they get to play, as the guys I recruited in January are obviously unavailable."
Carlisle go in search of only their second Wembley triumph following victory in this competition 13 years ago. The Cumbrian club are one place behind Southampton in the table, but are otherwise in a different league. Although they will have 20,000 fans at Wembley, the average gate at Brunton Park of just over 5,000 is well below Carlisle's break even figure and the club warn of budget cuts to avoid going into administration. That is a fate with which their opponents are all too familiar.