When you take a tour of the inner workings of many English football clubs, you get to see the huge number of trophies and trinkets they have won over the decades.
Take a tour of Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium, however, and it won’t take you too long to inspect the trophy cabinet.
But for a club with limited resources and a small catchment area of fans, simply surviving in the Premier League against some of the game’s biggest outfits is success in itself.
It’s a feat they have achieved to some tune as well, only succumbing to relegation once since the First Division rebranded to the Premier League in 1992.
Well, that was until the 2022/23 campaign, at least….
The Saints have gone marching down to the Championship for just the second time since the 1970s. The last time they tasted the bitterness of relegation, it took them seven years to return to the Premier League – in which time they also experienced a stint in the third tier of English football.
So you can forgive Southampton fans for feeling rather pensive on what the next few years will hold for their beloved football club….
First Premier League Relegation (2004/05)
To offer some background, Southampton have been one of the most successful top-flight teams in English football – if we define success as avoiding relegation, and thriving, against the odds.
The Saints were promoted to the old First Division in 1966, back in the days of club legends like Martin Chivers, Terry Paine and Ron Davies. After a couple of flirtations with European football, Southampton would be relegated back to the second-tier in 1974.
They spent five seasons in the Second Division – becoming one of the only clubs to win the FA Cup while playing outside the top tier in 1976 – before securing promotion back to the top-flight in 1977/78. There they would stay for the best part of 30 years.
The 2004/05 season was memorable for all the wrong reasons for Southampton. Manager Paul Sturrock was sacked after just five months – a timeframe that included the summer break and just two games of the new campaign – over accusations that the players didn’t respect his methods.
His successor, Steve Wigley, had only managed one club before – a two-year stint at Aldershot Town – and so was perhaps not best placed to secure survival for a team in peril. He was sacked after 14 games in charge.
Was Harry Redknapp, a man that had coached Southampton’s rivals Bournemouth and Portsmouth already, the right person for the job? Not a manager that attuned to a relegation battle, it was perhaps no surprise when defeat on the final day of the campaign saw the Saints depart the English top-flight for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Down, Down, Deeper and Down (2008/09)
Things would soon go from bad to worse for Southampton.
In the days before parachute payments to Premier League clubs, the Saints had to trim their wage bill significantly – in true Redknapp wheeler-dealer fashion, more than 20 players left the club in the summer of 2005.
Unfortunately, many of the players brought in – including a 38-year-old Dennis Wise – were not able to secure an instant return to the top-flight, and the main positive note of the 2005/06 campaign was the emergence of a young Theo Walcott.
George Burley steadied the ship in 2006/07, although a run to the play-offs would ultimately end in heartbreak – a defeat to Derby County in the semi-final in a penalty shootout. But the emergence of more youth team talent, namely Adam Lallana and a young man called Gareth Bale, offered hope for the future.
Sadly not. Instability on and off the pitch left the Saints battling relegation, and it was only a 3-2 win against Sheffield United on the final day of the 2007/08 season that averted demotion to the third-tier.
But that was merely a stay of execution. It soon become apparent that the club’s owners, Southampton Leisure Holdings, were in dire financial jeopardy, and a tightening of the purse-strings saw the playing squad weakened and two relative unknowns – first Jan Poortvliet and then Mark Wotte – appointed as head coach.
Unsurprisingly, they were relegated to League One after finishing second-from-bottom, and worse still would start the next season with a ten-point deduction owing to the owners’ financial regularities.
Bouncing Back (2010/11)
Given that point deduction, the Saints would have their work cut out bouncing back at the first time of asking.
But powered by the goals of Rickie Lambert, an astute manager Alan Pardew and a new owner in Markus Liebherr, they gave it a good go – ultimately finishing seven points adrift of the play-off places.
With a clean slate in 2010/11, it seemed almost inevitable that Southampton would get promotion back to the Championship….and so it would prove.
The season started in tragic fashion – Liebherr died suddenly of a heart attack, before Pardew was sacked. The Saints’ ship was rocking once more.
But Nigel Adkins proved a popular replacement, with Lambert banging in the goals, Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain emerging from the club’s seemingly endless supply of young talent and shrewd acquisitions such as Jose Fonte and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Southampton amassed 92 points, finishing second behind Brighton.
On the Up (2011/12)
Whether you believe in momentum in sport, there’s no doubt that the positivity coursing through Southampton FC was a contributing factor to their back-to-back promotions.
The spine of Lambert, Lallana, Schneiderlin and Fonte remained, bolstered by the signings of Billy Sharp, Jack Cork and the giant defender, Jan Hooiveld. Promotion would be assured on the final day of the campaign with a 4-0 thrashing of Coventry City.
There followed an eleven-year tenure in the Premier League, which sadly for the Saints ended in 2023.
To the Future
Hopefully, the club will learn the lessons of their previous relegation to the Championship and avoid making the same mistakes.
They seem to be in a somewhat healthier financial position than last time, a situation aided by parachute payments, so they should avoid administration this time around.
Saleable assets such as James Ward-Prowse and Kyle Walker-Peters will presumably be sold, but this is not a squad with a lofty wage bill – their £36 million commitment to player salaries will, however, need to be trimmed by around £10 million or so.
Perhaps history will repeat itself in terms of the club’s vaunted youth team set-up. Their Under-21 side won the Premier League 2 in 2022/23, while their Under-18s reached the semi-final of that age category’s FA Youth Cup.
Rebuild and go again….the Saints can march back to the Premier League if they avoid the missteps of previous years.