28 April ~ Southampton host Coventry City today knowing that a win will seal a second successive promotion and a return to the Premier League. While the Southampton fans will be pleased to be going into the final match of the season with their destiny in their own hands, they have seen their team lose a commanding lead at the top of the Championship in less than a month, picking up just seven points from six games and, in the process, watching Reading walk off with top spot. There will be a full house of decidedly edgy home supporters packed into St Mary's.
With all respect to Coventry, if Southampton could have chosen their opposition for this match, they would surely have plumped for a side already condemned to relegation with the Championship's worst away record – and whom they have already beaten twice this season (they met in the FA Cup).
Nigel Adkins's main tasks will be to manage expectations and ensure his players afford due respect to the visitors. His calm authority, allied with his tactical nous, has steered Saints through one period of poor results in December and January and put the promotion bid back on track. Indeed, if Southampton clinch their place in the Premier League, it will be Adkins' fourth promotion in just under six seasons as a manager.
West Ham stand ready to pounce if they falter. Victory over Coventry will secure promotion, as will a defeat or a draw for the Hammers at home to Hull. Things will get more interesting if West Ham win and Southampton draw – that will leave the two sides tied on 86 points. Southampton have a superior goal difference and have scored more, but those advantages could be overturned this afternoon.
They could end up level on points, goal difference and goals scored – in which case, automatic promotion will be decided by the results of the head-to-head fixtures between the two this season. That would favour Southampton, who beat West Ham 1-0 at St Mary's in October and achieved a 1-1 draw away at Upton Park in February.
If Saints are looking for omens, they can point to a comfortable 3-0 success against Coventry on April 28, 1990. Exactly six years earlier, not even a young Stuart Pearce in the Coventry side could prevent Southampton from romping to an 8-2 victory, with Steve Moran and Danny Wallace both claiming hat-tricks. In the here and now, Nigel Adkins will settle for a victory of any margin.
Whatever their mood at the final whistle, the home fans would do well to spare a thought for the visiting supporters, who have spent the season protesting at the absence of leadership and investment in their club from its owners, SISU. Five years ago the Southampton board at the time brokered a deal to sell to SISU, only for the shareholders to veto the sale.
Had SISU's takeover attempt at St Mary's been successful, the club's recent history could easily have been as turbulent – and its future as uncertain – as Coventry's appears to be. Tim Springett