On this day in 2016, we headed down to the South Coast to take on Southampton and with relegation accepted by most fans after a last minute 3-2 loss at relegation rivals Norwich the previous weekend left us six points behind the 17th placed Canaries and our horrendous record at St Mary's, a loss was inevitable and it was no surprise at how pathetic we were in the 3-1 loss. Earlier in the week, the players claimed that they were still trying but within three minutes, Steven Taylor was backing off Shane Long, allowing the Irishman to make it 1-0. Later on in the first half, Daryl Janmaat fell pathetically to the ground following a superb ball from Sadio Mane, which allowed Graziano Pelle to make it 2-0 and at half-time, Jamaal Lascelles questioned the Dutchman over his efforts and he broke two fingers by punching the wall at half-time, leaving him out for two games.
Lascelles also publicly questioned the team mentality after the game (he also looked more bothered than anyone else after goals went in during that game and the 5-1 loss at Crystal Palace earlier that season) whilst Vurnon Anita, filled in for the injured Janmaat at right-back and having struggled in the midfield, he found his best position (even scoring a superb equaliser against Man City ten days after the Southampton loss) and beat Janmaat to a place in the Holland squad for their October 2016 World Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile, Lascelles opened the scoring in a 3-0 win over Swansea in our next game after his interview and had a superb partnership with Chancel Mbemba for the rest of the season whilst Steven Taylor left when his contract expired. Although we didn't stay up, a six game unbeaten streak at the end of the season meant we went down fighting and could enjoy the end of the season, as well as those good results against Swansea and Man City, we also came from 2-0 to draw 2-2 away to Liverpool (when we would've been hammered under Pardew, Carver or McClaren) and beat Palace 1-0 thanks to a magnificent Andros Townsend free kick and Karl Darlow saving a penalty from Yohan Cabaye (who refused to play for us in August 2013) despite fans being scared when he had to replace the injured Rob Elliot in goal. We also beat Tottenham 5-1 after relegation was confirmed, with Georginio Wijnaldum, Moussa Sissoko and Daryl Janmaat all showing up, having been poor after the turn of the year (well January 2015 in Sissoko's case).
After Rafa Benitez confirmed he was staying, we got rid of Wijnaldum, Sissoko (who refused to play until he got his move away) and Janmaat (despite him playing in our first two Championship games), whilst Wijnaldum's been decent for Liverpool (and maybe could've done well for us if we stayed up), Sissoko has flopped at Tottenham. Meanwhile, Yoan Gouffran (who had been absolutely slated for years) came in from the cold to help us win the Championship (thanks to a confidence boost from Rafa) before leaving for Goztepe at the end of his contract. The team spirit was there for all to see that season, particularly when we hammered Preston 6-0 in the EFL Cup, beat the the same side 4-1 six months later to clinch promotion and as the players celebrated with the Championship trophy on the final day of the season. Meanwhile, Jamaal Lascelles (who was made captain) and Matt Ritchie (arguably one of our best players in 2016-17 after signing from Bournemouth) played through the pain barrier and underwent hernia operations after promotion was achieved, putting the likes of Janmaat and Sissoko to shame.
This season, Lascelles has been our probably our most crucial player, the only time we have conceded more than twice when he's started in the league was away to Man City. Our defence really struggled when he was out injured and against Swansea in September, he rushed in to clear Tammy Abraham's goal bound shot away after he rounded Rob Elliot before heading home the winner later on. He also headed home the winner as we beat Stoke 2-1 six days later and thanks to him and Rafa, we only conceded four goals in two games against arguably one of the best attacking teams in the world in Man City (they've put seven past Stoke, six past Watford, five past Liverpool and Palace and four past Spurs, Swansea and Bournemouth in this season) and only three in two games against Liverpool (who've put four past Man City, West Ham (twice) and Bournemouth and five past Watford) and have the ninth best goal difference this season. Furthermore, he out-jumped Andy Carroll late on in our 3-2 win at West Ham and has been instrumental in our recent good form (including keeping Romelu Lukaku in his back pocket as we beat Man Utd 1-0).
Ever since that day at St Mary's, our side has become united again and instead of individuals just wanting to take the money then eventually leave for a bigger club or bottle challenges like kids, we have a team who give 100% and it all started with Lascelles' actions at half-time and then questioning the players' mentality after the game, especially when you look at our end to that season with the unbeaten run and the fans chanting for Rafa to stay, without him, we wouldn't have been able to sign the likes of Ritchie and keep the likes of Shelvey, two crucial players in our promotion winning season, that summer and we'd definitely be stuck in the Championship.