So after disposing of the mighty Dover in the 3rd Round we now have another trip to the South coast and the even mightier Southampton lie in wait. Southampton have been not so much the surprise package of the Premier League this season, more the “how the bloody hell, did they do that?” package. Having lost a galaxy of stars in the summer and their highly-rated manager it was safely assumed by all the cognoscenti that this was going to be implosion time down at St. Mary’s and the Solent was going to be awash with sinking Saints.
But as we now know, Southampton have actually gone from strength to strength, blazing a trail for the small clubs based on a production line of homegrown talent that puts the Big Five to shame. They have even overcome the blip a few months ago when all the experts were nodding in that “I told you so” manner. At Palace we know all about the virtuous Saints as they put the final nail in Warnock’s coffin on Boxing Day by waltzing past us at Selhurst, but there will be a very different team facing them less than a month later.
Super Al’s arrival has made a massive difference to the club, suddenly there are positive vibes and his embracing, indeed encouraging, of maverick talents has paid dividends with the likes of Guedioura, Zaha and Puncheon looking transformed from bit players to central characters. And as for Dwight Gayle, who was criminally ignored by previous managers, his re-emergence has reminded everyone what it’s like to have a natural goal scorer in the ranks and comparisons with a small, pacy striker who made a name for himself at Palace some twenty-five years ago are beginning to pop up. Like Ian Wright, Gayle’s background is predominantly non-league but the coolness in front of goal is an invaluable attribute, which many strive for but few attain.
Saturday’s game pits these two rejuvenated teams against each other and hopefully it will be a more even contest than last month’s league match. Pardew has stressed the need to maintain the momentum of the last few weeks and he is expected to field a strong team, with none of that it’s only the cup attitude so they will be going for it. However, there will be one change to the line-up, as Wayne Hennessey will get his chance to replace the legend that is Julian Speroni. Speroni’s testimonial kicked off this week and no man is more deserving after ten years’ loyal service and it would be interesting to see if we did reach Wembley whether he would come back into the side but maybe getting a bit far ahead of myself, let’s deal with the Fourth Round first.
Richard’s first book The A-Z of Football Hates is available in bookshops and online