by Nick Mabey.
Before the season kicked off, Ralph Hasenhuttl was the bookies’ favourite to be the first manager in the Premier League to lose his job. After losing our first fixture heavily at Spurs, Southampton were priced as second favourites to be relegated. And, when the team trudged off at half time losing to Leeds in our first home game, some Saints fans decided to serenade their own manager with a chorus of “you’re getting sacked in the morning”.
Fast forward three and a half games. The second half against Leeds saw a spirited comeback that sent fans off buzzing. An unlikely away win at Leicester was followed by a narrow, underserved defeat to Manchester United. To top it all, the mighty Saints leaped into seventh place in the fledgling table with a dominant and thoroughly deserved win over Chelsea. Add to that the energy created by a bright new, young crop of signings and an influx of yet more players on transfer deadline day, and talk has moved to how much we can actually achieve this season.
And that, in a nutshell, is what it’s like riding on Ralph’s rollercoaster. I’ve written about us being a streaky team before (streaky meaning we go on long winning or losing streaks) but it’s more than that. Much like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead in the Longfellow poem, when we are good we are very, very good and when we are bad we are horrid. In other words, when we play well we look unbeatable and when we play badly we seem incapable of beating anyone, and I mean anyone.
This has been the story of Ralph’s rollercoaster for nearly four years. When he joined on 5th December 2018 Saints were languishing in 18th place with one win in the first fourteen games of the season. Within eleven days we were beating Arsenal at a pulsating St. Mary’s and the performance, together with Ralph’s celebrations on the pitch afterwards, was transformational. We only finished 16th that season but the rollercoaster was off and running.
The following season started badly. On the 25th October, after a rain-sodden demolition by Leicester, we looked incapable of winning ever again and found ourselves 18th in the table. By the time of the first Covid lockdown, and the suspension of all matches, we had improved and then got worse. Hope wrestled with fear before the pandemic struck and football no longer mattered. Matches resumed over three months later and we played like champions, losing only once, to finish 11th. We had obviously used the lockdown well.
Our form continued into the 20/21 season – after the obligatory slow start of course, a mandatory part of the rollercoaster. After eight games we found ourselves unlikely league leaders for a few hours and could dream of glory. After seventeen games we were still sixth having just beaten Liverpool and it really felt like we were an unstoppable force. Then the wheels fell off. It was a spectacular descent, including our second 9-0 defeat in successive seasons. We managed to win three of the last twenty games and ended up 15th in the league. From hero to zero in four short months. Such is the nature of Ralph’s rollercoaster. How can we be so very brilliant and so very terrible in the same season?
Last season followed the pattern of the previous one. It took us longer to get going and we were draw specialists in the early months. By two thirds of the way through the season we had reached tenth, having notched up some notable wins and conceding no goals over two matches against a rampant Man City. And then, you guessed it, the wheels fell off. We won one of our last twelve games and looked like we couldn’t beat an egg by the end.
Such is life on the rollercoaster. What will this season bring? More of the same? A longer world-beating spell taking us into Europe? A longer world-ending spell taking us into the Championship? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s one of the things that makes my view from the Kingsland one of the most exciting, nerve-wracking and depressing in the country.
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