Sunday, May 8, 2011

Redemption in England

Alright, y'all. Most of you have noticed that I have a penchant for following sports teams that none of you care about in countries you don't live in, and I have noticed that all of you who notice this have a penchant for not caring about them one iota. And that's fine. You don't need to get quite as gripped by Matthew Scarlett's brilliant toe tap in the 2009 AFL Grand Final nor do you really need to know that the Johnstone's Paint Trophy exists. But regardless you kids do know that one of those two teams I follow is the bedraggled footballing outfit on England's southern coast known as Southampton F.C.

When I began following Southampton in 2002, all was well in the Saints' world. Southampton was up in the Premier League with a top notch keeper in Antti Niemi (though ironically not this Antti Niemi) and a marvelous striker named James Beattie, to say nothing of the talent coming down the pipeline such as Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale.

Things only got more exciting for the Saints when they made an impressive run to the 2003 F.A. Cup Final before losing to Arsenal, and they were pegged by many to finish in the top five of the Premier League during the following seasons. But almost immediately the troubles came. The Saints had managerial instability that contributed to a precipitous collapse and relegation at the end of the 2005 season, ending a 27-year run at the top flight of English Football. After a middling 2005-06 season the Saints nearly got back to the Premier League in a playoff in the Coca-Cola Championship, but a wayward penalty by Inigo Idiakez ended their hopes and things only got worse from there. Aside from a brief interlude in which Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made a preliminary offer to buy the club and give it a dramatic cash infusion, which he later denied, the team struggled on the field, saving itself from a second relegation on the final day of the season and selling off most of its top players to avoid going into administration -- a process that requires relegation due to financial insolvency.

Avoiding that bug wouldn't last for long, though. Southampton went into complete financial disrepair a season later, forcing relegation which would have happened anyway due to poor performance on the field and suddenly, seven years after I had begun following the team, the Saints had dropped two levels from the Premier League and were virtually invisible on this side of the pond.

But after this week that could, at long last be changing.

After a first season in the third tier of English Football, League One, which saw the Saints overcome a mandatory 10-point penalty in the standings to not just avoid relegation but nearly reach the promotion playoffs, and the victory of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, there was hope for Saints this season, and they delivered in solid fashion.

Southampton went on a torrid stretch during the final months of the season, finishing out the campaign on an almost obscene 13-1-1 run in the final 15 matches, and this all culminated with a virtual clinching of the No. 2 overall place in the table with a 3-1 win at Plymouth on Monday -- a result that was clinched for good with a festive 3-1 romp at home yesterday against Walsall. Amazingly, the product of winning the second spot in the table of League One is, basically, just as good as winning the whole thing, because as one of the top two teams in the table, Southampton will automatically be promoted back to the Coca-Cola Championship for the 2011-12 season.

They're back.

Well, the Saints aren't completely back, not back all the way to where they were when I first started following the team, but this season's promotion is a huge step toward regaining the respectability the outfit once had. Getting back to the Premier League may yet be a few years off, but this was a necessary and exciting step in the right direction, particularly considering the manner in which the Saints dominated the League over the season's second half. Given how well they were playing promotion almost seemed less a prize than a expectation, but that didn't stop the crowd from unleashing the type of joy only seen stateside when a college football team topples a No. 1-ranked foe.



And so they may not be all the way back, not yet, but they finally, at long last, are doing a pretty good job of making their way there. I imagine it's a pretty exciting time to be watching football on England's south coast, but even as one of the few Americans keeping track of the team by following its twitter account and checking the box scores on the website, it's pretty fun over here, too.

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