Southampton. . . .3
OLDHAM Athletic can be hailed as the escapees of the season after beating Southampton amid extraordinary scenes at Boundary Park yesterday. Written off for most of the season, as little as a week ago they seemed to have only a mathematical chance of surviving in the Premier League. But three victories later, they had - goal difference pushing them ahead of a Crystal Palace team beaten at Arsenal.
'There have been a lot of shredded nerves and some games have aged me five years,' Joe Royle, the Oldham manager, said. 'But it's great for us and we've deserved it. We always have a go, we try to score goals. Maybe there's a lesson in that. We play the game with the right attitude; things are never dull with us and surely there's a place in the Premier League for sides like that.'
And, of course, there is. The ground was awash with unbottled relief; Palace had lost, Oldham were staying up, and the fans couldn't believe it. Aston Villa beaten last Sunday, Liverpool on Tuesday, now Southampton and another season of Premier League football in the can. Their last three results summed up a first Premier League season in which relegated Palace finished only 10 points behind the team in fifth.
The Oldham script makes unlikely reading but Royle and his men had served it up to the final word. They didn't make it easy watching for their fans. A 4-1 lead was reduced to 4-3 and with five minutes remaining, and Matthew Le Tissier, Southampton's maverick marksman, had just completed his hat-trick. The high spirits that had been bubbling round the crowd looked set to turn sour.
Oldham had made a determined start. Gunnar Halle and Mike Milligan both went close in the opening exchanges, but it was Southampton who almost opened the scoring in the ninth minute when Le Tissier lobbed goalkeeper Paul Gerrard to see the ball headed over the bar by Richard Jobson.
There was a roar of delight from the terraces as news that Arsenal had taken the lead against Palace filtered through, but that was nothing compared to the celebrations when Oldham took the lead in the 29th minute, full-back Neil Pointon using the strong wind to score direct from a corner.
Oldham's joy lasted just five minutes as stray marking in the heart of their defence allowed Le Tissier to fire home an equaliser from 15 yards out, but they responded by regaining the lead though Ian Olney just beore half- time, and went further in front 10 minutes after the break. Andy Ritchie, who was playing in place of the injured Darren Beckford, produced a textbook header from eight yards out to beat Flowers and convert Halle's cross.
It looked even better for Oldham when Halle scored in the 64th minute, giving them a three- goal lead, but it was at this stage that they nearly blew it. Le Tissier curled in a 66th-minute free-kick, and five minutes from the end produced a close-range header to seal his hat-trick.
But the nightmare minutes passed, the referee settled it for Oldham and the news followed hard on that Arsenal had settled it for Oldham too. Palace were going to take the drop and it was with Steve Coppell, the Palace manager, that Royle's initial thoughts lay: 'He's a very close friend of mine and I'm sad it has happened to him,' he said. 'It's tough on Palace to go down with 49 points but our saving grace is that we score goals - and that's what has kept us up.'
Oldham: Gerrard; Halle, Pointon, Henry, Jobson, Fleming, Redmond, Ritchie, Olney, Milligan, Bernard. Subs: Marshall, Adams, Keeley (gk). Manager: J Royle
Southampton: Flowers; Kenna, Adams, Widdrington, Hall, Monkou, Le Tissier, Cockerill, Dowie, Maddison, Banger. Subs: Moore, Benali, Andrews. Manager: I Branfoot
Referee: H King (Merthyr Tydfil)