29 January ~ Manchester United’s FA Cup visit to St Mary’s today revives memories among home fans of a certain vintage of the club’s finest hour, when Southampton overcame the Reds in the 1976 final, thus winning the only major trophy in their history. It also serves as a less pleasant reminder of more recent clashes. In the first of those, a 2005 quarter-final, Southampton were struggling for Premier League survival, with United scheduled to visit on the final day of the season. As United fans watched their team stroll to a 4-0 victory on their way to the semi-finals, they taunted the home crowd with “We’ll be back to send you down”.
Even more painful were Alex Ferguson’s words that followed United’s 3-0 win over a hopelessly inexperienced Saints team in January 2009, “We didn’t want to humiliate Southampton” – a comment which did exactly that. Saints ended that season in administration and relegated again but, having had a large injection of cash to pay off debts and strengthen the team, they are considerably better equipped to face United this time around.
Nigel Adkins took over as Saints boss in mid-September with the team in the League One drop-zone and a fanbase in bemusement at the dismissal of Alan Pardew. Under Adkins, Saints have gained an average of two points per game and the promotion challenge that most fans confidently expected has begun to materialise. Two players who have played particularly key roles in the improved form might not feature against United: Adam Lallana, who could be ruled out through injury, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who might not even be a Southampton player if any one of a number of suitor clubs get their way before the weekend.
The debate whether a Cup run has a positive or negative effect on league form will doubtless continue forever. Back in 1976, Saints’ cup exploits coincided with wretched away form in the league – only one win on the road after New Year – which cost them their chance of promotion. This year, even an unlikely place in the fifth round will be no consolation if, come August, Southampton begin a third successive season in League One. Saints’ cup final is on January 29 and will be followed by a further 21 cup finals as they pursue a return to the Championship. Tim Springett