Southampton have stumbled rather than raced towards the promotion finishing line in recent weeks, but they crossed it in style yesterday. A stroll against relegated Coventry sealed Saints' return to the Premier League after an absence of seven years that had included administration and a descent to League One.
All that was missing was a goal from Rickie Lambert, the Championship's top scorer, but the biggest crowd of the season at St Mary's was happy with a result more reminiscent of their team's early-season home form rather than its springtime nerves.
Nigel Adkins, the manager, has followed in the footsteps of Paul Lambert of Norwich City by securing back-to-back promotions in his first two seasons at the club and will hope for similar success when he makes his own debut in the technical areas of the top flight.
"We've put a lot of hard work in, a lot of effort and we've achieved something special," he said. "Great credit to the players, the coaching staff, the support staff, everybody, they deserve every plaudit because they put the hours in. We have achieved and we have to look at a new set of goals now."
Never out of the top two, Southampton began the season where they had left off in 2010-11, extending a long unbeaten home record that compensated for some unconvincing results on the road.
Lambert adjusted to the higher division without difficulty, scoring 27 League goals. Their other stand-out players have been yesterday's man of the match Adam Lallana, an academy product of obvious class who signalled last season that he would not be following Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out of the club by signing a long-term contract, and goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, who had a torrid season at the top with Sunderland but has starred this season, keeping 18 clean sheets. "There is no doubt this club is ready for the Premier League," he said. "I can't wait to be there again."
Reinforcements will be required in some positions, but Adkins is relishing the challenge. "Southampton football club are back in the Premier League, it's a wonderful thought," he said. "We've got to enjoy this, but plans are already in place from a structure point of view. It's a Premier League football club, so a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes. We're back in the big league and we've got to give ourselves an opportunity to dowell in it.
"You look at the way we've played over the past two seasons. I want us to play football, to keep passing the ball as we have done, which is going to be challenging, but it is possible – it has been proven. The chairman, Nicola Cortese, has got massive ambitions for the football club, but for now we've got to enjoy the moment."
With hindsight, it was inconceivable that Adkins' men would not secure promotion by beating the Sky Blues, although there was understandable tension after successive reverses at home to Reading and away to Middlesbrough.
Fans fearing a last-day catastrophe had endured a week of imagining worst-case scenarios, but the uncertainty lasted for only the 16 minutes in which Coventry put up a serious struggle and might have taken the lead. Morgan Schneiderlin had to intervene as Conor Thomas lined up a shot and Davis saved well from Gary McSheffrey as Coventry tried much too hard as far as the fingernails of the home fans were concerned, and Carl Baker wasted a chance when given the freedom of the penalty area.
The nerves were settled when Billy Sharp got a late touch on Lallana's half-volley to deflect the ball past Joe Murphy, the Coventry goalkeeper, after Jose Fonte had brought the ball out of defence and set up Guly Do Prado's cross. Two minutes later, Fonte dived to meet Daniel Fox's corner from the right, his header bouncing off the turf and into the roof of the net. Fonte's partner in central defence, Jos Hooiveld, made it 3-0 from close range after some penalty-area pinball on the hour and even the most sceptical were finally believers. Lallana scored soon after from a similar distance after Lambert had nodded the ball across goal.
"I told the boys to use the game as a learning curve and a guide for where we want to get to because what has happened to us happened to them," Andy Thorn, the Coventry manager, said. "They have done it and we have to do the same. Well done to them."
Southampton (4-4-2): Davis; Butterfield, Fonte, Hooiveld, Fox; Do Prado, Schneiderlin, Hammond (Cork, 36), Lallana (Puncheon, 81); Sharp (De Ridder, 76), Lambert.
Coventry (4-2-3-1): Murphy; Clarke, Willis (Henderson, 72), Cranie, Hussey; Norwood, Bigirimana (Jeffers h-t); Baker, Thomas, McSheffrey (Roberts, 34); McDonald.
Referee Anthony Taylor.
Man of the match Lallana (Southampton).
Match rating 7/10.
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