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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 26/12/05, 12.00pm
A Thankless Task
By Matt Rowson

Sunderland's motivational coach must have a job on, you'd have thought. Bottom of the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) whilst the teams that followed them up last season frolic merrily up the table and Newcastle sign Michael Owen, no money to spend and Wednesday week the third anniversary of their last top flight victory at the Stadium of Light. Rather him than me.

Gillingham's stadium tour manager. Crikey. "Marvel at the offices in the station corner. Gasp in wonder at the loos in the away end. Soak up the atmosphere... this is the ground where so many scrappy 1-0 wins were achieved..."

Cardiff City's accountant. "No don't worry, there's loads of money. No there isn't... hide it quick John... Mr.Taylor, can you pay our wages please? Hold on, what's this... here you go Dave, what can you do with this lot? Sam... Sam... what are you stuffing under your coat?".

Gazza's agent. Christ.

But actually, the toughest job in football might just be the managerial job at St.Mary's. After all, it's not as if there's much of a track record for anyone sticking it out there for very long... the new guy will be the tenth manager in ten years, you have to go back to Chris Nicholl in the eighties to find the last to survive three. A relegated squad who have shipped their star turns but retained much of the culpable dross ("toothless lightweights" according to one website), a farcical management charade to follow and, almost inevitably, the lurking presence of Clive Woodward in the shadows... Harry Enfield's "Youdontwannadothat..." incarnate.

The identity of the poor sod to be given the job seems likely to be revealed this week, with a board meeting seemingly scheduled for Thursday. It won't be Betty, as recent and rather dramatic contract announcements have confirmed despite someone's best efforts in the form of tabloid tittle-tattle. It might be the rather underwhelming caretaker combo of Dave Bassett and Dennis Wise... although on Tuesday evening it was announced that Feyenoord's Technical Director Mark Wotte had left his post to return to a team-management role in England. Tellingly, despite little being known of him, a website poll on Tuesday evening was favouring his appointment over the retention of Bassett and Wise by a ratio of 4:1.

The suspicion would have to be that, given the timing of the appointment (if it comes this week) and with the small obstacle of Christmas in between, the existing coaching staff will remain in charge of selection for Monday, and consequently recent team selection remains some kind of guide.

Although injuries have severely limited options at the back, the Saints' defensive record has been sound. The presence of a top keeper in Antti Niemi can only help... his form hasn't been rock solid, but he impressed in repelling Norwich's onslaught in the face of chaos in front of him on Saturday. A headline on Saints' official site trumpets that Niemi is staying at Southampton in the face of rumours linking him with a January move to Charlton. Perhaps significantly, his quotes in the article aren't quite as definitive on the subject. Paul Smith remains a capable deputy in reserve.

At the back, Darren Powell is a capable big lump... the sort of stabilising signing that they could perhaps have done with more of in the summer. The FA's website seems to suggest that he's suspended on Monday, although all other sources suggest that his booking at Carrow Road was only his fourth. Darren Kenton, at any rate, should start... he's never quite delivered on the potential he showed at his previous club Norwich, but is still a capable defender. Claus Lundekvam has been out for a month with fractured ribs and a groin injury but reportedly may make it back for Monday, a decision that might rest on Powell's availability. Other options in the centre include Tomas Hajto, who barely moved when in Poland's defence in the last World Cup but who has apparently had run-outs at right back this season, and youngster Matthew Mills. Matthias Svensson is, as ever, injured.

Right-back seems to be a bit of a problem position for the Saints since the pensioning off of Jason Dodd; Rory Delap is available again after a one-match ban but is defensively suspect and far more comfortable in midfield. Martin Crainie filled in in his absence but was ripped to bits by Huckerby, whilst former Hornet loanee Chris Baird, a little surprisingly, has still to come anywhere near establishing himself. No such problems on the left, where Danny Higginbotham is solid and dependable; Belgian Jelle Van Damme is, rather oddly, on loan at Werder Bremen.

Probably the key man in midfield is Nigel Quashie, who will be available again after serving a four match ban although he has also been suffering from a back strain. Somehow only 27 (surely a fixture in centre-mid in any "younger than they ought to be" eleven...), Quashie is also a big favourite of Harry Redknapp who took him from Pompey along the coast and has already made noises about taking him back again. He's got to be taking the piss. Quashie provides much of the drive and leadership, but even with him the midfield looks flat and uninspiring. Matt Oakley, Quashie's deputy as captain at Norwich, hasn't convinced since returning from a long-term ligament injury whilst David Prutton still flatters to deceive (and loses his rag too often, as anyone who made the City Ground for the "Motorway queue game" in 2002 will remember). Dennis Wise, 39 last Friday, has so far "resisted the temptation to pick himself".

In wide positions, Algerian Djamel Belmadi seems to be a reasonably popular option on either flank; less so another Pole Kamil Kosowski, on loan from Kaiserslautern. Neil McCann has been a major let down since his recruitment from Rangers two years ago, but played at Carrow Road last weekend. Meanwhile Nathan Dyer, a scampering irrelevance at Burnley on Saturday, has been recalled and could face the Hornets again. A special anorak award to anyone who can name the last opposition player to play against us in consecutive league games for different opposition...

The real problem for Southampton has been scoring goals. They sit a disappointing twelfth at this stage of the season, but no team above them has scored or won fewer in the league. Young prodigy Theo Walcott, with Quashie the Saints' leading scorer on four, has been playing up front but looked tired and lightweight at Norwich. The sixteen year old has repeatedly been linked with the country's richest clubs, but Southampton are denying that he's going anywhere as you might expect.

Kenwyne Jones, reputedly a target of Ray Lewington's last season, will be going to the World Cup with Trinidad but has yet to convince. So too Ricardo Fuller, such an impressive, dominant character at Preston but never since, perhaps a consequence of the knee injury that was never quite off the agenda at Deepdale. Brett Ormerod still runs around to little effect, whilst Leon Best is another to come off Southampton's production line on the edge of the team. Dexter Blackstock has been loaned to Derby, and Marians Pahars is on the verge of returning from his latest injury (ligament damage).

The new Saints boss will, particularly if coming in from outside, want to wipe a heavily soiled slate clean starting with Monday's encounter, but with legal action still mooted in the light of the vast amounts of money gambled on Redknapp's "surprising" return to Pompey (four-and-a-half times as much money placed on this on Betfair than on the Grand National, famously), the recent past will not be easily dismissed.

As for ourselves... floundering opposition or otherwise, our recent performances have betrayed some very evident limitations given the personnel currently available. Recent meetings here with the Saints have been high-scoring victories, with victories by bigger margins in the not too distant past... indeed, Southampton have only won one of their last twenty-two league visits (and John Burridge should have walked on that occasion, as I remember). Our chances of inflicting another defeat wouldn't half be improved by having two fit strikers to call on by Monday lunchtime.