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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 August 2005, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Saints' fall from grace hits home
By John May

Southampton fans distraught after relegation last season
The pain of last season's relegation is still felt by Saints
From the moment Southampton's relegation from the Premiership was confirmed at the end of last season, one fixture above all others has been on the lips of Saints fans.

It was a fixture whispered in almost embarrassed hushed tones, as though to speak its name aloud would summon up an evil poltergeist.

The fixture was the visit of Crewe Alexandra, and since that fateful day last May, Saints fans and people at the club have used the very name "Crewe" as the yardstick of how Southampton's fortunes have folded.

Without being unkind to Dario Gradi's team, not even the most ardent Crewe fan would not argue that the Railwaymen have the pulling power of Ivor the Engine, or a Hornby Double-O gauge.

For that reason, Southampton's first League game against Crewe sent a tremor of fear and cold reality that penetrated the heart of a club that has mixed it with the elite for 27 years.

That reality provided a slap across the chops as you turned on to the approaches to St Mary's stadium.

In previous seasons you would have been swept up in a river of humanity, eager with expectancy and anticipation of the Premiership fare to be savoured.

For Crewe's visit, that river was not even a babbling brook. It was more the sort of walk-up you would expect for an exhibition of South American Folk Art at the British Museum.

The good times appeared to have gone - perhaps temporarily - for the fast-food trade, as hinted by the drop-off in the number of burger and pie vans around the vicinity of St Mary's.

Similarly, the coach park told its own tale. In Premiership days charabancs would proudly display their colours: "Newbury Saints; Salisbury Saints; Oxford Saints; Midlands Saints.

The Weymouth Saints regularly filled two, 52-seaters for home games. But perhaps there was a more pressing engagement, like a Beach Volleyball tournament, as two minibuses brought the faithful from West Dorset.

Saints chairman Rupert Lowe
Even Rupert Lowe is feeling the financial strain

Relegation from the Premiership has its other prices. The fickle friend of corporate entertainment suddenly decides to stand you up and gets its kicks elsewhere.

The local business community has been so under whelmed by the prospect of impressing clients by taking them to see Luton instead of Liverpool and replacing Manchester United with Millwall that Southampton have sold just 21 of their 47 private boxes for this season.

The Mike Channon Suite, one of the corporate hospitality lounges, has been mothballed for the season.

The fall-off in corporate hospitality has had a knock-on effect on businesses outside as well. Some of those with a forecourt or patch of land in the vicinity of St Mary's stadium have lost a lucrative sideline as the club no longer require as many corporate parking places.

Any doubts that Saints are no longer mixing it with the big boys are blown away inside the ground.

The team sheets no longer feature Rooney, Drogba and Henry, but Varney, Tonkin and Higdon while an away section that had previously contained the Toon Army, the braying hordes of Manchester United fans and was packed out by most visiting teams, had more than enough room for Crewe fans to stage the British Cat Swinging Championships.

Around 420 Crewe fans rattled around like a pebble in an oil drum in a section normally reserved for 4,000.

Under the circumstances, a crowd of 20,792 was perhaps not as bad as feared.

It was the third-highest of the day in the Championship and bigger than two Premiership gates, but it was the lowest-ever crowd for a league game at St Mary's beating the record set at the previous home Championship match against Norwich.

It leaves St Mary's, built as a big stage for the Premiership and England internationals, as the equivalent of using a Ferrari Testarossa to do a bread round.

Saints reckon their income will drop by at least 25m this year, and they have budgeted for that by off-loading some of the top players, and slashing the wages of those left behind by a half. Even chairman Rupert Lowe is not exempt.

A warm, late summer afternoon in August hardly seems the time to confirm to any doubters in the Saints camp, that it is cold outside the Premiership.




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