After yet another record-breaking year, Southampton are currently preparing to reap the rewards of their sixth place Premier League finish last season – the opportunity to impress in the Europa League group stages.
The achievement was celebrated wildly on the South coast, and understandably so given that the club have yet another opportunity to go toe to toe with some of Europe’s biggest and greatest names. To the players of last season, it’s also seen as a chance to right the wrongs of their premature exit last time out.
After the disappointment of getting knocked out by an inferior FC Midtjylland team, many thought that this was the end of our European hopes, and that our chance to really make ourselves known amongst Europe’s elite football clubs had gone. Matters were made worse by the fact that had we defeated FC Midtjylland, Southampton would’ve been drawn alongside Italian giants Napoli in the group stage – this left fans wondering what could have been had we qualified and faced players like Gonzalo Higuaín.
But, despite all this, the 2015/16 season saw Southampton better their league position for the 7th year in a row. A remarkable achievement given the fact that we were continually written off and tipped for relegation by many “experts.” This trend of selling players, being written off and over-achieving has been repeated and repeated until we found ourselves in 6th place, and now, we have our reward. Just last week, the club was drawn into group K alongside Israeli Premier League champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the Czech First League runners-up Sparta Prague, and Italian super club Inter Milan: the 9th most successful football club in the world.
For many (myself included) to watch Southampton play at the San Siro against Inter Milan in a competitive football match is unimaginable. It’s something that I thought until recently, we as Saints fans could only dream about. Whilst growing up, Inter Milan was always one of the superpowers of world football, and is it any surprise when they held such great players like Ibrahimovic, Figo, Eto’o, Ronaldo, Baggio and Matthaus amongst others.
Yet despite the history and power behind Inter Milan, we – Southampton Football Club – have found ourselves in this unbelievable position. This draw has acted as a reward to the fans, staff, players and owners. It’s rewarded those who shunned interest from other clubs to stay with us, and it has rewarded the fans whose support never wavered.
This draw is for the fans who saw us hit the bottom of League 1 with minus 10 points, for those who made the Tuesday travels to Rochdale, for those who stood proudly at Old Trafford just last season, and for those who watched our relegation fixture against Manchester United in 2005.
On top of this, it signifies the influence of the Liebherr family who saved us from liquidation. When they took over, Southampton were on -10 points in the 3rd tier of English football. That year, we finished the season with a 3-1 win at home to Southend and gained a respectable 7th place finish. 12 days later, Inter Milan would beat Bayern Munich 2-0 to win the Champions League final with the likes of Diego Milito, Javier Zanetti and Wesley Sneijder all at their disposal. Yet 7 years down the line these two teams find themselves playing against each other in a competitive match. Imagine telling someone that after Southampton’s 1-1 draw against Millwall on the opening day of the 09/10 League 1 season.
For me, such an achievement epitomises everything great about our beloved club. This achievement was made possible by the unrivalled training facilities that we possess, the trust in our youth, the mysterious black box, those who know what it means to be a Saint, and every last player that has had the pleasure of putting on that red and white shirt.
But regardless of these achievements and the significance of it all, we have a game to play and a trophy to win. We aren’t in this tournament to make up the numbers, nor will we treat it any less than any other game. We aren’t going to the San Siro for a holiday, we’re going there to get 3 points, and along the way, we will have 5000 loyal Saints fans singing around all four corners of the 80,000 seater stadium
Win, lose or draw, this will be one of the greatest nights in our clubs history. Many haven’t seen us come up against a team of this calibre before in a competitive match, and whether we will again remains to be seen. But to see our very own youth academy graduates walk through the infamous San Siro tunnel to play on that turf, standing where the greats of both Milan clubs have stood, you can only be proud of our achievements. And who’s to say this is the end of Southampton’s rise? we are fine being the underdogs and we embrace going against the odds. We’ve done the unthinkable before, why not do it again?