IN an unpredictable sport, Saints have in one respect become strangely predictable over the last few months.
Not so much in their style but more in terms of the pattern of their games – both at St Mary’s, where they are so confident and so destructive, and away from home where they can get so nervous.
There was one person at Prenton Park, someone who had followed Tranmere all season, who put £200 on a Saints victory.
T hey looked at Saints’ recent results, cast their eye over their squad list, recalled Tranmere’s performances over the course of the season, and decided it was a worth a punt at the bookies the likes of which they had apparently not taken before.
Everyone who had followed Saints raised an eyebrow.
Not because they thought Saints were not capable of winning the game, rather that matches away from home recently had bred less confidence.
The squad that can roll over Walsall and Huddersfield so convincingly is largely the same that can draw at Exeter, Brentford and Wycombe.
They have the potential on the road, as seen by the brilliant win over table-toppers Norwich recently, but it seems away from St Mary’s a pattern has emerged.
If Saints can get themselves an early lead then you would really fancy them to win.
But if they can’t, if the game gets towards half-time with Saints not leading, then the match degenerates into a bit of scrap.
The opposition sense their chance to get something from of one the division’s big boys, they stay organised, compact, hard to break down and get bodies behind the ball.
They allow Saints possession, the chance to have the ball in areas that don’t really hurt them, and challenge them to find the extra quality to break them down.
If Saints can draw out the opposition, creating space for themselves, they become rampant.
If they can’t then it gets more and more frustrating.
This is the thin dividing line between teams like Manchester United, masters of somehow finding a way to grind out a win in these scenarios, and many other teams.
With the manager Saints have who is doing a very capable job and the players he has wisely recruited, they should get there.
But this team is still at the fledgling stage of its life together and Alan Pardew was quite right to say, as he did on the eve of this loss, that another season in League One would not be a disaster.
The game at Tranmere, another frustrating result that might have been better, proved why.
Saints need to get that Man United belief that, even when there are obstacles in their way, they will break them down.
Much of their problem appears to be in the mind rather than the body.
The reason you can predict the way these away games will go is because the players, with pressure heaped on them to try and achieve an unlikely play-off place, just seem to panic a little.
It’s human nature and, boy, have Saints fans seen plenty of it in recent years.
When it dawns on the players that the match isn’t going their way, when they can’t find that breakthrough, they too often resort to aimless long balls.
They hold on to the ball too long rather than make the killer pass – the sort of thing that nervousness breeds.
They will overcome this but it is about confidence and that is not bred overnight.
You can spend as much money on a squad as you like, but these sort of things take time.
Tranmere was another one of those awaydays for Saints.
It’s important to make clear that despite the result they didn’t play poorly, nothing of the sort.
They bossed large parts of the game against a better than expected side who were fully committed.
They just couldn’t quite find that extra quality to break through and were undone by a poor refereeing display.
Peter Quinn was, in fairness, making bad decisions for both sides but there is no doubt Saints got the worse of it because the major, game-changing ones went against them.
Saints fell behind after just three minutes from a poorly defended set piece.
A routine chipped ball to the far post from a deep right wing free kick was allowed to be headed back across into the six yard box by Ian Taylor-Moore where Marlon Broomes was unmarked and headed home via a deflection off Jose Fonte.
It could have got even worse minutes later when Gareth Edds hit his shot over as he attempted to hook Kelvin Davis’ headed clearance back into an empty net.
But Saints were behind for just eight minutes.
Adam Lallana’s drilled shot was cleared off the line by Ian Goodison, keeper Luke Daniels flapped at it but only batted it straight to Lee Barnard and he showed a calm head to control on his chest and drill home the volley.
Saints had a couple of chances to get that important early lead as first Fonte totally missed a great ball into the six yard box by Jason Puncehon while Lallana met a far post cross but turned it back across goal rather than on target.
After that the game fell into that lull – Saints dominating it for large parts but not quite able to pick apart a stubborn rearguard.
The game came to life with 19 minutes left as Lallana’s near post effort picked out the keeper while Davis threw himself in the way of Thomas-Moore’s far post effort to keep the scores level.
Barnard had a great opening when he turned Broomes to allow himself a half volley from 12 yards out but, though well struck, it was within Daniels’ reach and he kept it out.
The game seemed to be heading for a draw, which probably would have been a fair result, until six minutes from time.
Edds chipped the ball over Dan Seaborne’s head and seemed to trip over his own feet as he attempted to spin the defender. Quinn somehow awarded a penalty which Taylor- Moore buried past Davis.
Saints had a similar shout when Fonte went down, their second shout after an earlier appeal for a foul on Barnard.
But rather than give it, Quinn booked Fonte for diving.
Radhi Jaidi had a header cleared off the line late on as Saints desperately pressed. But it wasn’t to be on another frustrating away day.