THIS week, Saints will compete in the pressure cooker of playoff football for the first time in 17 years. 

The Championship playoff final at Wembley is worth hundreds of millions of pounds in prize money, TV rights and sponsorships.

Operationally, Saints are working under two separate budgets based on whether they will be a Premier League club or not next season.

They must get past West Brom first, home and away over two legs, to then meet one of Leeds United or Norwich City in London.

This season has not been too dissimilar to 2006/07 - although Saints then entered the semi-finals as outsiders in sixth.

Captain Claus Lundekvam, explains: "We had young players coming through and we were determined to play our style.

Daily Echo: Former Saints captain Claus LundekvamFormer Saints captain Claus Lundekvam (Image: Daily Echo)

"We were a bit vulnerable but it was that sort of season, we wanted to play and wanted to get a promotion with modern football." 

Managed by George Burley, Saints had enjoyed a positive end to the previous campaign with five wins in their last six. 

The permanent signing of loanee Grzegorz Rasiak promised more goals, while the likes of Gareth Bale and Nathan Dyer were starting to come through.

Daily Echo: Gareth Bale was making his name at left-backGareth Bale was making his name at left-back (Image: Daily Echo)

Another emerging youngster, midfielder Drew Surman, added: "I don't really know what the expectation was.

"I think I was just riding the crest of a wave. When I got into the team, it was just really about enjoying it. 

"I don't know if it was the expectation at the start but by the end, it was just, 'Can we sneak into the playoffs?" 

By the end of January 2007, Saints were just seven points off the top of the table and threatened a late run for automatics.

A chaotic 4-3 win at home to title-challengers Birmingham in November, in which Saints when three goals up inside 20 minutes, summed the side up.

They were fresh, exciting and full of flair but had a weak under-belly that could be targeted by brutes.

Chris Baird, Jermaine Wright and Bradley Wright-Phillips made the most appearances that season - the latter mostly as a sub. 

Rasiak was the chief provider of goals, hitting 18 in the regular season, but he only started three of the last 13 matches and neither playoff game. 

Daily Echo: Grzegorz Rasiak made a loan move from Spurs permanent for a £2million feeGrzegorz Rasiak made a loan move from Spurs permanent for a £2million fee (Image: Daily Echo)

Marek Saganowski scored 10 goals in 13 league appearances after being rescued from the Troyes reserves on loan at the end of January. 

Rasiak told us: "It was a great time, we were pushing for the automatic promotion and we had signed some very good players with the quality of the Premier League.

"We had great lads from the academy and most were enjoying their first long season playing for the first team, so it was a great mix of players.

"We had great people at the training ground and you have to be focused when playing for a great family club like Southampton." 

Rasiak added: "But I think George Burley was worried that I would score more goals and leave the club in the summer, so he gave me a bit of a break!

"I wasn't really happy with that. In my career, I always wanted to play from the first to the last minute but we had a big group of attackers.

"Me, Kenwyne Jones, David McGoldrick, Marek Saganowski, Leon Best - maybe we had too many players at that time." 

Just four wins in 13 after January left Saints four points off the top six ahead of what Surman labelled "three cup finals" to finish. 

Wolves, Preston and West Brom lost as Burley's side beat relegated Leeds United 1-0 at St Mary's on April 21, reducing the gap to one point. 

Daily Echo: Southampton beat Leeds 1-0 at St Mary's as teams around them dropped pointsSouthampton beat Leeds 1-0 at St Mary's as teams around them dropped points (Image: Daily Echo)

They then had to visit Norwich on April 21, where Darren Huckerby had been causing Championship defences problems all season. 

"Bale was playing left-back, I was playing on the left," Surman recalled. "Burley basically said to us, just both mark him.

Daily Echo: Leon Best, returning from his loan at Yeovil Town, scored the only goal at Carrow RoadLeon Best, returning from his loan at Yeovil Town, scored the only goal at Carrow Road (Image: Daily Echo)

"Don't go forward, just stand on him. Don't let him get the ball. We just literally stayed back and nicked it 1-0." 

Preston lost at Plymouth Argyle and the leap was complete, with Saints knowing any win over already relegated Southend on the final day would be enough. 

Despite an early shock goal from Southend's Adam Barrett, assisted by future Eastleigh boss Lee Bradbury, the win was routine.

Daily Echo: Kenwyne Jones and Leon Best doubles secured three pointsKenwyne Jones and Leon Best doubles secured three points (Image: Daily Echo)

A 4-1 scoreline secured sixth but the game did not come at no cost - leader Lundekvam was stretchered off in first-half added time. 

He explained: "I dislocated my ankle and that was the beginning of the end of my career really.

"I had to sit the playoffs out, I remember it well because I felt absolutely useless sitting on the bench watching. 

"I was lucky enough to play nearly enough every week and it was devastating not being able to help."

Lundekvam remained around the training ground in the build-up to the all-important playoff games against third-place Derby. 

READ MORE: Saints legend Lundekvam and his 'life or death' fight with addiction

"I was club captain and had a big responsibility," the Norwegian said. "I was very close to everyone in the dressing room, I wanted to keep travelling.

"I did everything I could from the sideline but even so, it was so devastating not to make it when we felt we had a good chance."

In addition, there was a big decision for Burley to make. A 19 year old Bart Bialkowski had been keeping experienced Kelvin Davis benched during the run-in.

Daily Echo: Former Saints boss George BurleyFormer Saints boss George Burley (Image: Daily Echo)

Bialkowski performed well and started ahead of Davis, who played the first 38 matches of the season before dropping out, to host Derby in the first leg on May 12. 

Saganowki, returning from an injury that halted his scoring run, and Kenwyne Jones - dubbed that week the new Didier Drogba - kept Rasiak sidelined. 

Derby won nine more points in the regular season but Saints got off to a perfect start through academy graduate Surman.

Surman exchanged passes with Saganowski and curled a left-footed effort past Stephen Bywater's despairing dive just seven minutes in.

He explained: "I played on the right which was a bit different for me. I could come in onto my left foot and it worked a treat.

Daily Echo: Drew Surman celebrates the opening goal of the Championship playoff semi-finalDrew Surman celebrates the opening goal of the Championship playoff semi-final (Image: Daily Echo)

"St Mary's was absolutely rocking. It was amazing. That was an amazing feeling scoring in such a big game because you want to do well.

"I think my grandad was there as well. That is really special because he's passed now. As you're running back to your position, you look out for family then." 

However, Steve Howard looped a header over Bialkowski and then punished stand-in centre-back Pele from the spot for a needless tug on Stephen Pearson.

It meant Derby took a 2-1 lead over their former manager Burley, and several former Rams players, back to Pride Park.

Luck worsened for Saints, who would go without injured Bale and Jones after substitutions at St Mary's, for the second leg three days later. 

Jhon Viafara - later jailed for 11 years for drug trafficking in 2021 - scored a brace at Pride Park but Saints looked to be heading out anyway.

Daily Echo: Jhon Viafara's only Saints brace came at the perfect timeJhon Viafara's only Saints brace came at the perfect time (Image: Daily Echo)

His first reduced the aggregate deficit just the fourth minute after Darren Moore had already headed softly through the recalled Davis. 

Davis, speaking to us about the manager's decision, admitted: "I didn't play in the first leg and getting the nod for the second was a bit of a surprise.

"There was that emotional level of not being picked for the first game but you have to get your head around it and get ready." 

Viafara's second preceded the most remarkable of own goals from Leon Best, defending his box from a Derby counter - putting the Rams 4-3 ahead on aggregate. 

On came substitute Rasiak, who took just 15 minutes to crash home in front of the yellow wall with less than 60 seconds left. 

"I think that was the goal that gave me the most happiness on the field," Rasiak insisted. 

Daily Echo: Southampton send the tie to extra-time with an 89th minute leveller Southampton send the tie to extra-time with an 89th minute leveller (Image: Daily Echo)

"We played at Pride Park, I'd been there two years earlier so I had all the Southampton supporters behind me and the Derby fans were behind their team." 

"It gave us a chance to be in the final of the playoffs and it was special as my son was in the crowd as a four year old. 

"I was so pleased to be part of the team, to score some goals - but you know the tears were there after the penalties." 

David Jones, Steve Howard, Giles Barnes and Jay McEveley all scored their penalties for the hosts, kicking towards the Saints end. 

Best shot wide with the first penalty of the shootout to hand the hosts the initiative, before Surman stepped up second. 

Surman said: "I think it was probably one of the best games I've ever played in that second leg, just because of the manner of it.

"I think when you're walking up to the spot, the biggest thing I'm saying to myself is don't change your mind. I knew where I was going with it." 

Surman scored. Rudi Skacel scored. Rasiak scored. But it finished 4-3 when Inigo Idiakez fired over the crossbar against his former club. 

Davis admitted: "I probably didn't expect it to go to penalties but you prepare for a shootout on an individual basis. 

"I really fancied my chances, I always felt I was a penalty-saver - whether the stats back that up or not - but that is what my mind told me.

Daily Echo: Kelvin Davis went on to make 299 appearances for SaintsKelvin Davis went on to make 299 appearances for Saints

"I didn't save one. I felt the first one was saveable and it's one of those things that lives with you. It changed the course of the club.

"It would be interesting to know what winning would have meant for the club. It was one of the low moments of anyone's career."

Saints were left wondering what could have been - Saganowski had hit the woodwork multiple times at St Mary's while Rudi Skacel and Best missed late chances in Derbyshire.

Lundekvam insisted: "We were bullied out of it on the physical side in the end, and that managed to unbalance us in the way we wanted to play.

"It is always difficult to say in hindsight but we could have been more clinical and stood up to the physical side - but it is difficult." 

Rasiak added: "Billy Davies teams played like that, aggressive - but everyone has their own plan for the games, we were so close." 

Similar questions could be asked of the next Saints to compete in the Championship playoffs when the 2024 competition begins this week.

Daily Echo: Southampton crowd pictured in 2007 during the playoffsSouthampton crowd pictured in 2007 during the playoffs (Image: Daily Echo)

Unbeaten against all three other competitors this season, Russell Martin's side will enter favourites in the eyes of many supporters.

They will play the best, most attacking football of the four sides - but can they stand up to the physical and mental challenge?

That is their final test of the campaign. Should they pass, they will become heroes. The Premier League is three games away.