Downing brings Saint Harry down to earth at last gasp

Southampton 2 - Middlesbrough 2
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The Independent Football

Displaying rare reticence when granted public exposure, it was not until a touch after 4.10pm here yesterday when Harry Redknapp finally appeared before his new disciples. He strode into the technical area, barked a few instructions to his players, who, at the time, held a one-goal lead by virtue of a Kevin Phillips goal, before acknowledging the acclaim of those who demanded that he "give us a wave".

Displaying rare reticence when granted public exposure, it was not until a touch after 4.10pm here yesterday when Harry Redknapp finally appeared before his new disciples. He strode into the technical area, barked a few instructions to his players, who, at the time, held a one-goal lead by virtue of a Kevin Phillips goal, before acknowledging the acclaim of those who demanded that he "give us a wave".

As Middlesbrough's manager, Steve McClaren, conceded later: "Everything was written that this would be Harry's day." Even more so, you had that feeling, when, with Redknapp having barely regained his seat in the dug-out, Peter Crouch, scorer of one goal this season but given that rarity yesterday of a start from the man who once sold him from Portsmouth to Aston Villa for over £5m, appeared to have settled matters with Southampton's second. How they enjoyed it, those who had suffered by witnessing the decline of their favourites to the relegation positions, having hitherto accomplished only two Premiership victories all season.

One can only imagine the response up in the away section at St James' Park - where Portsmouth were the visitors - when the scoreline filtered through. Not the sign of the cross, presumably? That's the trouble with religion. One man's "Saint" Harry is another man's "Judas" Redknapp, depending on which end of the great South Coast divide you reside.

Yet, by the final whistle, the Southampton followers had fallen silent and Redknapp was reduced to that familiar mournful, chin-in-hand posture. In a matter of three minutes, Boro had drawn level, first gifted a Danny Higginbotham own goal, then foraging a second from the lethal foot of the young Stewart Downing in added time. Saints, rather than clambering clear of relegation, actually descended a place.

Redknapp knew then that his new role would be every bit as daunting as he must have suspected it would be when he crossed the boundaries - as Pompey followers would have it - of football etiquette. So, what did it reveal to the new man? "It tells me we need to get some points in the bag," Redknapp retorted. "Winning and losing are habits. At the end of it all, our nerves seemed to crack a little bit."

In the embittered world of neighbouring club rivalries, the M27 version may not be as fervent as that between the clubs who played out their bi-annual conflict a little earlier at Goodison. But the mutual hostility exists, particularly in view of the fact that there has been more of a perceived stench surrounding Redknapp's move than that experienced by Harry Lime in the Vienna sewers.

"Betrayal", they have cried in the vicinity of Fratton Park since Monday. Meanwhile, 20 miles west, "Saint Harry" T-shirts were already on sale in the Southampton club shop yesterday, as they swiftly boasted of their new acquisition.

Conspiracy theorists will contend that the move was prearranged. Redknapp continues to insist otherwise. "My wife had just paid for our tickets to go to Dubai, when I got the call," he said. "We wouldn't have done that if I'd known I was on my way to Southampton, would we?"

It was a particularly low-key introduction for the 57-year-old Redknapp who, in the first half, took his usual seat in the directors' box. No longer alongside Milan Mandaric and George Best, though. Now he is seated beside the rather careless Saints chairman Rupert Lowe, who has overseen the arrival, and loss, of eight managers in seven years, including four in this season alone if one includes the most recent, brief incumbent, Steve Wigley.

Redknapp has already emphasised that he does not appreciate interference in the playing side. How former public schoolboy Lowe will deal with 'Arry's probable desire to acquire "bargains" world-wide will be an intriguing spectacle.

In the circumstances, it was unlikely that Redknapp would make any radical changes to Wigley's last selection. Apart from the return of goalkeeper Antti Niemi after surgery on a knee problem to replace Kasey Keller, the only other change was Crouch in the starting line-up instead of James Beattie.

All teams produce something extra with the coming of a new manager, and there was no exception here. Yet, even with that added impetus of "proving something to the new man", it was evident that there is considerable scope for improvement, despite Saints establishing a half-time lead through their best player, Phillips.

It was appropriate that it should be the former England striker who scored the opener on the stroke of half-time, evading his marker to head home powerfully at the near post following a well executed cross from Graeme Le Saux. Despite being 31, Le Saux remains a tenacious worrier of defences and with greater accuracy on two occasions, and without a timely intervention from the defender Colin Cooper on another, would have supplemented that profit of a single goal.

Boro should have scored first, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's poor effort being comfortably handled by Niemi. After the interval, the impressive Downing was foiled by Niemi, before Hasselbaink struck a post with a venomous cross-shot.

Then Crouch struck, the 6ft 7in striker heading Le Saux's corner past goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. Crouch twice headed over and Phillips was denied by Schwarzer as Southampton threatened to increase their advantage.

But an own goal from Higginbotham two minutes from time offered Boro hope, and a minute into added time, Downing duly deflated Redknapp and several thousand others. Mark Viduka's shot on the turn nearly won it for the visitors, too. "Never give in, gentleman. Never give in," muttered McClaren, as his Southampton counterpart could only contemplate how those final minutes emphasised just what feats he must produce, and whether ultimately he proves himself to be Saint or sinner.

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