September 28th 1996 at the Dell

The event: September 28 at the Dell Southampton v Middlesbrough, premiership

Result: Southampton 4 Middlesbrough 0. What a turn-up

The advertising on the little electronic scoreboard at The Dell started to get hypnotic, after a while. “In a tight corner?” it would ask, whenever a corner was taken in the match. Struggling not to, I would take my eye off the ball yet again, just to check that the solution to the crowd’s tight-corner problem was still the same. And yes, it was. “POSH WINDOWS,”  announced the scoreboard, with a Southampton telephone number. Last Saturday, as the Saints beat Middlesbrough by an astonishing 4-0 on a glorious autumn afternoon, up-market glazing was the last thing on anybody’s mind; yet somehow that bizarre scoreboard kept its head while all around were losing theirs. Every time a substitution took place, in fact, it kneejerked yet another inapt admonishment. “Accept no substitute!” it said, and then tried to sell us some scaffolding.

Southampton was a very happy place on Saturday. Fifteen thousand supporters who had turned up to gawp in misery at Middlesbrough’s prize exotic Ravanelli stayed to chant “What. A waste. Er-munny!” and feel jolly smug. Ha ha ha. A certain amount of spirited nose-thumbing went on, as you can imagine. Noticeably, Middlesbrough’s phenomenal Brazilians Emerson and Juninho were worth every brass razoo — Emerson seeming never to move, but always to be in the right place; and Juninho off like a whippet with the ball glued to his boot. But it was easy to ignore such things in the underdog euphoria. Ravanelli missed a penalty in the last few minutes of the game, and the uprush of relief reached almost hysterical proportions. My companion for the match — as cheerfully ignorant of football as I am — suggested charitably that perhaps Ravanelli, with his white hair, was playing past his best. But I checked in the programme, and he was born in 1968.

Compared with the third-division football I’d seen the previous Saturday in Brighton, real differences were apparent. Instead of smacking blindly into each other every few minutes, for example, these Premiership players had high-performance features, such as brakes, steering and acceleration; they tackled cleverly; they even vaulted bodies on the ground, to avoid tripping. But the main thing was that the game travelled at about double the speed. Southampton’s stripey red-and-white knee-socks, pumping up and down against the emerald sward, simply dazzled the eye. Glance up at the scoreboard, and by the time you’d made a bizarre mental note to buy some scaffolding, the action had moved to the other end of the pitch.

By chance I’d had an intensive Saints seminar on Friday night. A poet friend on the Isle of Wight turned out to be a Southampton fan with very strong feelings (he also provided good street directions to The Dell, and a life-saving tip about parking at the station). Anyway, Matt Le Tissier was his hero, and Graeme Souness was yet to prove himself as manager. And another thing: when Southampton sold Alan Shearer, they should have secured a proportion of future transfers, but they didn’t — which shows idiocy or corruption, possibly both. I’m only passing this on, incidentally; I have no idea if transfer contracts work that way. As for the heroes, on Saturday I found it quite hard to pick out Le Tissier, except when he was scoring goals. If ever there was a footballer in need of a distinctive haircut, it’s him.*

As a newcomer to the game, I am still experiencing some rather banal quandaries, such as whether to take a flask of cup-soup. What is the etiquette when the men in the seats behind strike up an interesting conversation about Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography at half-time? Can you barge in with an opinion, or would they hit you? How do you keep your lap clear at a football match? So far, I have taken lots of jumpers and bundled them in my lap with my programme and umbrella — all of which prevent me from standing up suddenly to celebrate a goal. Being the last person left seated (“Hang on, I’ll just –”) not only spoils the moment, but feels like treason. People at the Dell look at you as if you might have just come down on a coach from the north-east.

My other main problem is that, unfamiliar with the players, I want them to keep turning their backs on me, just to show me their numbers. It’s like Bill and Ben — remember how in each episode one of those identical terracotta chaps would be discovered facing the other way, so that you could read “BILL” or “BEN” on the back? (“It was Bill, it was Bill!”) I keep experiencing something similar at football matches. Having dumped the coat and jumped up at last for the goal, I shout “Yes! Yes! Who? What? Yes!” and then the player turns away, and I can shout, “It was Le Tissier! It was Le Tissier!”

I had laid a bet on Saturday’s result. I wagered a quid that Southampton would win 3-2 — a deliberate folly, with odds of 25/1, but I was in carefree holiday mood. The odds against the real eventual score were 80/1 (even better) but the broad smiles on the Ladbrokes men afterwards suggested there were few takers. “Usually they bet on big home scores, but today they were cautious,” tee-heed the bookies, waving us home. What a marvellous thing, to see such a lot of people unexpectedly jubilant. A “W” was about to appear in the list of results, after a long string of “L”s and “D”s, like a date in roman numerals.

Gordon Watson was my man of the match (what a Trojan), and I notice in the programme that he has yet to secure a personal sponsor: his little face sort-of begs you to buy him, like a kitten in need of adopting. What a terrible shame. If only I had placed a decent bet on 4-0, I might have been in a position to help.

*Heavens, what was I thinking?

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