Connor Armstrong* passionately supports Southampton but, as his surname might suggest, has North-Eastern family roots. An uncle supports SAFC and his father is also from County Durham though he appears to have become a Saints man whatever his footballing allegiance in earlier life. Connor, a football writer who also dabbles in media duties for Southend United (catch him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ConnorArmstrong), was convinced SAFC were heading for relegation until a couple of weeks ago and still wonders whether it might be the best outcome even for us. It’s a fascinating set of replies. Read on …
Salut! Sunderland: It seems a long time since everyone thought Southampton were mad, losing Pochettino and several star players and being widely tipped for relegation. Then came Koeman. What else went right?
Connor Armstrong: Things were going right even before Ronald Koeman arrived at St. Mary’s. We may have lost our manager, our chairman and some high-profile names, but we kept hold of the wider ‘structure’ of the club. Les Reed – the Director of Football – was crucial in getting Koeman to the club, and managing the fallout of the situation. The value of senior pros such as Kelvin Davis, Steven Davis and José Fonte also cannot be underestimated.
When Koeman did arrive, he brought an air of calm and consideration to proceedings. He’s obviously a good coach with an impressive CV as a player and a manager, and I think that also helped to get Saints firing again.
Were you at the infamous (for us) 8-0? I was there but imagine your memories will be different …
I was! I rank that as the most crazy day of football I’ve ever taken in, either as a fan or a journalist. I couldn’t believe it, especially as Sunderland started fairly well and looked the better side in the opening 20 minutes or so. It got out of hand pretty quickly and the Sunderland players looked like full-time couldn’t come quickly enough. Luckily enough, that was the first ever Saints game a friend at university in the city got to see!
How far can Koeman now take the club and will Liebherr and Krueger let him?
With the right backing, I can see Ronald Koeman building Saints into a club that is regularly seen to be competing for the top six spots in the league. The Champions League might be a step too far, but it’s certainly something to aim for and that aim has been stated by those on the board as a long-term aspiration.
Ultimately, I think it’ll come down to whether Koeman wants to try to take the club further, rather than it being a case of Katharina Liebherr and Ralph Krueger letting him. I can see him getting an irresistible offer and leaving in the summer of 2017, though.
Graziano Pellè seems to have folk hero status but who else has really impressed you under Koeman – and where are you still weak?
Graziano is a very popular player with the fans, although at times he tends to divide opinion. He has a tendency to get frustrated very quickly and start throwing his arms around and shouting at teammates, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Really though, he’s a passionate player. He always applauds when his name is chanted and has built a pretty good rapport with the fans.
Beyond Pellè, the likes of Dušan Tadi? and Sadio Mané are popular for their exciting, creative play and goalscoring exploits. José Fonte is also very highly thought of by many Saints fans, especially after committing his future to the club when most of his former teammates were looking for a way out.
I struggle to label anyone, or any area of the team as “weak”. Over the next 12 months, though, I suspect, it is the midfield that will see the biggest overhaul.
What have been your personal highs and lows of following Southampton?
I didn’t really get into football until the mid-noughties, so memories of Southampton in the Premier League are at a premium (although I seem to remember a game against Bolton – with Steve Wigley as manager – and James Beattie scoring against Chelsea within seconds?!)
The most recent “low” would probably be the 1-0 loss to Sheffield United in the quarter final of last year’s Capital One Cup. I really felt we had it in us to go all the way, and it was such a massive let down. Walking away from the ground I was absolutely gutted.
Thankfully, there’s been many, many highs since the Liebherr family assumed control of the club. Two pitch invasions marking the two promotions, a trip to Wembley to see us lift the JPT and also some great results against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. I’m just a tiny bit disappointed we didn’t manage to beat Portsmouth when our paths crossed.
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The list of top players who have been with the Saints seems to go on for ever. Shilton, Ball, Channon, MacDougall, Keegan, Shearer, Le Tissier – and, of course, you nurtured, Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Not to mention SuperKev as a full back. Who sticks in the mind?
I’m forever gutted that I never got to see Le Tiss doing his thing, but Alex Chamberlain really stood out in League One and was a player that got people out of their seats when he got the ball at his feet. It’s a shame that he perhaps hasn’t progressed as many had hoped.
And yet Saints went from being robbed of a Uefa Cup place by the Heysel fallout to administration. How dark were those years?
It was all very bleak. As soon as you began to wonder whether Saints had hit rock bottom, there seemed to be a new way to stoop to another low. Ultimately though, it set us up for a great ride back up the leagues and produced some memories that’ll stay with a lot of the fanbase forever. Maybe it was just meant to be.
Can you think of any players who should never have been allowed near the Dell or St Mary’s?
Well, that’s easy. Ali Dia is one who immediately stands out. Other bizarre signings and players who didn’t really impress – whether they had many chances or not – include Nicholas Bignall, Dany N’Guessan and Anthony Pulis.
Oh, and Dani Osvaldo. He was a very big and very expensive mistake.
Sunderland: narrow survivals season after season but has our time finally run out?
If you’d asked me this question two or three weeks ago, I’d have said yes. I still think that Sunderland going down is perhaps something that “needs” to happen to gut the squad and have a decent crack at rebuilding, but that’s a risky game, as many can testify. There’s been a long-term struggle and countless managers, which suggests the problems may run deeper than some may think.
Any thoughts on the club, the fans, the North East, Big Sam?
Well, my uncle is a Sunderland fan and was born in County Durham (as was my father!) so I’ve always quite liked Sunderland. However, I must admit to finding the club and the football it plays rather tedious in recent seasons. Everyone knows the passion of football fans in the North East, and it’d be a real shame to see a Premier League devoid of representation from the north-east corner of the country. But at the same time, some of the football has been tough to watch and the cycle seems to repeat itself every season for Sunderland.
You’re a football writer. Is it difficult to separate professional duty and personal passion?
Not too much, actually. I thought I’d find it harder than I do, but for the most part it’s fine. I spend most of my time covering the south and south-east. So that includes the likes of Brighton and Hove Albion, Crawley Town, Portsmouth and others in that region. My only real clashes of professionalism and passion have come when covering Southend United, where I’ve spent time working within the club’s media set-up. You do find yourself really willing the team on, but I think that’s a result of getting to know the people and understanding what is at stake.
Especially when Joe Pigott scored in the 118th minute at Wembley, dragging the game into penalties before witnessing Southend winning the penalty shoot-out to earn promotion.
I will happily admit that I might’ve broken from protocol and enjoyed myself a bit too much that evening!
What will be the finishing top four this season?
Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea.
And the bottom three, with our clubs’ positions if in neither list?
Bournemouth, Norwich City and one of Sunderland/Newcastle/Aston Villa.
I think Saints will finish about where they did last season, between 7th and 9th.
Diving seems alive and well. Is it time to stop bothering about it and let coaches concentrate on getting players to do it better? If not how do we stamp it – and other forms of cheating – out?
I don’t think we should ever reach a point where we should encourage people to dive, but it’s a difficult situation to resolve. Retrospective punishment could be the way to go, but I’m really not too sure. It could be dangerous territory. I’m generally not a huge fan of taking things out of the referee’s hands, unless entirely necessary, such as in incidents of violence. (I’m looking at you, Diego Costa…)
Best ref, worst ref in the Premier?
I can’t say any one referee springs to mind under the “best” category, but I’ve still not moved on from Kevin Friend denying us blatant penalties against Liverpool last season. So, he can be the “worst” for this question.
One step the football authorities or Saints should take to improve the lot of ordinary fans?
I think Saints treat the fans very well, on the whole, so I’d focus improvement on the wider experience of ordinary fans. I think the authorities need to pay more attention to the clamour for “safe standing” and perhaps explore that more thoroughly. Additionally, just lowering or capping the ticket prices now and then would be handy.
Will you be at SAFC v Saints? What will be the score?
I won’t be, sadly. I was at last week’s cup win over Aston Villa, but I won’t be making the arduous journey for this one. Fair play to those who are. Work commitments mean that I’ll be having a chance of scenery down on the coast, covering Dover Athletic’s latest foray into the FA Cup, with the first round proper kicking off this weekend. Score? Saints to make life more difficult than it needs to be, but finally win. 2-1 to Ronald Koeman’s men.
* Connor Armstrong on himself: I’m a freelance journalist who covers football from Premier League to Non-League for a range of national newspapers and other media organisations. Most weekends are spent covering football on the south coast or in the south-east and London. I became a Saints fan as the result of some age-old father and son bonding, and can honestly say that I’ve loved the experience. We’ve been rather spoilt in recent years, so long may it continue. Up the Saints! i tweet at https://twitter.com/ConnorArmstrong
Interview: Colin Randall