Jason Dodd must be unique. So unique, in fact, that he probably warrants a question in Trivial Pursuit. Which Premiership footballer has remained an ever-present at one club for 14 years and nine managers? The answer is this gregarious and talkative full-back who is still only 32.
It is some record and the Southampton captain reflected upon it at the club's training ground in the New Forest. "People have said to me, 'Why didn't you move', but why? We've been playing in the top division for those 14 years and the last three have been fantastic. Everyone assumes that Southampton are a struggling side and years previous to that maybe we were. We were always down in the bottom six or eight but now things are changing."
Dodd was talking the morning after Southampton's Uefa Cup tie against Steaua Bucharest which ended in a frustrating - but hopeful - draw. European football has been a long time absent in this neck of the woods partly through the ban on English clubs after Heysel (Southampton would have qualified the following season) but also because, of course, relegation has been more of an issue than tricky Romanians.
"We are now a consistent Premiership side, and the result against Manchester United shows we can beat the best," Dodd says of the club's unbeaten start to this season, which sees them fourth ahead of today's fixture against Middlesbrough. "Why would I have wanted to move? I know players who have left and I know that they would come back tomorrow. The lads are great. My family are close in Bath and I have lots of friends here."
Dodd speaks with an accent mixed between the Solent and the Avon. Bath, his home-town, means much to him. It is where his football career started after no mean record as a rugby player and a schoolboy county cricketer. It is the results of Bath City (he recently donated cash to a fund to buy out the main shareholder. "But it was not like Emile Heskey [who gave £100,000 to Leicester City]," he says quickly) that Dodd turns to first in the newspaper - although he winces as he recalls the 7-0 thrashing they received last weekend.
Not that he exists in any comfort zone. Far from it. Dodd may have provided the continuity for Saints supporters over a rollercoaster decade but he knows that for each of those managers - and in each of his 424 appearances - he has had to prove his worth.
Being the longest-serving player is not always an advantage. "It does not always work in your favour because a manager might come in and think, 'Hold on a minute, he's too settled in there and we might have to move him on'. He might think that it would be good for the new era that he is going to be bringing in. Everything is up for grabs. You have to put across that you are a decent player. It's like supporters - one likes you, another doesn't and another isn't so sure - it's the same with managers. All I can do is knuckle down."
And knuckle down he has. Indeed, Gordon Strachan's pre-season training regime is so gruelling - commonly acknowledged as the most demanding in the Premiership - that the players should be issued with "I survived St Andrews" T-shirts. "Of course it was hard work," Dodd says. "When we were there and going back to your little room and knocking the telly to try and get it to work and all we were doing was eating, sleeping, training - then of course it was hard. But you look back on it and think, 'Thank God we got through', but I don't mind because it is working."
Dodd burns with enthusiasm. Just ask him how he went to Southampton in the first place and he embarks on a long, animated, entertaining tale. Here's an abridged version. "I was at Bath City and broke into the first-team at 18 and Rod Roddick, the local Southampton scout, saw me. Chris Nicholl was manager and I had a job at the time working in the commercial department at Bath City. So I was asked down for a month's trial and I had a decision to make: did I jack my job in and give up on college? I was learning the ropes but I enjoyed it - I'm quite a decent chatter.
"So I went for it and Chris Nicholl said, 'Here's your contract, sign it'. There was no negotiation but I just said, 'Where's the pen?'. I signed for a year but was fairly lucky because I'd only played five, six games in the reserves, and Gerry Forrest was injured and Raymond Wallace had been sent off.
"There was no one else and we had York at home in the Cup and I came on for 10-15 minutes, and then it was QPR away. Neil Ruddock got me to hold out my hand and I was shaking like a leaf. I gave away a penalty and Tim Flowers saved it, and then it was Liverpool at home. Barry Horne had been injured but could have come back so I didn't expect to play.
"It was 1.30pm and the manager named the side and I was in. I put a cross over and Paul Rideout scored. We won 4-1. That season I played 20-odd games and we finished sixth or seventh. We had the Wallaces, Alan Shearer, Russell Osman, Micky Adams, Jimmy Case. It was great because they were all senior pros and I just followed around and did what I was told, make the tea and so on."
The whirlwind takes a breather. Such talk evokes images of the Dell, Southampton's former home, although Dodd does not regret leaving there. "We were standing still, which is a horrible thing to say, but it's true with football now and all the money that is involved in it," he says.
The team has also changed. "I'm pleased that their [the fans'] expectation levels have come on, because we want to come on too. The good thing is that over the last three years we have had a steady progression. There has not been one big season in which the fans have gone through the roof and they suddenly come down again. We have had a progressive 10th, 11th, 8th and this season we are in the top six and in Europe. So that has been a steady build-up and the fans have not got too carried away. They have come along on the wave we've been on."
Has it crested? Last season represented the most successful in Dodd's years at the club, although injury robbed him of an FA Cup final. The strength of the team breeds an optimism that he will have other opportunities before he retires. Not that such thoughts are on his mind. "I have spoken to a lot of players who have finished and they say exactly the same: 'What's the point in thinking about it until it happens?'," he says. "It might happen in a month's time, you never know. Do I want to stay in the game, start my own business? I don't know. I have a three-year-old, Lucy, and five-year-old Emily and they are going to take up a lot of my time. I just get on with what I do. I'm not a flair player, I just get on with it."
It is a winning philosophy.Reuse content