Koeman enjoys the devotion of St Mary’s
Just another win. Just another European adventure to look forward to. Just another sparkling season in the life of Southampton FC. They signed it off in ideal fashion, sweeping aside a Crystal Palace side only partially distracted by next Saturday’s FA Cup final against Manchester United. And it was enough to secure Europa League qualification ahead of West Ham, and the final whistle at Stoke was celebrated as raucously as any of the four Southampton goals.
It is the sort of success that has become stunningly routine for the fans at St Mary’s. A poor first half of the season has given way to a glorious spring: if the league had started at New Year, Ronald Koeman’s team would be second in the league.
“Maybe everybody was a little bit worried that it was the season to fight against relegation,” the Saints’ Dutch manager said. “But we turned it around. That’s always up to the players.”
For Koeman’s opposite number, Alan Pardew, it was a frustrating afternoon. Having rested several first-team players and challenged their replacements to stake a claim for a Wembley place, few of them did. Emmanuel Adebayor drifted through the game, James McArthur has completed only 90 minutes once in four months and looked off the pace, and Dwight Gayle worked hard but missed a crucial chance.
But it was Julián Speroni, however, who fared worst. Sentiment had persuaded Pardew to throw in the 36-year-old, who needed just one more appearance to equal the club record of 388 for a goalkeeper. However, the Argentine had a poor afternoon, at fault for the first goal and transmitting uncertainty to the rest of the defence. “He wasn’t magnificent today,” Pardew said. “I felt sorry for him.” The game was fairly even until Speroni came and flapped at a Ryan Bertrand cross, leaving Sadio Mané to lift the loose ball into an empty net just before the break. Graziano Pellè headed Saints 2-0 ahead on the hour, and made a beeline for Koeman. And, as the entire team embraced their manager, it was hard not to interpret it as their own, very public tribute to a manager linked with a summer move to Everton. “Of course, I would like to stay here,” Koeman said afterwards. “I still have one year of my contract.”
Jason Puncheon pulled a goal back almost immediately, a stunning left-footed strike, but Palace were always vulnerable to Southampton’s pace, and when Mané powered past Adrian Mariappa and Pape Souaré, the only real option was to bring him down. After consulting his assistant, referee Michael Oliver decided the foul was in the area, and Bertrand smashed home the penalty.
Competitive would be a charitable way to describe the final stages. Southampton could have scored a few more. They made do with just one, an emphatic finish from close range by Steven Davis after Palace failed to deal with another cross.
Southampton can finish no lower than sixth, fifth if United lose to Bournemouth.
As Koeman joined the team on their lap of honour, the fans serenaded him with chants and songs. He will discuss his future with the club next week, and yet it seemed ridiculous to think this might be his last game in charge. How could he turn his back on this club, this devotion, these fans?
At Southampton their love for Koeman is strong and faithful, and – like this season – they do not want it to end.
Sunshine boys: Sadio Mané celebrates his opening goal as Southampton secure their best ever finish in the Premier League