The meaning of a referee’s final whistle is usually very basic, with it signalling the end of a match, where a team has either won, lost, or drawn. However, on this occasion, it was much more than just that.
As Anthony Taylor blew to end the game eight years ago today, it indicted the end of Southampton’s hardest period in the club’s history.
The Saints' seven-year absence from the Premier League had come to an end, with a 4-0 victory over already-relegated Coventry sealing their promotion, but how different could it have been.
Go back just three years, and the Saints' future was in serious doubt. Struggling in the Championship in 2009, the Saints were effectively relegated from the second tier despite being four points away from safety with two games left to play.
After parent company ‘Southampton Leisure Holdings PLC’ went into administration, Southampton was handed an impossible situation to get out of. Get the points needed to survive in the league, and they would be deducted 10 points – putting them back in the relegation zone. Go down without the points disadvantage, and they would start the next season in the third tier with a total of -10.
Times were bleak, and a buyer was needed to steady the finances and end the downward spiral. Step in Markus Liebherr, the Swiss businessman with a plan to get the Saints back to the top.
The never-ending tunnel of darkness seemed to have a light at last. Signings were made, with Jose Fonte and Rickie Lambert headlining the list. Despite failing to gain instant promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking (with the 10 point deduction the difference between Southampton and a playoff spot), the south coast side was able to obtain their first trophy since 1976 – with a Johnstone's Paint Trophy victory against Carlisle starting the ball rolling, and still hasn’t stopped.
The Saints followed up their cup win with automatic promotion the season after. The club replaced Alan Pardew with Nigel Adkins early in the season, with the risky change paying off – and then some. However, such success did not come with a devastating low. Liebherr, the man to save the club, tragically died early in the season, with his passing still leaving an irreputable sadness to this day.
The club had to move on, especially with a return to the Championship beckoning. A season in the league above was always going to be a challenge – but a sense of optimism was constantly felt.
Early season form proved the optimists right. Six wins out of the first seven matches put the Saints in the driving seat for promotion, with Southampton leading the way for the majority of the season.
Adkins men battled hard against an impressive Reading side, for the title, but a loss at home to the Royals as well an away defeat to Middlesbrough near the back end of the season meant top spot was an impossible task, and instead fending off West Ham for second place was the goal going into the last game of the campaign.
A win for the Saints meant that any result at Upton Park would not matter, but a draw or loss would leave the door open for the Hammers.
You would not have thought it, though. Nerves around the stadium? Absolutely not. Arriving at St Mary’s, the party atmosphere was in full flow before the players had even got off the bus. Discontent was not in the minds of those on or off the pitch, but an air of confidence not usually associated with such a big match.
Coventry was the team in Southampton’s way. The Sky Blues had only won once on their travels in the entire season and had already been relegated to the third tier for the first time in 48 years, but the chance to spoil the home sides day was very much alive.
Such a thought was very much in the minds of the away side, with a snapshot from Gary McSheffrey early on rounding up a dominant opening 15 minutes for Coventry – a wake-up sign for the favourites.
A record crowd of 32,363 were anticipating their side to command the game, with pre-game optimism evolving into an uncomforting watch until the deadlock was broken on 16 minutes.
Adkins demanded attacking, front-foot football, with the opening goal showing just that. Portuguese defender Fonte first dispossessed his man before making a surging run through the heart of the Coventry midfield. The future Saints captain then laid the ball out-wide to attacker Guly Do Prado – who skipped past a couple of rogue balloons before receiving the ball. The Brazilian ignored runners in the box, and instead laid it off to Adam Lallana on the edge of the area, whose first-time volley deflected off of Billy Sharp and past goalkeeper Joe Murphy.
The home fans and dugout jubilant, but more importantly, relaxed.
Soon after, the lead was doubled, and Premier League football almost guaranteed. Fonte, who played a part in the opener, latched onto a corner-kick from Danny Fox, driving a header into the ground and past a Coventry defender on the line.
The floodgates opened, with the Sky Blues fining it difficult to deal with the constant current of attacks. Lallana and Rickie Lambert came close to scoring either side of half-time before Jos Hooiveld gave the home side an unassailable lead. Up from a corner, the Dutch defender pounced on a loose ball in the six-yard box, turning the ball in and scoring his eighth of the season.
The Saints were not done there and finished off the game in impressive style. Jack Cork, the only player in the side to play in every single game that season, swung a cross into Lambert, whose cushioned header fell to the feet of Lallana, with his finish a simple one from close in.
The goal was not impressive for the way it was scored, but the way it encapsulated the season. Lallana and Lambert were both inducted into the PFA Team of the Year, with it being disappointing, if not completely wrong that one of them did not end up on the scoresheet on the final day of the campaign.
Excitement reverberated around the ground, eagerly waiting for the final whistle to blow. Announcements of the annoy asking fans not to run onto the pitch when the final whistle blew were done more in hope than expectation, with the barricade of stewards easily outnumbered.
A sea of red and white engulfed the pitch for the second time in two seasons.
Southampton players that were not quick enough to get down the tunnel were raised into the air by supporters, with a mist of red combined with flags conveying a picture associated more with a Milan derby than that of a League One fixture.
The tunnel was a corridor of calm. Go pitchside, and there was a set of overjoyed Southampton fans who did not only pack the pitch in their numbers but created a deafening atmosphere. Go into the dressing room, and you would have seen both the players who played and those that did not make the squad celebrate as one. However, stay in the tunnel, and you would see families hug their loved ones, media jump to the first players they can get to, and players stand and take a moment for themselves to take it all in.
A five-year plan to get back into the top division was done in just three. Adkins, the man that many had doubted when coming into the role, guided his side to back-to-back promotions, as well as four in six years as a manager.
The Saints were once again a Premier League outfit, but Most importantly, for a 10-year-old Southampton fan in 2012, it was a chance to see their team on Match of the Day for the first time the following season.