It was not always thus, Southampton themselves came second in 1984, three points behind Liverpool. Watford and Ipswich were runners-up in '83 and '82. Since then, with one exception, the top two have come exclusively from the big population centres - that Blackburn had to spend massively to buck the trend merely underlines it.
While Norwich, under Mike Walker, valiantly attempted to infiltrate the new establishment three years ago, and Wimbledon continue to cock a snook at the Premiership barons, a glance at the current top eight confirms the maxim that pounds mean points. Southampton can still beat Manchester United over 90 minutes, as they deservedly did 3-1 on Saturday, but they can no longer do so over a season.
The pattern which began when clubs were allowed to keep home gate receipts has accelerated in the game's new commercialism. With The Dell's capacity limited to under 16,000 - less than a third of Old Trafford's - Saints would need a Jack Walker to match United's income. Without one, their only connection to Blackburn is that of a feeder club - Alan Shearer, Tim Flowers and Jeff Kenna have all gone to Ewood Park, in return pounds 7.5m has gone the other way. Once the bank manager has been satisfied, not much of that has been left - Southampton's own transfer record is a paltry pounds 1.2m - for Neil Shipperley and Gordon Watson.
It is not just transfer fees that are the problem, so are the wages. That affects the strength in depth the club can afford to keep - the factor which eventually defeated Norwich and will do all other pretenders.
Consider this team, constructed from apparently surplus Newcastle and Manchester United players: Srnicek; Barton, May, Peacock, Neville; Gillespie, Watson, Clark, Sharpe; Scholes, Kitson. Subs: Coton, Parker, McClair. None of these players would be in the starting line-up if everyone was fit at their respective clubs. Yet combine them with Saturday's Southampton first XI and only Le Tissier, Shipperley and probably Ken Monkou and Barry Venison would win a place. This is perhaps one of the reasons that this was Southampton's first win (penalty shoot-outs excluded) in 17 matches with United.
That is the answer Dave Merrington, the Southampton manager, should have given when asked why his team did not play every game as they did on Saturday. When form fluctuates, or players are injured, he has few resources to juggle. The other reason is that Southampton remain over-reliant on one player. While Merrington says he has tried to reduce Le Tissier's importance, it is no coincidence that this victory signalled a return to form from the mercurial Channel Islander. It also helped that United were awful, hustled out of their stride by a Southampton team eager to redress the perceived injustice of their FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford - and lifted by the memory of their good performance then.
Southampton's display belied local pub gossip of training-ground rows. But although such unsubstantiated rumours are common when teams are struggling, they were given credence by Merrington's post-match reference to "prima donnas" and "working hard". Although his phrasing was careful, the inference was clear. Merrington is a man with traditional values, he is thorough and dedicated and it would be no surprise if he became angry if he thought some of his well-paid players did not match his approach.
Merrington has tried to drum into his team his belief that hard work ultimately brings its own reward - a precept Alex Ferguson's Manchester United prove every season. It was proved again on Saturday when United did not support each other as well as usual, while Southampton pressed hard and chased everything. The reward was sweet.
They went ahead after 11 minutes when Le Tissier's free-kick found Monkou unmarked at the far post. Although Peter Schmeichel saved his header, he could not keep out Monkou's volleyed follow-up. Thirteen minutes later, Jim Magilton caught Ryan Giggs in possession and freed Alan Neilson on the overlap. Shipperley tucked in the cross with alacrity.
Two-nil and no one could believe it. But there was more to come, as two minutes before the break, Schmeichel overstretched himself coming for Shipperley's cross and was coolly beaten by Le Tissier.
After that, Southampton only needed to be sensible, and with Venison prompting and tidying in midfield, that task was well within them. He has not often played as well since arriving at the The Dell, but on this performance, Kevin Keegan's decision to sell him seems curious; neither Lee Clark not David Batty have adequately replaced him.
United got one back through Giggs, but with a couple of minutes left, it only counted for goal-difference. Was it complacency - they were 18 games unbeaten - or superstition? The half-time colour change, from grey pyjamas to Sheffield Wednesday-style blue, first appeared a psychological move by Ferguson. In fact, the players wanted the change. They claim it is hard to pick each other out in grey, but their failure to win in it may also have played on their minds. Maybe the pressure is beginning to tell, after all.
Goals: Monkou (11) 1-0; Shipperley (23) 2-0; Le Tissier (43) 3- 0; Giggs (89) 3-1.
Southampton (4-4-1-1): Beasant; Neilson, Monkou, Benali, Charlton; Dodd, Magilton, Venison, Heaney; Le Tissier; Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Bennett, Widdrington, Walters.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; Irwin, G Neville, Bruce, Sharpe (May, 55); Beckham, Keane, Butt (Scholes, h-t), Giggs; Cantona; Cole. Substitute not used: Coton (gk).
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
Bookings: Southampton Venison. Manchester United Beckham.
Man of the match: Le Tissier.
Attendance: 15,262.Reuse content