Southampton are short of Premier League experience: only the goalkeeper Kelvin Davis and full-back Danny Fox of the team likely to start against Manchester United at St Mary's this afternoon have appeared in the top flight before this season. But among their ranks is a player who has achieved a feat that most never experience in an entire career in the Premier League – beating United at Old Trafford.
The full-back Nathaniel Clyne was one of the stars of Crystal Palace's 2-1 victory over United in last season's Carling Cup quarter-final. Sir Alex Ferguson had intended to use the match to show off some of his young talent, but Palace's academy graduates were the ones who impressed. Ferguson took notice and was said to be among a host of admirers when Clyne's contract at Selhurst Park expired in June.
"I enjoyed stepping out at Old Trafford," Clyne said. "There was no pressure on us, and I wanted more of that experience of playing against big clubs. A lot of people saw I performed well, and obviously there was speculation that United were interested. But I was just happy to continue playing football, and if there were teams out there taking an interest in me, it meant I was doing well. I knew I had to continue and improve as a player, and hopefully make the bigger step up which I have now done."
Palace tried to hold on to Clyne, 21, who had been at Selhurst Park for seven years, but a move looked inevitable for a player selected for the 2011-12 PFA Championship team of the season. Perhaps the only surprise was that he signed for newly-promoted Southampton, but they were able to offer him more than the occasional Capital One Cup run-out he might have been restricted to at a more established club.
"I was delighted when Southampton came in for me, because I knew it would give me the chance of first-team football in the Premier League," he said. "I like the way we play here – good passing football. I had other options but I want to be out there improving as a player, not sitting on the subs bench. I am very ambitious, but you can take steps up the ladder, you don't have to go straight to the top. I am still young and still learning."
Today's fixture has provided memorable moments: Matthew Le Tissier chipping Peter Schmeichel in Saints' 6-3 victory at The Dell in October 1996, and United blaming the wrong colour shirts for a 3-1 defeat the previous season.
But a United win at St Mary's on the final day of the 2004-05 season relegated Harry Redknapp's team, exiling Southampton to seven seasons outside the top flight that included a further relegation and a descent into administration.
The long-awaited return, though, has not gone too well so far. A battling performance away to Manchester City, when Southampton led 2-1 before going down 3-2, was followed by a more sobering 2-0 home reverse at the hands of Wigan eight days ago in a match that Nigel Adkins, the manager, had targeted for three points.
On the face of it, United's visit could not have come at a worse time, but Clyne is looking forward to facing them again. "I relish these types of games," he said. "You need to test yourself against the best of the best, and I think we have already proved we can play against the big boys with our first away game at Manchester City. We gave it a right go and pushed them all the way, and got some positives from it. We knew it was a tough opening, but once we group together and get going, we will be all right, and hopefully that will start on Sunday."
Today's United team will be stronger than the one that Clyne helped to beat last season, and the arrival of Robin van Persie makes them even more of a threat. Is there a plan for RVP? "Keep him on his right foot maybe," Clyne suggests. "They are dangerous all over the park, so we have to mark up well.
"Hopefully we can now start kicking on and give the fans something to cheer about. We want to push up the league, not be fighting relegation. We went to United when I was at Palace and beat them – it was about playing without fear."
Clyne comes from Stockwell in south London, and supports Chelsea. "So that is a special reason to put one over on United," he said. "As a full-back I look up to Ashley Cole, a quality player both defensively and attacking – he is the same height and build as me." Stockwell, he says, "is quite a rough area really. There wasn't much else for me to do, apart from going out with my friends and having a kick-about.
"I signed for Palace at 14. Not many people from Stockwell have gone on to become pro-footballers, so a lot look up to me. I just want to impress everybody and make my friends and family proud as well, because they will be coming to the game."
Shouting him on as loudly as anyone will be his mother, Ann. "She is there every game. Yes, she is a big shouter who gets involved. If I don't perform well she will tell me – definitely. That's a good incentive to do well."
She sounds as formidable as Sir Alex. "Probably both as bad!" he said. "Mum has always been there for me since I was a little boy, always taking me to training. Mum keeps my feet on the ground. She will tell me if I don't stay on track, and that's a good thing – I need that support. Whatever success I get will be repaying her, because she tells me how proud she is of me. She tells me to keep focused and I will reach my goals."
Southampton v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pmReuse content