Aerial photographs of Maine Road taken from the first season in 1923 to the final competitive game against Southampton 80 years later showed a ground surrounded on all sides by row upon row of terraced housing. This was the ground of a team supported by working class supporters many of whom lived right on the doorstep.
Walking to the ground, it felt like walking in the footsteps of previous generations of supporters flooding to the stadium from work, home or the pub to see their local team play. As I started to visit other grounds following City the streets around the grounds very much mirrored Maine Road; the streets around Blackburn, Coventry, Oldham and Barnsley were so familiar. However, as I went further afield, I found that not everyone’s experience was the same – and this was certainly the case the first time I approached The Dell, the home of Southampton.
Travelling by coach, we drove down tree-lined roads with semi-detached and detached housing on both sides. It seemed strange.
My first visit to The Dell coincided with the appointment of Howard Kendall as manager in December 1989. He was at the game and would take control of the team the following week. I was among a group of fans that were there early, so we saw him arrive at the ground and he was mobbed by the travelling supporters keen to see the man they hoped would stop the club slipping back down to the Second Division.
As I hadn’t been to the ground before, I just went to the nearest turnstile that indicated the away standing area. When I entered the ground, I was directed down some stairs and was then guided into what I can only describe as a pit of a terrace, which was little more than a high sided cage with a six foot fence in front of it. The fence meant that visiting fans had to get towards the back of the section to get even a half decent view, which everyone was trying to do.
The ‘view’ was appalling, possibly one of the worst away ends the City fans have been in down the years. It was passable when the game was near the visiting supporters, but it was hopeless when it moved up field. I barely saw Clive Allen’s goal or the screamer from Barry Horne, which won the game 2-1 for the Saints, as they happened up the other end, and I had to wait until I got home to see the best of the action from the game.
I noticed during the game that in the corner there was a raised terrace, a weird little anomaly in a hotchpotch of a ground. There were away supporters in there too, but they were not in a pit, rather hovering high above the corner flag. When I returned to The Dell for the game in the autumn of 1991, I was determined to get into this section rather than end up where I had the last time.
As soon as I got off the coach I passed on the delights the surrounding area had to offer and made a bee-line for that specific turnstile. I got myself into the raised terrace section, as I knew the number of fans for this section was limited. The view was the polar opposite to my previous visit: it was a great. The only bit of the pitch I couldn’t see was the corner flag the terrace was over. Happy that I was actually going to see the game this time, all I needed next was a performance to match it and thankfully the visiting supporters got exactly that.
City were full of confidence heading into the fixture. Peter Reid’s side had won the previous three games and they were on the front foot from the start – it took just ten minutes for them to go ahead. A free-kick from Keith Curle was floated into the box towards Niall Quinn, who had his usual two centre halves for company. The Irishman took the ball on his chest and then, in the next movement, let the ball drop to the ground, grabbed a yard with his long legs and poked a shot into the bottom corner for a sublime finish.
Within five minutes Quinn had to go off with an ankle injury, but there was no respite for Southampton as on came centre half Colin Hendry in his secondary role as a back-up striker. He started to terrorise the Saints back line. At the back, the centre halves Steve Redmond and Curle were in no mood to let the mercurial Matt Le Tissier or the Saints star striker Alan Shearer help the hosts get a foothold in the game and it felt like an away win was on the cards, it was just a matter of how many City would score.
The only surprise was how long it took for City to get a second. Adrian Heath was having a good game, buzzing around and finding space on a tight pitch, supporting the buccaneering Hendry and young Mike Sheron up front. It was ‘Inchy’ Heath who would set up City’s second just after the break – a long throw into the box was laid off on the volley to Sheron, who hit it first time past Tim Flowers into the bottom corner of the net in front of the jubilant travelling fans.
Southampton finally came to life shortly after: a shot following a free-kick by Le Tissier was hit straight at keeper Coton, then from a corner a towering header was tipped over – but they were really only regulation saves for him. Any hope of a revival for the home team were snuffed out in the 58th minute when a corner from David White just below the away fans in my terrace, was flicked on by Hendry. It fell to the feet of Sheron, but it was nipped off his toes by centre half Jon Gittens – who could only knock the ball into the back of his own net. Game over.
Hendry seemed to have scored late on when he brought down a long ball from Andy Hill on his chest in the box. He directed the ball into his own path before lashing it into the goal all in one movement for a finish that surpassed Quinn’s, but sadly as he turned away to celebrate he saw the linesman’s flag ruling it offside. He deserved a goal for his endeavours.
The away fans had to settle for a 3-0 victory, the best win City ever got at The Dell. The team got a wonderful ovation at the end of the game from the visiting supporters and this time I didn’t have to wait to see the action when I got home thanks to my lofty perch in the corner of the ground.
Written by Richard Donlan
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