Date: 30th July 2015 at 4:10pm
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Tonight is the night, a moment that has had many Saints fans waiting with baited-breath for quite some time.

Because, at 20:05, Saints will kick-off their Europa League campaign with the visit of Vitesse Arnhem to St. Mary’s.

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The game holds huge interest to so many with Southampton associations. Tickets are sold-out well in advance of kick-off, as Saints embark on only their second European campaign since the 1980s.

With around 31,000 fans packed into St. Mary’s for a night under the lights, the atmosphere will be sizzling and the wait will finally draw to a close.

Southampton’s last foray in European competition came in 2003, off the back of a season which saw Saints finish runners-up to Arsenal in the FA Cup Final.

That side was led by Gordon Strachan and featured the likes of Claus Lundekvam, Chris Marsden, Fabrice Fernandes and Matt Oakley.

This time out, it is the names of José Fonte, Jordy Clasie, Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pellè that will be heard in the stands.

It would not be the boldest of claims, but Southampton appear far better prepared for this campaign than their last, which lasted just one round when hopes were ended by Steaua Bucharest.

Saints are yet to register a European victory at their new home, having not tasted a win in Europe since departing The Dell in 2001.

Ronald Koeman brings a wealth of experience to the table, not only in his vast and impressive playing career, but also in a coaching career that has spanned the continent.

When the Dutchman’s charges take to the field this evening, the excitement and joy in the stadium will extend far beyond the standard enthusiasm for the start of a new season.

Because, for Southampton Football Club, the clash with Vitesse Arnhem is more than just a football match. It is a landmark moment in the club’s history. It’s part of the Liebherr legacy.

Markus Liebherr arrived at the club in 2009, stating that he aimed to return Southampton to the Premier League and ensure that financial hardships were never endured again.

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Saints go into the game as a Premier League side for a fourth consecutive season, having registered consecutive top eight finishes.

While the return of Premier League football was something that Saints fans yearned for – and Liebherr delivered – the enticing bosom of European football was in the back of the mind for many a Saints fan.

It’s at times like this that many supporters like to cast their mind back to the summer of 2009 and the turmoil it entailed, before rejoicing and exhaling at all that has followed.

Many clubs and managers have sneered at Europa League football, but Southampton’s approach is refreshing. Saints chairman Ralph Krueger nailed it when he spoke to The Guardian in June.

“Come on! How can anybody complain? More football games? What are we doing everything else for?” Krueger said.

“The Europa League is fantastic to be in and anybody that says anything different doesn’t understand the value of international competition. We don’t care about the income, even if it’s a wash. It’s the intangible growth. We’ll be better in the Premier League over time because of it.”

It is exactly this angle that the club must take. Europa League football offers Saints a platform, a stage, an opportunity to grow and an opportunity to showcase all that is good about the club.

Should Southampton see off Vitesse, overcome another opponent and qualify for the group stages of the competition, they will play a minimum of ten European matches.

The experience, for players, staff an supporters, is invaluable.

We already know what Saints can do. Most of the Premier League know what Saints can do, and even most of the continent know from the extensive coverage that the league generates.

But now is the chance to pit wits against continental opposition, and it’s a challenge that I fully expect Saints to rise to.

So when you see those red-and-white stripes glistening under the floodlights this evening, with the Europa League theme music blaring and the cameras snapping away, just take a moment to think.

Think back to 2009 and celebrate once again, as Saints take another major step.

Everything that has happened since Liebherr’s takeover has been thrilling for supporters of the club, and this will be no different.

Allow yourself to revel in the fact that for the past six years, you have been part of one of the greatest journeys in English football.

This is the next step. Let’s enjoy it. Let’s embrace it.

And let’s win.

 
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