Growing up as a Saints fan I always assumed we'd be a Premier League side forever. No matter how badly the odds were stacked against us, we'd always stay up. By the early 2000s it looked as if the relegation battles of the previous decade were a thing of the past. After reaching the 2003 FA Cup final Saints should have kicked on. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Just two years after that fantastic day at the Millennium Stadium we were down. A large chunk of Saints fans had known nothing but top flight football up until 2005, so relegation was absolutely devastating. The four years that followed were nothing short of disastrous. By 2009 Saints were in administration heading to League 1. The club faced an uncertain future until Markus Liebherr and Nicola Cortese took control in July 2009. Since then Saints have enjoyed nothing but success. For those who still have the dreadful memories of 2005 and 2009 etched in their mind, last week's promotion was extra sweet. Saints have finally undone all that bad work and are back where they belong. In this article we track the fall and rise of Southampton Football Club from 2004 to the present day.
Going into Christmas 2003 Saints fans couldn't have been happier. We had just beaten rivals Portsmouth for the second time in a month to go 4th in the Premier League. That was about as good as it got however. Saints entered a poor run of form going into the New Year as word got out that Gordon Strachan was set to leave the club at the end of the season. The former Leeds captain decided to depart months earlier, leaving the St Marys hot-seat vacant in February 2004. Chairman Rupert Lowe set out to find a replacement, and immediately identified Glenn Hoddle - the man who had controversially left the club back in 2001 to join Tottenham - as his number one target. Hoddle's imminent appointment was greeted furiously by the majority of Saints fans, who protested with a series of banners and chants. Lowe and his fellow directors got cold feet, and pulled out of the Hoddle deal at the last moment. Instead, Saints turned their attentions to Paul Sturrock, who was on the verge of taking Plymouth to their second promotion in three years. Sturrock got off to an encouraging start, guiding Saints to a 2-0 win over Liverpool at St Marys. That proved to be somewhat of a false dawn though. A week later Strurrock's men put in an uninspiring display in a 1-0 defeat at Fratton Park. Performances against Manchester City, Wolves and Newcastle were entertaining, but it was clear something just wasn't quite right. Saints were a shadow of the side that had achieved so much glory the previous campaign.
The summer of 2004 was possibly the most tumultuous in the club's history. Sturrock cut an unconvincing figure at the top, amid rumours of a player fall out. Speculation over his future ran riot throughout the summer, which did nothing but destabilise the club. Saints were in desperate need of fresh blood throughout the squad, but Peter Crouch, Jelle Van Damme and Mikael Nilsson were the only arrivals. A new central defender should have been the priority, with Michael Svensson out with a long term injury. Instead of bringing in a replacement for Svensson, Saints foolishly let promising young centre half Fitz Hall join Palace. Andreas Jakobsson eventually arrived at the end of August as a cheap deadline day panic buy. A thumping pre-season defeat at Plymouth was a sign of things to come. Sturrock did little to alleviate fear at Villa Park on the opening day of the season, sending out a dire Saints side that was lucky to lose just 2-0. A week later James Beattie's last minute penalty helped Saints to a slightly fortunate 3-2 win over Blackburn. That was to be Sturrock's final game in charge. He left the club by 'mutual consent' two days later. The decision to get rid of Sturrock wasn't necessarily a bad one, but the timing was appalling. If Lowe had any doubts about the Scot's capabilities he should have sacked him in the summer and brought in an experienced boss who would have had time to implement his ideas. Instead Saints allowed the speculation to disrupt proceedings.
As badly timed as Sturrock's departure was, Saints would have probably been fine if they had appointed a decent successor. Instead Lowe settled for Steve Wigley, who was already on the club's payroll as a coach. It was patently obvious very early on that Wigley was out of his depth. The team looked disorganised at the back, and lacked goals at the other end. Lowe persisted with Wigley for weeks, insisting the results would come. They never did though. Saints failed to kick on from the derby day victory over Portsmouth, and picked up just two points against relegation rivals West Brom, Norwich and Crystal Palace in November 2004. Wigley left the club in early December following a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United. Much damage had already been done by that point, but things were still salvageable. When Harry Redknapp made the shock move across the M27 Saints fans were optimistic he could guide us to safety.
As strange as it sounds today, Redknapp's arrival at St Marys in December 2004 was greeted with great excitement by the majority of Saints fans. He had just come off a successful spell at Portsmouth, and would surely have all the qualities to lift the team to safety. The fact that his arrival angered that lot 'down the road' just made things even sweeter. Things looked to be going according to plan in Redknapp's first game on 11th December 2004. Saints put on their best showing for months, and led Middlesbrough 2-0 going into stoppage time. Boro bagged a double right the death however, leaving Saints with that familiar sinking feeling. Redknapp would be unable to halt the slide and had to wait weeks before his first win. 7 days after the Middlesbrough game Saints lost 5-1 at Tottenham. The signings of Jamie Redknapp, Nigel Quashie and Henri Camara gave the team a lift in January, and the 2-0 win over Liverpool was extremely encouraging. Defensive problems still persisted however, with Redknapp's new recruits Calum Davenport and Olivier Bernard doing little to tighten up the leaky back four. Saints dominated Champions League hopefuls Everton on 6th February, but conceded a costly last minute equaliser. Redknapp's side then entered a good run of form, and looked a good bet for survival after a 3-1 win at Middlesbrough on March 20th. Saints came crashing back down to earth with defeats to Chelsea and Blackburn. Then on 16th April Aston Villa benefitted from some generous defending, coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at St Marys. It meant the 24th April South Coast derby at Fratton Park was now all the more important. Saints really needed a win on Redknapp's return to Portsmouth, but sadly didn't even put up a fight. They capitulated and showed absolutely no fight in what will almost certainly go down as one of the darkest days in the club's history. A 4-3 win over Norwich and a last minute 2-2 draw at Palace gave everybody false hope. Saints were down on 15th May 2005 following a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Man United. You could have heard a pin drop as fans walked out the ground that day. People just didn't know how to react. Many believed this day would never come, but it had, and things would only get worse.