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On This Day In History - 5th May 1996 A Last Day Nail Biter
Tuesday, 5th May 2020 11:46

In all the relegation battles in the 1990's I don't think there was one more nerve wracking than the the one in May 1996 when Wimbledon refused to lay down and die and let us win to stay up.

As previously said the 1998/99 season is known as the Great Escape, 1995/96 never saw us in the bottom three after October, but we were in danger of doing so right up to the last kick of the season both at the Dell and Manchester City.

As has been well documented Alan Ball had left the Dell less than a year earlier in some controversy after being tapped up by Manchester City, Saints fans felt he had abandoned them for money and he had been dubbed Judas and was public enemy number 1.

He had been replaced by club stalwart Dave Merrington who had a difficult task of motivating a squad disappointed by Ball's departure and doing so with little to spend as the Premier League was now starting to see clubs with big grounds and followings be able to spend the cash. We didn't have the smallest average support in the division, but we had the smallest ground.

15,152 packed into it for the visit of Liverpool on the final day, with two clubs already down the task was simple for Coventry and Saints who had to just equal what Manchester City did and they would stay up on goal difference, for Alan Ball it was tougher he had to hope that one side would do worse.

All three teams were at home, Saints to Wimbledon and Coventry to Leeds, both teams in the lower mid table with nothing to play for and Manchester City were hosting Liverpool the team in 3rd place in the League, their main hopes were pinned on the fact that Liverpool could not go up or drop a place in the League and that a week later they were in the FA Cup Final against Manchester United.

This was perhaps the worst Saints game I have ever watched it was horrible a scrappy game with few chances and we all knew that a goal in any of the games could suddenly change the situation and relegate us

There were still no smart phones back then, I don't even think that the early mobiles could do texts, so it was still the day of the transistor radio and ears at all grounds were glued to radio commentary elsewhere, something that at the end of the day would prove fatal to Alan Ball's Manchester City.

Initially the news was good, no score at Highfield Road and at half time Liverpool were winning 2-0 at Maine Road, the tension lifted a little.

As the second half progressed with 20 minutes left the scores were all the same, but then came news that City had pulled one back and then with 12 minutes left they had equalised, we all knew that they would now have a head of steam up, would Liverpool have the guts for a fight with a cup final a week away, back then they had a great side but it's defence was lacked spine.

At the Dell Wimbledon were not sitting back and letting us get a goal that would change everything, in fact quite the opposite they were going for goal and upping the ante.

We knew that if they scored we were down, but the day was about to take a bizarre twist and most would say that Alan Ball had Karma.

Wimbledon had a late late chance a header that to most looked in the bottom corner, but in fact flashed wide, we all breathed again, perhaps that news of that chance got garbled, but up at Maine Road they were about to get things badly wrong.

News from the stands filtered down to the bench that Wimbledon had scored at the Dell in the final minute, a draw for City was now enough, Ball with no access to any actual real or accurate news ordered his team to take the ball into the corner and keep it there, Liverpool presumably didn't care less.

Niall Quinn who had been substituted was informed by someone with a radio that a goal hadn't been scored and that the game at the Dell was now over at 0-0, City were down unless they got a third, Quinn was despatched along the touchline to tell their player to get the ball out of the corner and into the goal mouth, but it was too late, they had lost momentum and run out of time and before they had achance to have a chance the final whistle was blown.

Back at the Dell we were all oblivious to the happenings at Maine Road, we just knew it was 2-2 and that they were probably going hammer and tongs against Liverpool, we waited almost silently to hear our fate.

It soon came through that City were down and the celebrations began, the team did a very sombre lap of honour around the pitch and we headed to the Fitzhugh pub to celebrate and then laugh as we heard the story of City's demise.

There was no sympathy for Alan Ball who had been our hero less than 12 months earlier, only hatred for putting money before loyalty, the job at City was a poisoned chalice back then, City had been in as many relegation battles as us and we were seen as a better team the season before, Ball was seen as taking the silver and an effigy of him was burned from the Fitzhugh's pub sign.

Ball would never manage in the top flight again, indeed he would be resign just three games into the next season ironically claiming that he wasn't being given any money to spend.

A spell back at Pompey followed in January 1998 fighting relegation before being sacked in December 1999 he would never manage again, Saints fans shed no tears.

Thankfully though his popularity with Saints fans recovered slightly thanks to his new job on Radio Solent where he co hosted a pre match Saturday show and for a while he became the only thing that Saints and Pompey fans agreed on, being popular with both sets of fans,

Sadly he would die in April 2007.

Photo: Action Images



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britishlegion added 14:06 - May 6

I was very disappointed when Alan left ! He was a very enthusiast man and galvanized the supporters, after the Ian Brantfoot days, who got behind the team as they had in the 1980's.

We seemed to get our identity back and even if we were relegated it felt that we had a manager and management team we could all trust in, it felt like he was one of us and we were going to have a good future.

However, I think behind the scene's tensions were growing. I once met Lawrie McMenemy at an event and I asked him about this period in the clubs history, thinking that he would have been disappointed that Alan left , which he was to a degree; but expressed how Alan was his own man and that he couldn't stop him going to Man City and this was followed by a surprising comment that he himself wished he had returned to the club as manager - not in the role of director of football - as he had done after his England role. I was taken aback at this and then when I read sometime later that at the time of being offered the position at Man City Alan had been given a bonus from Saints for keeping the club in the top division which he felt was not very large compared to what had been achieved and that perhaps he felt undervalued by those in around him a new picture developed for me as to why he may have left.

This is just an opinion, but perhaps Alan didn't feel he had the control he wanted and perhaps he decided he wanted to be his own man. Whatever the reason we all felt disappointed because we had faith in him, football is more than a business , its personal and he was one of us! To this day he was in my opinion one of the best midfeild players I have ever seen, his vision to see a pass and his first touch of the ball was wonderful. Sadly missed. A Legend.
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