Chris Marsden was the last man to lead Southampton out at an FA Cup final – and he is backing James Ward-Prowse to go a step further and lift the trophy.
Italians have a word for players like Marsden: bandiere. It means flag-bearer, a fan on the pitch. While it is often used to describe one-club men, it is also used to describe those who become synonymous with a team.
The much-travelled Marsden was the wrong side of 30 when he arrived at The Dell in February 1999. But the £800,000 paid to Birmingham turned out to be a bargain. A footballing nomad found a home with the genial Yorkshireman earning nicknames such as Marsdinho and the Bald Beckenbauer.
Chris Marsden (pictured in 2003) was the last man to lead Southampton out at an FA Cup final
Saints captain Marsden and manager Gordon Strachan watch as Arsenal lift the cup in Cardiff
Southampton’s adopted bandiere was influential in one of the club’s best seasons, where they finished eighth in the Premier League and were defeated 1-0 by Arsenal in the 2003 Cup final.
Speaking from his home in Cyprus, Marsden says: ‘It only seems like yesterday… I don’t talk about it much, to be honest. What is it? 18 years ago… I’m still bald though! Apparently I’m the only one who doesn’t look any different!’ he laughs.
Growing up in Sheffield, Marsden was a Wednesday fan (‘We didn’t eat bacon in our house until I were 16!’), so it was a shock for his father when he joined the Blades as an apprentice.
He had spells at Huddersfield, Coventry, Notts County, Wolves and Stockport – who reached the semi-finals of the League Cup in 1997 – before his shot at the big time.
Marsden swapped high-flying Championship side Birmingham for the top flight’s basement outfit, managed by his former boss at Stockport, Dave Jones.
Marsden played for Huddersfield, Coventry, Notts County, Wolves and Stockport before leaving Birmingham City for Southampton
‘I thought I was a decent player in the Championship. When you’re playing in the Premier League it’s a different ball game. I made my debut at Chelsea against Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Wise and Roberto Di Matteo in midfield. You’ve got a split second to think.’
Marsden worked on his fitness and would learn a thing or two from Matt Le Tissier on the training pitch.
David Beckham and Roy Keane take issue with a tackle put in by Marsden during a game at The Dell in 2000
‘That’s when he occasionally did any training!’ he jokes. ‘You’re talking about a God-given talent there. For him to only get eight England caps…
‘Graeme Souness said he was the most talented player he ever saw. That just gives you an inkling of how good he was. He was just a wonderful, wonderful man, and a wonderful player.’
Southampton conjured a great escape, winning their last three games. Marian Pahars scored twice in a 2-0 win over Everton at The Dell on the last day to spark a joyous pitch invasion.
‘People seem to think you celebrate, but you don’t want to. You’re just absolutely shattered. It’s draining, the emotional side of it,’ he said.
Glenn Hoddle came and went, as did The Dell and Stuart Gray. After Southampton moved to St Mary’s, oily chairman Rupert Lowe turned to an irascible Scot with a point to prove.
‘Gordon is a fantastic coach. Very honest and determined in what he’s going to do but a funny, funny man. You’d say: “Can I have a quick word Gordon?” He’d reply: ‘Rapid!’
‘I couldn’t have been happier with him as the manager, but not when he was shouting at me!’
Marsden celebrates with Matt Le Tissier during a Worthington Cup game at The Dell in 2000
Marsden played his best football under Strachan, who moved him to the left side of midfield in front of Wayne Bridge.
‘Bridgey was brilliant, and I was the one who looked good and didn’t run much. He could cover the pitch. It was like we had an extra player.’
It was from the left that Marsden scored the goal of his career, a 40-yard saunter through Ipswich at Portman Road in 2002.
‘Which do you want – the version now or the version after ten pints?’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t score many goals, I wasn’t particularly quick but I just kept going and going. I nearly missed it at the end!
‘You can see the shock on my face that I’ve actually scored. As I’m running away I’ve seen Gordon running towards me doing a Barry Fry, so I’ve turned around and run off the other way!’
Although well-travelled, the spite of the south coast derby left an impression on Marsden.
Marsden thunders into Sylvain Wiltord during a league game with Arsenal at Highbury in 2002
‘We played Portsmouth in the League Cup before they got promoted. My God! That were an eye opener for me. I played in the Midlands, Birmingham against Wolves and Villa. I thought that were bad.
‘I thought: “Oh crikey they’ve closed the road off going to St Mary’s because they were fighting”. Black Mariahs. It’s serious stuff.’
With a settled, talented side featuring the likes of Antti Niemi, Michael Svensson and James Beattie, the next season culminated in a trip to the Millennium Stadium.
Their run to Cardiff began on the BBC with an Anders Svensson-inspired 4-0 demolition of Tottenham, managed by Hoddle. Wins over Millwall and Norwich followed before a quarter-final against Wolves.
Against his old club and former boss Jones, Marsden scored the first in a 2-0 win, an instinctive overhead kick from a corner.
‘That’s another one after ten pints,’ he roars. ‘I nearly pulled my hamstring hooking it back in. It were never a shot. But later on that night, my God, it was a Ronaldinho scissor kick!’
Marsden celebrates after scoring against Wolves in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 2003
Watford were dispatched in the semi-final as Southampton reached the FA Cup final for the first time since victory in 1976.
They faced Arsene Wenger’s side who had just started their Invincible streak. Ten days before the final, their 49-game unbeaten run in the league began with a 6-1 win over Southampton.
‘Seven of us didn’t play in that game!’ says Marsden, quick as a flash.
‘A great thing about the final was that Sir Bobby Robson was guest of honour. They are such wonderful memories for me to have met somebody like that, who had so much love for the game.
Of the match itself, he quips: ‘We were very fortunate to play one of the best Premier League teams in history…
‘I nearly had a heart attack when Claus Lundekvam tried to pull down Henry in the first 15 seconds. Thank God, Henry stood up, he didn’t go down.
It was to be heartbreak in the final though as Robert Pires’ goal proved to be the winner
‘I still believe to this day if David Seaman had been younger than 39, Brett Ormerod would have scored the equaliser right at the death. I think he’d have been down. He expected a shot lower than where it actually went.
‘That was our one chance. He just produced an absolute amazing save, and that’s what he did throughout his career.’
After the final whistle, Marsden and Henry embraced. ‘He showed a lot of respect. I mean let’s be fair, he was the best player in the world for a while. It doesn’t get mentioned really, but I think he was. Bergkamp, Pires, Vieira, Ljungberg, Ashley Cole. They were an amazing team.’
Instead of building, Southampton took a different direction. Bridge was sold to Chelsea and midway through the next season Strachan left. Months later, Marsden followed.
Now he hopes James Ward-Prowse can go one further and lift the FA Cup final this season
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side take on Leicester in their FA Cup semi-final on Sunday at Wembley
In 2005, Southampton had three managers and were relegated from the top flight for the first time in 27 years.
After a short spell in South Korea, Marsden ended his career at Wednesday, eventually hanging up his boots in 2005. He moved to Paphos where the climate and culture suits his laid-back personality and love of the golf course.
He watches as much football as he can and has high hopes for his former side, who meet Leicester at Wembley on Sunday.
‘It’s a team of internationals. I like Nathan Redmond, he can play. If Danny Ings can stay fit they’ve got every chance.’
And of Ward-Prowse, Southampton’s current bandiere, Marsden adds: ‘He’s fantastic, isn’t he? His free kick ratio has overtook Tiss’s. You can’t say any more than that.
‘He gets stuck in for England, he’s a fantastic leader and let’s hope he goes one step further than me and lifts the bloody thing up.’