Southampton the deserved winners of Premier League promotion, but a tougher reality awaits

Published on: 28 May 2024

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LONDON -- It arrived in the 24th minute: the moment that the past 12 months had built towards.

As Southampton striker Adam Armstrong guided the ball into the bottom corner of the goal with his right foot in front of the Leeds United fans, the seething mass of red-and-white shirts in the opposite half of the stadium formed a single entity -- they paused in unison before lurching forward and descending into a chaotic melee of limbs and tears.

Another 76 minutes of tense, strained football followed before the final whistle gave way to celebrations throughout the stands wild celebrations: Southampton had won the Championship playoff final 1-0 -- and, with that, they are headed for the Premier League.

Acrid red mist billowing from flares in the stands quickly began to creep across the pitch as Southampton players ran in every direction before converging at the foot of more than 35,000 delirious supporters in Wembley's west end. One year on from their relegation, Southampton are heading back to the gilded halls of the world's top league.

Dubbed the "richest game in football," promotion to the Premier League via the Championship playoffs generates somewhere in the region of £140m and £170m in new revenue for the victor (or $177.3m to $215.2m). Just think of all the Callum Wilsons that Southampton can sign with that kind of money.

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"I just feel really grateful," Southampton manager Russell Martin told a postmatch news conference. "I've felt that all week really. I just feel lots of gratitude about what the players have given us, the staff, the supporters.

"Yes, I feel immense pride in what we've achieved, but I feel grateful to the owners who have given me the opportunity in the first place. Jason [Wilcox], who had a good day himself here yesterday and is no longer there.

"But I feel like I wasn't a sexy appointment for Southampton Football Club coming in and they were brave enough to give me the opportunity and hopefully we have repaid them with a day that they'll remember forever, and it's given me one of the best days of my career for sure."

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For the 38-year-old manager, it is vindication for his empathetic, compassionate leadership style. When he arrived at St. Mary's in June 2023, Martin walked into a club ravaged by redundancies, with the majority of the playing staff seeking a transfer away. That he, and director of football Wilcox -- who has since left for Manchester United -- have been able to stitch together the disparate threads that had frayed during the relegation season is a testament to the people skills Martin prides himself on.

However, it would be a mistake to think of the Southampton coach as an unprincipled man. Martin preaches a doctrine of near-total dominance, and the extent to which his team has coveted possession is borderline fanatical.

No other team in the English football league has a higher average possession than Southampton this season (65.6%). Expand that out a little to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, or indeed, any other club in Europe's top five divisions and not one of them can hold a candle to the Saints' devotion for the ball.

Martin's revolution took time to capture hearts and minds on the south coast, before a 3-1 victory over Leeds set off a club-record 25 game unbeaten run in all competitions. A similar story played out here as Leeds came out firing, inspired by their 18-year-old star Archie Gray. The adaptable midfielder-turned-right-back is the third generation of the Gray family to play for Leeds' first team since his grandfather Frank and great-uncle Eddie, who were part of the legendary Don Revie dynasty, began the family trade in the 1960s and '70s.

play1:31Did stage fright hurt Leeds in their defeat to Southampton?

Jon Champion and Stewart Robson react to Southampton's win over Leeds United that sealed their return to the Premier League.

Leeds even held Southampton to 52% possession in the first half, but in truth, we should all have seen this result coming, as Southampton have now beaten Leeds three times this season, with Armstrong scoring four of their six goals. He ghosted in behind the usually reliable Ethan Ampadu before firing home his all-important 24th goal of the season that has now guaranteed his immortality at the club.

This was Groundhog Day for Leeds in more ways than one. The late-season slump that caused them to drop into the playoffs was met with near resignation from their supporters. They have never seen their team promoted via the playoffs, falling short in all of their six campaigns and losing four finals -- a record.

The nightmares of the past will have seemed all too real as they approached Wembley beneath an ominously stormy sky in north London, an image of lightning forks flashing behind the looming monolith like a haunted castle on a cliff top.

The stoic outlook of Yorkshire lads and lasses is a worn stereotype -- when it comes to their football team, few others are able to match them for emotion. It's an at times draining connection that, like anything deserving of deep feeling, can dish out pain and joy in equal measure.

"I love to work for such an emotional club, but the shirt can be pretty heavy -- because of the expectation," Leeds manager Daniel Farke said after a damaging defeat to Blackburn Rovers on April 17. That fervent support can either energise or paralyse.

Jack Stephens of Southampton celebrates with the Championship playoff trophy after beating Leeds United at Wembley Stadium on Sunday. Jacques Feeney/Offside via Getty Images

In northwest London, the usually reliable pincer movement of Leeds' Wilfried Gnonto and Crysencio Summerville on opposite flanks was nullified by Southampton's defensive system, causing the dangerous pair to frequently pause in possession, draining them of attacking thrust. The only sharp intake of breath for Martin came as Dan James' dipping effort rattled off the crossbar five minutes from time.

"What a season," Armstrong told Sky Sports. "What a way to go up. I think if you'd give us the playoffs at the start of the season, we probably would have taken it. ... I'm lost for words, you see the atmosphere today. The boys dug deep, that's what we've needed all season. But yeah, what a win."

This, though, is not a tale of triumph against the odds. Twelve months ago, both Southampton and Leeds descended into the Championship bloated on Premier League parachute payments. Leeds have £35.5 million Georginio Rutter roaming in midfield, while Southampton have been able to retain a player of Kyle Walker-Peters' quality.

Farke's team earned 90 points this season, becoming only the second Championship club in history to reach the mark and fail to achieve automatic promotion. Southampton didn't taste defeat in any competition for five months of the campaign.

The easiest way to get promoted back to the big time is at the first time of asking, while still in possession of a considerable financial advantage over the rest of the division. But missing out on the Premier League's riches, combined with the need to comply with financial regulations, would have left Southampton facing difficult questions that have very few easy answers.

Despite their return to riches, change will surely still come for Southampton. The Sport Republic ownership group that took over in 2022 has grand plans for the club, and the team that delivered this triumph appear ill-equipped for trips to the Etihad to face Manchester City and the Emirates to face Arsenal. Not that their fans seemed to care -- they were still there more than two hours after Armstrong's decisive strike, singing about the Saints marching into the Premier League.

Source: espn.co.uk

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