Ahead of the game with Southampton at SJP on Saturday we caught up with the excellent fans’ Podcast lads, Totally Saints to have a natter ahead of their game with our beloved Newcastle United.

Steve Grant in the big chair for Totally Saints:

TF Southampton finished 15th last season – are Saints fans expecting a significant improvement this season?  

Steve: That depends on your definition of “significant”! I think most fans would accept us demonstrating signs of learning lessons – we had the second-worst defence in the league last season (thanks largely to that one game at Old Trafford) and our record in the second half of games was abysmal, so if we can improve our ability to hold onto a lead and not collapse in a heap when placed under a bit of pressure, I think better results will naturally follow.

TF Ralph Hasenhüttl appears to be a very competent manager but then there are times when it all looks like it is seriously unravelling – what do Saints fans think of him?

Steve: I think there is an acceptance that we have got an excellent manager in certain conditions but that he has a few flaws, hence why he’s managing us and not a bigger club. When “Plan A” works, he looks like the best thing since sliced bread, but he’s been criticised for lacking alternative options and also being very slow to react to changes in the flow of games. He often makes substitutions late in games when it’s already gotten away from us, rather than realising what’s happening and being a bit more proactive.

TF What’s your pre-season recruitment been like?  In particular, how has our Academy product and Geordie lad Adam Armstrong settled in?

Steve: We’ve been surprisingly busy this summer, given the relative lack of money, and I think that is a reflection of how the middle part of last season went when we picked up a lot of injuries in a short space of time and suddenly looked very thin on the ground. Adam Armstrong has looked good on first viewing, scored a good opportunist’s goal at Everton on the opening day and was lively against Man United at the weekend. I’m hoping we’ll get the commentary nightmare of him combining with Stuart Armstrong and Che Adams for a few goals this season!

TF How do you think Hasenhüttl will set Southampton up this season?  

Steve: Our system is unlikely to change much from game to game, Hasenhüttl likes to play a 4-2-2-2 system which places huge responsibility on the full-backs for attacking width, with the two more attack-minded midfielders often tucking in and overloading teams through the middle, but with enough flexibility for it to effectively become a 4-4-2 where necessary. Defensively, I’m not convinced we give enough protection to the back four, but I think that’ll be a work in progress as the season goes on.

TF What are your thoughts on performances and results over the first two games? 

Steve: Results have been mixed so far, the Everton second half display was a concern as it felt like déjà vu from last season – play well in the first half but fail to react to changes the opposition make and get completely overrun – but we were much better against Man United on Sunday and could have won the game towards the end. Two games we wouldn’t usually expect to get anything from (our record at Goodison is pathetic, as is our opening-day record, so we killed two birds with one stone with that game), so a point is perhaps more than we’d expect, but we need to take Sunday’s performance on and start putting points on the board now.

TF What are your thoughts about the game at SJP on Saturday?  

Steve: I think the game is there for the taking for either team, it just needs one (or both) of them to be bold and go for it. It was interesting to see Steve Bruce set you up in an attacking system against West Ham, perhaps feeling he needed to get the fans onside for the first full house in 18 months, but it left you open to being picked off on the break. I don’t think we’re as good on the counter as West Ham, but there is a threat there when given the chance, and with the lack of points on the board it instinctively feels like a huge opportunity for us.

TF Tell us about your club’s owners and what do Saints fans think of them?  

Steve: Our majority owner is effectively an absentee owner these days. The Chinese have basically been told to pull out their money from UK sports investments, and there’s not really going to be any money to be made from a club of our size now. The previous owner (still holding 20%) made the progress from League One to European qualifier, we probably hit a glass ceiling at that point, so Jisheng Gao’s decision to buy an 80% stake when he did was pretty mad. No money gets put in, which I’ve no particular issue with as I think clubs should be self-sustaining where possible, but that seems to be a sore point for a number of fans who think that we should be paying £30m and £150k a week for new signings on a regular basis. By all accounts he’s looking to sell his stake, but culturally, the Chinese don’t like to lose face, so he’s still looking to recoup his initial investment, which seems wildly optimistic in the current environment!

TF Best / Worst Memories of Newcastle United at St James’ Park?  

Steve: Not many good memories of St James’ Park, to be honest, and I think your record down south is equally terrible! Probably the best result I can remember is a last-minute Matt Le Tissier winner (of course!) in Alan Ball’s first game in charge in the early 90s. I think there was building work going on so we didn’t get given any tickets, so when Le Tiss pinged a free kick into the top corner at the Gallowgate End there was absolute silence. Many bad memories, freshest being last season where we were incapable of breaking down nine men in the pissing rain.

TF Your best Southampton eleven while supporting them.  

Steve: Antti Niemi; Nathaniel Clyne, Virgil van Dijk, Michael Svensson, Wayne Bridge; Morgan Schneiderlin, Matt Oakley; Matt Le Tissier, Dusan Tadic, Sadio Mane; Rickie Lambert. Not sure you’re getting a huge amount of defensive work from those attacking midfielders, but it’ll be fun to watch…

TF Can you rank your main rival clubs and what is the story behind the rivalry? 

Steve: Portsmouth is the obvious rivalry, which is predominantly geographical. There’s also some historical port-based tales, some of which originate from their end of the M27 and many of which have been thoroughly debunked – one relates to why they call us “scummers”, and suggests some actual thought went into it rather than just a lazy “well what else are we going to call them?” thing. Despite also being in close proximity, there’s not really a rivalry from our side towards Bournemouth. They’ve always disliked us but ten years ago in League One was the first time we’d played them in the league since the 60s. Most Saints fans quite like Bournemouth, they’ve always been that pleasant inoffensive and unthreatening lower-league team down the road to us, which is probably exactly why they dislike us!  

TF Thoughts on VAR. 

Steve: I’m in favour of VAR in principle, largely as it should in theory be a bit of a leveller for the smaller clubs against the natural bias the big clubs benefit from. The problem in this country seems to have been the humans in charge of operating it. I don’t quite get the fuss over the marginal offsides, it’s a binary decision, either you’re offside or not, and if that’s by a centimetre then so be it. They shouldn’t be allowing Lee Mason to draw those lines though, the offside part of VAR should be operated by a scientist, mathematician, etc – someone who can operate the system much quicker and appreciate the perspective and geometry. We’re asking former policemen, PE teachers, etc, to understand complex scientific and mathematical scenarios in a pressure environment, and we’ve seen the terrible results of that. 

TF Have Southampton fans reacted positively or negatively to players taking a knee as a gesture against racism?  

Steve: I think in the most part it’s been received positively, although I think sadly you’ll always get a minority of people who will take issue with it. They got drowned out at St Mary’s on Sunday, and would assume that will continue. There’s no getting through to some people, though. 

TF Have the so-called Big 6 been suitably punished adequately by the Premier League / UEFA? 

Steve: LOL. I’m sure they’ll all REALLY miss the £3m-ish fine imposed on them, and it’ll definitely force them to abandon any thought of trying it again in the future. Sorry, sarcasm doesn’t work that well in the written word! The agreement they’ve signed is pathetic, a potential 30-point deduction that wouldn’t see any of them relegated anyway and no tangible current punishment sums up everything that is wrong with football governance, not just in this country, but worldwide.

There should have been immediate penalties in the summer – they should have been fined properly (at least £20m apiece, with money distributed evenly among the other 14), a 20-point deduction to start this season with a further suspended 40-point deduction in case they tried to get their expensive lawyers on the case and appeal, and a reduction in the number of senior players they’re allowed to register for the season. That’s a proper deterrent. All the Premier League has ensured is that when they next try to do this, they’ll make sure they’ve got all their ducks in a row before making the announcement. It was fairly incredible how amateurish the whole thing looked.

TF Would you like Mike Ashley at your club? 

Steve: I’ll pass, thanks!

TF  What’s your take on the endless takeover saga at Newcastle United? 

Steve: It almost feels as though Mike Ashley actually doesn’t want to sell, but is constantly going through the motions to make it look like he’s trying to sell but it’s just so difficult to get a deal over the line. I’ve been slightly surprised by the seemingly-questionless backing of the Saudi Arabian takeover attempt by such a large section of the fanbase (although I appreciate that social media isn’t necessarily a good barometer) given the whole host of associated issues.

TF What’s your view on the current Newcastle United side and manager? 

Steve: There’s a good side in there – certain in the first XI if they’re ever all fit at the same time – but I think you really need a more progressive manager in charge of that squad. For whatever reason, Bruce being a Geordie hasn’t granted him any extra leeway, and it’s fair to say that he’s fairly limited as a tactician (and he freely admits that, which I find fairly incredible), and while man-management is an important aspect of the game, it’s systems that give teams the best opportunity to punch above their relative weight. He’s a useful lightning rod for the owner, though, so I think ultimately there’s a glass ceiling for you while Bruce is in the hotseat.

TF Newcastle United and Southampton share some heroes – how do Saints fans look back on Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer at your club? 

Steve: Both are looked back with fondness, but also slight regret that they didn’t stick around longer. Keegan was signed as the current European Player of the Year, which just wouldn’t happen to a club of our size these days, it would be like us signing Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, and nobody knowing about it until we unveiled him! Keegan played in a really good Saints team, so he had a huge impact. It was a bit unfortunate for Shearer that he played in a pretty poor Saints team, predominantly under Ian Branfoot, and I guess that was fairly key when we sold him to newly-promoted Blackburn in 1992. They showed ambition (and plenty of money), so that was that.

TF Prediction for Saturday’s result. 

Steve: I don’t think defences are going to be on top, especially if you set up the same as you did against West Ham. It should be an opportunity for us to get points on the board, but our record at your place is rubbish so I’d still take a point right now. 2-2.

Many thanks to Steve for his time – best of luck for the rest of the season!