Oh when the Saints go Marching in the Premier League again!

Will Smallbone in action for Saints who would later assist Adam Armstrong’s finish in the playoff final, sending Southampton back into the Premier League at first attempt. Photo credit (Liam Harding’s finest)

WITHIN only a year of appointment, Russell Martin sent Southampton back into the Premiership at first attempt, after they were relegated to the Championship from the top-flight of English football where they had been for 11 years previously.

On the 26th May, in front of nearly 86,000 keen spectators at Wembley Armstrong who had already been named fans and players player of the season with 20 goals and 13 assists to his name, scored the 1-0 winner over Leeds United. It was official from that day onwards The Saints were 2024/25 Premiership material!

Within 24 hours the Championship playoff final trophy was marched back to their home of St.Mary’s and paraded around the streets of Southampton on an open bus tour, with Armstrong and his teammates showing off their brand new piece of silverware together. Thousands of fans welcomed the presence of the City’s new Saints in shining armour; they had waited all season for that day to come and for Martin to work his magic.

I was just one of the thousands of fans who watched Southampton gain promotion back into the Premiership, after having witnessed Saints demotion to the Championship last year. As a proud Hampshire man who had already supported and volunteered at his local club Basingstoke Town as once match day announcer and now studying Sports Journalism at Solent University round the corner from St.Marys, I decided it was finally time to purchase a Southampton membership last season.

Due to being related to Ted Drake (my Great Granddad) who played for Saints and was the clubs top scorer for three seasons in the early 1930s, I’d always looked out for their results alongside the fact they are the closest football league club to myself in Hampshire.  After subscribing to a membership I instantly purchased a ticket in March 2023 to watch the Saints face Brentford on a mild Tuesday. Within moments of finding my seat before kickoff I realised just how much Southampton meant to me and my family despite never having gone to a game previously. Whilst listening to the brass band play “Oh when the Saints go marching in” around the circumference of the pitch, I felt an unknown inner sense of pride shine within for the city and club as I felt overwhelmed by a great sense of emotion. That night it was clear then to me that then Ruben Selles Saints were in for a fight for premier league survival last year after being swept aside by Brentford 2-0 with ease. The highlight of the actual match for me came ironically when “The Bees” went a goal up through Ivan Toney, the man next to me made me chuckle after saying “Toney shouldn’t even be playing” after having just broken FA Association betting disciplines.

After catching the Saints fever I planned to go back and watch them before the anti-climax of the season versus Bournemouth in late April when points were crucial to pick up.  After walking to the game in the rain and remaining wet for near enough the remainder of the match day action, all Saints needed was the support of their fans to count as the 12th man on the field. However all you could hear was “Bournemouth are massive everywhere we go” echoing around the ground, occasionally you could hear “Oh when the Saints go marching in” and the odd “Red army” chants but only a handful of times in comparison. “The Cherries” knocked down their South Coast rivals 1-0 with ease with the scoreline hardly reflecting the entire 90 minutes. Although in the dying moments of the match Che Adams goal was disallowed for offside by VAR, all fans including myself presumed it counted-we were wrong. After leaving St.Marys and walking up the stairs onto the green distained bridge next to the iron works being pulled down outside the ground, I thought there’s no way Saints have what it takes to stay up admittedly. Within days reality greeted my thoughts unfortunately, in early May Fulham confirmed the Reds relegation after a 2-0 walk in the park at the same venue.

After having gone to three games so far as a member including new man on the street Russell Martins first at St.Marys (another defeat to AFC Bournemouth) in pre-season I snatched a last minute ticket to watch my first 2023/24 Southampton game in September versus Leicester City.  Going into the fixture Martin’s relationship with the fans couldn’t have been in worse state on the back of a 5-0 demolition up at Sunderland despite hovering around the playoff positions. Already many fans were questioning his managerial abilities early on, this would not be about to get any better. Within only seconds of kickoff Jamie Vardy slashed Leicester into the lead over Southampton.  My hands were in my heads. Come halftime it was clear the match was already over with Martin’s men 3-1 down, with “The Foxes” netting a fourth and final goal in the second half finishing off the eventual 4-1 victory. On the train back to Basingstoke in the mingle of people who had attended the match one Saints fan said to a Leicester fan “you’re definitely going to get promoted this season” and even though the Foxes fan replied “I’m not sure about that” City would end up winning the Championship come the end of the season.

Four days later I was back at St.Mary’s as Saints eyed up Ipswich Town who weren’t much easier to beat with the “Tractor Boys” who had only just won promotion to the Championship already second in the table. Saints really struggled to get going during the game and were sliced open on multiple occasions by Ipswich who should’ve had at least three goals before Omari Hutchinson handed his side the advantage and only strike of the match (1-0) after 30 minutes. All of a sudden a renewed sense of atmosphere emerged from the Southampton supporters which I hadn’t experienced before; it was as if the fans had been hit by a massive epiphany with all them all seemingly starting to get behind their club and perhaps Martin too. Southampton came out in the second half with more gusto than the first but still it just wasn’t enough for the night.

By the end of September Martins army beat Leeds United 3-1 at home commencing a 25 game unbeaten run in all tournaments going into February when Bristol City would destroy their winning streak at Ashton Gate 3-1. During this period which saw Southampton touch second in the automatic promotion positions and seal a place in the playoffs, I witnessed a number of games with one standing out from memory. In December Plymouth Argyle came to town where in the first 45 minutes Saints were all over them and were very unfortunate to have hit no goals by the break. After Charlie Alcarez and Che Adams scored within eight minutes of each other, Saints dropped off and in the final ten minutes they were passing round the defence sloppily being far from the shining spectacle they had been during their so far 16 game unbeaten run. This proved costly,  in the 91st minute after some clumsy ball work from Gavin Bazunu in goal, Plymouth pulled one back losing 1-2. In the end Saints were lucky to win and could’ve easily drawn after Argyle had a goal ruled for offside in the second half.

A week to the day after Saints record breaking streak came to an end I sat down at St.Mary’s once again in the hope of another victory. Hull City who were chasing for the playoffs outplayed Southampton with their quick witted moves which they couldn’t keep up with, making me question whether Saints had what it took for Premier League promotion. With minutes to go till fulltime thousands of Saints fans started to leave their seats however in the 88th minute Joe Aribo halved the deficit to give Southampton hope of a late draw. Hysterically a dad and son in front of me started to leave before Aribo scored, and after he had netted they sat back down showing more energy and enthusiasm in the final minutes of the encounter than they had done for the previous 88 minutes. In the end Martins army had to settle for a 1-2 defeat.

Come May after 46 Championship games Saints qualified for the playoffs finishing fourth and nine points off the automatic promotion spots. After drawing 0-0 against West Brom in the first-leg of the semi-finals at the Hawthorns they returned to St.Marys for the final leg, which I attended. I was hopeful Saints could win as their home had proved to be a fortress for them during the campaign. When I turned up at the ground it was at its busiest all season, in fact I had to wait in a queue for a programme. I mentioned it to the supporter in front “this is a surprise you don’t normally have to wait long for a programme” in response he jokingly replied “there are actually fans here tonight”. I’d got there 45 minutes early before kickoff which is normally enough time to get something to eat but after waiting for 40 minutes in two queues I was told “we’ve run out of food” so I made my way to my seat. “The Baggies” put up a ten man wall which Saints just couldn’t break down, during the break Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier came out to speak to the fans cautioning them that they would  “need to be patient tonight”. However within minutes of the second half Will Smallbone slotted in the opener before two more goals were clobbered in for the night by Adam Armstrong to capture the 3-1 win and a place at Wembley in the playoff final.

Despite not being able to attend the playoff final due to being on holiday in Cornwall it certainly marked  two eventful years of watching Southampton so far!