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Southampton 0 Plymouth Argyle 2: Paterson snuffs out Saints' hopes

It was a defiant message that came across from Nigel Pearson, the new Southampton manager, following this defeat last night, his first game since taking over at the club. Two first-half goals, from Peter Halmosi and Jim Paterson, consigned Southampton's supporters to yet more misery and the prospect of being dragged into a relegation scrap.

But the former Newcastle United and England Under-21 assistant manager was adamant that the club's fortunes could be reversed. "Players need leadership and I will give it to them," said Pearson. "I do not do this reluctantly. I was under no illusions about the size of the task. There is a lot of work to do. The confidence of the players will be a big factor, that is the challenge ahead."

The lowest league crowd since the St Mary's Stadium opened watched a Southampton side who had registered just the solitary victory in the league since mid-December struggle to break down a tough Plymouth team in the first half.

It was Plymouth who made the breakthrough, on 31 minutes. Lilian Nalis, the Plymouth captain, played a well-weighted pass behind Southampton's defenders and into the path of the Hungarian midfielder Halmosi, who struck a powerful left-footed shot high past Kelvin Davis in the Southampton goal. Moments later and from a similar position, Halmosi nearly doubled the visitors' lead.

Plymouth were further ahead two minutes later. The winger Jim Paterson curled a relatively harmless effort goalwards from the far side of the pitch which nestled in the corner of the goal, having made its way past Davis, who failed to move. Southampton's supporters voiced their derision.

Southampton improved in the second half. Their best chance came when Stern John controlled a high ball on his chest before allowing it to drop and firing a low shot just wide of Luke McCormick's post.

The Plymouth manager, Paul Sturrock, a former Southampton manager himself and one of eight in the past seven years, was delighted with his side's performance. "The work rate was excellent. January was not the most enjoyable month for us, but the hard work on the training pitch has paid off."

The victory brought them to within two points of a play-off spot. Sturrock was confident that his side could push those above them. "We need to turn around our home form and perform away from home," the Scot said.

Pearson added: "We need to get back to business. We will revisit this performance and get out of this vein of form.

Southampton (4-5-1): Davis; Vignal, Powell (Viafara, 22) Davies, Thomas; Wright-Phillips, Euell (Idiakez, 77), Surman, Wright, Saganowski; John. Substitutes not used: Hammill, McGoldrick, Poke.

Plymouth (4-4-2) McCormick; Sawyer, Anderson, Timar, Connolly; Halmosi, Nalis, Abdou, Paterson (Teale, 69); MacLean, Easter (Mackie,82). Substitutes not used: Larrieu, Fallon, Wotton.

Referee: G Ward (Surrey).