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It's now very much become a cliché to harp on about the ups, downs, trials, tribulations, etc. when talking about supporting your football team.
My love affair with Southampton has been ongoing for over 20 years now. I was too young to appreciate Euro '96 as England crashed out in the semi-finals to Germany on penalties the last time a big international tournament rolled into town, but my earliest memories of football was watching a mustachioed Graeme Souness struggle to keep Saints afloat of the relegation zone in the Premiership.
With the benefit of hindsight, and in spite of the bleak football on offer, what a time to start, given Souness' infamous tenure at the club included the signing of one Ali Dia.
I had no choice in becoming a Southampton fan. My father used to threaten me with having to live in the shed if I supported anyone but Saints as a child. Idle threats, I'm sure. Right? Either way, I'm glad some faux abusive parenting led me to support the finest team on the South Coast and that story even helped me win a free season ticket from the club, as I had entered my story in a competition ahead of the 2014/15 Premier League campaign. Southampton made me pose in front of a shed and a professional camera crew (I know) and those photos were published alongside my story in the season ticket holders book for that season.
Living in north Hampshire on the borders of Surrey and Reading—London club territory, unfortunately—many school friends always asked me why I supported Southampton as we continually trod water in the top tier before sinking to the depths of League One.
Apart from having no say in the matter, I have no regrets. Other than the club's brief stint in League One, Saints have long embodied the perennial underdog story. This story came to life as Southampton routinely fought it out with English football's big boys—finishing eighth, seventh, and then sixth in the Premier League—a run of three seasons which started within three years of playing in League One and came in spite of the club continually selling off its best players for big money and replacing them with little-known talent from afar.
As much as it sucks to see those players you've built an affinity for leave for pastures new (ie money) year on year, it kind of keeps things fresh in a way. Southampton fans have to always be on their toes ahead of the new season—who knows what's going to happen next year?
There has been plenty of discontent among Southampton fans this season with manager Claude Puel leading the club to finish eighth in the Premier League with some uninspiring football to boot—not helped by the mere 17 Saints goals scored at home this season, with Sunderland the only team to score less with 16—but there is genuine mystery as to how well Saints will do next season. That element of surprise can be seen as a positive or a negative for those who have already shelled out £600 for a season ticket.
Personally, I'd say Saints fans have become spoiled with the club's overachieving past three seasons, bearing in mind the club was close to going out of business just eight years ago while docked points in the third tier of English football. This season has seen Saints beat Inter Milan at home in the Europa League, travel to the San Siro in return, reach Wembley in the League Cup final and managed to comfortably stay safe from relegation. In spite of the uninspiring football on show this season, I'd say that was an OK season at the very least, but what do I know?
The 2016/17 campaign aside, Southampton embody what's right with football (this is a totally unbiased opinion, obviously). Yes, we have a soulless identikit stadium, but that is made up for one of the finest football academies in the United Kingdom—perhaps on earth. The club is stable with an ethos to play attractive football and a focus to play our home-grown talent. It's a sustainable club which spends within its means. It's a club which is largely inoffensive, with plenty of people telling me they quite like Saints as a second team even if they have no reason to like them.
Despite the bad luck, bad ownership and a torrent of excrement hurled at the club in the past, this Saints fan has seen lovely footballers in the likes of Matt Le Tissier, James Beattie, Michael Svensson, Antti Niemi, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Toby Alderweireld, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk, and the one and only Papa Waigo don the red and white stripes for my team. It's hard not to love Southampton, really.
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