Sheffield Wednesday will be doomed to spend just their eighth season of a near 150-year history in the third tier of English football if Crystal Palace win at home tomorrow night. Relegation from the Championship is that close for the former top-flight giants after this gutsy but futile display in the Welsh capital.
It was a simple mission for Alan Irvine's men. Beat a Cardiff side who had already qualified for the play-offs and so ensure a winner-takes-all final weekend showdown against Palace at Hillsborough in seven days' time. Wednesday might still get shot at salvation. But now they must count on the already-promoted West Bromwich to go away with at least a point from a throbbing Selhurst Park.
"I will go the game and obviously be praying that Palace don't win," said their manager. "It'll be a long 90 minutes for them and a long 90 minutes for me. Everybody in our dressing room is very low at the moment. We wanted to keep it our own hands, but now we're relying on somebody else to do the job for us. All we can do is hope. We can no longer control it."
For their part, Cardiff extended their unbeaten run to 10 games, including seven wins. They are destined to enter football's richest lottery on a roll, with so many big players in such big form. Yesterday it was Jay Bothroyd whose number came up, the former Arsenal trainee's two goals encapsulating an impressive performance. More than anyone he extinguished the visitors' spirit.
The Owls' hoots were twice short-lived. There was just 90 seconds between Jermaine Johnson's opener and Peter Whittingham's reply and then three minutes between Marcus Tudgay's equaliser and Bothroyd's match-winner. Johnson had gone past the rooted home defence to steer in Tom Soares's cross in the 16th minute, before the Cardiff midfielder's free-kick left Lee Grant stranded. This was the 20th of the season for the Championship's leading scorer. Not too shabby for a midfielder.
Except it was a classic centre-forward who set the striking standard on this afternoon. If Bothroyd's finishing touches to Stephen McPhail's 50-yard defence- splitter in the 54th minute were clinical, then his drift and strike from the edge of the area with nine minutes remaining was the game's highlight. In between, Etienne Esajas had put in Tudgay to level from an acute angle.
In the last seconds, Esajas believed he had rescued a point when his 30-yard strike hit the bar. As it was, with Watford beating Reading, the draw would have made no difference to the equation. But he put his head on his hands anyway.
"I still think it'll go to the last game of the season," said the Cardiff manager, Dave Jones. Irvine did not look so confident.