Ruud sends Saints down

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For an hour, Southampton had a glimpse of salvation; beating, then drawing with, Manchester United while results favoured Harry Redknapp's side.

Then, within a couple of minutes, the unlikely triumvirate of Dougie Freedman, Geoff Horsfield and Ruud van Nistelrooy snatched it away.

The Scotsman levelled for Crystal Palace, the Englishman gave West Brom a predictable lead against Portsmouth and finally, decisively, the Dutchman earned Manchester United a 2-1 victory.

It ended Southampton's 27-year stay in the top flight and, relegated to a subplot at St Mary's, sent Manchester United into the FA Cup final on a winning note.

And as the reality of relegation dawned on Southampton, a despondent Redknapp slumped back in the dug-out. His abortive survival bid had failed; a dismal season ended in the humiliation of finishing bottom.

But Southampton had started the afternoon with a consecutive stay in the top flight exceeded only by Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United. Indeed, their last relegation came alongside United in 1974; not even the most depressed United supporter is worrying about demotion under Malcolm Glazer.

Another defeat under Sir Alex Ferguson briefly appeared a possibility when John O'Shea's own goal gave Southampton a 10th-minute lead. Darren Fletcher quickly restored a nervous parity before van Nistelrooy plunged the knife into a wounded Saints side.

Manchester United, with cup final places to play for, may have necessitated a rethink from Ferguson when they went behind. As Danny Higginbotham, who can cause panic in either penalty box, attacked Graeme Le Saux's corner, the hesistant Roy Carroll made a feeble attempt to stop him. The Saints defender won the header, O'Shea and Nigel Quashie challenged for it and the United defender got the final touch.

Redemption arrived for O'Shea nine minutes later when Fletcher met his cross with a looping header that beat Antti Niemi; for Carroll, a further four minutes on when he acrobatically blocked Henri Camara's fierce volley.

The drama was increased by Southampton's need to win and their utter inability to defend. They had almost scored a second when the recalled David Prutton rounded the errant Carroll and crossed but Wes Brown contrived to deny Brett Ormerod a tap-in.

But Southampton's leaky defence were conspicuous by their absence when Alan Smith blazed over and grateful to Niemi for an unconventional save from van Nistelrooy and, aided by Le Saux, keeping out an O'Shea volley.

In his search for a saviour, Redknapp had gambled on Ormerod ahead of Kevin Phillips. The moment for the industrious striker to justify his manager's faith arrived on the hour as Henri Camara led a counter-attack.

The £20 million question was whether he could finish; Carroll, tipping his shot over, ensured the answer was 'no'. And as goals elsewhere shifted Southampton into the drop zone, van Nistelrooy added his contribution, a far post header from Alan Smith's cross.

And though Camara headed against the bar, Southampton were left needing two goals. It never looked likely.

For Le Saux, it meant a first relegation of his career; Redknapps senior and junior, relegated at Bournemouth 15 years ago, suffered the same fate 20 miles further east. For all three, it could be the prelude to retirement.

On the final day their efforts, though not their defending, could not be faulted. Over a season, one chairman, three managers and 34 players squandered Matt Le Tissier's legacy; Premiership football.

Click here for Southampton v Man Utd player ratings.

SouthamptonTeam NameManchester United
1Goals2
2Shots on target ( Inc Goals )8
8Shots off Target (inc woodwork)8
0Blocked Shots0
5Corners Won3
18Total Fouls Conceded13
5Offsides2
1Yellow Cards2
0Red Cards0
42%Possession58%