Football / Ups and Downs: Oldham's golden goals leave sunken Palace prey to vultures: Royle's men survive the hard way while realistic Eastenders replace London rivals in Premier League next season

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FOR a manager whose team insist on doing things the hard way - only Oldham could have the crowd chanting 'Easy' at 4-1 up with 25 minutes left and still end hanging on grimly - Joe Royle's assessment of the great escape was a model of simplicity.

'We deserve to stay in the Premier League,' he said after their third win in six days, 'and the Premier League should be delighted to have us.' There had to be a place among the elite, he argued with no little irony in view of the part Arsenal played in Oldham's survival, for 'romance' rather than 'money and power'.

His appraisal will find little favour in London SE25, although few neutrals would dispute that Oldham's merits outweigh Crystal Palace's. As Royle observed, without a hint of immodesty or gloating, they are always going for goals. They finished with the best home tally in the division, while only Manchester United and Blackburn outscored them overall. For good measure they also beat both the champions and runners-up, and did not have a single player sent off throughout a trying campaign.

Why, then, was their status in doubt until the last stomach-churning moment? A hat-trick by Southampton's Matthew Le Tissier highlighted Royle's explanation. 'We can't shut up shop,' he sighed. 'We don't know how.' The danger is that this reprieve will tempt Oldham into believing they can get away with defensive ineptitude again.

Dull it isn't, though, as Royle enthused: 'They talk about Old Trafford's theatre of dreams, but there's a lot of drama here too. . . sometimes too much.' He recalled the 90th- minute Leeds goal in the play-offs which delayed Oldham's elevation by four years, until an equally late winner brought the Second Division title at Sheffield Wednesday's expense; perhaps Boundary Park should be known as the cockpit of cock-ups.

Palace can be assured that Southampton actually perpetrated fewer than Oldham. However, on a day when a salvo from the Gunners proved decisive, the home side found an unlikely hero in their own Gunnar, the unsung Halle, who scored once and made two more goals in a performance of perpetual motion which seemed to draw on the perpetual emotion emanating from the stands.

What with a Norwegian leading the way on the pitch and Saints support kitted out in Palestinian headwear as an end-of-term joke, there was quite an international flavour to the occasion. At least now those Lancastrians in the car park who were baffled by the chants of 'PLO' know what it stands for: Premier League Oldham, and deservedly so.

Goals: Pointon (30) 1-0; Le Tissier (35) 1-1; Olney (45) 2-1; Ritchie (55) 3-1; Halle (64) 4-1; Le Tissier (67) 4-2; Le Tissier (85) 4-3.

Oldham Athletic: Gerrard; Halle, Pointon, Henry, Jobson, Fleming, Redmond, Ritchie (Marshall, 71), Olney, Milligan, Bernard. Substitutes not used: N Adams, Keeley (gk).

Southampton: Flowers; Kenna, M Adams, Widdrington (Benali, 58), Hall, Monkou, Le Tissier, Cockerill, Dowie, Maddison, Banger. Substitutes not used: Moore, Andrews (gk).

Referee: H King (Merthyr Tydfil).

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