As A Saddlers fan of many years standing remarked to me as we entered the final few minutes, what we saw in the Southampton game was only what many of us suspected we’d see. We began the game just a place below the play-off zone and had recently acquired the useful habit of winning games against lowly opponents, even though we’d not always played particularly well.
We’d begun to win at home with some regularity which isn’t something we’d been able to boast of for quite a while, and the last three visitors to ‘fortress’ Bescot hadn’t been able to muster a goal between them. Little things seemed to be falling into place one-by-one and points were being accumulated steadily but unspectacularly, rather like in the promotion season under Dicky Dosh when we learned how to grind out points by playing functional football, football about which we were never likely to wax lyrical but which did the trick. Would we be able to step things up a level against a ‘big’ team? Would we take a significant forward step with a victory and a decent showing against visitors who were likely to stretch us to the limit? Our previous performances in matches against League Two’s ‘big four’ this season had seen us rack up just a single point – in the goal-less draw at Carrow Road – and a good showing when Leeds visited Bescot had counted for nothing when they scored a couple in the final minutes. It could be said that anything we might gain from such once-illustrious opponents should be looked at as a bonus to be added to whatever we might earn from our bread-and-butter games. It would be nice to think we might manage to bloody a nose or two. To bloody the nose of an opponent more mighty than yourself you’re occasionally going to have to get inside his guard. Apart from a promising first fifteen minutes or so, when we had a real go at Saints and had our only real, sustained spell of possession and pressure we failed to land a telling blow of any note until the game was already lost. Southampton held us at arm’s length comfortably and might have taken the lead earlier than they did when Smith somehow got away with a challenge on Connolly that would have earned a free-kick had it been made outside the area. From my seat in the lower tier of the home end it looked as obvious a penalty as you’re likely to see, Connolly had wriggled clear of Smith, who shoved him to the ground. Nothing subtle, nothing sly, just a shove in the back. Maybe it would be our day after all…….
It wasn’t to be. We were repeatedly carved open down our left with young Netan looking completely out of his depth against an opponent who knew exactly when to go past him and when to play someone else in. Richards was left exposed time and again when the young left-back failed to hold his position and the only real positive we can take from the game is that we weren’t beaten far more heavily by a side packed with Premier League experience – Murty, Perry,, Jaidi, Connolly – and who turned out to be the best team to visit us so far this season, and the best since Leicester arrived in town last season. Southampton had quality in every position, were far better than us on the day and fully deserved what was a pretty easy win. Teams of their quality aren’t the norm in this division so we shouldn’t be too alarmed. This isn’t a disastrous result, it’s a reality check. It’s what we all thought would happen. The comments made by the manager during the week suggested that he had low expectations for this game and I can’t help but wonder what the players made of this. Maybe it was an attempt at reverse-psychology, maybe it was his way of telling us all to keep our feet firmly on the ground. No need, Gaffer, we’re Saddlers supporters, our feet are rarely anywhere else. The general opinion among us in the days leading up to the season’s start was that mid-table was where we’d be throughout the season, so to be up around the play-off zone has to be viewed as us excelling ourselves.
In this most difficult of all third division seasons we’re doing okay and even if the big four all end up in the top six places that still leaves a couple of slots for the ‘lesser’ teams to squabble over. Who’s to say we won’t finish in one of them?