Southampton visits fellow South Coast club Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday — the second of the three promoted teams — where they’ll meet for the first time since the 2011/12 season. Both claimed 3-0 home wins, including the memorable hat trick from Rickie Lambert at St Mary’s.
St Mary’s Musings caught up with Darren McKay from North Stand Chat to learn more about Sunday’s opponent, which has a much different look than when we last played.
St Mary’s Musings: Firstly, tell us a little bit about yourself, North Stand Chat and any projects you might be involved in.
Darren McKay: I've been an Albion fan since the late 70s and, as such, I've seen the Albion go from the top division all the way down to 92nd place in the League and then back up again. That included four home grounds — The Goldstone Ground, Priestfield (Gillingham), the Withdean Stadium and finally The Amex.
In the gory years, I co-edited Scars & Stripes fanzine and I've looked after North Stand Chat for about the last 17 year or so.
St Mary’s Musings: Brighton, which easily could've been selected as relegation candidate, has made a good start to the season. What were fan expectations entering the year and how have the changed through nine games?
DM: Firstly, we still are very much a relegation candidate and no sane Albion fan would think otherwise. We're very much in the group of clubs that needs to keep grinding away, picking up points here and there and hope that at least three worse teams come to light by the time the end of the season comes around.
Expectations were the same as for any newly promoted club: a scrap, being on the receiving end of some proper thrashings and the vague hope that we finish above the dotted line.
What we've found over the nine games to date is that we have managed to assemble a squad that is competitive and that gives us a decent chance of playing Premier League football again next season. There's a mighty long way to go though, and no one is taking anything for granted!
St Mary’s Musings: What style does manager Chris Hughton like to utilise and how will his system make it difficult for Southampton on match day?
DM: We've reverted from the 4-4-2 that took most of the Championship apart last season to a slightly more guarded 4-4-1-1. Assuming everyone is fit, there will be few surprises as to how we line up. The two uncertainties lie down our left. Markus Suttner, a Summer acquisition from Germany, has started most games at left-back, but Gaetan Bong has had a couple of starts, including last week at West Ham. Bong seems to get the nod when record signing Jose Izquierdo starts on the left wing, as was the case at the London Stadium.
Solly March has started most games on the left wing though, so it will be interesting to see if he returns to the starting line-up, probably bringing Suttner with him, or whether Bong and Izquierdo retain the shirts.
You won't get much space behind us and in the middle of defence Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk have been imperious, with the latter being linked with an England call-up already.
St Mary’s Musings: Pascal Groß looks a proper Premier League player and has already won a Player of the Month award. What makes him so special and how valuable is he to the squad?
DM: Two things:
1) His delivery. He puts the ball where it's needed and where it can hurt a defence. There are all sorts of stats floating about that put his ability to create up there with the likes of De Bruyne. He's also chipped in with a couple of goals too.
2) His running. He has no pace of any note, but he has a real engine on him and runs and runs and runs. He's covered more ground than any other Premier League player in a couple of game rounds already.
He's had an involvement in nearly all of our goals to date, and has become an integral part of our starting eleven as a result.
St Mary’s Musings: Brighton did a lot of transfer business this summer. Are you pleased by the signings or are there still weaknesses that need to be addressed?
DM: Despite concern that we were buying players with no Premier League experience, the key acquisitions — Maty Ryan (goalkeeper), Markus Suttner (left-back), Dave Propper (central midfield), Pascal Groß (number 10) and Jose Izquierdo (left wing) have all impressed.
Releasing David Stockdale for nothing and spending on Maty Ryan, the Australian national 'keeper, was questioned early on particularly as Ryan had a couple of less than impressive games, but he has looked very assured of late and we're delighted to have him. Suttner is not eye-catching but a very solid option to have. Propper has adjusted to the English game quickly and we've covered Groß already.
We'd not seen a huge amount of our record signing Izquierdo until the West Ham game where he scored a great goal to make his mark. Having both him and Solly March to choose from on the left is a nice problem for Chris Hughton to have!
The missing part of the jigsaw comes up front where the club failed to land the striker(s) they wanted. It wasn't for the lack of trying, even at the last minute we tried to break our transfer record, again, on Vicent Janssen from Spurs. It means we're a bit thin up front with Glenn Murray and Tomer Hemed sharing the duties when fit and not suspended!
St Mary’s Musings: Who on Brighton should Southampton fans be concerned by?
DM: Anthony Knockaert is showing glimpses of returning to form. He was quite rightly Championship Player of the Season last year and has always performed better at the Amex than away from home, so your left-back is likely to have a busy afternoon.
St Mary’s Musings: Which Saints player poses the biggest threat to Brighton?
DM: Manolo Gabbiadini is the one that immediately springs to mind. He caught the eye when joining you last season and seems to be getting back to that kind of form now. We'll be needing Lewis Dunk to keep him as quiet as possible!
St Mary’s Musings: Is there a player on Southampton who fits the mould of someone that would fit into the Brighton squad? If so, who?
DM: Gabbiadini, again, certainly would bring a lot more mobility to our strike force. Shane Long, also, was quite often mentioned as the sort of player we should be looking to bring in during the Summer. Can you spare us one of them in January?!?
St Mary’s Musings: For those who might not know a lot about Brighton, what is something unique to the club — be it a tradition or something else?
DM: Our story has been told quite a lot over the opening weeks of the season but for those that may have missed it...
We made the 1983 "And Smith Must Score" FA Cup Final, which coincided with our relegation from the top flight. What followed was a gradual tumbling down the Football League culminating in the 1996/97 season where we faced Hereford at Edgar Street with the loser being relegated to the Conference. We came from behind to snatch a 1-1 draw and survive on goals scored (if goal difference had been used, we'd have been relegated).
The following season we started life at Gillingham — a long way from home — as The Goldstone Ground had been sold. After two seasons in exile we returned to Brighton at a converted athletics track - Withdean Stadium. We enjoyed many successes at Withdean, including romping to the League One title in 2010-11 with Saints a distant second!
From there we moved to the sparkly new surroundings of the Amex and our upward trajectory has continued and after three play-off heartaches we finally clinched automatic promotion to return to the top flight for the first time in 34 years.
St Mary’s Musings: Finally, a score prediction for Sunday?
DM: Home is where survival will be won or lost. We'll shade it by the odd goal, probably a nervy 2-1.
We would like to thank Darren and North Stand Chat for taking the time to chat with us about Brighton. You can follow North Stand Chat on Twitter @NorthStandChat and check out their website at www.northstandchat.com.