Southampton and Brighton are linked by more than just the A27 and M27. The two clubs, 60 miles apart along the South Coast, are both emerging from difficult times. Unless Southampton make a mess of their remaining four matches, each will be back playing in the Championship next season.
Brighton secured a place back in the game's second tier for the first time in five years last week. Southampton will guarantee their return after a two-year absence if they take 10 points from their last four fixtures, beginning with today's home match against Hartlepool. That will be followed by a visit on Saturday to Brentford, another mid-table side with little to play for, and matches against Plymouth Argyle and Walsall, who are both in the relegation zone.
Southampton moved into the second automatic promotion place on Saturday by becoming the first team to win at the Withdean Stadium in League One this season. Brighton, who had won 17 and drawn four of their previous home matches, were leading 1-0 until six minutes from time before 33-year-old David Connolly and the defender Jose Fonte scored the goals that took the Saints above Huddersfield on goal difference. Huddersfield, who are the only team with a realistic chance of overhauling Southampton, have three matches left: a visit to Brighton plus home fixtures against Dagenham & Redbridge and Brentford.
Brighton have enjoyed a wonderful year in Gus Poyet's first full season in charge. The Uruguayan succeeded Russell Slade, who was dismissed in November 2009 with the club just one place above the relegation zone. Poyet brought in several new players and saw the team to mid-table security. They have not looked back since going top of the table in September. Poyet's men have gone from strength to strength and pulled clear of their rivals with a remarkable run last month, winning all eight matches they played in March.
The 8,000-capacity Withdean Stadium, which has been the club's temporary home since 1999 following their departure from the Goldstone Ground, has been a fortress, though the club will be relieved to move back into a stadium of their own this summer. Brighton expect to sell all 22,500 tickets at the American Express Community Stadium on a regular basis next season.
If Southampton have spent less time in the doldrums than Brighton their fall from grace was arguably more dramatic. When they were relegated from the Premier League in 2005 it ended a run of 27 successive seasons in the top flight. They dropped another division four years later and were in danger of going out of business until Markus Liebherr, a German-born billionaire who had had no previous association with Southampton, bought the club.
The recruitment of Alan Pardew as manager sparked a revival last season which culminated in the club taking 44,000 supporters to Wembley as they claimed their first significant trophy for 34 years by winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. Turning fortunes around in the league proved a harder task, but the foundations were laid. The campaign, nevertheless, started in turmoil. Liebherr died at the start of the season – his fortune, including the club, was passed on to his family – while Pardew was sacked after only three matches.
Within a fortnight he was replaced by Nigel Adkins, the Scunthorpe United manager. In mid-September Southampton were in the relegation zone after only one win in their first seven games. They have come good when it mattered, however, winning nine of their last 11 matches.
The victory at Brighton was all the sweeter given the current rivalry between the two clubs. When Brighton held Southampton to a goalless draw at St Mary's in November, Adkins was asked whether he expected the two teams to be contesting the title at the end of the season. "Well, if they can keep with us, maybe," he replied.
Brighton responded in kind on Saturday, with the front page of their match programme asking: "Can you keep up?" Poyet, meanwhile, who is proud of his team's passing game, had stirred the pot with some comments about Southampton's long-ball style. Adkins, nevertheless, had the last laugh with Fonte's 89th-minute winner, which could help ensure that the two clubs' rivalry will be renewed next season.