The shadows of giants loom large over St. Mary’s Stadium. A founding member of the Premier League in 1992, Southampton is the only team south of London currently in the English top flight. The Saints have never dominated the English game like some of their counterparts. Other than a 1976 FA Cup Victory and a second place finish in the old First Division in 1984, Southampton do not share the same illustrious histories of Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal. Despite producing two of the greatest players in Premier League history, Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier, Southampton were long mired in the bottom half of the table.
The club gave Alan Shearer his Premier League debut at the age of seventeen. Two weeks later, at his full debut at the Dell, Southampton’s stadium until 2001, he scored three goals, becoming the youngest player to score a hat trick in the English top flight for thirty years. Four years later, in 1992, Shearer moved to Blackburn Rovers in a big money transfer. In 1995, he helped Blackburn steal the Premier League title away from Manchester United on the last day. Shearer would play until 2006, setting the Premier League all-time goal scoring record with 260 Premier League goals and becoming arguably the greatest striker in the Premier League to date.
Matt Le Tissier made his debut at the Dell in 1986 at the age of eighteen. An attacking midfielder, Le Tissier was technically gifted with an eye for goal. “Le God” followed a different path than Alan Shearer, rejecting several big money moves throughout the 90s to end his League career in 2002 in the south of England. Along the way, he notched 161 goals, with 100 of those scored in the Premier League. He never got the chance to represent England at a World Cup, but he ended his career adored by Saints fans and remembered as one of the greatest Premier League players ever.
But soon, with Le Tissier gone and Alan Shearer’s time in Southern England practically a generation away, the wheels came off for Southampton. In the 2004-5 season, Southampton finished dead last and swallowed the bitter pill of relegation after 27 years in the top flight. The club had safely finished mid-table in previous years, and had even made it to the FA Cup final, but only finished above tenth place once. The next few years that followed were tough for Saints fans. Chaos at the top of the organization and the loss of young, academy-produced starlets in Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale put Southampton in a precarious position in the mid-late 2008, with the club narrowly avoiding relegation from the Championship. The situation got worse the following season, when Southampton’s ownership group went under. The club received a ten-point penalty and was relegated to League One, the third-tier of English football.
The early summer of 2009 was a tempestuous one in Southampton. The club was struggling to find a buyer, and at one point announced that its employees would have to work without pay until the situation was resolved. In July, Saints fans breathed a sigh of relief when Markus Liebherr decided to buy the club and make it solvent once again. In their first season in League One under current Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, Southampton failed to qualify for the promotion playoffs. At the start of 2010-11, the club hired Nigel Adkins, who guided the club to promotion back up to the Championship. The season saw the continued form of striker Rickie Lambert, the growth of young players Adam Lallana and Morgan Schneiderlin, and the explosion onto the field of academy product Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Despite losing Oxlade-Chamberlain to Arsenal during the summer, Adkins continued to bring the best out of his squad and, despite missing out on the Championship title at the very end of the season, secured a second consecutive promotion, this time to the Premier League. After eight years out of the top flight, Southampton achieved their goal and returned to the Premier League.
Heavy spending over summer saw the club attempt to stay up in the 2012-13 season. But, by January 2013, Southampton seemed to be fulfilling an all too familiar narrative: a newly promoted club that could not handle the difficult or intensity of the Premier League. Southampton seemed doomed to relegation. The club sacked Nigel Adkins, who had become a local hero. For the fans, the situation seemed only to get worse when the club announced Mauricio Pochettino as manager, who had been sacked recently by Spanish club Getafe after a poor run of form left them in danger of relegation. But Pochettino changed Southampton’s fortunes. His fluid, high press attacking style brought them to fourteenth place at the end of the season, with draws against Arsenal and Chelsea, a victory over Manchester City and back-to-back scalps over Chelsea and Liverpool.
Southampton got off to a flying start the next season. Losing just one of their first eleven games, Southampton were, at one point, third in the table. A victory at Anfield and a draw at Old Trafford, coupled with several convincing victories, saw Pochettino win Manager of the Month for October. But a tough run of form saw them drop down to the middle of the table, where they would remain, finishing eighth and tying their highest finish in the Premier League. Southampton had managed once again to defy the narrative, shrugging off the “sophomore slump” and achieving a top half finish. They did so on the backs of a cadre of young stars that included Lallana, Schneiderlin, Dejan Lovren, Jay Rodriguez, Nathaniel Clyne, and several academy products, including Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Calum Chambers.
And at the season’s end, the big clubs came knocking, hoping to poach Southampton’s stars. Five key members left: Lambert, Lovren and Lallana went to Liverpool, Chambers went to Arsenal and Shaw went to Manchester United. With Mauricio Pochettino leaving for Spurs, Southampton seemed doomed. As the summer went on, Southampton stalled on transfers. New manager Ronald Koeman tweeted an unintentionally hilarious photo that summed up the atmosphere at Southampton. Their top players had gone, and Tottenham made strong attempts to poach Schneiderlin and Rodriguez. But they stayed, and Koeman used the large revenue to eventually bring in several under-the-radar players, including Graziano Pelle, who now has four goals in six matches. Once again, Southampton faced the narrative, and, with 13 points after seven matches, it seems like they are once again defying it.
It is still early in this new season. Southampton still have 31 games left. There is plenty of time for them to return to the depths from which they have climbed. The shadows of giants still loom over St. Mary’s Stadium. But, for the moment at least, those shadows seem much smaller than they once were.