West Bromwich Albion last night celebrated a third promotion in seven seasons as Chris Brunt's late goal clawed a draw from the jaws of improbable defeat.
Only six minutes remained when the substitute took his team back to the top of the table and lifted the tension that had just grown palpably following a first senior goal by the 19-year-old Southampton substitute Adam Lallana.
Although Albion technically still need a point, their goal difference is so superior to that of third-placed Hull City as to leave them secure – and the Hawthorns partied accordingly as the manager Tony Mowbray and his players returned for a lap of honour once a mass pitch invasion had finally subsided.
The draw was a decent result, too, for Southampton, but they remain in the bottom three and have much to do in their final game, at home to Sheffield United. While Sunday is their big day, last night belonged to Albion, and Mowbray said: "The players are enjoying the moment and now we want to win the league. It has been a long, hard slog on the back of losing the play-off final last year and being tagged the best team in the division.
"We will go into the Premier League as well prepared as we can be but you are fighting the demons when you fall behind that late. But fortunately we had plenty going on from the bench."
The equaliser was created by a substitute as well as scored by one, Roman Bednar's centre being controlled by Brunt and drilled hard and low through Richard Wright's legs from 15 yards.
It was a breakthrough that appeared destined not to come, Neil Clement having seen a header bounce over from five yards just before and Luke Moore nodded over from another Brunt corner-kick.
Southampton's 27-year top-flight stay ended in 2005 on the day Albion pulled off their "Great Escape" and, while they have hardly stopped sliding since, their hosts have regrouped in some style and will be an easy-on-the-eye addition to the big league. A goal tally of 107 in all competitions, on top of the 100 they scored in 2006-07, has confirmed them as the Championship's great entertainers but expectancy weighed heavy throughout the first half.
Southampton initially appeared the more liberated. Short of confidence as they may have been following only three wins in 23 league matches, they prevented the home team weaving their usual patterns and Albion lived dangerously when Leon Barnett diverted Jason Euell's cross against the hands of Neil Clement in the area. The ball ran loose for Marek Saganowski to turn and scoop off target from only eight yards.
There was every reason for the visiting manager Nigel Pearson to feel encouraged on his return to a club with whom he had a successful caretaker spell in charge before Mowbray's arrival 18 months ago.
Southampton had barely resembled a side struggling to stay out of a division they have not sampled since 1960, much less look like a team who have conceded more Championship away goals than any other club. They were harder pushed, though, as the force was with Albion in the second half. Ishmael Miller produced both a surging run that ended with a low shot Wright turned behind well with his leg and a goal-bound drive that was deflected narrowly wide by Perry.
Phillips missed two headed chances to give Albion the breathing space most of the Hawthorns full house craved and they looked like being crucial when Southampton, having sent on Lallana and Bradley Wright-Phillips in a double substitution, suddenly stepped up a gear.
Lallana cut in from the right to bring a first save of the half from Dean Kiely, then timed his run perfectly to stay onside from Jermaine Wright's 77th minute through ball and finish superbly with a low angled right-foot shot.
Goals Lallana (77) 0-1; Brunt (84) 1-1.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Kiely; Hoefkens, Barnett, Clement, Robinson; Gera, Koren, Greening (Moore, 81), Morrison (Brunt, 64); Phillips, Miller (Bednar, 69). Substitutes not used: Albrechtsen, Danek (gk).
Southampton (4-4-2): R Wright; J Wright, Perry, Lucketti, Surman; Viafara, Idiakez, Safri (Dyer, 62), Euell; John (Wright-Phillips, 74), Saganowski (Lallana, 74). Substitutes not used: Davis (gk), Licka.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: West Bromwich Hoefkens, Clement; Southampton Euell, Perry, Idiakez.
Man of the match: Gera.
Attendance: 26,167.Reuse content