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Saints slump exposes crisis

By Chris Bevan
BBC Sport at St Mary's

It was touted as a potential FA Cup fairytale but, much like the rest of their season, Southampton's third-round tie against Manchester United was more of a horror story.

The ease of United's 3-0 victory at St Mary's may have been down in part to the 37th-minute red card shown to Saints striker Matt Paterson, which made a difficult task against the Premier League, European and Club World Cup champions almost impossible.

Matt Paterson
Paterson's dismissal typified a disappointing afternoon for Southampton against Man Utd
But the young Southampton team - with an average age of only 23 - that offered so little resistance to Sir Alex Ferguson's side is faring little better in the Championship, where they are second from bottom with only five wins from 26 games.

The harsh reality for Saints fans is that their club is in crisis, despite protestations to the contrary from Dutch head coach Jan Poortvliet and chairman Rupert Lowe, who returned for a second spell at the helm of the club in May 2008.

There is trouble off the pitch, with Lowe coming under fire at a stormy AGM in December after debts of 27.5m were revealed.

And things are no better on it, with only one home win all season and a paltry 22 goals scored in 26 games.

Lowe insisted at the AGM that Saints play some of the best football in the Championship and, at times against United, Poortvliet's side showed what they are capable of on the ball.

But the Saints' pretty passing belies an inability to score that has seen them slump to second-bottom in the table, with 20 games left to save themselves.

Poortvliet, 52, a member of the Netherlands side that lost the 1978 World Cup final to Argentina, promised 'total football' when he arrived at the club in May but his approach has so far been ill-suited to the hustle and bustle of the second tier of English football.

And his appointment looks like another gamble by Lowe, who has made surprise appointments in the past - notably bringing in England's rugby World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward as performance director for an ill-fated spell in 2005.

Fans have made their feelings clear about the current regime, with Sunday's sell-out crowd of over 31,000 merely emphasizing the drop in attendances the club has suffered; Saints' average in the league this season is less than 17,000 - their lowest since they left The Dell for St Mary's in 2001.

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport's Chris Bevan

There are many reasons for that, including the current economic climate, but some supporters on the BBC 606 message boards insist they will not set foot inside the stadium while Lowe remains in charge.

To their credit, those that do show up have not turned on Poortvliet or his players, who are mainly products of the youth team, although against United there were regular chants of 'sack the board' .

The fans probably realise there is little point in haranguing a team that is trying its best but falling short and Poortvliet has adopted a similar approach of only saying encouraging things about his players, however badly results are going.

Unsurprisingly he was upbeat about his side's Cup exit, laying the blame at the feet of referee Mike Riley and insisting the experience of playing United will benefit his team in the long run.

"The first goal was offside and the red card was just a normal tackle," the Dutchman told BBC Sport afterwards. "The penalty was a cheap one and then we were trailing 2-0 with 10 men. It is difficult enough with 11 against United.

"But I think we will learn from playing them. The players saw how to circulate the ball, how to be free, how to lose markers with movement at corners and everywhere on the pitch.

"The positive thing is that the boys never gave up and fought until the end. That is what they had to do and next week (against Barnsley) we will start again and fight to stay in the league. We have to work hard now."

The days of around a decade ago when not only were United regular visitors to the south coast but were also regularly beaten, occasionally heavily, are long gone now

It is only six years ago that Saints finished in the top 10 of the Premier League and came close to winning the Cup - they lost the 2003 final to Arsenal - but a battle to avoid falling into League One is all that is on the horizon now.

The days of around a decade ago when not only were United regular visitors to the south coast but were also regularly beaten, occasionally heavily, are long gone now.

Southampton used to put United in their place - but their latest meeting only showed how far Saints have fallen and, sadly for their fans, things could get worse before they get better.

Their only consolation is that the 500,000 or so that the club pocketed because Sunday's game was televised live may mean the likes of Adam Lallana and Andrew Surman do not have to be sold this month.

"I think everyone will stay," Poortvliet said afterwards.

If Southampton are to avoid falling out of the top two divisions for the first time since 1960, he needs to be right.

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see also
Southampton 0-3 Man Utd
04 Jan 09 |  FA Cup
When Saints shocked Man Utd
02 Jan 09 |  FA Cup
Surman not fazed by transfer talk
02 Jan 09 |  Southampton
Southampton complete double swoop
02 Jan 09 |  Southampton
Poortvliet named new Saints boss
30 May 08 |  Southampton


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