4. Apr, 2022


They say a home says a lot about their owner. You could certainly apply the adage to The Dell, the home ground of Southampton Football Club from 1898 to 2003.

In this era of health and safety I don't think the old place would see the light of day. The Main Stand was a marvel in itself, Saints fans standing on the sloping terrace would send H & S Inspectors into a cold sweat. It always reminded me of The Leaning Tower of Pisa, well the South Coast punters must have good balance.

But then top flight Saints have never had an identity crises. Like the Dell, Southampton have brought much needed colour to the national sport. For the past 40 years they have largely mixed with the elite of English football, they did have a brief horror show when they were relegated to League One (previously Third Division) in 2009 But they soon located a path back, gaining promotion to The Premier League in 2012. Much of the credit has to go to Nigel Adkins, the manager who over saw back to back promotions.

Surprisingly the Saints only entered the big time in 1966, managed by genial Ted Bates. Southampton did well and twice qualified for Europe in the early Seventies. Bates had some fine players to pick from. Big John McGrath in defence. England International Terry Paine on the wing and Ron Davies and Mick Channon up front.

The Saints have have many fine players but my favourites are Matt Le Tissier and Michael Roger Channon. Born in nearby Orcheston, Mick scored 187 goals for the Saints in two spells. All were marked with that trademark rotation of the left arm, the Windmill celebration signaled bed news for the First Division defences. He was part of the famous 1976 FA Cup winning team and was an established England International

The most famous day in Southampton's history was masterminded by Lawrie McMenemy The affable Geordie became Southampton manager in 1973. A year later they were relegated. But the Saints board stood by their man. Indeed McMenmemy dedicated the famous triumph to the men who had kept faith in troubling times. The FA Cup win set the template for further success. Wise old heads Peter Osgood, Peter Rodrigues ad Jim McCalliog all played on the famous day. It was McCalliogs pass which set up Bobby Stokes winner. While Rodrigues lifted the cup as Saints stunned Manchester United.

Youth complimented experience as youngster Nick Holmes came to the fore.  The blueprint was rolled out again when the FA Cup holders signed 31 year old Alan Ball. Two years later England's 1966 World Cup hero helped end a 4 year exile from the top flight. He captained the Saints in the 1979 League Cup Final, However, this time Wembley was not a happy hunting ground, Nottingham Forest winning a thrilling final 3-2. But now Southampton were the real deal. Over the next three seasons they finished 6th, 7th and 8th. McMenemys boys were widely regarded as one of the best teams in the Country. In 1980 McMenemy pulled off a transfer sensation.

The deal had bizarre origins, The Southampton boss had recently moved house, a friend suggested a new light would enhance the staircase before adding there is a problem, "what is it" replayed Lawrie McMenemy. He was told that the light was only available in Germany. Around the same time McMenemy had read that Kevin Keegan was looking to leave German club Hamburg. The Saints boss assumed Liverpool would have first option on signing their former striker, McMenemy sought clarity and phoned Liverpool Chief Executive Peter Robinson. Robinson stated that Liverpool had no intention of signing Keegan, this was the green light McMenemy needed. .He contacted Keegan asking him if he could pick up the staircase light and gently enquired "I hear you are looking for a move, would you be interested in joining us?"  

Keegan made positive responses to both requests and agreed to meet the Southampton manager. Negotiations went smoothly, after a short period Keegan enquired "Have You got a contract?" A stunned, but pleasantly surprised McMenemy was happy to oblige.

Southampton had done it, the twice European Footballer Of The Year had been lured to The South Coast (The cover photo shows Keegan pictured with his new team mates). The deal was kept top secret, only a handful of people knew the England captain was now a Saint. Author Leslie Thomas, was one of them. Thomas was a friend of McMenemy and was informed "We've got KK". The Virgin Soldiers author was sworn to secrecy and never let a word slip.

On February 11 1980 Southampton called a press conference at The Potter Heron Hotel, a stones throw away from The Dell. The waiting media hadn't a clue what was happening until Keegan, his Wife and baby Daughter walked into the room. The assembled hacks were stunned. Why had Keegan joined the humble Hampshire club when Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham were more appealing destinations?

In his autobiography Keegan revealed he warmed to the idea of been "A big fish in a small pond" He was also good friends with Channon and Ball, so Rock on Tommy to quote their near namesakes. Keegan made his debut on August 16th 1980. The Dell was packed to the rafters as Saints beat Manchester City 2-0. He scored 11 League goals to help Southampton finish 6th and qualify for the UEFA Cup. In November 1981 the Saints beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield their first ever victory on that iconic ground. Keegan made a triumphant return to his old stamping ground, setting up Steve Moran's 88th minute winner. Two months later Southampton went top of the First Division for the first time in their history. Young talents Moran and midfielder Steve Williams were now on the verge of the England squad while Keegan was on fire. The Saints were still clear in early March, Keegan urged McMenemy to strengthen the wafer thin squad for the run in. His plea fell on deaf ears and the Southampton finished a disappointing 7th 
Keegan grew disillusioned, he had scored 28 goals that season and been voted PFA Player Of The Year.. But he felt Southampton had blown their big chance and blamed the Saints hierarchy. A rift developed between Keegan and McMenemy which resulted in the former leaving to join Newcastle United. However, two years later Southampton enjoyed their best ever season. They finished First Division runners up to Liverpool and reached an FA Cup Semi Final. Young striker Danny Wallace was enjoying rave reviews. He scored a brace in a 2-0 win over the Reds, the first was a spectacular over head kick. The match was screened live on BBC1, so Match of The Day viewers had a real treat.

Liverpool gained revenge in 1986, winning an FA Cup Semi Final. The White Hart Lane defeat heralded the end of the glory days. McMenemy departed for Sunderland the same year. Unlike Keegan, he endured a miserable spell in the North East. Sunderland were relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history. Unsparingly Mcmenemy soon exited Roker Park. He returned to The Dell in 1993, this time as General Manager. McMenenemy was reunited with Alan Ball, who was appointed team manager. The pair guided the Saints to mid table respectability. Matthew Le Tissier blossomed, playing the best football of his career. Le Tiss credited Ball for his upturn in form, citing the faith the manager had in him.