Ten years ago, Southampton and Doncaster Rovers went into their matches desperately seeking points to avoid relegation. Southampton had just been knocked out of the FA Cup by Fulham, who were on their way into the second division of English football under Kevin Keegan. They had won their last league match against Charlton, but a 7-1 defeat at Anfield left them three points adrift of Coventry City in the Premier League relegation places, although they would go on to pull just clear of the drop. On the same day, Doncaster Rovers beat Morecambe 2-1 at Belle Vue in the Conference. It was their first win in five matches, but it was enough for them to leapfrog over Welling United and out of the relegation places in the Football Conference. Doncaster also revived their fortunes over the course of the second half of the season, eventually finishing in sixteenth place in the table.
Since then, the two clubs have had vastly differing fortunes. Southampton made it to the FA Cup final in 2002, losing to Arsenal at the Millenium Stadium, but were relegated in 2005 and have never looked that likely to get back into the Premier League since then. Doncaster Rovers were promoted back into the Football League at the end of the 2002/03 season as play-off winners, and again into League Two at the end of the following season. In 2007 they won the Johnstones Paint Trophy, in their first ever appearance in a major trophy final, and last season were promoted to the Championship with a win against Leeds United in front of a 75,000 crowd at Wembley last May. Both clubs have moved to new grounds during the last ten years as well. Southampton left The Dell for St Marys Stadium in 2001, whilst Doncaster moved from Belle Vue to The Keepmoat Stadium in 2006. This, however, is where the similarities between the two clubs seem to end. Southampton have been, in spite of several big money player sales over the last few seasons, a financial basket case over the last few seasons. Doncaster, by contrast, have plotted a steady course under millionaire owner John Ryan. Now, on a cold January afternoon, the two clubs met as equals.
Against this background, it was always likely that this match was going to be a tense occasion. The sense of malaise enveloping Southampton at the moment was demonstrated by a crowd of just 15,000, almost 1,000 of whom have travelled down from Yorkshire. However, the trouble that did break out at this match wasn’t between the rival supporters, but was between sections of Southampton supporters after anti-Rupert Lowe songs started early in the match. Southampton had, ironically, started the stronger of the two teams, with Doncaster not having played a league match since December the 28th on account of the weather. Doncaster goalkeeper Neil Sullivan was in oustanding form, saving excellently from Andrew Surman and Marek Saganowski, but the tension continued to rise as Southampton failed to convert their authority into goals. Half-time came with the score goal-less and stewards behind one goal keeping an uneasy truce between sets of home supporters.
They didn’t have to wait very long for things to start turning sour again. Less than a minute had been played in the second half when James Coppinger played in Martin Woods who, with the Southampton defence static and appealing for offside, rolled the ball past Kelvin Davis. Southampton rallied reasonably effectively and had chances to get back into the match. David McGoldrick headed over from six yards out when he should really have scored and a long range shot from Saganowski pulled a good save from Sullivan. With the crowd now firmly on the backs of the players, manager Jan Poortvliet and Rupert Lowe, though, the jeering rattling around the half-empty stadium was clearly having a hugely unsettling effect on the players. With nine minutes left to play, Doncaster wrapped up the three points – Coppinger tapping the ball in from six yards out with the Southampton defence again temporarily frozen by the headlights of an imaginary car. There was still time for Southampton to pull a goal back in the last minute through Marek Saganowski, but the full-time whistle went moments later to further booing and chanting, with stewards being called to tackle two fans that had got onto the pitch. Further protests took place outside the ground later on.
Everything about Southampton FC screams disarray at the moment. The club will doubtlessly blame “hooligan elements” and use yesterday’s events as the opportunity to clamp down upon any form of protest within St Marys. What Southampton’s supporters need to do is obviously stop turning upon each other and continue to put the pressure on Lowe and his associates. These are the people whose maladminstration has put Southampton in their worst position for almost fifty years. There has been little on the pitch to suggest that Jan Poortvliet has the nous to be able to cope with the more, and with two of their next four games being against fellow strugglers Norwich City and Watford, they could be more or less sunk without a trace by the end of next month. It’s difficult to see where, with such a young team and so much discord behind the scenes, any improvement is going to come from. Doncaster refused to spend too heavily during the summer, but they have now leapfrogged over the Saints and are now in the relegation places on goal difference only. If it was a choice between supporting Southampton and supporting Doncaster at the moment, I know whose shoes I’d rather be in at the moment.