With the Championship season entering a critical stage, the teams at the top of the division really need to push on and pick the crucial points that could guide them into the Premiership. Still lying second, Southampton made a blistering start to the season, producing some consistent form and they now find themselves real contenders for promotion.
Having won eight of their first nine games, the newly-promoted Saints defied some critics that suggested they might struggle on return to the Championship. Nigel Adkins’s side just pipped Huddersfield to second spot in League One and finished behind Gus Poyet’s Brighton to take one step closer to the eventual target; the Premier League. Although Southampton were not expected to be battling relegation, indeed the squad still contained some quality individuals from the previous year, no one expected them to compete with some of the division’s heavyweights. Although West Ham top the Championship, Southampton are currently holding off the challenges of the likes of Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Blackpool and Leicester.
However, Saturday’s 2-0 win over Burnley was in fact only their second since Boxing Day, a run of form that has seen their lead at the top of the table eradicated. Adkins will hope this result can set his side back on the right track, as they face the table-topping Hammers on Tuesday night. Despite this, the Saints face a run of fixtures in February and March that seem distinctly winnable. During this period, the side can kick on and try and open up a gap over their promotion rivals, enough to seal a return to the Premiership, from which Southampton have been absent since 2005.
A lot of parallels can be drawn between the Saints’ fine season so far and Norwich City’s rise to the top. The Canaries achieved back-to-back promotion under the guidance of Paul Lambert, despite having fewer resources than their rivals.Norwich’s team spirit and togetherness have helped propel the side to eight position in the Premier League, despite being second favourites for relegation at the beginning of the year.
Southampton can therefore learn something from the men in yellow, the know-how on securing that rare promotion double. In reality, the Saints squad is possibly stronger than that of Norwich, although there is something remarkably similar about the side’s respective talismans and leading scorers. Both Ricky Lambert and Grant Holt spent the majority of their careers in the lower echelons of the Football League, Lambert with Bristol Rovers and Holt with a number of clubs. Southampton’s number seven has rattled in 20 goals already this season and having seen Holt bag 11 times in England’s top division, Lambert will fancy his chances of continuing his excellent scoring record amongst England’s best. Lambert and Holt play in similar ways; they both hold the ball up well and offer a serious physical threat up front, not to mention having that magical touch around the penalty box. If the Saints were to get promoted, they’d have the man already in their ranks to give them a decent shot at survival.
The Saints have other players well equipped for the top flight, young midfielder Adam Lallana has long been tipped for big things, Guly Do Prado’s creativity has brought him 11 goals this season, whilst the club splashed out £3 million on Doncaster Rovers striker Billy Sharp. Such funds could be critical to Southampton’s chances of establishing themselves in the Promised Land should they reach it, indeed Norwich have spent £6.5 million on new players, which has given them enough to get by. There is no doubt that Southampton would need to strengthen in the summer if they got promoted, but fortunately Chairman Nicola Cortese has backed the club in the transfer market so far, offering Nigel Adkins decent funds to improve his side.
There is no doubt Southampton would offer a lot to the Premiership. They have a passionate following at St Mary’s that stayed loyal even when the club slipped into League One, while everyone remembers the Saints’ flirtation with relegation year in, year out that kept all the neutrals entertained. The older generations will recall that sense of déjà-vu that occurred every time Matt Le Tissier popped up with a goal at The Dell to keep the Saints up on the last day of every season. One thing that sheds a lot of positive light on the club is the Southampton academy that just keeps producing talent off the conveyor belt. Saints fans can only dream that their side still had the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stepping on the pitch. If the club returned to the top flight, Southampton could afford to hang onto these types of players and hopefully provide a decent base for young talent to kick start their careers at the highest level. The hard work has to be done before the end of the season though, Southampton need to ward off the challenge of the more qualified contenders jostling for promotion and then the club can really push on and re-establish themselves back amongst England’s elite.