With all this long distance driving you either count Eddie Stobart lorries or Little Chefs. This time we counted Little Chefs. They were in the news last week because of a rescue/takeover package before they went out of business. What would the travelling football fan do without them?
One of the funniest (forgive me while I go off at a tangent here) articles I ever read was a Guardian piece about Little Chefs on April 2nd, 2005, entitled ‘Little Chef, A65 near Clapham Lancs’. Google it, you’ll not be disappointed, but here’s a sample paragraph.
‘Being fond of an occasional coffee and a bickie I try to stop whenever I’m on the A65 near Lancaster at a charming café in the village of Clapham, but with this column in mind I recently visited the Little Chef instead and stood obediently by the “Wait here to be seated” sign. Listening to what sounded like a Soviet style TB ward but was actually the “smoking section” (as I’ve said before you may as well have a pissing section in a swimming pool). When I was finally seated, I perused the photographic menu and ordered “The Olympic” breakfast. In the time it takes a microwave to say “ding”, there it was on my table, served by someone dressed in a garment that was more stain than uniform and who looked as if she was depriving some village of its idiot’.
Not much wonder Little Chefs were being closed by the dozen and football fans desperate for a pit stop and a plastic omelette were beginning to look elsewhere.
Southampton, who play in a plastic stadium, were formed in 1885 as St Mary’s YMCA, playing at the Antelope Ground. Not even Simon Inglis knows where it got that name from. When they relinquished their church origins they kept their nickname – The Saints. In more recent years the quaint Dell stadium was one of the architectural treasures of the south coast. Today the new St Mary’s Stadium is pretty much bog standard new-build. (And by the way, it might be shiny and new but the roof leaks). Southampton is one of those places, however, that makes a good weekend visit for travelling Clarets as long as you give any Little Chef a miss on the way.
Since former chairman Rupert Lowe, he of the public school plummy tones and let’s-have-a-new-manager-every-six-months policy, has departed, along with that rugby fellow Clive Woodward, sorry SIR Clive Woodward, who was supposed to bring his expertise to football, Southampton have under George Burley assumed a near respectability and by football standards, a quiet stability. They had become a laughing stock, and such was the speed with which managers came and went, it is rumoured that a special revolving door was fitted round the back of the building. With so many relatives who are Saints supporters I sorely miss the soap opera that was Southampton, and the chance to poke merciless fun at them all. Currently they simply say one word to me: “Rasiak.” And I have no answer.
This year, about £10m was spent before the season started and Southampton are still benefiting from Barry Kilby’s pet hate, parachute payments, which gives clubs like Southampton a hundred yard start. Plus they have our nemesis, the pre-mentioned Rasiak. But, we have Ade back, new man Djemba Djemba, so good they named him twice (not my joke by the way but a good’n), new man Pollit in goal, and Duff returns thank goodness.
Ade scored with a cracking header here last season and this year once again for us the game begins with the park-and-ride bus from its starting point in a muddy field near Netley.
Anyway it was £3 for a programme at St Mary’s; nothing comes cheap here, even the OAP tickets are £17, plus which it must have been Southampton’s oldest, bumpiest bus we rode in on.
But at last – the game:
The big story is we nearly didn’t get there. Do you remember Scamper, the Scottie, hero and star of Its Burnley Not Barcelona? Before the game from our temporary base at sister in law’s at Netley Abbey, what does he do? Age has not bestowed any wisdom upon him at all. This time he sneaks off out and under the gate, crosses the High Street, wanders into the Baker’s Shop opposite the house, trots round the back of the counter and helps himself to a loaf from the bottom shelf. We find this out when we eventually 40 minutes later find him in the Workings Men’s Club next door sat on a chair being fed crisps. Another five minutes and they’d have had a pint of lager shandy down him as well. Only by pure chance had we stuck our head in the bakers, heard about the Scottie who stole the loaf, and that he had been taken next door to the Club to see if anyone knew him. I promise; this is the last dog we ever get.
But at last – honest – the game: Here’s what one paper said:
‘Southampton and Burnley shuffled their way through 90 minutes of boredom. It was dire from start to finish… Although Burnley dominated the opening half they were unable to produce the cutting edge in front of goal. And Saints were no better, failing to test keeper Mike Pollit’.
Hmmm. There were two schools of thought sat round us. First the one that would agree with the above and add that we haven’t scored a league goal in four games, and second, the one that says hey come on this was a point, we stopped the rot, and we didn’t concede and this was a gritty, resolute, determined performance against a top six side. And, that bloody Rasiak didn’t score either.
Contrast the game and the performance with that at Reading. How we didn’t win that game 6 – 3 is a mystery. Today if both sides had played till midnight they wouldn’t have scored. Southampton offered little. What a disappointment. Tell me how they are in the top six please. Other than a couple of very short spells when they had us pinned back I can’t remember any moments when they remotely looked like scoring. Ah, unless you count the penalty claims. Maybe a different ref would have given one of them. This one decided they were dives.
And Burnley: If you judge a game by the number of times you stand up expecting a goal, or because of real excitement, then in this game you wouldn’t have lost many calories. The stats say we had 3 on target and four off target… one of them a screaming Djemba shot over the bar… Ade caught offside with a hairline decision when through… An Elliot vicious cross tipped over… Lafferty through for a shot when a pass to Ade better placed would have been better… a great Harley cross… a McCann shot well wide… A Djemba free kick well over the bar… and that was about it. Contrast that with the number of chances made at Reading, where Salako made the Reading goalkeeper the man of the match.
Today was workmanlike, but lacked any semblance of flair. Without Jones there seemed no pace, trickery, penetration. He scared Reading to death but remains an enigma; so much good work, but for the moment no end product. The wide open spaces in the Southampton half that sometimes opened up towards the end might have been made for him – had he been brought on for the last twenty minutes. For me, an in-form Jones, running at defences is essential. Mahon would have played we are lead to believe but for a knock in training. Perhaps he would have brought something just that little bit different in a game that was largely a mechanical stalemate.
I wish I could meet Steve Cotterill. I’d ask him why our corner routine is so dull, I can’t say routines, there seems to be only one to the far post or beyond. I might be wrong but was it at Hull we had 14 corners, today the stats say six, but from none of them do we ever look like scoring. Why is there no alternating far post with near post, in-swingers with out-swingers, or short corners (invented at Burnley), or a diagonal ball on the floor to a player moving up from deep? Why no cunningly thought out set plays that have a better chance of an end product than just a long punt? It baffles me. Scouts watching us like the two I sat next to at Coventry, one from Hull and one from Barnsley, must have gone back with the news that Burnley corners are so predictable, and what was it Harry Potts’ mentor, the old fox Billy Dougal, used to say to players, “always do what the opposition don’t want you to do.” In other words do what they least expect. Those two scouts at Coventry did their homework alright. They knew exactly what to expect. And both of them thought Jones was outstanding.
And what about the enigma that is Gifton? So much of the donkey work that he does is unappreciated, unnoticed, holding the ball, shielding it, laying it off; playing a man in, winning it in the air from goal kicks, supporting the main striker be it Akinbyi or Gray. For all his lack of pace, he’s the best we have at that.
For me, Southampton were there to be beaten in the last twenty minutes if we’d gone at them like we did in the first twenty when this had the makings of a really good game. I’d have given Jones and Gifton that last spell, in place of either McCann or Elliot, and Lafferty. Don’t get me wrong, they played well, did their jobs, but I guess the bottom line was we’d settled for the point. What did my old dad always say: “Better to have a shilling in yer pocket lad than maybe nowt at all.”
Meanwhile I like Eric Eric, (as long as he doesn’t sing for us at half time). I think he’ll stiffen us up, give us some beefiness, all too often we are just so easily brushed off the ball. And fingers crossed SC gets his next target to sign. But what position… a right back in which case where will Thomas fit in and if he moves back to centre back who makes way for him?
Or will it be a wide right player, or another hard tackling midfielder? Or, might it be someone who can land corners on a sixpence? Or, if not on a sixpence, at least on a claret and blue forehead, coming in from somewhere the opposition least expect?
Intriguing… can’t wait.
Dave Thomas January 2007.