Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt!!
Yes, I think we can all agree, it’s been one heck of a year.
The global pandemic has brought much suffering, kept families apart and required lockdown after lockdown to be implemented by various political leaders.
Parents have needed to regularly assume the role of schoolteachers ('Daddy's Geography Club' being a particular highlight in our household!), 'working from home' has become the new norm, businesses have battled for survival and the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams have established themselves as the most common contact method for generations young and old.
One thing is for certain, if 2019 was recognised for the phrase 'fake news', this year’s title will definitely be heading to 'you're on mute'!
There is no doubting that 2020 has tested almost every emotion known to mankind.
Thankfully, we’ve now reached the end. An achievement in itself!
That said, while day-to-day life has created a relatively dark tunnel of angst and uncertainty, those of us with a Southampton Football Club persuasion have at least been rewarded with plenty of light along the way.
Because, thanks to an almost perfect blend of structure, commitment, passion and talent, Saints have undoubtedly evolved for the better in 2020 - on and off the pitch.
Off the pitch
There will be many at St. Mary's (and/or Staplewood) who have played their part in the collective progression of our beloved Club, but some naturally rise to prominence due to a more 'public profile'.
The CEO, Martin Semmens, has led from the front with transparency and enthusiasm. Despite significant hurdles being faced across the year (most of them completely unpredictable!), Martin has retained an air of calm throughout, never deviating too far from the long-term strategy(s) in place.
Toby Steele, the Club's Managing Director, has diligently overseen the purse strings, while simultaneously having to navigate through the choppy financial waters of a pandemic. With Saints reportedly losing in the region of £3m per month (since Coronavirus reared its ugly head in the UK), keeping everything on the straight and narrow will have been no easy task.
As those that listen to the Podcast religiously will know, I’ve been lucky enough to talk to Martin and Toby a fair bit this year. Each occasion has reaffirmed the sense that these are two individuals with their heads firmly screwed on.
Following similar moral compasses, both appear determined to make sure Southampton Football Club is as efficient and successful as it can be, top to bottom.
While questions still remain around the longevity of his Club ownership, Jisheng Gao should be proud of the job undertaken by two of his most senior employees.
Then comes the Saints Foundation.
Once again, Greg Baker and his dedicated team have excelled in doing what they do best - providing care to our local community.
2020 has seen the Foundation deliver their services during the most challenging of circumstances (see ‘response data’ below), yet they’ve remained resolute.
All credit to them.
Through several direct initiatives - and by partnering with organisations such as FareShare – the Saints Foundation have made sure that all those requiring support and/or assistance in the City have received it.
The amount of effort required to do that should not be underestimated.
I’ve no doubts there will be many others around the Club who deserve similar recognition.
Although the Premier League - and its members – generally seem to be 'all about business' these days, its comforting to know that Saints remain committed to the ‘family Club’ principles which have underpinned the majority of our 135-year history.
Hard-working people, with a common goal, are turning potential into excellence.
St. Mary’s is again brimming with enjoyment, ideas and optimism.
But that’s only half the job…
On the pitch
Let’s not beat around the bush, while there has been an element of frustration at disappointing draws with Arsenal, Fulham and West Ham recently, Saints have also had an excellent year between the white lines.
It feels like a long time ago since Danny Ings turned inside Tottenham's Toby Alderweireld to score the winner last New Year's Day.
Since that moment, the team have provided a multitude of Premier League goals and highlights.
Directed by our talismanic Austrian, Ralph Hasenhüttl, energy and organisation, blended seamlessly with technical ability, have helped secure 56 points across the calendar year.
With all fixtures now completed for 2020, Saints will deservedly finish 5th in the overall Premier League 'Calendar Year Table'.
Averaged across a 38-game season, 63 points (1.64 per game) would have seen them finish Top-8 in all previous ten Premier League campaigns.
Putting that into further perspective, they would have finished 6th (or higher) in six of those ten seasons.
Hasenhüttl, and his coaching team, have managed to squeeze every drop of effort out of a squad that, if we're honest, still comprises a number of players who were battling relegation just two or three years ago.
The Club now have a first team that pretty much epitomises the 'off pitch' work ethic mentioned earlier.
Clearly there is still a lot of work to do on the training ground - and probably in the transfer market as well – but this is a group on the up, driven forward by a manager who is intent on building something special.
As the seemingly tireless Hasenhüttl reflects on 2020, he will be comforted by the fact that almost all his playing staff have developed by at least 5-10%. Most of that has come from a complete trust they have in him and his techniques.
Several of them, who had arguably been written off by some just a year or so ago, immediately spring to mind as being at the forefront of that collaborative improvement - Jannik Vestergaard, Oriol Romeu and Ché Adams.
Since returning to the starting line-up against Burnley in September, Vestergaard has put in a number of dominant performances.
Currently missing through injury, the Danish Centre-Back has caught the attention with combative defending, raking cross-field passes and several key goals (….oh, and a much shorter haircut!).
Romeu, who was noticeably slow at moving the ball previously, now looks to play forward at pace. He still retains his number one asset - crunching tackles - but has added more intelligence and consistency to his game.
As for Adams, he looked like a fish out of water this time last year. Now, with a further 12-months of coaching under his belt, Ché has become a regular in the team, built a blossoming partnership with Danny Ings and started to find the back of the net more frequently.
Outside of those three, Alex McCarthy looks more assured in goal - both with his hands and feet (although he still gives me the ‘wobblies’ when, with opposition strikers bearing down on him, he casually searches for a nearby teammate....).
Statistically - at time of writing - only Aston Villa's Emiliano Martinez (8) has more clean sheets than McCarthy (7) this season.
James Ward-Prowse - the best thing to come out of P*rtsmouth since the M27 – has regained his England place and continued to enhance his reputation as one of the best set-piece takers in the world game. To his further credit, Prowsey hasn't missed a single minute of 2020 Premier League action either!
Danny Ings, with Southampton pumping through his veins, has spent the last year banging in goal after goal (eventually finishing just one short in the 2019/20 Premier League Golden Boot race). Added to that, he’s also scored an overhead kick at Wembley for the 3 Lions!
Kyle Walker-Peters has finally given us a Right-Back we can get excited about (i.e. the opposite of our last one - who generally had fans ducking for cover when a cross was heading in his direction! *All the best with him, Arsenal*).
Theo Walcott, now 31, has returned to the Club that helped ready him for a life in football, remained fit and healthy (*touch wood*) and contributed more - on and off the pitch - than was probably expected.
Youngsters, including Jake Vokins, Will Smallbone, Dan N'Lundulu and Nathan Tella, have also experienced game time for Hasenhüttl's senior side.
Through those appearances – and Ralph’s commitment to engaging directly with his U23s and/or Academy – belief has again grown at all levels that, when it comes to being given a chance to show what you can do, 'if you’re good enough, you’re old enough'.
The entire playing and coaching staff are clearly working to the same structure.
Not just the 'SFC Playbook', but a mutual attitude to nurturing talent, developing tactics and delivering results.
I could go on, but I think you get my overall point – progress, progress, progress!
There will always be some who expect Saints to win every week. Sadly, that is never going to happen.
Instead of searching for perfection, why don’t we just focus on the progress that has been made?!
After a period that saw previous regimes stagnate through unhealthy levels of self-adulation, the Club's philosophy now in place – demanding all-round improvement – should act as an encouraging sign for our future on/off pitch capabilities.
As Ralph said recently [paraphrasing], "you should never feel comfortable in football. Even if you are second in the table, you should want to be first" and so on.
That mantra seems to be sweeping through Saints again. A personal desire to all ‘be better than we were yesterday’. From the outside looking in, you can't help but feel Saints are exiting 2020 with an enhanced togetherness, numerous successes they can reflect on and an increased appreciation from the community/fanbase.
The management hierarchy (including Hasenhüttl) have put in place some significant building blocks this year.
The key now is to make sure those achievements – predominately accomplished in the face of unprecedented adversity – are used as the minimum benchmark for 2021.
We all want to see the Club continuing to take steps forward, keep their momentum going and make sure the light(s) of positivity carries on shining brightly.
So, here's to 2021.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it brings everyone a much happier and healthier (literally!) world to live in …….with more of the same from Saints!
Happy New Year and Keep Marching In.
Article by Ben Stanfield
(Photos by Southampton Football Club, Saints Foundation, TransferMarkt and Martin Semmens)