Occasionally I share a chapter from my book, The Groundhopper’s Guide to Soccer in England, as a way of introducing readers to a club that perhaps they don’t know much about. In this edition, we say hello to Southampton FC, currently in the Premier League.
You can buy a signed copy of my book straight from me right here.
If the top six or so teams in England kind of have their own league, then Southampton for years was one of the better clubs in the next league down. They’re in a major port city that makes a nice day or overnight trip from London.
On the South Coast about 90 minutes from London Waterloo station.
southamptonfc.com / +44 0845 688 9448
The Saints, because they were originally formed as a church team.
This is a little confusing, but the club “withdrew their support” for the ladies in 2005 after the men’s team was relegated out of the Premier League. Lame. Now the club has started up a new one called Southampton Women, who play in the FA Women’s National League Division One South West at tier 4; home games are at Testwood Park in Totton. The website is southamptonfc.com/women.
Meanwhile, one of the more successful women’s clubs in the country is in town—confusingly called Southampton Women’s FC. Never affiliated with the men’s club, they were formed in 1970 and have won the FA Women’s Cup eight times, second only to Arsenal. To make it even more confusing, they play in the same league! See southamptonwomensfc.co.uk for more on this team. One would assume it’s fun when they play each other.
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The club formed in 1885 as a church team, earning them the nickname Saints, and they played in the old Southern League until World War I. In 1920 they made the Football League and have been there ever since. In 1922–23 they did something mildly interesting: they won fourteen, lost fourteen, and drew fourteen, for forty-two points from forty-two games. They also scored and conceded the exact same amount of goals. Guess where they finished in the table.
They first made the top flight in 1966 and spent eight years there, finishing as high as seventh, making some minor European competitions, and going out in the early rounds. They got their only FA Cup win in 1976 while in the Second Division, when they beat Manchester United, who had just finished third in the First Division. It’s considered one of the bigger Cup final upsets.
They made it back up in the late 1970s and spent twenty-seven years there, during which they made the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) a few times but didn’t get anywhere, and once finished as high as second in the league.
In the late 1980s, their academy produced two of the great natural scorers of all time: Matt Le Tissier (born on an island in the English Channel) and Alan Shearer. Shearer was sold to Blackburn in 1992 for a national record (read more about him in the Newcastle United chapter), but Le Tissier stuck around for his whole career, through 2002, scoring 161 goals in 443 games. He converted forty-seven of his forty-eight penalty kicks and scored the last goal at their old stadium, a late winner in a 3–2 triumph over Arsenal. During all that time, the Saints stayed up but never finished higher than seventh.
Here is that final game at The Dell. It’s a cracker, and so is the winner by Le Tissier. Scan ahead to about 4:40 to see it.
In 2005 they were relegated, and financial troubles came along. By 2009 they were in League One, but new ownership arrived. They won the League Trophy while down there and got back to the Championship in 2011 and then to the Premier League in 2012. In the summer of 2014, they got something of a reputation by selling many of their best players: Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana to Liverpool; Calum Chambers to Arsenal; and Luke Shaw to Manchester United. Their manager, Mauricio Pochettino, also left for Spurs. In the next few years, they would also sell Sadio Mané and Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool. Gareth Bale came through their youth system as well.
I guess if you keep selling all your best players, trouble eventually comes along. In 2017-18 they barely stayed up, stumbling to seventeenth in the league, though they did make the FA Cup semifinals, where they lost to Chelsea. The next year wasn’t much better, as they finished 16th in the league. But in 2019-20 they got back to 11th, so they would seem to have their equilibrium back.
They share the South Coast derby with Portsmouth, and it’s one of the more bitter rivalries around. They have played 139 times since 1899 but not in a league game since 2012. In September 2019 they met in the League Cup, a 4-0 Southampton win at Portsmouth.
As one might imagine, the main one is “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
11th in Premier League, 4th Round FA Cup, 4th Round League Cup
Premier League (promoted in 2012)
St. Mary’s Stadium, which replaced the 15,000-seat Dell in 2001, holds 32,505 in perhaps the perfect statement of the modern, rectangular stadium. It’s surrounded by industrial sites and is hardly in the most romantic location, but inside it’s perfectly nice and spacious. The away fans will be in the north end.
The statue outside is of Ted Bates, known as “Mr. Southampton” because he played and managed there, served on the board, and was president. The statue itself has an interesting story. This is a replacement of the first one, which lasted exactly one week amid protests that its arms were too short and it looked more like the chairman of Portsmouth!
Tours are available on nonmatch days for £15 and on match days for £10. Book well ahead for match-day tours.
Last year tickets ranged from £39 to £46 for adults and could be hard to get. Get a membership or call the club. They also have some really nice and affordable hospitality options, some of which I now sell.
There is usually a shuttle bus from the main train station (call the club or ask at the station to confirm), which is nice because it’s a half-hour walk. You can cut that time in half by grabbing bus 18 from the Civic Center and then walking from the Britannia Road stop. It should be less than £10 in a cab.
The main action near the ground is along St. Mary’s Street, just west of the stadium. There, you’ll find the Kingsland Tavern and The Joiners Arms packed with home fans. Same for The Chapel Arms on the other side of the stadium, on Marine Parade. In town there are some neat older options like The London Hotel on very cool Oxford Street and the Flying Dutchman nearby. There is a Wetherspoon pub called the Standing Order on the high street, closer to the station, and my buddy and I had a nice postgame hangout at the Duke of Wellington in a restored fifteenth-century building on Bugle Street in the medieval quarter.
There’s nothing out by the stadium, so eat in town. Most of your options will be along the high street, including a decent Indian buffet at Coriander and an old-school Greek diner called George’s on St. Michael’s Street.
Southampton has been a big port for years and is now mainly associated with the cruise industry. White Star Line (of Titanic fame) was here, and now Cunard is. It has also been something of a spa town since the eighteenth century. Its history goes back to Roman and medieval days, and like many port cities, it was heavily bombed during World War II.
The high street is also known as the Queen’s Mile and leads down to the waterfront; this begins maybe a ten-minute walk from the station. There are still some of the medieval walls around (as well as a Walk the Walls program) and a small quarter of medieval buildings around the Tudor House and Garden.
If you’re into the Titanic at all, this is where it made its last stop, and there’s a great section of the SeaCity Museum all about it. Hundreds of locals died on that ship, and one exhibit features a map of the city on the floor, with a red dot showing every home that lost someone.
Southampton is also the home port of the Queen Mary II, a massive cruise ship that might be down at the docks to go and have a look at.