Charlton Athletic and Southampton have a great deal in common. On the one hand, both clubs churn out promising academy graduates on a regular basis; on the other, both have had to endure Alan Pardew managing their club and Dan Seaborne wearing their colours.
But the biggest factor these two clubs have in common is that, after years of Premier League stability, they’ve both recently been rather large fishes in League One’s small pond. In fact, Charlton and Southampton were relegated together from the Championship in 2009; the Saints entering administration and the Addicks on the borderline of financial meltdown throughout their time in England’s third tier.
Whilst both clubs, Southampton in two and Charlton in three, escaped those dreaded trips to Carlisle, Oldham and Tranmere, the way in which they’ve progressed thereafter is where the similarities end.
Charlton’s inability to build upon Chris Powell’s impressive first two seasons in charge can be placed almost totally at a lack of investment. With Powell unable to recruit the players needed to bolster his side at the start of this campaign, a relegation battle was always likely.
But when that investment finally came through Roland Duchatelet, the Belgian owner split the club’s fans with his decisions to sell key players and latterly sack the popular Powell for non-footballing reasons. With the signings, largely from Duchatelet’s other clubs, unable to drastically improve the side, new Charlton boss Jose Riga still faces a fight to keep his side safe from the threat of relegation.
By contrast, with sustained investment on hand from Nicola Cortese and the Liebherr family’s millions to support Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton were promoted from the Championship at the first attempt and followed it up with a respectable first season in the Premier League.
Under the guidance of Pochettino, the Saints have become the darlings of English football. Their style of play, the results they’ve achieved and the crop of young English talent at their disposal has brought about admirers and created an incredible buzz around the South Coast side.
They’re also respected for the way the club has been run; a recent boardroom reshuffle that saw Cortese depart and Ralph Krueger appointed chairman has left the majority of Southampton supporters feeling a lot more positive than their Charlton counterparts.
So maybe that’s why I have something of a soft spot for the Saints; I look at them and think what might have been. Not too long ago, we were equals; now Charlton could hardly be further behind the club they followed out of League One hoping, although not expecting, to emulate. In a parallel universe, Yann Kermorgant is Rickie Lambert, Chris Solly is Luke Shaw and the multi-million pound signings Southampton have made are Addicks.
But, in this cruel world where I’m forced to watch Marvin Sordell and his fellow strikers fail the Trade Description Act, the only way I could get a glimpse of that parallel universe was by taking time out of Charlton’s struggles and submerging myself in a day with the Saints at Villa Park.
The opportunity to ‘be in that number’ arose after Charlton’s game with Bolton Wanderers was put back to Good Friday; a predictably frustrating 0-0 that left me craving Premier League, and Southampton’s, quality football more than I probably should have done.
In fact, this was the first time I would be attending a top flight fixture since 7 May 2007; a night that ended in tears with Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Charlton confirming the Addicks’ relegation to the Championship. I was expecting a lot better than the day before, and probably a goal or two to celebrate, but I would have settled for leaving the ground without tears streaming down my face.
I was, however, feeling relatively confident that the Saints would come away from Villa Park with all three points.
But none of the Southampton fans I spoke to before kick-off were confident enough to predict victory. You would think that going into a game against a side in turmoil that have lost ten times at home this season, and four consecutive games on the spin, there would be belief from a set of supporters who have seen their club record more away wins this season that in any other Premier League campaign.
Of course, there’s always apprehension from fans before a game, predicting victory is almost considered to be a sin, but these seemed to be very real anxieties. Not only were the creative forces in Southampton’s side, Jay Rodriguez and Gaston Ramirez, injured, but the Saints have won just seven of their last 22 league games. With a disappointing FA Cup exit also in that run, this season has curtailed rather disappointingly for some supporters.
Nonetheless, an eighth place finish is likely to be theirs; the best of the rest in the Premier League. To an outsider like myself, and to the majority of level headed Saints supporters, that’s quite an achievement for a club who were in League One not too long ago. But those who want more are not be mocked; this a club on the up and they have every right to feel ambitious.
And how can you not feel ambitious when you have the likes of Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana in your side? The Brazil bound pair started brightly and not long after the first rendition of ‘when the Saints go marching in’, Shaw’s pace and drive down the left hand side created the game’s first opening. His testing cross picked out another man hoping to be representing England this summer, Rickie Lambert, but the forward’s header lacked the power needed to beat Brad Guzan in the Villa goal.
After Morgan Schneiderlin, anchoring Southampton’s midfield alongside Victor Wanyama, played a delightful ball over the top into the path of Steven Davis, his cross created another opening for the Saints with less than five minutes played. Lambert was on the end of the delivery, but a crucial intervention from Nathan Baker saw the ball deflected wide.
This was a bright start by Pochettino’s men, shown by the 87% possession they had with ten minutes played, and the vocal away supporters were keen to sing the name of the manager who has instilled such a manner of play in this Southampton side. Those cries of ‘we sign Pochettino’ have surely only been enhanced in recent weeks with rumours surrounding his future and Saints supporters desperate for the Argentine to stay in charge.
However, despite that complete dominance of possession, there were few ways through for Southampton after Lambert’s early chances. Already you could tell they desperately missed a creative influence as patient passing moves all too often lacked that final killer ball. It was almost like being back at The Valley, but that would be doing a disservice to Southampton’s clear quality.
It was now easy to see why there was a lack of strong confidence before kick-off, but credit must also be given to Villa. They were equally patient in midfield and at the back, holding their lines and closing down avenues that the away side attempted to exploit.
And with pace up top, not least through Gabby Agbonlahor, the hosts were always likely to be a danger on the break. In what was their first meaningful foray forward, the former England international appeared to have a clear route to goal from a Villa counter, but a superbly timed tackle by Jose Fonte kept Agbonlahor at bay.
Although gradually coming under more pressure from Villa’s forwards, Southampton continued to control the game without being able to break through the opposition’s defensive line. With every misplaced forward pass or failure from a player to take on their man, the away following grew more restless.
With chances now few and far between, the one created by the Saints just beyond the half hour mark really had to be taken. An excellent cross from James Ward-Prowse picked out Lambert, who set the ball back to an unmarked Davis. But, to dismay and anguish in the Doug Ellis stand, the former Villa man failed to get his shot away cleanly and Guzan pulled off a stunning save to keep the scores level.
That miss almost proved costly has half time approached, with a low Villa cross from the left causing havoc in Southampton’s penalty area and a combination of Artur Boruc and Dejan Lovren just about deflecting the ball behind. The first corner was dealt with, put behind by the impressive Wanyama, and the second appeared to be, but Villa managed to carve out one more chance with the ball only half cleared. Thankfully for Southampton, Marc Albrighton’s cross couldn’t be converted by Karim El Ahmadi.
With Lee Mason’s half-time whistle blowing shortly after, the Saints were applauded off but more in encouragement than appreciation. They were certainly controlling the game, but rarely did they look like turning that possession into a clear cut opening.
But the restart saw the hosts race into life, and they really should have taken the lead three minutes into the half. The booed El Ahmadi, who had made some rather robust challenges in the first half, broke into the box, faked to shoot to clear Fonte out of his sight of goal, but could only scuff an effort that was easily saved by Boruc. The frustration, however, was continuing to grow amongst the visiting supporters.
If the Saints were going to score, it was almost certainly going to come via a move down the left. Shaw, living up to his billing, was solid at the back and impressive going forward. One such move saw Davis send the England international free, but his cross was just behind Lallana, who surely would have finished had the delivery been a fraction further forward.
With that missed opportunity, I began to believe I’d brought Charlton’s final third curse along with me to Villa Park. It seemed it was having an impact on Villa’s goal scoring hopes too, as a number of half chances for the home side failed to test Boruc in Southampton’s goal.
I finally had the pleasure of seeing a football pass the white line between the goal posts for the first time this weekend, but Adam Lallana’s strike was ruled out correctly for offside. With a little over 20 minutes to play, I wasn’t banking on such a rare event occurring legitimately.
The goalless scoreline edged ever closer as Victor Wanyama, arguably the best player on the pitch, took a hefty knock with 15 minutes to play. The Kenyan attempted to continue, but the composure he’d possessed prior to it was lacking.
However, before Wanyama could be replaced by Cork, there was a huge penalty shout for the visitors. Clyne, who had been somewhat reluctant to get forward throughout the afternoon, saw his cross blocked by Bertrand by what appeared to be the defender’s hand. Referee Mason wasn’t interested, and for the second day in a row, the side I was supporting could have strong complaints they weren’t awarded a spot-kick in a frustrating 0-0 draw.
So frustrating that there was a smattering of boos from the Saints supporters come full-time. Again, those expectations and ambitions meant Southampton fans wanted more from this game, despite their pre-match worries.
And given the dominance Pochettino’s side had for most of the afternoon, you can’t blame the away fans for feeling somewhat disappointed with the result. It was certainly a better point for Villa; two points dropped for the Saints. Nonetheless, the players were applauded vigorously when they came over to the away end.
Along with the third tier spells, the academy graduates and Pardew, it would also seem Southampton and Charlton share an incredibly frustrating to watch nature without their key creative men. Without Dale Stephens, Yann Kermorgant and, to a lesser extent, Cameron Stewart, an already goal shy Charlton have found it hard to add a killer final ball to their promising overall play.
And without Rodriguez and Ramirez, Southampton were restricted to keep ball without much of a real threat in the final third; not helped by Lallana and Lambert’s below par performances.
Nonetheless, the quality on show at Villa Park was, obviously, at a much higher standard to what was on show at The Valley yesterday. Defensively, Southampton were solid, with Fonte and Lovren looking like a formidable centre back paring.
Schneiderlin and Wanyama were also impressive as a defensive midfield pair, whilst Shaw was Southampton’s only real constant threat and dealt with Villa’s stand out performer, Albrighton, admirably.
Whilst I didn’t get to see the Southampton I’d hope to, the one that had won the hearts of so many this season, I was still relatively impressed with what I saw, although I imagine that has a lot to do with what I see week in, week out watching Charlton.
As I made my journey home, I caught the conversation of a set Southampton fans discussing the result and others in the Premier League today. They laughed that the point, along with Newcastle’s defeat to Swansea, had strengthened their grip on eighth.
But if Southampton are to progress to the next level, they do need strengthening. The bench was rather weak, without a player who could make a real positive impact on the game, and depth is clearly an issue. Obviously losing Rodriguez and Ramirez is huge, but it shouldn’t totally hinder the way they play. With that in mind, wide creative players would be at the top of my wish list, along with a forward or two.
They also desperately need to keep a hold of their star performers, not to mention Pochettino. Just like for Charlton, this summer will be huge for Southampton.
Nonetheless, mocking an eighth place finish in the Premier League; ah what could have been for us Addicks.