Southampton hope Villa victory breaks the stigma at St Mary’s


“It was a fantastic atmosphere. I must say the guys enjoyed it very much to play. We speak about the importance of having a fortress here again.”

Ralph Hasenhuttl

As the Saints boss strode off the pitch for the final time on Saturday, the burden of St Mary’s was gone. Having conducted his now-renowned, unparalleled celebrations in front of the home crowd, the sheer sense of relief was struggling to stay hidden.

Amidst his chaotic, helter-skelter style of football, so perfectly fitting to his character, the Austrian found a fleeting moment of peace – at last.

The 2-0 win against lowly Aston Villa should have been easy. 28 efforts with nine on target, most sides would have not only expected to put the game to bed, but have their pipe and slippers out ready for the morning.  With goalkeeper Alex Mccarthy seeming like the only player in red and white to not have a chance to score, Southampton continued to squander putting the game beyond doubt.

And with the stigma attached to St Mary’s, anxiety around the stadia was becoming increasingly palpable. The team had the unwanted record of being bottom of the home league table, taking just 11 points from 13 games.

The second-half wore on and tension in the crowd was rendered onto the pitch as the minds of those Southampton players became scrambled. Despite the plethora of opportunities – some presented on a plate by their counterparts –  only an eighth minute goal from Shane Long was separating them from Villa.

They were frustrated, they were now fatigued and yet again, the inevitable was never far away. Up until that point Dean Smith’s men had barely fashioned an attack, but you could bet if they did, they would score. In the 88th minute, substitute Michael Obafemi typified Southampton’s chasm, almost Jekyll and Hyde-like home and away form.

Saints were on the break. They had just soaked up a Villa onslaught but were now briefly released from the shackles. Instead of offering the side respite, thereby keeping the ball in the corner or drawing a foul, Obafemi proceeded to continue his run and attempt a shot. The Irishman’s effort was so weak, it looked as if he passed it to Pepe Reina.

St Mary’s groaned but were not surprised.

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In truth, St Mary’s had developed into a stigma for the team, long before that scaring October night against Leicester. Their 2-1 defeat to Burnley the week before was their eighth home loss in 13 matches. Not since 2009, when Southampton were relegated to League One from the Championship, have they lost nine matches at home in a season. And with six more matches at the stadium, including the visit of Aston Villa, that deplorable record was likely to be broken, if not smashed.

Logical reasons for it? Hasenhuttl has been asking the same question since August. He’s contended with a number of mitigating circumstances for it, with the perception that conceding early, occasionally down to bad fortune, the front-running idea.
Hasenhuttl has often bemoaned early goals conceded, where eight times they have found themselves trailing at half-time. The atmosphere turns eerie and Southampton are condemned to swimming against the tide. An early goal generally amplifies the confidence of the scoring team, where players suddenly become prepared to take risks with the ball, essential to Hasenhuttl’s incisive, direct passing vision.
He had even joked in a recent fans forum about wanting to wear the yellow kit rather than the stripes. Supporters found it admirable that their manager made no bones regarding the players mental block when it comes to playing at their own ground. While his answer to a question in the disparity in home and away form was intended for humorous purposes, there was no disguising the crux of an irritated tone.
Speaking last Thursday, Hasenhuttl admitted the lack of expectancy in away games elevates his players level, insisting his players relish an underdog status.
“Against Burnley everyone expects that we are 3-0 up after ten minutes. It is a little hard to show this, this is a pressure guys aren’t used to carrying.
“In away games no-one expects anything from us. Maybe that’s the reason we perform better in away games.”
Perhaps its brave from Hasenhuttl to imply the St Mary’s crowd hinders rather helps his men. Even in his programme notes he implored supporters to become more ‘nasty,’ directing any hostility towards the opposition.
But such as his significant ranking with supporters and the hierarchy within, it’s likely to create little controversy. Had it been Mark Hughes or Mauricio Pellegrino from seasons gone, they would have been firmly on the path to self-destruction.

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With seconds remaining, victory was sealed on the south coast when Stuart Armstrong rolled the ball into the back of an empty Aston Villa net. The Scot’s celebration was telling, diving into the crowd and finally breaking the strained expression that was etched on his face in the minutes before.

It had been a long time coming. Three points is three points but Saturday’s celebrations suggest it was more than that. Previously, in similar situations they experienced against Villa, they threw it away. They would have caved in under the inevitable cloud that lingers at St Mary’s, where every individual that wears the red and white stripes cannot seem to overcome the mental hurdle of playing at home.

To take maximum points when, unquestionably they would have preferred to play at Villa Park, may prove pivotal in reversing their future fortunes.

“It helps massively to take the lead,” said Hasenhuttl afterwards. “Especially the way we played the first-half. The goal to have less possession and be quicker behind the last line (allowed us) to take the three points and was a key factor.”

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Perhaps the win may turn out to be an anomaly instead of a catalyst and Southampton revert back to type. It’s acceptable to ask if Shane long had not scored that early goal, would the atmosphere remain as positive?  Would the eleven men on the grass stay as resolute as they did?

Upcoming home fixtures against Newcastle and then Arsenal will foreshadow any transformation. But as Ralph Hasenhuttl alluded too before and after the Villa game, the quicker St Mary’s becomes a fortress rather than a stigma, the better Southampton will be for it.


About Author

Football, Boxing and Cricket correspondent from Hampshire, covering southern sport. Editor and Head of Boxing at Prost International. Accreditated EFL & EPL journalist.

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