Cliches were the order of the day at St Mary's stadium. The Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, talked of the need to take each game as it comes after a fantastic 2002, the manager, Gordon Strachan, said it was the season of goodwill and Darren Anderton had a sicknote.
The Tottenham midfielder, suffering the effects of flu, did come on after 67 minutes but it was the biggest football cliché of them all – beware the return of the old boy – which almost undid Southampton until a fine late strike by James Beattie settled this game. That he did so by comprehensively beating the former Saints defender Dean Richards, before curling his shot past Kasey Keller, delighted the home crowd even more.
Before the game, perhaps in a vain effort to appease any irate home fans, Richards had talked up Beattie's England chances and said he should be included in the next squad. In truth, he shackled him well until the goal, Beattie's 13th strike of the season. It was the kind of finish which will fuel demands for a national call-up.
Glenn Hoddle and his managerial sidekick John Gorman, who both had an acrimonious departure from Southampton, brought a side bristling with intent and had Robbie Keane showed the same composure as Beattie they would have won with ease. To add to his woe, it was Keane's wayward cross which set up the counter-attack for the 82rd-minute winner.
Afterwards Hoddle, who ruefully explained that he had worked hard on Beattie's finishing when he was his manager, said: "Today we were the better team, but we were beaten by a clinical strike and that was the difference between the two sides." His team, he said, have now "thrown away" four points in their past two away games.
For Strachan there was the satisfaction of knowing that although his side struggled to find their rhythm on a heavy pitch, which underwent three inspections from Mr Halsey before kick-off, they won. It was a victory which will further their European ambitions, too.
"I think the goal says everything about James," Strachan said. "Determination, power and I think he has now added composure."
However, Spurs should have scored at the start of both halves. They brought back Teddy Sheringham, after resting him over Christmas, and he played behind the front two and in front of a midfield shield. The formation proved effective, with Southampton struggling to pick him up and Keane, who had an eye-catching game, drifting free.
After two minutes Sheringham failed to make enough contact with a free header, while Keane wasted a good chance after Fabrice Fernandes' backpass fell short. At the start of the second half, the Irishman was equally profligate when he shot straight at Antti Niemi. The Finnish goalkeeper also plucked the ball off the head of Sheringham after a knock-back by Steffen Iversen, before the Tottenham captain again shot straight at him.
For Southampton, Jo Tessem's late winner against Sunderland was not enough to earn him a starting place, although he emerged after half-time to replace the ineffective Brett Ormerod and give more physical support to Beattie. He missed a fine chance on 75 minutes when he steered a free header wide. It came just minutes after Beattie had headed straight at Keller.
Hoddle made a double substitution, taking off two defensive players, which opened things up even more and gave Southampton a little more freedom to counter-attack, especially through Fernandes.
And so to Saturday, the FA Cup and the return of the old boys, with Tottenham again the visitors at St Mary's. What price revenge being extracted this time by Spurs, or will Hoddle again rue those training-ground hours with Beattie?
Southampton (4-4-2): Niemi 7; Telfer 5, Bridge 7, Lundekvam 6, M Svensson 6; Marsden 5, Delap 6, Oakley 5, Fernandes 7 (Davies, 90); Ormerod 5 (Tessem 5, h-t), Beattie 6. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), A Svensson, Williams.
Tottenham (3-5-2): Keller 6; Perry 6, Richards 7, King 6; Carr 8, Taricco 5 (Anderton 5, 67), Bunjevcevic 5 (Poyet 5, 67), Freund 5, Sheringham 8; Iversen 6 (Acimovic, 86), Keane 7. Substitutes not used: Sullivan (gk), Thatcher.
Referee: M Halsey (Bolton) 7.
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