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SAINTS 1 - BOLTON 2
IT'S AMAZING how so much hard work can be undone in such a short space of time.
On the back of four wins from six games under Paul Sturrock, it seemed possible that Saints' charge towards the European places was gaining massive momentum.
With 14 minutes remaining of Saturday's game against Bolton at St Mary's, with Saints seemingly playing out a 1-0 victory, it seemed set to continue.
But then, in the space of two lax and loose minutes, their season was left to peter out into a finish of mid-table mediocrity.
And it was all too predictable that it would be Kevin Davies who came back to haunt the club that left him out in the cold and let him go for free last summer.
In truth, it was a rather depressing end to a day that started with such optimism.
With the sun shining down on the pitch and confidence running high, there was a tangible air of excitement around the ground.
There was still plenty left to play for this season but Saints needed to win this game to keep it going.
Before the match, there was a spine-tingling moment when both sides formed a guard of honour for former hero Danny Wallace, who received a breath-taking reception from the Saints faithful - hopefully, they will continue their support by attending his testimonial on May 17.
After Jay-Jay Okocha fired a warning shot with a rocket from his right boot that clipped the top of the bar with Antti Niemi beaten, Saints got moving again.
Kevin Phillips came close before James Beattie missed a glorious chance with a free header from eight yards direct from Paul Telfer's corner.
But a goal wasn't too far away and, when Anthony Barness misjudged Telfer's raking cross-field pass, Marian Pahars stole in to lift the ball over Jussi Jaaskelainen and keep the dream alive.
It was hard fought from then on with the hot conditions affecting the tempo of the match.
The heat obviously got to referee Steve Dunn, who was handing out yellow cards as if they going out of fashion.
Niemi did well to save at the feet of Davies just before the half-hour mark but, in the second half, both sides were mainly restricted to shots from distance.
Davies, Beattie and Danny Higginbotham tried their luck but to no avail while Anders Svensson boasted the closest effort of them all with a swerving shot that went a whisker wide of the post.
Bolton had plenty of attacking flair and a relatively solid back line, but Saints were holding them at bay.
It looked like it was just a case of playing out time for the 1-0 win. Unfortunately, it seemed the players were thinking that as well and, before they knew what had hit them, the game was virtually over - in Bolton's favour.
On 77 minutes, Pahars should have made the ball his on the edge of his own area but was caught out. Davies lifted it into the area, where Kevin Nolan headed home.
The goal seemed to be in slow motion as nobody in a red-and- white shirt was able to react to the danger.
Still shell-shocked, Saints hardly had time to re-start before they fell behind.
Okocha slung in a ball in from the right and Davies peeled off to the far post to out-jump Telfer and head in his side's winner.
It was clearly a sweet moment for the man who was once a Saints hero.
Saints tried to get back into the game but Bolton weren't about to make the same slip-ups.
There's still four games left and the motivation now has to be finishing strongly with the difference in prize money between every place so vast.
Saints also need to plan for next season.
Sturrock now needn't worry so much about the delicate balancing act he's been operating of looking at his squad to assess for next season while maintaining a settled side in the outside chance of clinching a European spot.
Credit to Sturrock for his impact - when Gordon Strachan left, nobody thought we'd even be contemplating Europe at this stage of the season.
But now it must be time for the new boss to decide who he wants around next season, and who he doesn't.
That will mean a few more team changes, in particular in midfield, but it's an important task for Sturrock to undertake.
In many ways, this game summed up the season - a missed opportunity.
The first round departure in the UEFA Cup, losing out to Bolton in the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup, bowing out early in the FA Cup and now disappointment in the league.
Saints will have a decent finish to their name at the end of the campaign but it's a shame that a season that promised, and could have delivered, so much has fizzled out without ever getting in sight of a final hurdle.