To be a Manager in the Premier League is a dream come true. I had the privilege of Managing Southampton on the first day of the Premier League Season on Sunday the 19th August 2012.
We travelled to the Etihad Stadium and played the reigning Champions and title favourites, Manchester City, who were Managed by Roberto Mancini.
We had been promoted two seasons running, from League 1 to the Premier League, a fantastic achievement by all connected with Southampton. To be away from home to play the Champions on the opening day was exciting. What was also exciting was the prospect of playing against Manchester United Managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, and Arsenal Managed by Arsene Wenger in three of our opening four fixtures. The other was against my old club as a player Wigan Athletic, Managed by Roberto Martinez. What a start !
I had a challenging decision to make regarding my team selection and the tactics for the game. Having watched Manchester City before and because they were at home against a newly promoted club, we anticipated they would play with a back four in defence and look to dominate possession, in their familiar 1-4-3-3 formation. Looking to wear us down and score with the talented players they possessed.
I made the tough call to start club legend and one of my favourite ever strikers, Rickie Lambert, on the bench. This was because I anticipated City having possession and building their play, as all top sides do, from their goalkeeper, in this case England International Joe Hart. I believed this could be physically demanding for our talisman striker, so wanted to keep him fresh for the second period of the game to make a difference. In his place I utilised our Brazilian Striker Gully Do Prado. At 6'4" and with a turn of pace for the counter attack, I believed Gully was best placed to run around after the City defenders. Add on one wing our new signing Jay Rodriguez, who could run all day, and Jason Puncheon on the other wing. Jason had been outstanding since his return to the club and was playing with a maturity that I've enjoyed watching as his career has blossomed.
Another big call I made was to start 17 year old James Ward-Prowse in the centre of midfield. Prowsey had been training with the first team since our time in League 1 and had already played for the 1st team the previous season, scoring in the FA Cup victory against Coventry. We had a philosophy to develop our own players. To do that there needs to be a pathway through the Academy into the 1st team. It's been a pleasure to see how James has progressed through his short career to Full International, having also Captained England U21's to victory in the Toulon Tournament, coached by present National Team Manager, Gareth Southgate.
I had Managed against Manchester City Manager Roberto Mancini before. When I was the Manager of Scunthorpe United, we played Manchester City in the FA Cup at Glanford Park, and gave them a very tough game. I liked the Italian Manager, and as is customary, I went to see the opposition Manager after the game.
I have always tried to ask a question in my quest for knowledge. I believe it's important in learning that you ask questions. We had a good chat after our opening Premier League contest. I asked him why he had decided to play a back 3 against us ? "You are a clever coach and wanted to surprise you" was his answer. I was humbled by this, and very proud that our club was being taken seriously.
I was very proud of our team and travelling supporters on that opening day game. Kelvin Davis saved a penalty in the first half, having been awarded by World Cup Final Referee Howard Webb. We had a good compact shape about ourselves, however we conceded just on the stroke of half time to go into the interval 1-0 down, Carlos Tevez the goalscorer.
I went down the players tunnel at half time thinking about what I was going to say to the players, however I went flying on my backside at the bottom of it ! It was my new shoes making me slip on the floor surface ! You always have a new suit and a new pair of shoes for a new season, especially a Premier League season ! I understand that following the incident, Manchester City changed the floor surface, and it's talked about as the reason they changed it on the pre-game stadium tours. You've got to laugh at yourself !
I was also very proud of the way we responded to going behind. A great team effort. We had a fantastic team spirit. I introduced Rickie Lambert into the game and he duly obliged to score the equaliser and send the travelling supporters, and the players, into joyous scenes of celebration. That's what football is all about. Another of our new signings Steve Davis also came on as a second half substitute. We had pursued Steve all summer and believed the ex Rangers Captain would be an ideal fit. The talented midfield player had had an operation at the end of the previous season in Scotland and still wasn't quite up to full match fitness and the exceptional physical stats that he produces during games.
It has been said in the Premier League that you are at your most vulnerable to conceding a goal, when you have a corner ! Well we defended a Manchester City corner and having won the ball broke like the Red Arrows for Steve Davis to give us a 2-1 lead. Unbelievable scenes. Could it be possible ? Could we win ?
Alas it wasn't to be, gut wrenchingly we lost in a pulsating game. A scrambled equaliser from a corner scored by Edin Dzeko and then the decider from an innocuous cross that we headed back into a danger area on the penalty spot that was superbly rifled into the net by Samir Nasri to send the City supporters home happy.
We had been preaching since we had arrived at Southampton in League 1 about scanning, movement, awareness and passing the ball quickly and calmly in preparation for the speed at which playing at the highest level in England, The Premier League required. It's when you are actually in the arena and playing against the Champions that the importance of practicing hard at these requirements are, how challenging it is, and the time you need to develop it.
I had excellent coaches with us at Southampton in Andy Crosby, Dean Wilkins and Nick Harvey. We had excellent players with superb attitudes in the positive culture we had developed. Many players have remained in the Premier League and I'm proud of the progress they have made.
It was interesting when we did the debrief of the City match what the players said regarding playing in the game. Jos Hooiveld our centre half, who had given the penalty away in the first half, said that he had a headache with the intensity of concentration required in keeping an eye on the talented Manchester City players movement and the speed at which the ball was passed.
Welcome to the Premier League.