WHILE everyone else is talking about Alan Pardew’s sacking and who will be Saints’ new manager, it is vital the players keep focused on the football.
Unfortunately, last night, they looked a side that had let the events of the previous 48 hours get to them.
Just days after they thumped Bristol Rovers 4-0 with a stunning display at the Memorial Stadium, they looked lost at times against Swindon, who thumped them 3-0.
While going out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is hardly a disaster, even as defending champions, it was the performance that gave cause for worry.
It was certainly not one that pleased the fans, who were chanting support for their departed manager within 90 seconds of the start of the game.
By the end, the team was booed off and those cries had grown louder and louder, even though it was a record low crowd for a competitive first-team game at St Mary’s.
Last night’s match came a day after the controversial dismissal of Pardew and much of the first-team coaching staff.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of that decision, the timing is undoubtedly bad.
Three league games into a season where Saints are expected to gain promotion is far from the ideal time to make a managerial change.
And Saints are seemingly in no huge rush to bring their new man in, although a repeat of yesterday’s performance at home to Rochdale on Saturday may change that approach.
It is perfectly sensible to take a bit of time over an appointment, as it is a big decision and one they must get right if the club is to progress the way they hope.
But it means they will have to muddle through for a while without a permanent manager.
Dean Wilkins is a perfectly good caretaker, with previous experience as a number one at Brighton, and he knows the players, having been Pardew’s assistant.
But, as a general rule, a squad needs to know who the man at the helm will be long-term.
We’ve seen in the past what that uncertainty can do at Saints.
Even once the situation is resolved, it will take a number of weeks for the new manager to get settled in and for the players to get used to him.
By that stage, we could be look ing at a significant chunk of the season having disappeared.
If the players lose focus and allow the instability to affect them, it could prove immensely costly.
Ultimately, the only way Saints can cope through this period is by the playing and remaining coaching staff maintaining their concentration on the football, and blocking everything else out.
The fans don’t have to do that, though, and they made their feelings perfectly clear, with a loud chant of “There’s only one Alan Pardew” breaking out with less than 90 seconds of the game starting.
That was quickly followed by cries of “Alan Pardew’s red and white army”.
When Swindon took the lead in the first-half, it was no surprise those same songs reappeared.
And when they doubled their advantage after the break they got even more vociferous.
But Saints will have known they have to accept that criticism and the only way they can overcome it is by appointing the right man to take over.
The most concerning issue isn’t a fan backlash, though, but performances on the pitch.
Swindon were quicker to the ball last night, more incisive and better organised.
Last night was just one game, and you can’t draw huge conclusions from it, especially with the low crowd making it seem like a training match, but any more of it and there will be cause for real concern.
It was a very quiet start to the night and it took until the sixth minute for the first chance, Charlie Austin heading tamely wide from Mike Timlin’s cross.
Saints’ first effort didn’t arrive until a quarter-of-an-hour into the match, with Jason Puncheon cutting inside from the right and firing a fierce left-footed shot just wide.
Guly had a chance a minute later, after Puncheon fed him on the left side of the area, but his effort was blocked by Simon Ferry.
Swindon boss Danny Wilson was forced into a change midway through the half, as his captain Jonathan Douglas limped off to be replaced by Will Evans.
Former Saint Vincent Pericard fired wide from 30 yards before Ferry’s deflected shot was saved brilliantly by Kelvin Davis.
But Saints couldn’t keep Swindon out and Austin’s sensational volleyed cross from the right touchline was spectacularly volleyed in by Pericard in the 29th minute.
Rickie Lambert hit a 25-yard free-kick that was fairly comfortable for Robins keeper David Lucas four minutes later, before a handball appeal against Ferry was turned down.
Evans shot straight at Davis, before Guly found Dan Harding on the edge of the box in injury time, but he couldn’t get enough on his right-foot effort to beat Lucas.
David Connolly’s snap shot on the turn inside the area three minutes after the restart went into the grateful arms of the Swindon keeper.
The game then went into a bit of a lull, before Swindon doubled their lead in the 63rd minute.
Kevin Amankwaah’s brilliant cross from the right found Austin completely unmarked six yards and the former Poole Town forward made no mistake.
Wilkins hauled off Puncheon and brought Alex Chamberlain on, but it was nearly 3-0 when Davis superbly saved Callum Kennedy’s low free-kick.
But Barnard lasted just ten minutes, being shown a straight red card for a lunge on Evans and for an over-zealous reaction afterwards.
And Swindon completed the rout in injury time, as second half sub Alan O’Brien raced away down the left and found Pericard, who turned in at close range.