Alan Pardew issues a wry laugh and confesses that there have been moments when he has questioned his sanity in descending again into the football hinterland where his managerial career began.
"Yeah, when I was on the touchline at Swindon," he said of an early League One defeat for the Southampton team he inherited last summer. "And a couple of other times. I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?'
"But maybe because I started out in this division I wasn't snobbish or egotistical about it. I thought this was a great club, and with the owners it had [Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr], and support, had the potential to become big again. Obviously there are some thin days. But now I'm looking forward to Sunday, and a fatter day coming up."
Today at Wembley, where Saints meet Carlisle United in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final, will provide confirmation that joining a third-tier club, already stripped of 10 points for going into administration, was, indeed, a wise move. A choir of 44,000 voices – Southampton have sold out their entire allocation of tickets – should endorse that view.
The "JPT" may provide no more than what many perceive as a poor man's flirtation with glory, but for the players concerned it is everything, as Pardew remembers when he was a member of the 1991 Crystal Palace team who defeated Everton in the similarly lampooned Zenith Data final. It will also contribute to the momentum that he believes will ultimately restore Saints to the top flight.
"The day that I walked into this club I said that its winning mentality had diminished after so many years of failure," says the man who guided Reading into the Championship before departing for West Ham, whom he led into the Premier League, followed by a difficult period at Charlton Athletic. "So, we've attacked every trophy with our best team. Momentum is a powerful tool. When you win a cup final it can give you a boost. I hope we can do that, and that it takes us forward in the League."
Though his men are still, just, in play-off contention, that has not totally satisfied the club's chairman, Nicola Cortese, who said recently: "We have thrown away too many points."
Pardew is unfazed. "Nicola is putting pressure on us to succeed – but that's his job," he says. "My relationship with them [Liebherr and Cortese] is sometimes tough, because sometimes, when you go to somewhere like Exeter on a really boggy pitch, it's difficult to explain why we haven't played with as much fluency as we should. But together, I think we've taken the club a long way forward."
Astute recruitment, including the £1 million acquisition of the prolific striker Rickie Lambert, has been allied to Pardew's successful nurturing of existing young talent, such as the exciting 21-year-old midfielder Adam Lallana. As that pair and their team-mates file in for their pre-Wembley briefing at Saints' training ground, they pass one of several aphorisms posted on the wall: "Nobody is blamed. All of us are accountable."
Pardew has always placed a strong emphasis on psychology, and it is perhaps indicative of that and the spirit he has engendered that Lallana is apparently unmoved by speculation linking him with Premier League clubs. The England Under-21 midfielder, who underwent surgery for an irregular heartbeat five years ago, places a special value on his first visit to the new Wembley.
In contrast, Pardew has experienced the gamut of emotions in finals. As manager of the 2006 FA Cup finalists West Ham, he saw his side lead Liverpool 3-2 before, in the last minute, Steven Gerrard equalised, forcing extra time, after which Rafa Benitez's team prevailed on penalties. The fact that it was adjudged one of the great finals offers little consolation to Pardew. This time he wants no regrets.Reuse content