Few teams can match the length of rivalry we have with Southampton. We were the first opposition for them at The Dell, in 1898, and were regular opponents in the Southern League until 1920, when both clubs joined the newly-formed third division (South) of the Football League.
Top flights meetings number just twelve, with our two wins coming back in 1981. Last season’s reverse at The Amex in March broke a sequence of four draws, but this weekend’s game gives us an opportunity to exact swift revenge for that defeat.
For this week’s column, I’m moving away from top-flight meetings, and back to a New Year thriller at The Goldstone. After promotion from Division Three in the 77/78 season, Albion made a great start to life back in Division Two. Manager Alan Mullery had smashed our transfer record in June, signing the Preston North End defender Mark Lawrenson from under the noses of Liverpool. The £112,000 fee proved to be a fantastic piece of business and other signings that summer included John Ruggiero, Eric Potts and Gary Williams. Peter Ward had signed a new four-year contract and excitement was at fever pitch amongst the fans.We briefly went to the top of the table at the beginning of October, but two defeats over the Christmas period dropped us to fifth. The match against third-placed Southampton on 2nd January 1978 was made all-ticket and 32,979 crammed into The Goldstone. At the time, this was the sixth-highest attendance at the ground and was only surpassed once more, in April 1978.
The huge crowd saw a tense affair, with both sides giving everything to consolidate their respective positions in the league. Mullery named an unchanged side from the two festive defeats. Eric Steele continued in goal, behind a back four of Gary Williams, Chris Cattlin, Andy Rollings and Mark Lawrenson.
In midfield, Brian Horton anchored things, alongside Peter O’Sullivan, Tony Towner and Paul Clark. Up front, Peter Ward was beginning to forge a great partnership with Teddy Maybank, who had been signed from Fulham in November 1977.
Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy was able to call on a strong team, with future Managers Chris Nicholl and Alan Ball in the side. Their midfield included the mercurial talent of Steve Williams, alongside Southampton-born Nick Holmes. Up front, the partnership of Phil Boyer and Ted MacDougall was flourishing as Saints pushed for promotion.
Alan Mullery’s message in the programme was that 1977 had been “fantastic”. He went on to say; “The seventeen months I have been here have been like a dream, it really has been almost a fairytale”.
The players had a point to prove after two defeats and it was a tense first 45 minutes. Tackles were flying in and Andy Rollings picked up a booking after one too many fierce challenges.
The second half was just as close but Albion were dealt a blow when Rollings was sent off for another bad foul. Southampton capitalised almost immediately, with Alan Ball giving them the lead.
Despite being down to ten men, the Seagulls pressed for an equaliser but had to re-shuffle when Paul Clark picked up an injury. Mullery sent on Eric Potts to try and make something happen and Albion got their reward when Mark Lawrenson scored his first goal for the club. Despite pressure from both sides, it finished 1-1.
Honours were even and it was to stay that way for the rest of the season. Conspiracy theories abound as to the motivation for the 0-0 draw between Southampton and Spurs on the last day of the season. That result sent both teams up into the first division at the expense of Albion, who missed out on goal difference.
We put things right the following season and now here we are again, for the thirteenth top-flight meeting between the two clubs. Graham Potter’s revolution continues and all Albion fans will be hoping for South Coast bragging rights, for a few months at least.