The train from Bath is late. But the train from Bath is always late.
“We’re sorry to announce that…”
You’re not sorry, the tinny tannoy betrays your insincerity.
The line to Southampton is a showreel for traditional England. The green fields roll and the horizon stretches into the morning fog. Freshford, Avoncliff, Bradford on Avon; stations which appear to have grown from the countryside and exist out of courtesy rather than any great need. The train follows rivers, it crosses weirs and it hums into sleepy towns. It’s England as imagined by someone who has never been here – the type which only continues to exist in an early Inspector Morse or in an episode of Songs of Praise.
Middlesbrough supporters board at Westbury. Early morning football chatter is precious. Football fans are viewed as a menace by other commuters and, reliably, disapproving glances are exchanged when the first beer can is cracked. But the conversation is charged by excitement – enthusiasm for the day out – rather than any intent to offend or cause disturbance. The residual cliche is of boorish oafs, swearing in children’s faces and pushing pensioners to the floor, but that’s a dated perception. There’s no menace. It’s the giggling sort of fun found on school coaches, coloured with in-jokes, gentle teasing and nothing more sinister than over-exuberance.
Southampton appears suddenly. The last traces of the shipping industry appear in the windows, the tall cranes steepling into the sky and the gaudy cruise ships blocking out the sun. The town itself is curiously planned and the walk from the station is consequently diverse: climb the hill past the Starbucks, the Subways, and the other high-street staples, through the sprawling-but-manicured park, and then down towards the stadium. St Mary’s, like many of its modern peers, was built in a detached part of the city and away from its community. Though a bronze, gleaming Ted Bates greets visitors at the door, the ground itself is surrounded by remnants of industry; gas containers here, rusting machinery there. If the old British archetype involved shed-like stadia, tightly packed against the local red brick, today there is a new normal. The opulent jewels of the broadcast era shoot up from nowhere, in places in which they don’t quite belong.
This Southampton, managed by Claude Puel but sustained over the long term by a before-its-time recruitment model, belong in their home but not their surroundings. A difficult ten days has seen them lose to Crystal Palace and depart the Europa League. Puel has become the latest Saints manager to create stability from flux on the south-coast, but their September surge has given way to a blunt mediocrity – form teams do not allow Alan Pardew’s sides to escape with clean sheets and eight days’ ago, alas, Southampton did.
Middlesbrough are a trickier read. Though in sixteenth place, they arrived at St Mary’s having only conceded 15 goals. Aitor Karanka’s players are cautious, they lack the typical naivety of a newly-promoted club, and they are extremely tough to beat. Manchester City and Arsenal have both tried and failed, and only Everton have defeated them by more than a single goal. But if there is a valid criticism, it’s drawn by their pragmatism – and, with top-flight novelty beginning to fade, it’s a source of increasing frustration. Thirteen league goals this season never really looked like becoming fourteen on Sunday, with Karanka’s slow, steady approach limiting their numbers – and opportunities – in the Southampton half. Viktor Fischer flickered with intent in a drab first-half, bundling his way past Cuco Martina to create one of his side’s few chances, but the visitors’ emphasis remained fixed on their shape and solidity throughout, forcing them to rely on isolated moments of defensive charity.
Frustration seeped from the home stands for much of the game. One supporter, troubled by ‘Boro’s occasional meek forays forward, attempts to seize control of the hosts’ defensive line, ordering the players forward and out of their penalty area. Southampton’s passing, directed by their fragility, was too often safe or backwards. Jay Rodriguez, starting as a lone forward, spent much of the afternoon adrift from his teammates; not quite physical enough to bother the centre-backs in the air, not quite quick enough to scare anybody in the channels. It was that kind of day: a betwixt and between sort of encounter, nothing of enough substance to call it one thing or another.
Ten minutes after half-time, quality at last. Sofiane Boufhal thundered a swerving drive into Victor Valdes’ net. The Spaniard’s knees buckled, the net rippled, and Boufhal danced away. A sensational goal which this game had no business producing.
This is the dark side of the Premier League, the side which the television companies won’t tell you about. The brand is built on and celebrated for its boom/bust competition and never-say-die attitudes. Fearless adversaries are supposed to swing at each other until one lies motionless on the canvas. But this was a contest with just a single punch. Southampton caught Middlesbrough flush on the chin once, then both sides retreated to their corners. Full-time was greeted with the usual joy – points are still points, after all – but there was little to actually cheer.
Bruce Springsteen thundered over the tannoy as the stadium emptied. The groundsmen forked the pitch, the cold sun disappeared behind the stand. Boufal’s goal will be remembered for a long time, but in years to come nobody will be able to recall when it was scored, who it was against, or what its consequences were. They’ll nod in recognition during a future edition of Premier League Years, perhaps, possibly remembering what they had for lunch that day or recalling that, hours later, they would pay a particularly large utility bill.
Karanka would bemoan his side’s luck, claiming a plethora of spurned chances. The journalists squinted and checked their notes:
“Really Aitor, which ones were those?”
Puel, in his customary stage whisper, would talk in his polite platitudes. Boufal was good, but can be better. His goal was good, but the team’s performance was better. The language of press-conferences: filling time without saying anything which can be reported.
A stadium has a strange existence. For six days a week, it lies largely empty – its lights off, its concourses deserted. But on the seventh day, it comes to life in a dozen different ways, with supporters flowing through its arteries and partisan singing belting from its lungs. Because of where St Mary’s sit, the contrast between those two states is particularly dramatic. When the full-time whistle blows, the players leave and all the oxygen vents out over the Channel. Until Southampton return home again, the ground will return to being an oversized, dormant neighbour to the surrounding factories and warehouses. The floodlights continued to glare into the early Sunday evening, but it was an empty light – all of the pre-match energy had gone. The megastore tills had fallen silent and the burger vans had run out of onions to fry. It was as if, after a week of preparation and 90 minutes of turgid football, the structure itself had grown bored of the intrusion.
Get out. Go home. Go away.
So into the early evening darkness we went, past the looming remains of the gas works, up through the park, and back to wherever we had come from.