July 27 ~ There has been plenty of international football on television through the summer, but pre-season fixtures are vital for those hankering to attend games. However, multiple substitutions can conspire to leave friendlies lacking the intensity of competitive matches. One pre-season innovation involved Athletic Bilbao, Werder Bremen and Southampton, with the trio playing each other in three 45-minute games over the course of last Saturday afternoon at St Mary's. The inaugural Memorial Cup commemorated the significant contribution the late Markus Liebherr made in saving the club from extinction.
The action took place between 4pm and 7.45pm, with 45-minute intervals between each game which tested the concentration of spectators, who were sat in the Kingsland Stand, situated opposite the dug-outs, and the Northam End, which is the focal point for the club's most vocal support. As a result it proved to be a profitable day for Southampton, with breaks punctuated by long queues to the refreshment counters.
Werder Bremen struggled to match their skill at keeping possession in a lengthy pre-match keep-ball session. They were swept aside 3-0 by a Southampton side featuring a noticeably bulked up Alex Chamberlain, who has been fined for his "come and get me pleas" in the tabloids. Chamberlain had the beating of Bremen's full-backs with little difficulty, which didn't impress the eight-year-old boy sat in front of me, who booed him at every opportunity. With no allocated seating fans were able to overcome one of the most negative aspects of the all-seat stadium experience, whereby they could escape to a different seat if they felt irritated by the not so private conversations and opinions of nearby spectators.
The three sets of fans were also integrated. Werder Bremen's contingent were understandably small in number, and visible by a large flag identifying themselves as what seemed to be its Scottish supporters club. They responded to the taunts of Southampton fans in good spirits; not, given their numbers, that they had much choice. Bilbao seemed to bring a larger following. Although they too, in their red and white striped replica shirts, were more difficult to pick out, in a crowd mainly made up of new Southampton home jerseys, than one man who was wearing a royal blue WSC T-shirt.
Bremen improved against Bilbao, but still lost. The spectacle of two teams playing in front of fans who mostly supported someone else threatened to kill the atmosphere, until an impromptu burst of singing was rewarded with a goal via an Igor Gabilondo free-kick. Bilbao and Southampton then fielded almost entirely different sides in the final game, in which Bilbao made it 2-0 on the stroke of full-time with Markel Susaeta's excellent chip over Kelvin Davies, which was recognised by a standing ovation from fans of all three clubs. Overall, the Memorial Cup was less like a carnival and more like a village fête, but all the more charming for it. Mark Sanderson 90 Minutes of Burridge