There was a period in the early 1980s when the great clubs of Englandâ€™s industrial cities gave way to smaller clubs from quieter places. Southampton, Ipswich, Norwich, Watford and Luton all had their great days between Cloughâ€™s first European Cup and the end of the Falklands Conflict. To this south-eastern boy, they wereÂ home teams, teams you could conceivably go to watch. TheyÂ hadnâ€™t the big names or the history. But perhaps they were the future. They were the Friendly Clubs.
It’s no surprise to learn, years later, that Lawrie McMenemy was a Guardsman. There were big, booming Northern blokes like him in my family, gigantic Wirral-Kelsey Grammar crosses with backs like Welsh sideboards. You’d only see them in the evening by which time they’d carry that reassuring smell of Embassy and VAT 69. All gone now.
Indeed, a club that couldn’t be more southern if it tried couldn’t have had a more northern manager if they’d tried. They might not have been football heartland, but McMenemy was, born in Gateshead and spending time on the Toon’s black and white books.
These days, the M3 goes all the way down from London to the English Channel, but for most of its life it petered out just north of Winchester. The A3 took you the rest of the way, and the first bit of Southampton you came to was Bassett, a placid 1920s suburb home to councillors, businessmen and university lecturers like my uncle.
In his house, 1976 and the FA Cup started it all. It was my first match, too, although I turned on too late for the goal and anyway, decided to cheer on the losers. The city had been crying out for some sort of symbol. The medieval centre fell victim to German bombers, and then the port went into decline like so many others. It was too big a job for the QE2 to manage all on its own.
So football filled the gap, for the University, for the Rotarians, for the Council, the Port, everyone. And Southampton filled a gap, too, for players whose careers had stalled but who still had plenty to offer. Ten years before getting his FA Cup winners medal with Southampton, Jim McCalliog had been banging them in for Sheffield Wednesday and Scotland, marking the first with this famous interview:
Peter Osgood was there in ’76, too, a veteran of England’s magnificent 1970 World Cup squad. By the year’s end, he’d have been joined by Alan Ball.
Others would follow, most notably Kevin Keegan, who, when he joined Southampton from Hamburg was European Footballer of the Year and Captain of England. That was in the February of 1980, and there would not be another signing so astonishing for another fifteen years.
None of these were Mr. Southampton: that was Mick Channon, of course. But this was the friendly club who could sign famous players. Liverpool’s Jimmy Case would be the last before McMenemy left.
When a club have been playing at a certain level in your childhood, you fixate on them being there, and to this day the top division’s results sound incomplete without the Saints and crowded with imposters. Southampton steadily improved under McMenemy, and their horrible little ground became host to regular European nights when you’d accustom to seeing the likes of Danny Wallace and Steve Moran play your brain into a state of optimism about the future of English football.
Lawrie McMenemy left in 1985, and my 1990s Southampton memories are all about phoning a supporter friend to confirm that, once again, Matt Le Tissier had kept them up:
(It’s an insult to call it working man’s ballet. You’d rather watch ballet?)
The idea was for Southampton to hold on until the new ground at St Mary’s was complete. Then, with better facilities and bigger crowds, the club could “kick on.”
Oh, these clubs who want to kick on. I am old enough to remember how Charlton were going to replace Alan Curbishley with the man who would take them to the next level..
It was a late twist in their history, but Southampton very nearly did that in a very big way. For a short period, they had a kind of sporting dream team in harness, Sir Clive Woodward and Simon Clifford. And they blew it, or let Redknapp blow it: we’ll never know what they might have achieved together.
But it wouldn’t have been a story about the Friendly Club: for me, that ended in June 1985 when Lawrie McMenemy left to become the highest-paid manager in English football.
There should be a moral: don’t leave Southampton. Sunderland, Lawrie’s new club, ended up in Division Three, and he ended up as Graham Taylor’s assistant with England. Alan Ball underwent a similar experience at Manchester City in 1995, ending up as one half of a common joke that also involved the Titanic. Clive Woodward did the thing backwards, joining after his Lions debacle but going on to oversee huge Olympic success in 2008.
They, like Ipswich, like Watford, are a mediocre Championship side now, albeit one with a magnificent ground and topnotch training facilities. Had they kept Woodward, kept Clifford, who knows.