by Kevin Wolfe
The date is January 29th, 2011 a horribly cold snowy day in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. In the petite mountain town, in a run down house on West Main Street, sat a crowd of soccer obsessed members of the men’s soccer program. All awaiting the start of the FA Cup clash between Southampton and Manchester United. Three years of bickering and harsh words directed at one another had boiled over the week before, with the house containing 5 passionate supporters of rival clubs failing to accept that their favored club was not viewed as the best in the world in each other's eyes. In the years of cable boxes, Gol TV and Fox Soccer Channel, it was necessary to watch the games as a group, as only one tv in our entire house had the soccer channels. As the five of us huddled around our 1990s style box big screen the weekend before the 29th, we watched the EPL and La Liga matches all weekend, and as the usual tempers flared, and harsh banter and insults were exchanged over the morning matches.
This lead to a revelation sometime in the week prior to the match by the pivotal character in this story, Mark Tattersall or Tatts as he is affectionately labeled. “Why don’t we all just pick a shit League One team and support them together?” Brilliant! The lengthy center back and now doctor had suggested we end all debates, in house fighting and banter, and back a team as a group. Tatts then suggested “My dad’s family is from Southampton, how about them?” Southampton, a team I could remember being in the premier league somewhat recently back in the early 2000s. “Alright then” we all proclaimed Southampton it was, and with the FA Cup clash coming that Saturday against United, we had very little time to become experts on our newly adopted side. Seeing as our favorite past time in our college days was playing soccer and drinking, the Friday night prior to match was spent playing 5 a side with the rest of the team, leading to an alcohol fueled night of studying facts and singing songs about the future Southampton stars, who were absolute nobodies of the football world at the time.
The next morning, I can remember being unusually excited to watch the Saints take on United. There was a new energy surrounding our house, an energy that I am sure every supporter feels when their club takes on one of the big names in the FA Cup. An us against the world feeling bonded us together as we watched the Saints take on Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils. As we watched the match unfold we were surprised with the talent Southampton possessed and how dominant they were at times against Sir Alex’s side that morning. When Richard Chaplow bombed a loose ball in the box into the roof of the net just before halftime, our living room erupted. I’ve never felt such joy as we all as a group bonded over the success of the League 1 side that morning, we stormed out of the house at halftime towards the dining hall, as the snow flaked around us we began to shout in uni-sense about our new favorite 6’ 3’ goal machine Rickie Lambert.
“He stands as tall as 6 foot 3, Rickie, Rickie
He’ll take us to the Premier League, Rickie! Rickie!
He gets the ball, he takes the piss,
He wears the shirt of Matt Le Tiss’
Rickie Lambert! Southampton’s Goal Machine! ”
Even though United spoiled our afternoon with two goals in second half to take the Saints out of the FA Cup, we were hooked. The rest of the winter and early spring we cheered the Saints on from our grimy living room as they soared to the top of League One, with promotion guaranteed to the Championship for the next season. Another wild idea came to mind once promotion was guaranteed for the South Coast side, why not go see them get promoted? Why not right? Their last game aligned perfectly with the end of our spring term, and none of us had any plans for the first few weeks of the summer. We immediately looked for tickets to their final home game against Walsall which we found for 15 quid, and searched for the lowest possible airfare to England in early May. We began to arrange all of the logistics, how we were all getting out of of finals on Friday, how we were getting from London to the South coast, and we somehow managed to make all of the stars align. The five of us cleared out our meager bank accounts and borrowed some funds from our parents, to book an impromptu to trip to the South Coast.
With this sporadic trip planned for the end of our semester, it was hard to focus through our last few weeks of school and our finals. With our coach being a 68 year old Birmingham native, we were constantly reminded of what to expect from a promotion game, a party on the pitch was in store for us. We took off from our quiet college town towards NYC on a quest for St. Mary’s, not knowing what to expect, or what was in store. Looking back at that point, it was the craziest adventure any of us had ever embarked in our lives.
Traveling British Airways for the first time as a twenty year old was refreshing, as no ID was required to drink on the plane. Me, Greg, Bobby, and Tatts all indulged in some celebratory drinks as we traveled the red eye over the Atlantic to London Heathrow, Once off the plane we entered an internet cafe in the airport to let the friends and family know we landed safely while we waited for our bus to Southampton to depart. There we met a friendly French gentlemen who offered to split a bottle of cognac with us while we still waited, a kind gesture from a total stranger, an act that would set the tone for an unreal afternoon.
We finally found our bus and we were off to the South Coast, sleeping off the alcohol by the time we arrived in Southampton. A quick stop at our bed and breakfast and we were off to St. Mary’s. With no idea where the actual stadium was, we found it easy to follow the hoards of supporters heading to the grounds from the center of town. After walking through what seemed to be one of the busier streets in town and towards a small bridge, we saw St. Mary’s for the first time, a cozy arena located near the shipping yard in the city. We walked past the away end to enter into the main gate of the stadium and directly into our section near the center of the pitch.
With the game being somewhat of a formality for the Saints, the party atmosphere was felt immediately as we found our seats. St Mary’s was absolutely packed to its capacity and the supporters in the Northam stand were absolutely rioting prior to kickoff. As we watched the likes of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Guly Do Prado, Jose Fonte, Morgan Schneiderlin and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain ready themselves for the match, it hit us that we were really about see an absolute cracker of a match.
And what a match we observed, Guly Do Prado gave Saints the lead early in the first half in front of the Northam stand and quickly after, David Connolly doubled the lead for home side with a terrifically bent finish into the far corner. Fans young and old joined in as the Saints supporters demonstrated their satisfaction with the fact that a South Coast Derby was now in order for next season. “We’re coming for you, We’re coming for you! You dirty skate bastards! We’re coming for you!” The song rang around the arena aimed at their much hated south coast rivals Portsmouth FC.
The second half began with the visitors getting a goal somewhere along the way. A young Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was subbed on and the youngster made a very good case for why Arsenal was interested in purchasing the pacey winger. Chamberlain received the ball on the right side of the pitch, cut back onto his left and bent a magnificent shot into the far corner in front of the Chapel Stand to guarantee the win on the day. As the time slowly ticked towards the ninety minute mark, we all anxiously looked at each other and discussed what to do. With no cell phones or means of communication, we planned to meet back at our seats once everything settled down, and we primed ourselves for the final whistle. The pa announcer warned fans to not invade the pitch after the final whistle, only to be drowned out by the supporters whistles and jeers, this was going to happen whether it was prohibited or not.
As the final whistle blew we raced on to the pitch with thousands of other fans towards the players, somewhat meagerly trying to get towards the locker rooms. A group of fans near Bobby were able to reach Rickie Lambert and hoist the giant striker into the air. As we all lost each other in the sea of supporters, the incredible scene was one I will tell my grandkids about surely. The amount of grown men who were having an absolute blast doing their best Klinsmann slides and running around on the pitch was fantastic to see. As the players made their way to the podium in the center of the stands, Nigel Adkins was given praise by the chairmen of the club and the League One championship was awarded to the players. Adkins would go on to lead the team to back to back promotions and into the promised land of the EPL, before being sacked in favor of Mauricio Pochettino in 2013. The crowd stayed and sung the songs of the players for a half hour or so until everyone blew their fuse a bit and started to disperse. “He plays on the left, he plays on the right, Adam Lallana makes Messi look shite” was my personal favorite.
As we met up at our original seats we sat down and reflected on what just happened and how lucky we were to be a part of something so unique. It was truly a marvelous day for everyone involved, Walsall fans even had something to cheer about as the struggling side managed to stay up that day in League One due to a lose in another match by another bottom of the table side. We left the arena and walked around town, we managed to make it back to the main street where “home support only” was listed on the many bars on the avenue. We settled for a diner spot where we had a pitcher and fish and chips to top off the long day that started in North America. At the bar we watched as Tottenham struggle against a Blackpool side that night, where the Southampton supporters made it known how much displeasure they had for former manager Harry Redknapp. “Harry Redknapp has a twitch, E-I E-I E-IO” was sung loudly at the bar while the game ran on. Pure exhaustion had hit at this point and we were all ready to call an end to the day.
We made it back to our cozy bed and breakfast where we all passed out almost immediately. We woke up to a full English breakfast prepared by our wonderful host, and sat with two phenomenal older Southampton fans who chatted with us the entire morning. The day and a half we had been in England was an eye opening spectacle to English football culture. Having played with numerous English players over the years, we were all able to grasp the hard working, passionate, and playful aspect of the country’s football culture. But being fully engulfed on a promotion day allowed us a full glimpse into what we are missing out on in America. The fact that every male and a decent amount of females of all ages, were present that day to see their town’s League One side play a somewhat meaningless game, tells me that we are still missing something in the grassroots of soccer in the USA when it comes to enjoying and supporting our local soccer teams.
Nonetheless what more can I say about our amazing experience in Southampton that day. Numerous players on the pitch went on to successful careers in the top flight and become fully capped internationals. It was a day which I will never forget, a day that still binds me and my four travel companions and teammates almost 5 years later. We brought songs and a new attitude to our season that fall, and we were able to accomplish great things during that campaign. If you ever happen to pass through Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and hear any of the student athletes or fans watching the men and women play soccer chant “the Haven’s going up!”, you can accredit that day in Southampton. May 7th, 2011 will be a day that I will look at through any tough time in my life as one of the greatest days I have experienced on this Earth, and more importantly one I was able to share with four of my best friends, and thousands of Southampton supporters.