IT went right down to the wire – a nerve-jangling, nail-biting finale – but that served only to heighten the delight and the relief that came with a dramatic last-day victory over Middlesbrough.
Wanderers had secured a third successive season of Premier League football – at the expense of West Ham United who were relegated with a record 42 points – and they celebrated long and hard.
The build up had tested nerves to near breaking point – not helped by the preoccupation of the vast majority of the national media backing the Hammers to the point of suggesting Wanderers had no place in the Premiership. Yet that served only to inspire Sam Allardyce’s Whites who, despite the pressure of the situation, showed a determination Boro simply could not live with.
Per Frandsen paved the way for victory when he robbed Jonathan Greening and slammed an unstoppable shot past Mark Schwarzer and, 11 minutes later, Jay Jay Okocha’s exquisite free-kick doubled the advantage.
They should have been home and dry but the pressure was back on when Michael Ricketts, who had moved to Boro from Wanderers in a £3.5million deal four months earlier, came off the subs’ bench to pull one back in the 62nd minute.
News that West Ham had gone 1-0 up at Birmingham spread panic round the Reebok.
But 25 minutes later Boro were down to 10 men after having Franck Queudrue sent off and Birmingham were 2-1 up.
The fact that the Hammers managed to salvage a 2-2 draw at Birmingham, ultimately, was of no consequence.
Wanderers had the victory they needed and were safe. At the final whistle a jubilant Allardyce joined Okocha, Djorkaeff, Campo, Bergsson, Jaaskelainen, Gardner and the rest on one of the most joyful laps of honour ever seen at the Reebok.
Wanderers: Jaaskelainen; N’Gotty, Bergsson, Whitlow, Mendy (Nolan 72); Okocha, Frandsen, Campo, Gardner; Djorkaeff (Charlton 90), Pedersen (Andre 66).
Not used: Poole, Ballesta.
Middlesbrough: Schwarzer; Parnaby, Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue; Greening (Doriva 45), Wilkshire, Boateng, Juninho; Maccarone (Ricketts 45), Christie (Downing 45).
Not used: Crossley, Davies.
Referee: Rob Styles.