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Middlesbrough 2 Southampton 1
ANY SAINTS fan will tell you their side never seems to do things the easy way, and this season is proving no exception.
It’s part of the trials and tribulations of supporting Southampton that you are subjected to more ups and downs in the course of a few months than most football fans get in a few years.
Of course, different generations of players and managers come and go and probably don’t realise quite what has come before.
But, despite the changes in personnel, the tension that accompanies every Saints success and failure seems to remain.
There will be few supporters that aren’t feeling it today.
At the time of writing, all we know is that Saints missed the chance to confirm automatic promotion against Middlesbrough, but that if West Ham fail to beat Leicester then that will do the trick.
If the Hammers win, then it goes to the last day of the season.
Just a few weeks ago you would scarcely believe that would be possible, such was the strength of Saints’ position.
There must be some mixed emotions among the fans.
They want to know their side are up so they can rest easy, but getting promoted on a day when you don’t play is about as depressing as that scenario gets.
Promotion assured sat in front of a TV watching a game miles away five days before your team plays again, and when you have to go to bed to get up for work the next morning, is hardly the glory-covered pitch invasions and joyous scenes most want.
These momentous events happen rarely in the history of most clubs, so to celebrate in the living room at 10pm on a Monday night rather than in a football stadium with the players is pretty rubbish.
But then, given the choice, who would want to take the risk of it going to the final day?
The joy of promotion would be far greater, the memories ones that last a lifetime rather than fade in a week or two, but there is also the chance of failure. Strange indeed.
Whatever happens, we can be sure of one thing.
That is for the second season in a row, Saints won’t win a league title which was the goal they set themselves.
However, this season is not like the last one and they shouldn’t beat themselves up over it.
At the end of last season you could only conclude that Saints’ campaign had been a glorious failure – in League One they should have won the title.
The Championship is a much tougher league and to finish second still brings with it the most vital prize of all.
I don’t care what anybody says, that would still be success the likes of which most would not have imagined credible last summer.
That Saints didn’t do it Boro was a frustration.
They didn’t want this tension- wracked finale to drag on any longer than it has to, and they want to go up on their own merit, and to carry forward that all important momentum going into the top flight.
At the moment they are in danger of stumbling over the line thanks to another team’s failures.
But they just want to get there and, if it goes to the final day, you could barely pick a kinder fixture than a decimated, dispirited, relegated Coventry team at St Mary’s.
It seemed as though the champagne corks were being loosened when Saints took the lead at the Riverside Stadium after just 46 seconds.
Two Boro players challenged to win a routine high ball, it fell to Adam Lallana who headed into the path of Rickie Lambert.
He advanced into the area, squared to Billy Sharp, thus taking the keeper out of the equation, and the striker made no mistake finishing into empty net from close range.
But Boro needed a win themselves to keep their play-off hopes alive and they didn’t roll over and die.
Instead they were hungry and motivated, their midfield dominant with Nicky Bailey in particular superb sat in front of their back four and passing the ball half to death.
It was a genuine struggle for Saints to capitalise on their early advantage.
The pattern of the game was set with both sides enjoying sustained periods of possession and dominance, but genuine, clear cut chances hard to come by.
In the first half Richard Chaplow twice threatened while Boro tried their luck with a few long range efforts before one eventually paid off.
It was a bit of a blow to Saints who just needed to keep their lead intact to half-time and reorganise from there.
But, two minutes into added time, Bailey wasn’t closed down and fired in a low shot from just outside the area that took a nick of Chaplow’s leg and left Kelvin Davis with no chance as it travelled into the bottom corner.
It could have got even worse had Lukas Jutkiewicz not been pulled up for a hugely debatable offside after drilling the ball into the net.
Saints started the second half very well and pinned Boro back.
They might have got another goal when Sharp fired over from 12 yards out but it seemed like they had all the momentum behind them.
It was all Boro could do to just to hang on.
But the game changed on another controversial moment from the officials.
On 55 minutes Lallana looked like getting in one-on-one with the keeper and was tripped just outside the area. Seb Hines was the offender and had only just been booked.
A straight red was debatable, but surely a yellow would be in order to reduce Boro to ten men.
Referee Tony Bates disagreed.
The only justification could surely have been that, with Joe Bennett storming across the front of the area to try and reach Lallana, Bates wasn’t totally sure who committed the foul.
It was a big call.
Boro kept their full compliment on the pitch, Lambert drilled the free kick narrowly wide and suddenly Boro had a sense of belief and the crowd behind them.
They used it to good effect as they went on to win.
Davis turned wide Tony McMahon’s long-range free kick but there was nothing he could on 77 minutes to prevent Marouane Zemmama from scoring what the winner.
It was a central free kick, some 20 yards out, that Zemmama got up and down over the wall and to Davis’ right side, with the keeper diving at full stretch but unable to keep out a well executed set piece.
The award of the free kick was again disputed, Jose Fonte undoubtedly committing a foul but believing he had suffered an infringement in the build up.
Sub Guly do Prado rifled a shot over in the closing stages but Saints were to lose and eke this out for a little longer yet.
It’s never easy.