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Decade of memories at St. Mary's
IT'S hard to believe that it is 10 years since we first rocked up at St. Mary's.
The anticipation had been building up for years - long before any of us expected the ground to be slapped down in the shadow of the gasometers - meaning the exciting ahead of the first game was quite something.
I was preparing to go off to university having just finished my A-levels - it took a lot of effort to get out of my shift at a WestQuay café so I could go to the first game against Espanyol.
I was sat in the Kingsland stand, towards the Northam and my mates and I were very excited that Chris Kamara was stood on the strange little metal balcony overhanging the emergency exit in the Northam.
Perhaps our 'banter' on that day is why Sky reporters never stood there again. I guess I'll never know.
St. Mary's seemed such a breath of fresh air after The Dell. It was bright, modern, airy and ambitious. Everything The Dell could no longer be. Sadly the first 45 minutes of football was awful as Espanyol tore Saints a new one. Having just looked at the team that started that day, I'm not surprised (I don't remember Dan Petrescu playing at St. Mary's but there he was). Four down at half time, suddenly I feared that the new ground may not be all it cracked up to be.
In fact a took a few months for it to get going - I will never forget the first win at the stadium and the relief that came with it. In fact, I can still see Charlton hitting the post in the last few minutes, as it runs through my mind in slow motion. Ten years on, it still makes me panic.
We've had some great moments though. In The Pink this weekend, I've already mentioned my most memorable games, but often it is the small glimpses that stay with you the most.
For example, my two favourite goals at the New Dell, are Pahars' fantastic curler against Pompey in 2003 and one from the first season, again from the little Latvian, against Sunderland. Anders Svensson weighted a superb cross-field ball from just inside our half, towards our Marian who has haring down the Itchen touchline towards the Chapel. He controlled it and rifled home one of the most scorching shots I've ever seen. It seemed to symbolise what Saints had become and how we had finally settled in to the new ground and had a promising season ahead. We lost our next game 6-0 to Man United.
The best atmosphere as to be the penultimate home game of the Premier League era, the 4-3 win against Norwich. The place exploded when Camara found the back of the net. If you ever need something counter the (in my opinion, bogus) received wisdom that new grounds have worse atmospheres than old ones, there's your proof.
Ultimately, all stadiums are the same. Plastic seats, crap beer and a big rectangle of grass. People go on about St. Mary's, Pride Park, the Riverside as all being the same. They laud grounds like The Dell, Goodison and Fratton Park for being unique - yet those grounds were all designed to some degree by Archibald Leitch. Unsurprisingly, having one man design so many of the UK's largest stadia, a lot of resemblance existed - and still do to some degree despite over a century of change since Leitch first designed Ibrox.
Fans from other clubs have a dig at plastic, flat pack stadiums - they are often the one's who are so proud of their dilapidated homes, yet would kill for a move to somewhere like St. Mary's. Just look at the excitement of the Arsenal fans moving to the Emirates or Pompey fans when their club announced plans to move to Farlington. Or The Hard. Or Horsea Island.
What makes grounds unique was time. Or more specifically, the memories that built up over time. Now we're at the first big landmark since the move to St. Mary's, there is no question that this is now our home.
Although many of us lament The Dell, what we really miss are the good old days of the football we remember there. The bricks and mortar are inconsequential. I imagine we'd love Stoneham just as much as we love St. Mary's - just because it would be ours.
Over the next few decades, I'm certain bits of St. Mary's will be knocked down, rebuilt, added to, taken away, just as was the case with The Dell. When that happens, it will look nothing like anywhere else. But what makes it as unique as The Dell are the people who fill it every other week, the people who soak up the atmosphere, the people who make the memories.