MATCH REPORT – City 5 Southampton 0

The Championship – Saturday 15th March 2008

The date: Saturday 8th December
The time: 9pm
The location: the M1
The reason: Southampton 4-0 City

Remember that? Ugh.

The mood that swept the Tiger Nation following our pounding at St Marys was a sombre one indeed. Our second pasting on the road inside four days sent us down to 14th, with nervous glances being cast at the bottom three. Such was the epic scale of our defeat at Southampton that Phil Brown felt moved to offer an apology and a promise that he’d put things right. We can safely conclude that he has been true to his word.

It could be argued that the capitulation on the South Coast has ultimately benefited our season. We’ve only lost three times in the League since that day, playing a brand of attractive football that has seen us soar to fifth in the table, and with the season drawing to a close, our push for promotion may have its origins in the darkest day of the season.

The Tigers made a couple of changes to the side that laboured to defeat at Cardiff on Wednesday – Dean Windass and Neil Clement coming in for the injured duo of Craig Fagan and Wayne Brown as the City manager sent out the anticipated XI of: Myhill; Ricketts, Turner, Clement, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Marney, Pedersen; Windass, Campbell. On the bench were Tyler, Walton, France, Hughes and Bridges.

Southampton boss Nigel Pearson made a single change to the team that gained an important midweek win over Leicester, Andrew Surman being replaced Darren Powell. Vincent Pericard, a recent loan arrival from Stoke, was on the bench.

City began the game attacking the South Stand, our pitch appearing a trifle worn after herds of fat rugby bastards had stampeded all over in the previous night, although it played better than it looked. There was also a light mist gently drifting in the direction of the small pocket of Southampton fans – but in keeping with our recent habit of starting games at a fearful pace, the action was mostly away from them. Fraizer Campbell had a couple of very early chances, a shot from the edge of the area flying narrowly over and a header that flew wide, though McGoldrick should have scored for Southampton in between those efforts, his free header wastefully directed straight at Myhill.

Moments later, we led. A sumptuous long pass from Dean Marney found Campbell haring into empty space – Saints keeper Michael Poke made an ill-advised attempt to reach the ball before the fleet-footed Campbell, who calmly knocked the ball past him with his left foot and the ball gently bounced in. A great piece of vision by Marney; an assured finish by a stupendously talented striker, and just six minutes into the game Southampton’s task become immeasurably harder.

Campbell, the Shane Warne to Southampton’s English tail-ender, had a penalty appeal waved away by referee Eddie Ilderton after a Saints defender appear to take his legs away in the area, before the away side had a rare foray into Tiger territory, one from which they should have equalised as Euell fed the ball to Stern John, whose weak shot went straight to Myhill.

Next up, Pedersen blasted a thirty-yarder wide, Turner headed a rebound slightly over, and then Southampton had a “goal” disallowed for offside – John thumping a shot into the corner of the goal, but the whistle had already gone at the linesman’s behest, though it appeared to be a very tight call.

Despite this momentary alarm, the force remained decisively with the Tigers, and some dangerous Dawson corners (and how his delivery has improved in recent weeks) caused significant anxiety among the Southampton defence and particularly their goalkeeper, how now appeared to be sporting a slight limp. However, Southampton survived this and the extra minute of injury time, and the Tigers trotted off to contented applause at the break.

Upon emerging from the concourse at half-time, it was obvious that the weather had worsened considerably during the interval. The mist that had lingered all day had thickened appreciably, with the visibility from one end of the ground to the other probably quite poor. And soon, the Southampton fans peering through the gloom must have prayed for a foggy abandonment, as City went berserk in the second half.

Nigel Pearson had given Pericard his Soton debut, withdrawing McGoldrick in favour of him, but he barely touched the ball as the Tigers swarmed forward in search of a decisive second. Nine minutes into the half, it duly arrived.

A long throw from Ricketts caused panic in the visitors’ defence, and the lurking Pedersen stabbed the ball into the roof of the net from close range.

The celebrations had barely died down when City scored a third – a superb cross from the by Dean Marney finding the head of Michael Turner, who meatily thumped the ball into the goal for the second home game in succession.

Game over. Southampton were a totally beaten side, their spirits sapped by the hopelessness of their position and the thoroughly outclassing they’d received. City sensed it too, and began knocking the ball ostentatiously, a little well-deserved showing off creeping in.

Presumably with Tuesday night’s trip to Colchester in mind, Dean Windass came off after an hour for Bryan Hughes, Southampton swapped Licka for Gillett, Garcia tested Poke’s agility with a crashing drive, and we exulted cheerfully as the game sauntered along.

Dean Marney was having perhaps his best afternoon in a City shirt, directing play in the way we all hoped we would, and he got the goal his performance deserved after 65 minutes. Campbell was (of course) involved, and as he tussled for possession the ball for the City midfielder about 22 yards from goal. He belted it with glorious technique, and it fizzed past Poke’s outstretched right palm into the goal. A wonderful finish – and satisfyingly, we’d already avenged the scoreline in Southampton.

With twenty minutes left, Ryan France came on for Henrik Pedersen, the outstanding Dane afforded tumultuous applause for another superb shift on the left. Few chances were now coming, with Southampton able only to implement damage limitation and City more than happy with their afternoon’s work, and the match adopted a pattern of City controlling possession and territory without being able to fashion too many opportunities.

With 13 minutes left, the Tigers made their third and final switch, introducing Michael Bridges for Richard Garcia – Bridges’ first appearance in a City shirt since September following his well-publicised differences with the manager. Obviously, a four-goal lead inspires a sense of forgiveness in Phil Brown.

He nearly scored too, when the omnipresent Marney burst free, chipped Poke and found Bridges, but his shot struck the right-hand post of a totally empty goal, although the angle did appear a tight one. Boaz Myhill was then called upon for almost the first time in the half, and he made a world-class save to foil Euell, flinging himself across goal and diverting the ball over with his left hand.

With the game in injury time, City finally scored the fifth. Bridges will claim the assist, as the Tigers poured forward in overwhelming numbers, Marney also involved, and eventually Bridges fed Hughes in space. He immediately curled the ball with his weaker right foot into the top corner via a feeble attempt at intervention by Poke, and the rout was complete.

Wow. This was a City masterclass, a display to treasure, the complete performance, a Premiership-quality display. It’s impossible to praise it too highly. Throughout the entire side, the side were magnificent. Myhill was uncommonly dominant in claiming the ball and made a stunning save to cap his display; Ricketts and Dawson add attacking threat to their solid defending; Turner and Clement were unbreachable; Ashbee was excellent in possession and even better in attaining it; Marney was wholly successful in every midfield discipline; Pedersen is a Premiership player; Garcia was our quietest performer and had a poor first half but can still look back at satisfaction with a significant second half improvement; Windass was slyly effect; Fraizer Campbell may very well be the best player in the history of the club.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that may be the best City side in its history. Fifth in the second tier, and greedily eyeing the top flight with serious intent, we stand on the brink of breaking one of football’s most notorious ducks.

Another series of helpful results means we proudly sit in fifth place, now a couple of points clear of seventh…and Tuesday provides our priceless game in hand at Colchester, doomed at the bottom, relegation certainties, hopefully now the owners of some drizzle-proof grass – and if this thrashing avenged the low point of this season, our last ever trip to Layer Road affords the opportunity to remedy the blackest day of last season, and to firmly embed ourselves in the top six. I can’t wait. (AD)