TOWARDS SIX o'clock on Saturday afternoon weary shoppers carrying bags and boxes trudged past The Dell along Hill Lane, the road which rises gently out of Southampton city centre.
This festive ritual was mirrored by the town's football team who themselves climbed a mountain of sorts to deliver a pre-Christmas gift to their deserving fans with a win over Wimbledon.
It took Southampton off the bottom of the table and gives them renewed hope for a season which they appeared to be on the point of abandoning as a bad job.
It was hard to watch Wimbledon's tame performance and not conclude that they had underestimated Southampton. "Well, we're just human aren't we, not machines," Joe Kinnear remarked. "We don't want to take anything away from Southampton. We came here 16 points ahead of them but didn't play like a team 16 points ahead of them."
Doubtless they were also suffering from a shortage of adrenalin after Sunday's heroic exploits; against Liverpool the Wimbledon players had stormed their opponents' defence like a band of anarchic revolutionaries. In contrast, on Saturday they formed a loose collective with neither direction nor conviction.
From the kick-off Southampton played in a direct and purposeful fashion with the 20-year-old James Beattie, signed from Blackburn for pounds 1m, in threatening form.
Within five minutes the home side would have been ahead were it not for fine goalkeeping from Neil Sullivan. Matthew Le Tissier's cross was headed down by the youngster and followed up by the Moroccan Hassan Kachloul and then Beattie again.
After almost a dozen minutes of Southampton pressure, Egil Ostenstad opened the scoring, Beattie flicking on a goal-kick from which the Norwegian rounded Sullivan and defender Chris Perry before finishing well from a narrow angle.
Beattie then attempted a duplicate finish from Le Tissier's ball but struck the post from a slightly wider position.
Importantly the home side kept their heads when they had nosed in front. That they were allowed to was due in part to Wimbledon, who gave an uncharacteristically passive display, and also thanks to solid performances from England internationals Le Tissier and Carlton Palmer.
Returning from suspension, Palmer's workhorse consistency settled his young team-mates' nerves as he ferried the ball from defence to attack along the right side of midfield. Simple stuff, perhaps, but it was exactly what Southampton needed and underpinned their game throughout.
In four second-half minutes the game was won. Kachloul, left unmarked between Perry and substitute Ceri Hughes, glanced a diving header past Sullivan from Le Tissier's cross.
Beattie then headed onto the post and Kachloul back-heeled across to Ostenstad, who thumped in his second goal of the afternoon.
"In the Premiership anybody can beat anybody," Dave Jones remarked afterwards. Chelsea, who pay a visit to the south coast on Boxing Day, will be the next team to test this hypothesis after a strange and glorious weekend in the Premiership.
Goals: Ostenstad (11) 1-0; Kachloul (64) 2-0; Ostenstad (68) 3-0; Gayle (76) 3-1.
Southampton: (4-4-2) Jones; Hiley, Monk, Lundekvam, Bridge; Kachloul, Palmer, Hughes, Le Tissier (Basham, 78); Ostenstad, Beattie. Substitutes not used: Warner, Williams, Paul, Stensgaard (gk).
Wimbledon: (4-4-2) Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher; Earle, M Hughes, Ardley (Cort, 78), Roberts (C Hughes, h-t); Gayle, Ekoku (Kennedy, 83). Substitutes not used: Kimble, Bakke (gk).
Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).
Bookings: Southampton: Kachloul. Wimbledon: Perry, Thatcher.
Man of the match: Beattie.
Attendance: 14,354.Reuse content