10-man Saints preserved by Niemi

Southampton 0 Wolves 0
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The Independent Football

On Glenn Hoddle's return to the club where he was manager for 14 months and would have returned but for supporters' opposition, they were much the more confident side, understandably so after finishing last season on an unbeaten run of 18 games - the club's best record for 81 years. But too many of them were drawn, and so was yesterday's entertaining encounter, even though they finished playing against 10 men following Claus Lundekvam's second yellow card.

As Wolves discovered, clubs relegated from the Premiership cannot automatically be deemed promotion contenders these days, because of the financial upheaval involved. Several thousand empty red seats underlined the point.

Redknapp, admitted that "in an ideal world I'd have kept seven or eight" of the players who have departed; and, presumably, would have held on to more than 50 per cent of his salary, too. As it was, only five of the starting XI from the final game against Manchester United last May began yesterday, the best news being that as talented a goalkeeper as Antti Niemi was among them despite widespread belief that he would follow Peter Crouch, Kevin Phillips and the rest out of St Mary's. Given a grateful reception by the home crowd, Niemi quickly repaid it with two fine saves in the opening quarter of an hour.

Meanwhile the club's chairman, Rupert Lowe, was doing his best in the match programme to keep spirits up with another paean for Sir Clive Woodward - an imaginative or eccentric appointment, according to your point of view - who, he says, will concentrate on "team support and individual coaching... medical fitness and analysis areas of our teams".

Analysis of the first half yesterday would have centered on the sort of ponderous defending which yielded 66 goals last season and could have cost half a dozen by the interval. Lundekvam and Danny Higginbotham have been joined by the Polish international Tomasz Hajto and Darren Powell from Crystal Palace, but cohesion was in in short supply. Carl Cort won most balls in the air against them, while Kenny Miller and Seol Ki-Hyeon, the two wide players in Wolves' vigorous 4-3-3, were a constant threat.

Then there was Mark Kennedy, with that precise left foot, who produced the first test for Niemi when allowed to run unchallenged from the halfway line and shoot from 25 yards. The Finn also saved from Joleon Lescott's header, but was helpless as Cort glanced one header wide and put another against the bar. Even with two defenders hemming him in, the lanky striker was first to reach the knock-down from his own headed flick, poking the ball wide; and in the final minute of a salutary half for the home side Seol escaped to cut back a cross for Rohan Ricketts, whose deflected low drive Niemi was fortunate to grasp.

Southampton's only threat had come from Hajto, a tall full-back with a long throw and a fierce right foot. One free-kick hit too high was the sum of 50 minutes of attacking efforts, so a promising 38-year-old called Dennis Wise, back at the club where he began two decades ago, was summoned from the dug-out to sort out the midfield. Predictably, he enlivened proceedings, initially by collecting a yellow card for holding back Ricketts.

Geed up, which was the intention, Redknapp's team had their best spell - their only one - to date, Ricardo Fuller wasting two chances. Scott Oakes, in the visitors' goal, had to make a save at last, from Nigel Quashie, but the flow had not altered completely. Lee Naylor had already curled a free-kick wide and within a couple of minutes Niemi brilliantly parried Miller's drive and Seol, calmly set up by Ricketts, hit the stanchion behind the net.

Theo Walcott, 22 years Wise's junior, became Southampton's youngest first-team player, replacing the ineffective striker Kenwyne Jones for the final quarter of an hour. His delicious footwork gave the crowd as much encouragement for the future as anything else they had seen.