Blackburn Rovers might have passed the ball more prettily than Southampton - until it came to distributing the one that counted - and controlled the pace of much of the game. But it was hard to fault the Saints' spirit.
They were committed in a common cause, and although the goals - by Robbie Slater, against his former club, and a rather more fortuitous effort from Matthew Le Tissier - were crucial, it was their ferocious tackling which sustained their challenge.
As victory took Southampton to the verge of sunny days, so defeat brought the storm clouds hovering over Rovers. The champions of two years ago ought still to escape with two home matches left, but doubts may have crept in at a crucial time.
Nerves were frayed all round yesterday as was evident from the tension of the early play and the ill-temper that surrounded much of it later. It culminated in the 76th-minute dismissal of Blackburn's captain, Tim Sherwood, for spitting. He might have felt aggrieved by the challenge preceding it but gave the referee, Gerald Ashby, no option.
Coming as it did two minutes after Le Tissier's goal, it ended Rovers' chances of getting back into the match and they must now gain a home point from either Middlesbrough or Leicester in the next seven days.
Southampton have been this way before so often that Bates, who was also celebrating his 79th birthday yesterday and was acclaimed rapturously before the kick-off as the manager who first took the club into the top division, must have been fairly relaxed about the outcome.
This is the fifth time in the past six seasons that Saints have not so much flirted with relegation as dared it to come up and grab them, but each time they have successfully rebuffed its eager clutches.
Southampton did not have a chance worth the name before they scored the opening goal in the 23rd minute. Their own area had seemed under threat when Ian Pearce weaved his way down the left flank - which had looked a vulnerable area for them - but the response was swift and decisive. Egil Ostenstad, the club's player of the year, pulled the ball astutely back from the byline, and Slater buried the offering thunderously.
Blackburn compiled the more fluent moves as a ragged contest entered the second half but were regularly reminded of the presence of opposition tacklers. For all their intent on getting the ball wide and into the box, they were short on creating clear chances. They paid a huge price.
Le Tissier, brought from the bench to take a free-kick which came to nought, found himself on the left flank. He sent in a curling cross which evaded everybody and sneaked in at the far post. Souness will never achieve the longevity or respect of Bates at the Dell but if he gets them out of the mire this season he might, who knows, come close.Reuse content