LONDON — If Norwich City beats Fulham on Sunday then Southampton will lose the top division status it has held since 1978. Relegation would complete one of the most remarkable and unexpected declines in Premiership history — two years ago Southampton finished eighth and was beaten 1-0 by Arsenal in the F.A. Cup final.

Christopher Davies

Now its Premiership fate is out of its hands, relying on other clubs’ failures to remain among English football’s elite even assuming it beats Manchester United.

So where did it all go wrong for Southampton, a role model for smaller city clubs which has been superbly run and managed until recently?

Southampton supporters lay the blame firmly at the feet of chairman Rupert Lowe who, since taking control in 1996, has employed nine managers.

All clubs needs new faces but this was ridiculous. At Southampton people were not saying “where’s the manager?” but “who’s the manager?”

Despite the managerial turnover everything was running smoothly until in January 2004 Gordon Strachan (the fifth manager under Lowe) announced he was leaving that summer “for personal reasons.”

For reasons best known to Lowe, Strachan’s departure came a month later, the Scot replaced on a caretaker basis by youth academy director Steve Wigley before former Plymouth manager Paul Sturrock took over in March.

Lowe wanted Glenn Hoddle to return to the club, but the chairman was outvoted by the rest of the board, though Sturrock was to last only 13 games, leaving two matches into the 2004-05 season after complaints from players about training and tactics.

Wigley was given the job on a permanent basis, an appointment that most outsiders could see was ill-conceived, and, with Southampton facing a winter of relegation discontent, Harry Redknapp was controversially brought in days after he resigned from Portsmouth.

Going into the last round of fixtures Southampton has had six wins and three managers this season.

Redknapp took over a sinking ship and has not been able to keep it afloat.

RUPERT LOWE can justifiably rightly claim that he has only fired one of the eight managers during his chairmanship — Stuart Gray.

Graeme Souness resigned after failing to secure guarantees regarding funds for team-building.

Lowe then found himself a victim of circumstances when Dave Jones faced child abuse charges, of which he was later cleared.

Jones was granted a sabbatical to prove his innocence with Lowe bringing in Glenn Hoddle.

The former England manager got Saints on the right footing as they prepared to leave the Dell and move to St. Mary’s Stadium, but Lowe was again the victim as Hoddle opted to join Tottenham where he had become a legend as a player.

Lowe was prepared to give Gray his chance, but when manager No. 4 failed to take it, the choice of Gordon Strachan as a replacement did not go down well with the St. Mary’s faithful.

Sacked by Coventry after its relegation, Strachan hardly seemed the man to take the Saints marching on, but his appointment proved inspirational, leading the club to eighth place and the F.A. Cup final.

In the 16 months since Strachan’s departure, Southampton has gone from being an established Premiership club, seventh in the division, to the bottom three and staring relegation in the face.

Perhaps the revolving door on the manager’s office finally caught up with it.

Its relegation would be even sweeter for archrival Portsmouth after the bad blood generated by Redknapp’s switch of clubs.

In a remarkable finale to the Premiership season, any three from the bottom four of Norwich, Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion could stay up . . . or go down.

As Sir Alex Ferguson would say it’s squeaky bum time on Sunday afternoon.

THE FOOTBALL GODS have already smiled upon UEFA once and saved it the possible embarrassment of handing the Champions League trophy to Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who has caused European football’s governing body more aggravation than probably any coach in the history of the competition.

Now UEFA must be saying a private prayer that AC Milan beats Liverpool in the final on May 25 to prevent the embarrassment of somehow finding a way to ensure the Reds can defend their European crown next season.

The will-they/how-can-they saga bordering on soap opera has rumbled on for three weeks and shows no sign of slowing down.

The rules of the Champions League are spurious and subjective, open to different interpretations with the Football Association saying that the top four teams in the Premiership — Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton — will be England’s four representatives in next season’s Champions League.

That means even if Liverpool beats Milan in Istanbul the Reds will not be in next season’s Champions League.

UEFA has been caught unprepared on this one, while the F.A. has been proactive in announcing who England’s four representatives will be.

The F.A. could have said that if Liverpool wins the Champions League it will defend its European crown — instead it decided to go on Premiership merit, so Liverpool out, Everton in to the delight of the blue half of Merseyside.

Strangely, it is not set in tablets of stone in the regulations that the winners of the Champions League defend their title. Or so it seems.

What is definite is that the rules state “no [national] association may enter more than four clubs for the competition.”

Or maybe they can. The whole thing is as clear as mud.

Two weeks ago UEFA chief executive Lars-Christer Olsson said: “There is no way England can have more than four teams in the Champions League. The country [the F.A.] has to decide between the fourth-place team and the European title holder.”

This week UEFA president Lennart Johansson invited the F.A. to formally ask the executive committee for an extra place if Liverpool wins.

“The Champion must always be given the opportunity to defend the title,” said Johansson. “The F.A. should propose that we extend the number of English teams from four to five if Liverpool wins.”

But how can the regulations be changed “mid-season?”

They must surely stay as they are throughout the competition. Other national associations would understandably kick up a stink, as would the F.A., if Spain or Italy had received such preferential treatment.

UEFA sources say the reason it is not set down that the winners automatically qualify the following season is that it needs a legal loophole get-out.

Had, for example, Liverpool beaten Juventus in the 1985 Heysel final, imagine the problems it would have caused with English clubs banned from Europe but Liverpool still entitled to defend its crown.

The only time in 49 previous finals where the European champion has not been in the next season’s competition was in 1993, when Olympique Marseille, having won the Champions League, was relegated to the French second division in the wake of a financial and match-fixing scandal.

This is the get-out UEFA feels it needs — how embarrassing it would be to have such disgraced champions defending their title.

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