Stadium - Southampton FC
Saturday 17th August 2002
V Middlesbrough, Premier League, 3pm
By Robin Dalgliesh
There's always something about the first game of the season. The "We could be top of the league by 5pm" thing that most of us non-Manchester United fans don't normally get. It's the kind of thing that makes grown-up, sensible men do daft things. Like thinking that the 800-mile round trip is a good idea. Ho hum.
I must admit the hardest part of getting there was getting to Southampton in the first place. I did the lion's part of the journey on the Friday, staying overnight in Wolverhampton, but when I got to the station on Saturday, the train was 'going to be here in 20 minutes'. An hour and a half later, the train was still 'going to be here in 20 minutes'. I got a different train.
Once you get to Southampton, it's completely painless getting to the ground. The club lay on buses to get people to the station, ours even had extra seats! The two sets of fans mixed well, with the odd bit of friendly banter ("It's not fancy dress, you know" to our Inter Milan-esque away strip), to even the useful bit of advice ("Don't get the bus on the way back, you'll never catch your train").
The ground provoked mixed reactions. On one hand, you can't help but be impressed. For all the faffing about which Wembley has produced, Southampton have build a shiny 30,000 seater stadium which looks really nice. On the other hand, it looks a lot like Middlesbrough / Derby / Sunderland / heck, even Darlington's new ground bears more than a passing resemblance to it. Actually, with it's red seats, it looks a lot like the Riverside. Home, sweet home. Sort of. The away fans are half of one of the stands behind the goals, and the view is excellent, as there are no pillars, but bring a cap and sunglasses! I spent the whole match with the sun shining in my eyes.
Because I used to live in London, Southampton was something of a home game for me, and I've been to The Dell a few times. I hated it. But the one thing it did have going for it was it's intimidation factor. I'm sure the players felt it, and I certainly did - not the atmosphere in the stands, but the 'concourse' felt like the kind of street you knew you shouldn't go down as you'd probably get mugged. The Friends Provident St Mary's Stadium (there, the sponsors will be happy now) has the same degree of atmosphere, although there are problems. The Northam stand (which is split between home and away fans) has major problems with the home fans refusing to sit down. Somewhat worrying, although the club is trying to take action, as on every page of the programme there is a request to sit down. I understand even the chairman has made unsuccessful personal appeals for the fan to sit down. This match, the club tried a new tactic - they got Matt Le Tissier to ask them to sit down. It didn't work. The stewards and the police's tactic was high-profile policing, but seemly didn't try to get anyone to sit down. Probably figured out that didn't work a while ago.
The programme was an entertaining enough read, mostly the usual glossy affair, and they have little flags on the back to tell you the nationalities of the players. They only got seven wrong (I'm very aggrieved at them claiming Scottish right-back Robbie Stockdale was English!). One thing I did spot was that they are very proud of Wayne Bridge, the left-back who went to the World Cup with England, and continually referred to him as "England's Number 3!". Quick check of the World Cup squad list, number 3 - Ashley Cole? Wayne Bridge was…number 14. Maybe someone should tell the Southampton fans. Mind you, "England's Number 14" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.
After the game (0-0, we got away with a point, I felt), the exodus took me back to the city centre on foot. Probably one of the easiest walks in the league - it's all signposted, and mostly in a straight line. Despite the baking heat, the walk took under half an hour. There was a steady stream of fans (presumably from the buses) for over an hour until I left the train station, bound for Wolverhampton, and a nice Chinese takeaway.
Not sure if I'll be back at Southampton. Nice place, nice people, but the travelling time?! Over 12 hours is a marathon, even on the train. At least it's the furthest trip in the league - just hope we don't get Plymouth away in the cup!
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