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West Bromwich Albion were the unlikely victors of the final-day, four-way shoot-out for survival in the Premier League. They defeated Portsmouth 2-0 on a day of fluctuating fortunes and shredded nerves that eventually saw Southampton, Norwich and Crystal Palace relegated.
In surviving, Bryan Robson's side finally broke the rule that the team bottom of the Premiership at Christmas are doomed to relegation. Yet Albion, also bottom as the season's final day dawned, needed the help of a late equaliser by Charlton's aptly named Jonathan Fortune against Palace.
With only seven minutes remaining, Palace were winning 2-1 at The Valley and heading for safety. But because of Fortune's header, Palace were relegated from the top league for the fourth time after just one season.
On an extraordinary day, during which all four clubs at some point tasted safety, West Brom emerged the only winners among them thanks to second-half goals from substitute Geoff Horsfield and Kieran Richardson. There was even the bizarre spectacle of Portsmouth fans, eager to see bitter local rivals Southampton relegated, urging their own players to "let them score". At the final whistle, the home team and supporters had to endure an excruciating minute before the Palace game ended and their safety was confirmed - the cue for a joyous pitch invasion to the tune of "The Great Escape".
Yet at kick-off time it had been Norwich who lay outside the relegation zone with their fate entirely in their own hands as they faced Fulham at Craven Cottage. Victory would have guaranteed City a top-flight place next season, but it took only nine minutes for their fans to be left looking to their radios for salvation. By the end they had suffered a 6-0 drubbing and relegation from a league that could inflict such misery seemed almost merciful.
Norwich were outclassed by a side with nothing to play for and who began the day just two positions above them. Fulham's passing and movement was good, better than it has been for much of the season, but it was allowed to be. There was no bite, little drive, and the merest movement of the ball sent the Norwich back-four into paroxysms.
Brian McBride got the opener, slipping his finish between the legs of goalkeeper Robert Green after running on to Tomasz Radzinski's finely calibrated pass. Papa Bouba Diop added a second with a 25-yard free-kick, and it could have been far, far worse for Norwich. Only the excellence of Green prevented the situation being irredeemable by half-time.
Any dreams of a comeback were dispelled eight minutes after the break, as Zat Knight thumped a third from the edge of the box. Steed Malbranque rolled a fourth after he and Luis Boa Morte had opened Norwich up with a simple one-two and then set up McBride for his second. Andy Cole completed the humiliation, stretching behind him to drag in a McBride cross in the final minute.
Southampton also suffered the cruelty of first having a smell of salvation only for it to be snatched away. While a 2-1 home defeat by Manchester United was the agency of their demise after 27 years in the top flight, the real agony of Saints' position was their utter vulnerability to events elsewhere.
When they took a 10th-minute lead at St Mary's, as United's defence failed woefully at a corner and John O'Shea deflected past his own keeper, Southampton were out of the bottom three courtesy of Fulham's first goal. Eight minutes later O'Shea made amends with a fine angled cross headed home by Darren Fletcher, and Saints were still safe. But when Ruud van Nistelrooy headed United's 62nd-minute winner from Alan Smith's cross, Saints were already sinking thanks to West Brom's opening goal. As former Southampton manager Alan Ball said at half-time: "I can't tell you what it is like. You're so completely helpless."
United fans were, as supporters are, insensitive to the misery around them. They chanted: "You're going down in a minute," then counted down to the final whistle, but can argue that Saints' followers had started it by taunting them about their unwanted new ownership, with choruses of "USA, USA".
Not that Southampton fans are too pleased with their owners. A section called afterwards for the head of chairman Rupert Lowe, any gratitude for the commercial acumen that enabled the building of their fine stadium far outweighed by anger at the instability of five managers during the past four years.
Reports by Jonathan Wilson at Craven Cottage, Huw Richards at St Mary's and Charles Morris.
* Middlesbrough snatched the final Uefa Cup spot from their hosts Manchester City after an injury-time penalty save by goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer ensured a 1-1 draw.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the league title will be decided on the last day of the season next weekend after Celtic won 2-1 at Hearts to take a two-point lead over Rangers.
* England selected batsman Ian Bell for the 12-man cricket squad for this month's first Test against Bangladesh, but his rivals Kevin Pietersen and Robert Key missed out. Bell, 23, scored 70 in his one innings for England, against West Indies in August last year. The Warwickshire right-hander averages 80 in county cricket this season while most of England's other leading batsmen have struggled for form.
Uncapped seam bowler Jon Lewis of Gloucestershire was also called up. England: Vaughan (capt), Trescothick, Strauss, Thorpe, Bell, Flintoff, G Jones (wktkpr), Giles, Hoggard, Harmison, S Jones, Lewis.
* Denmark's Thomas Bjorn won golf's British Masters at Forest of Arden after a three-man, sudden-death play-off. Bjorn's par at the second extra hole was enough to see off Britons David Howell and Brian Davis.
* Roger Federer retained his Hamburg Masters title by defeating French teenager Richard Gasquet 6-3 7-5 7-6.
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