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"Verdict: Chelsea are no longer a soft touch - easy home victory." So said the Daily Mirror's prediction as Southampton went to the Bridge in the Premier League on New Year's Day, 2002. But Jason Dodd and the rest of Gordon Strachan's Saints showed steel and style to sweep the Blues away
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 01/12/13 6:56pm
It is still too early to write a book of 'St Mary's Legends', seeing as Southampton's current home is only a little over 12 years old.
But when the time comes, you could make a case for Cerridwen Dragonoak Connelly being a deserved first entry.
Currently, Saints are enjoying their best-ever start to a Premier League season, having taken 22 points from their opening 12 games. Only goal difference is keeping them outside of the top four and they head to Chelsea for a live Super Sunday encounter this weekend knowing that a victory at Stamford Bridge would lift them above the Blues in the table.
Rewind to 2001, however, and the South Coast club was in a far less healthy position. It was Saints' first season after leaving The Dell but they were not enjoying a happy housewarming at their new 32,000-capacity St Mary's home. Having initially taken the reins on a caretaker basis in March when Glenn Hoddle quit for Tottenham Hotspur, Stuart Gray had been handed the job full-time at the end of June - but despite wins at Bolton Wanderers and Middlesbrough, he lost his other six Premier League games in charge at the start of the 2001/2 campaign and was sacked by Rupert Lowe on 21st October.
Lowe was something of an accidental chairman, and an unusual figure in the world of football. Educated at Radley, his real sporting passions were rugger and hockey; he took a degree in estate management at Reading University, and wound up working in the City for the likes of Deutsche Bank; his abode was a farmhouse in the Cotswolds; and he once stood as a Referendum Party candidate in the 1997 General Election. Lowe had set up a nursing care homes company called Secure Retirements and when it was used as part of a 'reverse takeover' in order to get Saints onto the Stock Exchange as quickly as possible, he ended up as club chairman.
Gray had been Lowe's fourth manager. Of the previous incumbents, Graeme Souness had resigned after just one season, Dave Jones had been suspended on full pay due to a court case in which he was later found not guilty, while Hoddle had been lured away by Spurs. Although he was undoubtedly an outsider, Saints' progress off the pitch coupled with continued top-flight survival had earned Lowe a grudging respect from many of the club's supporters. However, his choice of Gordon Strachan as Gray's successor was a major gamble that many fans disagreed with.
"I love the game but I'm not obsessed about it," said Strachan at the press conference to announce his appointment. "Because I love it, I'm back." It was an awkward turn of phrase - honest, certainly, but hardly inspiring. Similarly, the Scot's management credentials were steady but slightly flawed. Having kept Coventry in the Premier League for four seasons, Strachan could not save them from the drop in May 2001 and although the Sky Blues tried to keep faith with him, the pressure told and he was shown the door five games into the First Division season.
Lowe described Strachan as a "true leader" and insisted that he would be there for the long term. Yet with Saints second from bottom in the table, 'Wee Gordon' had his work cut out. In his first game in charge at St Mary's, Saints squandered a two-goal lead to draw 3-3 with 17th-placed Ipswich, leading to talk of a hex. Defeats to Fulham, Blackburn Rovers and Derby County followed. After 12 games, Strachan's side were rock bottom, having accrued just seven points.
The only way was up, but first, Saints had to break their home hoodoo - which is where 'Dragonoak' comes in.
"People were saying the ground was cursed," recalls Jason Dodd, who made more than 450 appearances for the club in all competitions from 1989 to 2004 and is now the coach of their Under-18s. "It meant we had to get a witch in to cleanse the ground!
"It was strange - we trained there regularly, so we were getting used to the surroundings. We were just doing better away, but your home form is the most important."
So Connelly, a Pagan witch, was summoned down from Wales and performed a ritual at the stadium ahead of the visit of Charlton Athletic at the end of November - and Saints won the game 1-0, prompting Strachan to joke that he would ask her to take training for the next fortnight and maybe even play up front.
The Saints players struggled to adapt to Strachan's methods straightaway. "What I remember most about Gordon was he really pushed us to the limit," said Dodd.
"To begin with, we thought we were fit. But then there's 'Gordon fit' - it was just a different level to what we were used to. Personally, I quite enjoyed it because I knew in the last 15 minutes of games, we would come on strong.
"He came in and over the weeks, he got a style of play going and we could see it was working. And in the end, we quite enjoyed the fitness because we were getting results. You were happy putting the work in because on the Saturday, you were picking up points and climbing the table."
In December, Southampton suffered three defeats (a 6-1 mauling at Manchester United among them) but also claimed three wins, including a 4-0 romp at relegation rivals Leicester City and Boxing Day delight as Hoddle's Spurs were put to the sword at St Mary's. They ended the calendar year out of the drop zone, albeit only on goal difference from Derby.
To kick off 2002, their opponents would be Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea; the Blues were sixth, six points behind leaders Arsenal after 20 games played. Ranieri had seen his players bounce back from a defeat at Highbury on December 26th to win 2-1 at Newcastle United, knocking the Magpies off top spot in the process. Chelsea had also won 3-0 away to Manchester United at the start of December, but their erratic form was best summed up by the result that followed that trip to Old Trafford - a 1-0 home defeat to Charlton. Ranieri was demanding consistency in order to launch a title challenge and with only five goals conceded in 11 games, the Italian believed he had the platform to achieve his ambitions. "There's no point in winning at Newcastle if we go and throw it away against Southampton," warned managing director Colin Hutchison in his New Year's Day programme notes.
On an ice-cold afternoon in West London, more than 35,000 arrived at the Bridge with the majority expecting a routine win. But they underestimated Saints, who were now marching on under Strachan. "Maybe individually, on paper, we were not the strongest," admits Dodd, "but as a unit and as a team, he got us together - and we went out there together to get a result."
In an early warning that the script would be ignored, Chelsea were stunned after just seven minutes. John Terry brought down the sprightly Marian Pahars around 35 yards out, from where James Beattie smashed a free-kick into the top corner of Carlo Cudicini's net.
Normal service looked to have been resumed before the break, however. Poor marking from Claus Lundekvam allowed Eidur Gudjohnsen to tap home Chelsea's 20th-minute equaliser after Paul Jones could only parry Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's header from a Graeme Le Saux left-wing cross. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Hasselbaink put the hosts ahead from eight yards out after receiving a flicked pass from Gudjohnsen, who had ghosted past three Saints players. It was the Dutchman's 15th goal of the season.
Despite their interval advantage, Ranieri knew his Blues were not at their best and he hauled off the struggling Mario Stanic and replaced him with Slavisa Jokanovic. Pahars had already proved to be a tricky customer and 10 minutes after the restart, a 40-yard diagonal ball from defender Paul Williams was collected by the little Latvian, who held off William Gallas before netting another Saints leveller - putting him into double figures for the season.
"We had players who were not household names," adds Dodd, "but they went about their business the right way. When we got back to 2-2, we were suddenly thinking, 'hold on a minute... we are in this game now.' We believed in what we were doing."
Cracks had already begun to appear in the Chelsea camaraderie, with accusatory fingers pointed in the direction of fellow team-mates. Saints sensed blood, and forged ahead for the first time in the match on 64 minutes when Paul Telfer's corner skimmed off the head of Frank Lampard and onto the powerful bald pate of Chris Marsden.
Ranieri's response to falling behind was to send on Gianfranco Zola for Celestine Babayaro, but still Chelsea could not find their rhythm and Marsden almost made them pay with another header that this time went wide. However, three minutes after that chance, a fourth goal did come Saints' way as Jokanovic lost possession and Pahars crossed from the right for Beattie to volley in his second. The striker came agonisingly close to completing a hat-trick in stoppage time but regardless, the points went to the visitors.
Dodd says: "Collectively, that day was just our day. With Gordon, that is exactly how he wanted his teams to run. We were organised, and we played good stuff. Beatts was raw back then; he was a real handful. He was always in opposition defenders' faces. But to score four goals up at the Bridge tells you we played decent football.
"I think it was belief. I imagine if you took us out individually and put us in other teams, we might not have done so well. But we had a settled, solid side, and we all knew what we were doing."
Ranieri was baffled by his side's display - "it is crazy football, crazy Chelsea" - and he promptly claimed he was giving up any title hopes as Chelsea fell eight points behind new leaders Leeds United. As for Saints, they remained 17th - but they now had a three-point lead over Derby, and much-needed breathing space. Their form continued to improve and they pulled away from danger, eventually finishing 11th, nine points clear of the drop.
It was not until March of this year, 2013, that Southampton would conjure up a victory over Chelsea again - and with Jose Mourinho continuing to boast an unblemished league record at the Bridge, which currently stands at 66 games unbeaten and counting, it is no surprise Saints are long shots for Sunday's encounter. But recent results at Anfield and Old Trafford bode well, and with Dodd and Williams still working at the club in Academy roles, Mauricio Pochettino might be wise to look to those old boys for a little extra inspiration as they head towards the King's Road.
"For me personally, as a squad, it is the best I have ever seen at Southampton," concludes Dodd. "We see them training on a daily basis. Like Gordon did, Mauricio's got them working really hard, and there is competition for places.
"We go to Chelsea full of confidence and in previous games this season, we have proven that we can go away, not be overawed - and we can get a result. And that is the mindset we will have again on Sunday."
Watch Chelsea v Southampton live on Sky Sports 1 HD on Sunday, with coverage from 4pm