Southampton v Sevilla – Match Report: a mixed bag, just like the weather

Southampton 2 – 0 Sevilla

(Stephens, 26; Gabbiadini, 82)

“That’s what football does to people; it turns them peculiar,” asserts an elderly lady on the train, as she berates her Man United-supporting son-in-law. And as I sit quietly on the other side of the table, giving up six hours of my Saturday to solo train travel, about to drop an eye-watering sum of money on a new strip, all in the name of attending a meaningless pre-season friendly, it’s hard to disagree.

The weather alternates between glorious and grisly as we travel through Hampshire, serving as an apt metaphor for Southampton’s previous few campaigns – and potentially the upcoming one, too. Much of the pre-season build-up has been focused on the one player who will almost definitely be absent this afternoon: Virgil Van Dijk. His name is never far from the support’s lips today, and it’s tempting to ascribe the strange 4-0 loss to FC Augsberg at St. Mary’s earlier in the week to the ongoing unsettled atmosphere around his presence (or lack of). Mauricio Pellegrino vowed his side would improve in this, the final friendly before Premier League duties return with a visit from Swansea next Saturday. And in many ways, Sevilla are the perfect opponents for Southampton here, as they represent much of what Saints would like to: a club of modest means and few superstars performing to – and frequently exceeding – expectations both domestically and in European competition. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Southampton must become more bullish in their retention of star players if this is ever going to happen. If indeed they do manage to hold onto Van Dijk (and rumoured wantaway Ryan Bertrand), it will represent a coup on the same level as a major signing; whether the duo will then settle down into squad life again is another matter.

The game itself is a predictably anaemic affair, and while it is of course reductive to read too much into pre-season fare, it comes with mixed portents for Southampton’s season: Manolo Gabbiadini and Jack Stephens both look particularly sharp – the latter’s 26th minute goal is bundled in from a corner with the help of some good positioning from the newly-anointed number 5. And Steven Davis makes several stirring runs from box to box, complementing rock-solid Oriol Romeu’s enforcer role perfectly. One supporter gets a little carried away: ‘We don’t even need Virgil!’

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Sevilla press in the early stages.

Elsewhere there are more worrying signs for Saints, namely down the left, where Ryan Bertrand and an especially hesitant-looking Nathan Redmond (whose time as a striker may well be over under Pellegrino) conspire only to produce wing play that is both sloppy and stroppy. Southampton’s first half performance is a mixed bag, but Sevilla’s unusually toothless showing means they lead the serial Europa League winners 1-0 at half time.

Given Southampton’s current defensive situation, there are understandably sharp intakes of breath from the crowd when Maya Yoshida drops to the ground after a seemingly innocuous challenge in the 55th minute. Yoshida and Jack Stephens built up a commendably solid defensive partnership in Virgil Van Dijk’s absence through injury in the latter part of last season, and that closeness will be relied upon heavily in this one.   Thankfully for Pellegrino, Yoshida runs off what looks only to be a dead leg – nevertheless, he is subbed off for new signing Jan Bednarek ten minutes later as a precaution. A slew of second-half substitutes also sees Sofiane Boufal and Shane Long getting a run out for the game’s final quarter.

Then, as the sun breaks through again, Manolo Gabbiadini latches on to a neat reverse flick from Steven Davis and slots home for 2-0. Gabbiadini, who looks to be back to his best, is full of running, chasing down balls and working harder on hold-up play than we’ve previously seen. If he can stay fit, he should prove to be a key player in the upcoming campaign.

Sevilla spurn several late chances, and it becomes apparent that a comfortable win is on the cards. Fans begin to file out with five minutes to go – but tellingly, as the final whistle goes, everyone stops to give their team a rousing sendoff, and to salute the new manager. Things could still go either way, and the opening games of the season will provide a clearer indicator of Saints’ fate. The pre-season peculiarities are largely over; Pellegrino’s first true test comes next Saturday. For now, the forecast doesn’t look too bad.

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Word & pictures by Tom Clayton

Bobby Stokes – A Tale of Two Cities

“That was exciting to get stuck into; to tread where other Saints fans hadn’t before.”

This week Southampton reached a major cup final for the first time since 2003, and will face old rivals Manchester United – the team they beat in the 1976 FA Cup final. It’s the perfect time for Saints fans look back to what was arguably their finest hour. We chatted with Mark Sanderson, author of Bobby Stokes: The Man From Portsmouth Who Scored Southampton’s Most Famous Goal.

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Bobby with the PMD Golden Goal Trophy, 1976

Some Gulls Are Bigger Than Others: Hi Mark. What first drew you to the idea of writing about Bobby Stokes? Were you surprised that he hadn’t been the subject of a book before, especially given his esteemed place among Southampton fans?

Mark Sanderson: Bobby was always in the back of my mind, ever since I got a VHS tape cassette of the 1976 FA Cup Final sometime in the mid to late 1980s. I never felt enough was known about him, especially given he’s a Pompey lad. I guess that’s the nut – most books about Saints and Pompey are about one or the other, but Bobby’s story is entwined with both cities and both clubs. They are the back drop of his life. But Saints books don’t tend to cover Pompey and vice-versa, it’s kind of taboo. That was exciting to get stuck into, to tread where other Saints fans hadn’t before. At the same time I was surprised nobody had written a book about him. It got me worrying that I needed to get a move on because it’s such a great story. Man from rival town scores club’s most famous goal, responsible for only major trophy in what is now 132 years and counting. Then he pretty much disappears. Of course, this is my first book and I had no contacts or experience other than writing the occasional article for football magazine When Saturday Comes. But I thought what the hell, let’s go for it.

SGABTO: Presumably some parts of Bobby’s life were easier to chronicle than others; did you find anything difficult to uncover?

MS: Sure. It took me a few years to trace his family. In the end I had a letter in the Portsmouth News and within a few days and a few phone calls I was in touch with Bobby’s cousin Maria, who still lives in Paulsgrove, where Bobby grew up. Also, we are talking about things that happened 40 years and longer ago. But the book was never meant to be a chronicle of his entire life, I wanted to capture a portrait of him during different stages of his life. There was a bit of a mystery surrounding the golden boot Bobby won for scoring the winner in ’76. It was presumed missing. A month or so after the book was published I was contacted by Bobby’s nephew, who wanted to meet me. I was a bit apprehensive – did he appreciate the book? Or maybe I’d upset him, but no. He had the golden boot and brought it to my house in an old case. It was some experience to hold that artefact in my own hands.

SGABTO: Did anything come up during the project that really surprised you about Bobby?

MS: Plenty. It’s kind of assumed knowledge Bobby’s career fizzled out after leaving Southampton in 1977. It’s not entirely true. Here was a bloke who played alongside Johan Cruyff in the US for the Washington Diplomats. Bobby scored the winner for the Diplomats in a shoot-out at the famous New York Cosmos in front of fifty-thousand plus. This was a side had Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer. A year later Bobby was playing for Chichester City in the Sussex League. Did he drop that  in conversation with his new Chichester team-mates? No, they had no idea. That kind of sums Bobby up – very understated and modest.

SGABTO: Who did you particularly enjoy speaking to for the project?

MS: It was pretty cool to meet the Saints players from the ’76 cup final. Jim Steele was man of the match in tha game and he gave me Lawrie McMenemy’s number. I remember cold calling him at home – a bit nerve-wracking. He was a little unsure at first, but once I explained the project we agreed to meet. The venue was the Potters Heron – the same place he announced the club had signed Kevin Keegan in 1980. I pulled up in my old Peugeot thinking, is he really going to turn up, but he did, and we had a great couple of hours. Going up to meet Mick Channon at his stables was great too. Older Saints fans might like to know that Saints legend Brian O’Neil offered to lead me up there in a convoy.

SGABTO: Had Bobby not moved over to the Washington Diplomats in the NASL [North American Soccer League] for part of his career, do you think he would be more of a household name here?

MS: Good question. I don’t think so, sadly. Remember Bobby couldn’t drive, so a local move was preferable to him. He left Saints in April 1977 for the summer season in the US, but he was playing for Pompey in the 1977/78 season. It wasn’t a good time for Portsmouth. They had an inexperienced team and they were relegated to division four. The only other club in for him at the time were Bournemouth. But after that season at Fratton Park in 1978 he didn’t play professionally in the UK again; instead playing for Washington in the summer months.

SGABTO: If you were asked to, or decided to, write a book about another Southampton player, who would you choose?

MS: It’s got to be Franny Benali. The book would appeal to Saints fans as Franny could offer behind the scenes knowledge of the club from the 1980s to the early 2000s. He also played against a whole load of the world’s best players – from John Barnes, to Ryan Giggs, Thierry Henry and Ronaldo. Be great to explore what that was like from a local lad’s perspective.

 

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Mark gets his hands on the trophy too

SGABTO: Finally, what do you make of the Southampton / Portsmouth rivalry at the moment, when the two clubs find themselves in very different circumstances [they haven’t played each other competitively since 2012]?

 

MS: It’s still very much there, but as a Saints fan I was treated very well by Pompey fans when researching the book. It was pretty weird to go to the Manor House pub in Cosham to meet four Pompey fans who were locals when Bobby was landlord in the 1980s, but that’s what happened. The guys even came to the book launch at St Mary’s. Right now Saints have the upper hand – I’d love us to make some hay while the sun is shining and bag ourselves a trophy – we’ve got a great chance to do that now.

Questions by Tom Clayton

Mark’s book is published by Pitch Publishing and is available now from all good book stores; more information here.

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