Saints will kick off the 2012/13 Premier League season with a daunting trip to champions Manchester City on the weekend of August 18th. A week later Nigel Adkins's men will welcome Wigan to St Marys. On 1st September Saints host Man United, before visiting Arsenal's Emirates Stadium for the first time on 15th September. The campaign will conclude at St Marys, with Saints squaring off against Stoke on 19th May 2013.
The opener with City will almost certainly be moved for TV. Sky like to showcase the champions in the season's opener, so be prepared for a switch to either Sunday or Monday. The home games with Tottenham in October and Newcastle in November will be moved from the Saturday to the Sunday because of the Europa League. Expect a few more changes in the upcoming weeks. Sky/ESPN are contractually obliged to broadcast 10 full matches for each team over the course of the season. All TV games up until November 30th will be announced by July 13th.
With all the dates now confirmed, the reality of what we have achieved is finally sinking in. So is the enormity of the task ahead. You wouldn't expect us to pick up too many points in the first half dozen games. City will still be in party mood on the opening day and should cruise to a routine victory. Wigan at home is winnable, although they are difficult to predict. Roberto Martinez's side were as impressive as any team in the final few months of 2011/12, but are traditionally slow starters. Man United will be expected to win comfortably at St Marys, although they sometimes take a few months to really find their rhythm, so it's not out of the question we could nick something against them. Arsenal away looks like an impossible task on the face of it, but if we catch the Gooners on a bad day we could get lucky. Arsene Wenger's men have made a habit of dropping silly points over recent years. After the trip to North London it's Aston Villa, who should be a far more difficult proposition now that they've dispensed of the services of the hugely unpopular Alex McLeish. Then it's Everton away, which is never going to be an easy fixture for anyone.
A quick glance at the fixture list suggests November and April could be key months. If Saints don't manage to grab many points from those tricky opening games, then they'll certainly be able to make up for it in November. Saints are at home three times that month, coming up against Swansea, Newcastle and Norwich. All three are winnable, but the Swansea and Norwich games could be particularly crucial. Saints also travel to West Brom and QPR that month. Although far from easy, those games don't look quite as challenging as others. Saints were faced with a similar run in November 2004, coming up against three of the promoted teams and Portsmouth. Unfortunately Steve Wigley's boys failed to pass the test, picking up just five points from a possible twelve. Saints were of course relegated that season, and those silly points we dropped to fellow strugglers in the first half of the campaign cost us big time. We can't afford to make the same mistakes again this time around. There are certain games where you can budget for a loss, but the real test will be how well we do against those around us.
Fortunately Saints have a reasonable run in. In April we come up against Reading, West Ham, Swansea and West Brom, fixtures that we are more than capable of winning. Then in May we have away games at Tottenham and Sunderland. The difficulty of those fixtures will likely depend on whether they still have anything to play for at that stage of the season. If they don't Saints could well take advantage of a mentally relaxed opponent. While there certainly won't be any easy games for us, we couldn't have asked for a much better final fixture than Stoke at home. If we're still in need of a result to keep us up at that stage you'd like to think we'd have a very good chance.
The likes of Norwich and Swansea have given all newly promoted sides hope. The Canaries and The Swans defied all the pre-season predictions by finishing in mid-table, picking up plenty of plaudits along the way for the quality of football they played. This year's Premier League looks a lot demanding however. At this precise moment it's difficult to see three teams that are definitely worse than us. It was clear Blackburn would struggle last season under the guidance of the bumbling Steve Kean and the inept leadership of the Venkys. The signs were there in 2010/11, as they were for Wolves, who were very fortunate to stay up by the skin of their teeth. Bolton's demise was somewhat of a surprise, but even they ended the previous season badly. I'm struggling to pick out next season's Blackburn or Wolves. QPR were the lowest placed surviving team, but they looked anything but relegation candidates in the final few months of the campaign. Rangers beat Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal, before giving Man City one hell of a scare on the final day. Now that Mark Hughes has the benefit of a full pre-season to work with his players the club is almost certainly heading for a mid-table finish. Just above them last term were Aston Villa. They can surely forget about flirting with the drop now that Paul Lambert is in charge. Many have predicted Norwich, Swansea and West Brom to drop like a stone because of their managerial changes. Maybe they will, but there's no guarantee at all. Norwich and Swansea have made shrewd appointments, and while Steve Clarke is somewhat unproven as a number one, he still inherits an established Premier League unit. Fellow new boys West Ham and Reading look set for a big spending summer. The Royals have already signalled their intent with the signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak, while West Ham have been linked to every player under the sun. Perhaps Stoke could be sucked into it? Tony Pulis has an ageing squad who ended last season in disappointing form.
I hope this doesn't sound too negative because I've got total faith in the manager, the Chairman and all the other big hitters at the club. Anyone who thinks it will be easy is kidding themselves though. The league looks very tough at the moment, and for all the grandiose talk about new stadiums and European football, the reality is we will most likely be facing a relegation battle next season. Even if we're not I don't expect us to be challenging the top eight for a while, and I doubt we'll be mathematically safe until mid-April at the absolute earliest. The competition looks incredibly tough, and there can be little margin for error. I will always have so much affection for our current set of players for what the have achieved, but the reality is they probably donít quite have enough. We still need a little bit more. Not a complete overhaul, just a few tweaks here and there. The same could be said of Reading, West Ham and most other newly promoted teams to be fair. Itís nearly a Premier League squad, but not quite. A few more quality additions and weíll be set to go, but it's vital we get them right. Saints have done incredibly well over the last three years, but the men in charge face their biggest challenge yet in establishing the club as a regular Premier League fixture again.