If there is a pet hate I have in football and that I hold in as high a regard as I do my distaste for people that make a scene out of reserved seating on a train, bus passengers that sit on the outer chair when the inner is free and my apparent hate of public transport etiquette offenders, it is the dislike I have for footballing hypochondriacs.
As a Southampton F.C fan growing up during the Lowe era and witnessing, what seemed like, as many managers as wins and subsequent chairman changes, I was used to being on tenterhooks – that’s another pet hate of mine: people that say “tender hooks” – and thus a tinge of hypochondria was permitted. However, things have changed: the ownership has changed, our management is stable and the only way was up. I became accustomed to stability, consistency and fluctuations in results, no matter how often Nigel Adkins told reporters that the “table would change,” had little effect on us.
Brighton won the n-Power League One after we failed to “keep up”, much to the banter infused amusement of our adopted secondary blue few, and, sneaking up in second place, we slowly established a respectable first team during the summer transfer window for the forthcoming Championship return. “Going about our business quietly” and sticking to a strict wage budget and hierarchy, stringently adhered to by Nigel Adkins and enforced in a totalitarian manner by Nicola Cortese, a team built in League One for the Championship, was reinforced for a similar effect in the second tier.
Some said doing business with us was impossible. It wasn’t, it was fair and it was realistic. For all his faults - I’m informed there are many - Cortese runs a tight ship and most importantly, our ship isn’t sinking and it is efficiently manned.
Given a finish of 7th- 14th at the beginning of the season, I would have been sufficiently satisfied: it sticks to our five-year plan installed when Markus Liebherr took us over, it would allow a season of stability back in the second tier of English football and as long as we finished above Portsmouth, it would be considered successful by the majority. However, among the minority is Nicola Cortese and, as most have learned, if it isn’t the way of Nic, it don’t stick.
Since his close friend and former employer Markus Liebherr took over Southampton F.C following their 2008/09 relegation season from the Championship, Nicola Cortese, club chairman, has insisted that under his leadership, we’ll always finish in the top half of any league and he’ll fund such high expectations accordingly so. So far, so good: yet, when the New Year passes and Southampton F.C are top of the Championship, with many touting them as capable of “doing a Norwich”, and then come February we’re still playing our game in the automatic promotion positions, merely a top half finish doesn’t quite satisfy the footballing palette of Southampton fans.
Cortese himself, somewhat out of character, or at least his portrayed character, gave an interview to The Sun in which he stated that he wants us promoted and he wants us promoted as Champions. It came very early on in the season and it was considered by some as quite an unnecessary burden to place on Southampton manager Nigel Adkins. But, he strived under it and until now, since going top, we hadn’t surrendered the pole position.
As often heard, every club has its rough patch and luckily for us – or unfortunately, depending on your stance on the matter – Sam Allardyce’s West Ham had theirs as we were having ours. It masked a shoddy spell, at least on the table as we continued to sit on the summit: however, had West Ham’s ship not rocked, I can’t help but thinking it would’ve forced us, or at least encouraged us, to try and steady the ship before it started to sink.
Now, don’t be mistaken, I don’t think we’re sinking yet - that would be a display of hypochondria – however, I do feel that a two-game period is upon us where we have to pick up maximum points to calm a bucking horse. We’d been majestically galloping through the months, sitting pretty atop of the table all along: yet, the road’s become rather rocky and the horse’s hooves are showing signs of deterioration. The new shoes have been purchased and fitted in Billy Sharp, among the other January signings: however, they need to be broken into and the horse needs to proudly strut once more.
Okay, enough with the equestrian metaphors: I feel like I might stirrup mild bemusement.
West Ham have seemingly recaptured their early season form, along with assembling an army of strikers in the process, and are picking up the points in a steady and high-returning manner once more: Southampton haven’t. We slumped together - whilst Middlesbrough continued to remain draw specialists at home stunting their potential - but we haven’t recovered together and with only two wins in our past ten games, we face a doubleheader of Claret and Blue.
Burnley travel to St. Mary’s on Saturday and then Southampton, hopefully in what can still be considered as a top two clash, like it did back at St. Mary’s where a Jos Hooiveld header was enough to snatch all three points, are hosted by current league leaders West Ham on Tuesday night.
A chance is presenting itself to Southampton: a chance to quickly mount the horse of success once more and canter off into the sunshine before Sam Allardyce can spit out his gum, stamp it into the ground as if it were a cigarette butt and make chase for us with a trailer of endless strikers in tow.
As is the nature of the Championship this season and most, the top is tight, and if it was Sir Alex Ferguson entwined with such a scenario, he’d describe it as “squeaky bum time.” Maximum points would see us return to the top of the pack. Two losses could see us slip to the lower half of the play-off positions and would see us with only two wins in twelve. It is all speculation, but it’s a rather spectacular scenario to speculate on.
I don’t believe in hypochondria, but I do believe things should be repaired as they suffer and not fixed once broken and that is what is key here: Southampton are not broken, far from it, but they have suffered and repairing it could not be timelier than this following week. With no further interest in either cups and a setting that provides a better chance than any to seal a return to the Premier League, which Nicola Cortese deems as inevitable, the time is now and this two-game period, whilst not season defining, is critical.