Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . .0
TERRY HURLOCK sprinted 30 yards in another lung-bursting effort to dispossess Steve Staunton for his umpteenth winning tackle of the afternoon. It was the 90th minute and the referee decided those Hurlock legs had run enough: immediately drawing the game to a close and signalling the end of Villa's impressive sequence of four successive League wins.
Freeze-framed, the moment told everything about how and why they lost the chance to go back to the top ahead of United and the Carrow Road crew so many had been guilty of writing off.
Individual skill and solid team- work are necessary requirements for success (though here also Villa were capable of so much more) but alone can prove insufficient when confronted by the kind of commitment and spirit Ian Branfoot instills into his Southampton team.
Yet first impressions had been favourable. There was no Dalian Atkinson and no Ray Houghton but Matthias Breitkreutz showed a keen early eye for opening up play, Staunton pushed forward with gusto and Dean Saunders and Dwight Yorke were quick to exploit the spaces between central defenders and full backs.
Then Matthew Le Tissier got himself into a tizz with Kevin Richardson and from the unsavoury squabble summoned the inspiration to become the game's most persuasive performer, though in productivity terms everyone trailed behind Hurlock.
'Terry was magnificent, if anyone else is voted man of the match it's an injustice,' Branfoot said.
Although Le Tissier and Richardson were booked, the free-kick went the Saints' way and the Channel Islander took full advantage with one of his wickedly swerving, spinning deliveries that are difficult to defend.
When the ball came out he sent it back in and Nicky Banger squeezed a volley past Nigel Spink. Until then Spink had not had a save to make. Surely, Villa would now dig in and assert themselves.
Instead, Southampton grew more dominant. Le Tissier dazzled, Hurlock drove on and Iain Dowie's own reward for industry came when he clubbed home Kevin Moore's lofted pass. Villa were left scrapping for sporadic moments of promise but could find little in the way of measured thought, the high balls they hit hopefully towards Saunders and Yorke ill-designed to bring the best out of their strikers.
'We were terrific in the warm- up and settled quite comfortably for the first 20 minutes but after that we weren't at the races,' the Villa manager, Ron Atkinson, said. 'Southampton ran hard and got their belief going but we know we can play a lot better than that.'
It was as good as it could be for Branfoot, the often under-fire manager, who was happy to hear the 'When the Saints . . .' refrain ringing round the Dell. There was even the chant of 'easy, easy' late on. It was by then - but only because of their earlier hard work.
Goals: Banger (40) 1-0; Dowie (64) 2-0.
Southampton: Flowers; Dodd, Adams, Hurlock, Hall, Moore, Le Tissier, Banger, Dowie, Maddison, Benali. Substitutes (not used): Kenna, Powell, Andrews (gk).
Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Breitkreutz (Cox, 69), Parker, Saunders, Yorke, Small (Beinlich, 70). Substitute (not used): Oakes (gk).
Referee: P Wright (Cheshire).