I knew I was close when the residential street filtered us into a covered walkway adorned with plastered tapestries dedicated to the club I have come to adore. Greeting me was a young Gareth Bale, jubilant after scoring a sublime-free kick that put his team ahead against Derby County for his first professional goal. One of the eyes of the now-Merengues winger had been faded away but it did not detract from the joy on the 17-year-old Welshman’s face. It mirrored my own. Club legend Matt Le Tissier was there too, he had just scored his last goal at the Dell — a splendid half-volley from his left foot to give the old stadium a proper farewell. There were also faces more familiar to me. There was the prolific Italian Graziano Pelle lifting his counterpart Dusan Tadic into the air in celebration. The Serbian midfielder had scored one of his team’s eight goals in a historic route of Sunderland. At the end of the corridor, I saw it. My destination I had crossed an ocean for. White scaffolding pierced the gray skies. It was the first genuine element I recognized. For many people in this city, this walk might be a common one — a standard weekend stroll out to the ground of their local football team. For me it was extraordinary. For the first time, I laid eyes on a place that had existed in my mind, based on impressions gathered through different forms of media. There it was, St. Mary’s Stadium – home of Southampton Football Club. After 6 years of supporting the club from the United States, I had finally arrived to be in that number.
As an American, it is safe to say that over the course of the last six years, I have evolved from a casual ‘soccer” fan to a football enthusiast. It has been a process whereupon personal reflection, I have realized that my love for the game of football, particularly the English game, has usurped most of my previous sporting passions. Southampton FC has been a catalyst in that process. I have been asked on more occasions than I can count, especially by those I came across during my visit — why Southampton? There is no definitive answer for me. Thinking back on it, there was not a specific moment where I determined that Saints were the club for me. It was certainly more gradual. I had been introduced to the club through the popular EA Sports’ video game FIFA. I had put numerous hours into the game in 2013 managing the south coast team — turning a relegation-threatened squad into a perennial European powerhouse that a 2016 Leicester City squad would be proud of. I enjoyed the team’s emphasis on youth players. Academy products such as Luke Shaw or James Ward-Prowse stood out for me. Around the same time, the Premier League received an unprecedented television deal to broadcast every match in the United States via NBC and I was able to watch the team I had spent so many hours with on FIFA.
As I learned more about Southampton FC beyond the video game, I discovered that the Saints are an underdog club with ambition. A club that only in 2009 found itself in the cellars of English football playing its matches in League One, the country’s third division. In the United States, I think it is easier to support clubs like Liverpool or Manchester City that boast immense popularity. In my opinion, a club like Liverpool is enabled to buy the best players by mere virtue of its popularity. These “too big to fail” clubs also market the best in the United States so it is difficult to ignore their presence. While I can appreciate the level of talent on sides like Manchester City or Liverpool, it is all the more satisfying when clubs like Southampton can notch a victory over them – which they have on multiple occasions since I have started supporting the Saints. Southampton’s tenacious ability to punch above their weight is what drew me to the club when they were under the guise of Mauricio Pochettino and subsequently, Ronald Koeman. With Koeman at the helm, it was becoming impossible to deny my growing sympathies for the club on England’s south-coast. This was a club that had in less than a decade went from playing Dagenham at 7,000-seat Victoria Road to playing Inter Milan at the San Siro. Six years on, my passion and support for the Saints remain steadfast.
As I was about to board a plane in Orlando bound for London, I received a Twitter message from Trevor Foy of the Australian Saints supporters page. In his message, he explained that Southampton was trying to contact me as they had learned that my girlfriend Nicole and me were making the trip from Florida to St. Mary’s and wanted to offer us an upgrade to hospitality for the match. In the weeks prior, I had sent out a tweet that my girlfriend Nicole had purchased tickets for me as a birthday gift. I considered this to be an incredible gesture from her to satisfy the constant chirping I had made about wanting to attend a match since we began dating. To my surprise, the club responded to the tweet and offered me well-wishes for my birthday. I thought the response was the extent of it — which I was content with. With that considered, one can only imagine the excitement that was culminating when I read Trevor’s message. Here I was boarding a plane to England to go watch the club I have supported across the Atlantic, and I discover that the club is so impressed in what we were doing that they saw fit to reward my support with a seating upgrade. Once in England, I exchanged a few messages with Southampton FC’s exceptional Supporter Relations staff. Through our exchanges, I learned that my girlfriend and I had received an upgrade to the Saints Bar hospitality section at St. Mary’s Stadium. In addition, we would receive premium seating in the Itchen Stand. It was a buzzing journey, to say the least.
We were nearly at the end of the covered walkway, leaving behind the celebrations of players past with hopes of taking part in some celebrations of our own. The grey skies persisted, but it didn’t matter. The tunnel deposited us on the Northam side of the stadium. The excitement continued along the walk around the walls of St. Mary’s to the Itchen Stand where Ted Bates greeted all with a friendly wave. It was on this walk that the sounds of the Saints Brass could be heard, filling the crisp afternoon air with an all too familiar tune — one that appropriately guided the red and white number making their way into the stadium to see the Saints go marching in. I eventually found my way to the Saints Bar with Nicole. We enjoyed the pre-match hospitality, with its classic stadium-fare and some of the best Budweiser I have tasted in ready supply. The club did not fail in making us feel special. Helping facilitate the pre-match festivities was Pedro Miguel Cardoso Monteiro. Saints fans may know him simply as, Pelé. Not to be confused with the Brazilian footballing icon, the Cape Verdean midfielder made 37 appearances for the Saints between 2006-07 and was more than enthusiastic to share the day with his former club and chat with all the Southampton fans who met with him. Pelé would go on to make a proper score prediction of a 2-1 victory over Everton.
Going into the match I was not sure what to expect. Flights had been booked in September when Southampton were still being headed up by a struggling manager, Mark Hughes. Results of the time were not kind. I was not inclined to think much about what the result of the match would be. Was it going to be a close victory? Were Southampton going to be the victim of an Everton display of masterclass under the Portuguese tactician Marco Silva? The most important thing was that I was going to be there is what I routinely reassured myself. Shortly after Nicole and I booked our flight, Southampton beat Everton in the Carabao Cup on penalties, which gave me a slight spurt of confidence, but not much. Then in December, Hughes was sacked and Southampton fans were treated to the appointment of a Premier League newcomer, and optimism at St. Mary’s was seemingly restored. Fresh off multiple UEFA tournament appearances with German side RB Leipzig was Ralph Hasenhüttl, the man who proudly accepted the critical task of saving Southampton from looming relegation and beyond. With both a resolute and compassionate method to managing, Hasenhuttl had made an instant impact on the south coast. Within a month, he had already won more games than his predecessor, defining the difference in approach between the two managers. Suddenly, I found myself visiting my favorite club in the midst of an exciting revival — one at the hands of a footballing architect that bore shades of managers past such as Koeman or Pochettino. This was not Southampton I was visiting anymore, it was Ralphampton.
The crowd at the Saints Bar was beginning to dwindle. Having my fill of the pre-match snacks as well as the Leicester-Wolves match being shown on TV screens around the Saints Bar — former manager Claude Puel’s side had suffered a tough defeat — I was ready to take my seat. I was ready to finally see the pitch I had only ever seen through broadcasts. There is something about the anticipation of getting a first glimpse of the playing field at a sporting event. The excitement builds inside like an itch that won’t be satisfied until you see the green of the grass. The closer you get, the greater the itch. I needed to get to my seat. I needed to see the teams line up for the Premier League anthem to be played. The itch had never been greater.
The muffled chatter of a crowd could be heard. When a club staffer opened the door from the Saints Bar to the tunnel out to the seating, the chatter of the crowd amplified and consumed the space of the hall around us. The closer to the field we got, the greater the noise. Manifesting in front of us as we approached the end of the tunnel was the pitch of St. Mary’s. From the moment I saw the pitch to the moment we sat down, it was all a whirl of delight. I initially looked out onto the pitch with mere amazement before an usher dutifully guided us to our row. It was a beautiful green sea surrounded by a border of red and white from end to end. A faint scent of the grass found its way to where we were sat in the Itchen Stand. The southern English sky loomed over, still gray but that didn’t matter. The Southampton crests could be seen proudly accompanying the video boards on both ends of the pitch. To our right, I could see Everton fans making their way to their seats, hoping their fortunes would be better than mine that afternoon. On the pitch, the match ball waited on a Premier League-branded pedestal to soon be lifted by the referee. For me, this could have been Old Trafford, it could have been Camp Nou on El Clasico, these cherished cradles of football. This was St. Mary’s Stadium.
Suddenly, a re-imagined version of “O Fortuna” could be heard and emerging from the tunnel were two lines of red and blue. The teams were out. Being led by the mighty Dane Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, the starting XI of Southampton took their places for the lineup in full view of the St. Mary’s faithful, joined for the first time by me. I felt chills as the Premier League Anthem replaced O Fortuna and the Southampton line filed to their left to meet the handshakes of their Merseyside opponents. It was during this moment, although I am unable to recall, that my girlfriend said she saw my eyes begin to water which I am unashamed to admit. Here was the team that has meant so much to me in recent years, being cheered on their fans and myself in their home stadium, ready to take the field for a competitive match in the English Premier League. It was time for football.
From the moment of kickoff, I experienced a good mix of anticipation, excitement as well as nerves. Despite the fact that I was at St. Mary’s Stadium and not in my living room, it was the standard set of emotions one experiences while watching Southampton Football Club. There was the tremendous build-up and sudden deflation when both Danny Ings and Nathan Redmond missed respective chances to put Saints in front during the first half. The emotions seemingly boosted on account of being in the stadium. It might as well have been my own shot that missed the goal by inches rather than Redmond’s. By half-time, I remained nervous but still confident given that Saints had seen the better chances of the two sides.
Sipping a bit on that impeccable Budweiser, the initial first half nerves fleeted. The second half had already resumed for a few minutes before we decided to head back out to our seats. In what was probably one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received in my life, Nicole told me I should wait to use the restroom until after the match after I contemplated making a stop on our way out to the seats. We’d already missed enough trying to savor a few more minutes in the Saints Bar. We carried on.
It was as soon as I saw the green of the pitch again that I found my attention drawn to the left side of the field. A player in red had possession and had dribbled by what could have been an entire team of blue shirts before unleashing a lethal shot from the outside the box. Everton keeper Jordan Pickford had been beaten. It was James Ward-Prowse. He had scored. I was in dreamland. Never have I been so glad to miss a trip to the restroom.
Around the time I was coming down from the exhilaration of the Ward-Prowse goal, Danny Ings played a brilliant ball to Nathan Redmond. The young Englishman appeared to muster every ounce of effort to guide a precise shot past the left of Pickford. It was not until after I returned to my hotel that I learned the ball had taken a bizarre deflection off Everton defender Lucas Digne. I threw my arms up, thrilled as the Southampton players met Redmond in the far corner to celebrate the doubling of their lead. I could not believe it. Southampton were leading Everton by two goals and playing some of the best football I have seen all season. Dreamland continued at St. Mary’s.
In the build-up and even during the match, I feared its conclusion. I had waited so long for this day to arrive and the thought of it ending left me somewhat distraught. These thoughts continued up to Southampton’s second goal in the 64th minute. I was now experiencing a drastic change in emotions. Now, I needed the match to end. As much as I enjoyed being in the stadium, nothing was going to compare to see the Saints come out victorious. Two goals up, this was now a very attainable reality. The next 25 minutes plus stoppage time proved to be very enduring. Upon proclaiming to a nearby fan on how solid the defense looked this match, Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Icelander who has been a menace for Southampton his entire career, pulled a goal back for Everton seemingly out of nowhere. I could only watch as the ball rolled hopelessly past the right of goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to give the Toffees a glimmer of hope.
The next seven minutes were excruciating. I thought the final whistle would never come. The chants of Sotonians in the thousands, all with the same desire of finality, filled the now night-sky with encouragement for their team . COME ON YOU REDS! COME ON YOU REDS! All eyes were on the official. Finally, a sharp piping halted every nerve in the stadium. Full-time. The Saints had gone marching in and the brilliant midseason revival under the architect Ralph Hasenhuttl continued with 2-1 victory over Everton. St. Mary’s erupted.
“We’ll have to get you out to more games” is what Republic of Ireland striker Shane Long expressed to me following the match after I informed him I attended the match from the United States. I was offered similar sentiments from both Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg and Oriol Romeu. It was a result of a most-helpful tip from fellow American supporter Alec Weise that these interactions were able to occur. With a little patience, I was able to meet the most of the Southampton squad as they exited the stadium to their car park. Nicole was glad to wait with me and even assisted in getting my match programme signed. I always imagined how fascinating it would be to meet these individuals and the moment didn’t disappoint. To finally meet James Ward-Prowse, the player I had used in FIFA all those years ago, and to congratulate him on the goal he had scored today was certainly special. The midfielder who I had written an entire article on a few months back was right in front of me. He was a tad weary in the face but was extremely kind and more than eager to sign for every fan. The last out was Nathan Redmond, the other apparent scorer, who was as humbled as all who came before him. I proudly shook the hand of the Southampton winger before we both moved to depart the stadium.
I give it one last look. The white-scaffolding of St. Mary’s Stadium remained visible with help from the club’s modern LED light system. I wanted to take it all in with a final glance as I didn’t and still don’t know when I will make my return. Prior to my visit, I had an idea of the optimal first match experience — Southampton would win and I’d get to meet a few of the players. With help from the tremendous staff at the club, some incredible fans and gracious players, my goal had been realized. Walking back down the tunneled walkway, St. Mary’s slowly fell out of sight, but the great players and moments in Southampton’s history were there once more to see us on our way. For six years I had waited for this day to come and now it was at its conclusion. I was saddened by the end of it, but incredibly enthused about my experience and even more impassioned for the club on England’s south coast. I couldn’t help but smile. Nicole and I continued down the tunneled walkway, back to our hotel and eventually back to America. Behind us, the celebrations of Saints past continued, as we carried on.