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SAINTS 2 - MIDDLESBROUGH 2
4:18pm Thursday 1st June 2006 in 04-05 Season
WHAT a difference a week - and a new manager - makes.
After weeks of disappointing results and below-par performances, Saints looked a different side on Saturday.
The result may not have been what it might, indeed should, have been - but there is at least cause for more optimism.
It wasn't that Steve Wigley was doing anything vastly different in terms of selection, or probably even training.
It was just that, for the first time in a long time, Saints believed in themselves.
They played with purpose, with power, with poise, with direction.
Goodness, at times they even looked pretty confident.
That is down to nobody other than Harry Redknapp.
His very presence, his aura and the fact the players now clearly have a manager in charge of their team, lifted St Mary's.
In the stands there was an air of expectancy and that clearly was also the case in the dressing room.
In among all this, do spare a thought for Wigley.
Whether he made mistakes or not is almost irrelevant. It just wasn't the right job for him. He couldn't say no and that's understandable. He just shouldn't have been offered it.
And when he did get it, the title and responsibilities of being a manager, not a head coach, were needed. There is a difference.
Redknapp has all that at his disposal and that makes him better equipped to succeed.
Of course, he also has a proven pedigree and you don't get that without getting results.
Last week, after defeat at Manchester United, it was written here that what Wigley needed for success was to get the players believing in themselves again.
A test of management rather than coaching that has passed on to Redknapp.
Conceding two late goals against Middlesbrough was a hammer blow, but you feel it made more of a dent under Redknapp than a shattering effect had it happened under Wigley.
It's still very early days for Redknapp, but that important element of confidence seems to be spreading through the squad again. Once that's there, results should follow.
Redknapp has also played the game perfectly off the field.
It's been written here over the past few weeks that Wigley should have come out and said Saints have had a bad start to the season and now the players have to roll their sleeves and fight and scrap to keep the team in the league.
Creating that kind of mentality among the players, and therefore levelling out the expectations of the fans, is important in a season like this.
Redknapp has done that immediately.
That's not to say he's just making it up - Saints DO face a genuine battle to survive.
But again, it leaves the team better equipped mentally to deal with the job ahead.
That's what Redknapp brings - experience in the game, knowing when to say the right thing at the right time, no matter who it upsets if it's for the greater good.
Redknapp made a few changes on Saturday and reaped the benefits.
Kevin Phillips and Peter Crouch were the strike pairing for the first time in the league and looked mighty promising.
Both got a goal, Phillips heading home after great work on the left by Graeme Le Saux just before half-time and Crouch doubling the lead with a header from a Le Saux corner on 64 minutes.
Le Saux was exceptional on the left with Danny Higginbotham doing well behind him, while the defence looked far more comfortable dealing with a traditional 4-4-2.
Elsewhere, Anders Svensson showed signs of producing some more good form in his rightful place in the centre of midfield, while Antti Niemi was a solid figure back in goal.
Once Saints got two ahead they should have sealed the game. They had chances but Mark Schwarzer was on good form in the Boro goal, while Crouch should have done better from a free header.
But just to underline to Redknapp how fragile Saints can be, all that hard work and dominance of what is a very good Boro side STILL didn't reap three points.
It seemed this would be Harry's day. Niemi pulled off a blinding save from Downing, while Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink hit the post. The luck that Wigley never enjoyed seemed to be there for Redknapp.
But, in the 89th minute, Danny Higginbotham inadvertently headed Stewart Downing's near-post corner into his own net.
The fourth official's board promptly went up to indicate three minutes of injury time.
Downing promptly got the ball, ran at Saints, who backed off inexplicably, and he punished them by rifling a shot from distance into the bottom corner.
Redknapp is the right man at the right time for Saints.
Not only do the fans believe in him but, despite the late goals, the team do too.