By Matt Rowson
It's never been difficult to hate Manchester United.
For all sorts of reasons. But I found an anti-United stance particularly easy to adopt during my time at University in Leeds. For one thing, United were about to embark on what has proven to be a decade's domination of the domestic game. Along with the first title in 1993 and the double in 1994 came a nauseating amount of "Glory Glory Man United" nonsense from the national media, once again singularly failing to capture the mood of the nation.
Add to that the (necessarily) defiant nature of United fans in Leeds, hardly the easiest place to be supporting the Reds. A lasting memory is of an inebriated Redscumette being thrown out of the Hyde Park screaming "you'll never beat Peter Schmeichel". Awful.
But particularly, the make-up of the team made it detestable in itself. Ince, Robson, Bruce, Pallister, Cantona and the rest. All good at kicking people. All bastards.
Even now, eight years on, the relics of this team still turn the stomach. Amongst the most ludicrous quotes of the season so far came this week with Bryan Robson's sulky "I don't see why I should be sacked!" tirade. A fitting retort might be "What makes you think you're a manager in the first place, Bryan?". Ditto Steve Bruce's outrageously pompous posturing at Huddersfield.... "I've begun to realise what a good job I was doing", on Sheffield United's current plight.
Paul Ince still mouths off at the ref and sings his own praises in equal measure. And, at Southampton, Mark "good old Sparky" Hughes kicks people. He's always done that of course, but now that's all he does (beyond managing Wales on Sunday afternoons when the Italian stuff's finished on Channel 4). Hughes is a disgraceful footballer (given, of course, that he's not playing for us).
In goal for the Saints is likely to be Paul Jones, now the regular Welsh national keeper who has previously faced the Hornets in his Stockport and Wolves days. Cover is Neil Moss, penalty hero at the Stadium of Light, who may play if Jones fails to recover from the facial injury suffered in the same game.
The right-back slot has recently been taken by versatile Norwegian Jo Tessem, a recent signing from Molde. On the left, uncomplicated Frenchman Patrick Colleter is probably the first choice, with competition from long-serving chopper Francis Benali and more recently Wayne Bridge.
In the centre, the Saints have coped with the loss of Ken Monkou thanks to the fine form of Dean Richards and Claus Lundekvam, both of whom earned praise from opposing manager George Burley after the recent cup defeat at Ipswich. Richards, in particular, looks a fine signing, albeit a surprising one given the bigger names with which he was continually linked during his time at Wolves.
In midfield, the magnificent Hassan Kachloul, whose loose-limbed, frail appearance conceals an all-action midfielder, operates down the left, with the far less useful Stuart Ripley on the right. Ripley's last game at the Vic was in Blackburn's League Cup visit in 1995, when his ineptitude was mocked mercilessly by the front corner of the Vicarage Road end. This is pretty much how his career has gone ever since, with the Saints apparently equally unimpressed.
In the centre, Mark Hughes does his job. One-club man and occasional full-back Jason Dodd possesses a mean shot, whilst England U21 cap Matt Oakley is talented but inconsistent. Other options include Norwegian Trond Egil Soltvedt, who can be used as a marker and is a threat in the air from corners, and Portugese winger Luis Boa Morte, now playing the same bit part at the Dell as he did at Highbury, whilst Chris Marsden and David Howells are both injured.
Then there's Matt Le Tissier. Two schools of thought with Le Tissier: one is that he's a uniquely talented midfielder capable of turning a game who should be a regular for club and country. The other is that he's lazy, a liability, and about as reliable as a walking stick made of putty. The truth is occasionally either or a mixture of both (although I have to confess that David Baddiel's tediously oft-stated support for the former point of view inclines me towards the latter).
Up front and typically on his own in a 4-5-1 formation is Marians Pahars, "The Latvian Michael Owen" (oh, shut up), apparently another bargain signing by Dave Jones, although he has struggled to find the net during the Saints' recent lean spell. Other options are James Beattie, a committed, powerful striker who had a fine season last term but has yet to score during this, and Kevin Davies, who is an idiot.
For the Hornets... after five home games without a win, no game can be called "easy". However, the wind will change sometime. The gap between ourselves and the rest of the division isn't as big as our lack of confidence has recently made it look, and a bit of luck in this one might be enough to make the difference.