DUTCH giants Ajax will take the field against a totally different Saints tomorrow to the one they encountered just over three years ago.
Not just a different quality of team, but with a completely new outlook.
Totally new ambitions as well.
It was back on July 18, 2009 that Ajax won 4-1 at St Mary’s to lift the Ted Bates Trophy (and whatever happened to that piece of silverware?).
Liverpool striker Luis Suarez scored twice after Joseph Mills had given the hosts a surprise early lead.
But eyes were on two men who weren’t even playing.
In the stands was Markus Liebherr , watching the club he had only recently saved from oblivion.
His delight at being part of the occasion was obvious, and he was warmly received by the supporters.
Also taking his St Mary’s bow was Alan Pardew , who had been appointed in place of the sacked Mark Wotte just days earlier.
Pardew, like his new boss, waved to the crowd before kick off.
Needless to say, the result was a total irrelevance.
It was, instead, a chance for the fans to say ‘thanks’ to previously unknown Swiss billionaire Liebherr.
Also, the chance to say ‘hello’ to the manager who would be tasked with trying to bring some good times back to a club which had slipped a long way in a short time. Lest we forget, Saints were preparing to embark on their first season of third division football since 1959/60 when Ajax last visited.
Tomorrow, the reigning Dutch champions form part of Saints’ preseason friendly fixture list ahead of the club’s Premier League return. Three years ago, Saints caretaker boss Stewart Henderson was forced to field the likes of youngsters Olly Lancashire, Jake Thomson, Matt Paterson, Simon Gillett and Callum McNish.
He didn’t have too many options.
Some of Saints’ main names, such as Andrew Surman and David McGoldrick, had been sold off in the summer to help keep the club afloat.
That was how bad it was, just over three years ago, as administrator Mark Fry worked to find a saviour.
Those youngsters had, at times, seemed painfully out of their depth as Saints were relegated from the Championship .
Rupert Lowe ’s mistaken belief that youth could provide the key to a brighter future was cruelly shattered.
It is interesting to look at where those players are now.
Lancashire, McNish and Paterson are in the fourth tier, with Aldershot, Exeter and Southend respectively.
Lancashire was released in the summer by Walsall, McNish hardly played for Exeter last season when they were relegated, and Paterson was farmed out on loan to non-league club Forest Green Rovers in January.
Thomson is now at another nonleague club, Newport County, while Gillett is on trial at Portsmouth after being released by Doncaster.
In addition, Lee Molyneux – who also played against Ajax – has been without a professional club for the last year after Plymouth let him go, while veterans Chris Perry and Graeme Murty have since retired.
Back on July 18, 2009 not many Saints fans would have known too much about Rickie Lambert or Dean Hammond.
They were not to know that Pardew had earmarked players from Bristol Rovers and Colchester as men who could help restore the good times to St Mary’s.
They were certainly not to know that in under three years the club would be preparing to play the elite again. This time, Ajax will face a Saints side containing a striker who cost a club record fee of about £7m. Three years ago Saints were almost liquidated after going into administration after they breached their Barclays Bank overdraft limit.
The club had so little money for a while that former chairman Leon Crouch had to dip into his pocket to help pay the wages, to help keep the club going.
Since then, the turnaround has been amazing.
So much so that the side to face Ajax tomorrow could include Rodriguez, Nathaniel Clyne, Billy Sharp, Jos Hooiveld, Jose Fonte , Danny Fox and Lambert – seven £1m-plus signings since Liebherr’s takeover.
Throw in Davis and Schneiderlin – two seven-figure signings already at the club pre-Liebherr – and tomorrow could see the most expensive side in Saints’ history fielded.
All a far cry from the era of Thomson, Lancashire, Paterson and Gillett.
Of course, the two men at the centre of the attention three years ago will not be at St Mary’s tomorrow.
Liebherr, sadly, will never see his dream of Saints back in the Premier League, and his death almost two years ago is still keenly felt by many supporters.
Pardew, meanwhile, will be trying to beat Saints next season with Newcastle.
When the two clubs meet, he will hopefully get a good reception.
Alan Pardew sowed the seeds of Saints’ revival, and that should never be forgotten.
- Saints' match against Ajax is live on TV. For more information, see our interactive TV guide .