Former Saints’ central defender Chris Nicholl had the good fortune to inherit a well set up club when he returned to The Dell as manager. Lawrie McMenemy’s bequest was a useful squad of players that included Peter Shilton, David Armstrong, Mark Wright, Nick Holmes, Mark Dennis, George Lawrence, pocket-strikers Danny Wallace and Steve Moran and the man seasoned football hacks referred to as “the evergreen Jimmy Case”.
Add to that the presence of a well established youth set up, now managed by Dave Merrington, who was sprucing up a promising bunch of proto-Saints, including Francis Banali, the twins Rodney and Raymond Wallace (brothers of Danny), Neil Maddison, Alan Shearer and Matthew Le Tissier.
The bad news was that with the income from European competition had disappeared because of the ban on English clubs and attendances were falling. The public face of the game was hooliganism and in many places (although not Southampton in my experience) the police forces were even more hostile than those gangs more interested in giving opposing fans a kicking than watching the game. Average gates at The Dell had dropped from 21,841 in 1981-82, when Saints had finished seventh in Division One, to 18,050 in 1983-84, when they were runners up. Soccer was a pariah pursuit. So, Southampton FC, being an economically astute institution, Chris Nicholl was set the task of cutting the wage bill.
It seems ridiculous considering what top flight players earn today, but Saints could no longer afford the likes of Peter Shilton and Mark Wright, who, respectively, were reckoned to be on £150,000 and £60,000 a year.
Both England internationals remained at The Dell for the Centenary Season and Saints made it to the FA Cup semi-finals, meeting Liverpool on 5 April. Stuart Jones’s report in the Times commenced: “FA Cup semi-final day at White Hart Lane will not be recalled for the performance of Liverpool, admirably stubborn though they were during their two hours of triumph; nor the display of Southampton, courageously defiant though they were in defeat. It will be recalled for the cruel misfortune that befell Mark Wright.”
Wrong. It will be remembered in Southampton because every time Danny Wallace and Steve Moran sprang Liverpool’s offside trap, either Jim Beglin or Steve Nicol dragged them back. Mr Saunders granted the odd free kick and wagged his finger once or twice, but effectively it meant Liverpool only needed to keep two men back and the Saints’ penalty area was besieged. They did well to take the game to extra time.
That Mark Wright had broken his leg shortly before half-time will not be forgotten either. He was not just hors de combat for Saints, but for England, booked for the World Cup Finals in Mexico that summer.
The ’86-87 season saw the end of Chris Nicholl’s honeymoon with much of the crowd and the end of St Mark Dennis. Rumours then tabloid “exclusives” suggested, strongly, that Mark was not happy with his manager. Many Dellites were inclined to side with “Psycho”, despite his well known tendency to come over Incredible Hulk when stressed. A 2-1 home defeat to Norwich City in on 7 February ended with Nicholl and Dennis coming to blows and a free for all. Interviewed by Jeremy Wilson for his 2006 book Southampton’s Cult Heroes Dennis confessed that he was completely in the wrong and regards the episode as the greatest mistake of his life. And that is saying something. “… but I get on fabulously with Chris now.”
Chris appeared have made a breakthrough in October 1989 when runaway League leaders Liverpool got larruped 4-1 at The Dell and Saints moved up to third place. Paul Rideout, Rod Wallace (2) and Matthew Le Tissier got the goals and a young right-back from Bath City, Jason Dodd, making his home debut caught the eye, as did Alan Shearer. The crowd went home convinced that Rodney, Le Tiss and Shearer were the future England forward line. More great performances followed, but the lack of consistency was a puzzle. Saints ended the season seventh.
Nicholl could not build on the ’89-90 season and Saints slumped to 14th in ’90-91, which petered out with the Wallace twins agitating for transfers and an average gate falling just below 17,000. Chris Nicholl had just enough time to renew Jimmy Case’s contract before being sacked.
The Echo finds a Hampshire slant on the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster on 15 April 1989, when 96 people were crushed to death inside an anti-hooligan pen as the Liverpool Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final got underway. Pens were scrapped nationwide in 1990.
The following December the Saints’ programme editor appears to have had an irony bypass on the day he approved the cover above, which shows caged visiting fans getting an official “warm hello”.
Matt Le Tissier successfully seeks approval.