Fulham's awful run of six Premiership defeats in a row ended at the St Mary's Stadium yesterday but Southampton will not be dissatisfied with a sharing of points. Yet to praise either side would be done only under torture.
It was a match that Southampton fans probably approached with mixed feelings. A draw with Sunderland the previous weekend had all but guaranteed that the club's investment in the new stadium would not be eroded by relegation, yet during the week there came the news of Matthew Le Tissier's decision to retire.
In 16 years with them, he had scored 209 senior goals and made several attempts to defy his injuries to extend his career, even though he knew that his personal pride and club loyalty could cause him long-term disability.
Meanwhile, his successors still had to face yesterday's game looking for assured Premiership security, which on the face of it should not have been too much of a problem, since in spite of their progress in the FA Cup Fulham were suffering their most unsuccessful League run since 1986. Southampton's concession of a seventh-minute goal was entirely of their own making, because when Sylvan Legwinski pushed the ball forward in the direction of Steve Marlet, goalkeeper Paul Jones seemed to have it covered. Yet Marlet did make contact. The ball rebounded off Jones and Marlet tapped in.
For 20 minutes, Fulham successfully defended their advantage, but when Andy Melville carelessly tried to caress the ball back to Edwin van der Sar, Marian Pahars interrupted, only to thrash the ball into the side-netting. Nevertheless, Southampton had the scent of goal and a minute later Jason Dodd flighted a glorious pass to Rory Delap, who had won the ball in the first place, and he cracked in a powerful equaliser.
Fulham, not known to welcome a scrap, were now drawn into one. Barry Hayles ought to have restored their lead but let Jones dive at his feet to divert him. He had already wasted an equally good opportunity when, surprisingly, Wayne Bridge had lost concentration and possession. That sort of mistake had generally been the preserve of Fulham's fragile defence. And uncertainty and underachievement became the themes of much of the rest of the game.
Fulham's considered, accurate passing so much admired earlier in the season had turned to hurried, frustrated fumbling. Even John Collins, whose touch and eye for the unusual angles can alter the outcome of tight occasions, was remote and largely ineffective. No wonder Southampton's manager, Gordon Strachan, spent so long on the touchline roaring his team to greater effort.
It was a match waiting to be won by further sweat or moment of ingenuity. The moment should have come in the 79th minute when substitute Joe Tessem slipped the ball through the Fulham penalty area and another sub, Kevin Davies, crashed the ball against the post. Brett Ormerod struck the rebound ineffectively to symbolise the day. The conclusion of Strachan that "Fulham were the better team - simple as that'' was over-generous. Fulham were marginally the less shambolic.
Jean Tigana will be relieved to have ended a miserable run of six successive Premiership defeats but his Fulham side were left to regret a series of chances that would have guaranteed them a valuable away win against a Southampton side who struggled throughout to find any rhythm or purpose.
If Fulham fail to recover from a rapid decline in form to retain their Premiership status, they will look back on the first half of their first visit to St Mary's during which they wasted four clear chances with only the goalkeeper to beat on each occasion.
The Saints were in benevolent mood, their back four all making mistakes in front of uncertain goalkeeper Paul Jones, who gave away the only chance Fulham managed to accept in a curious opening 45 minutes.
Jones was clearly at fault with Fulham's seventh goal from their French striker Steve Marlet, who took full advantage of the Welsh international's reluctance to come for a long pass out of defence from Sylvan Legwinski - but even then the goalkeeper reached the ball first before losing possession as he slid at Marlet's feet.
Fulham had opportunities to add to their lead and even Wayne Bridge, seemingly heading for the World Cup finals with England, was not immune from error, being dispossessed three minutes later by the eager Barry Hayles and only for Jones' legs to prevent a second.
Paul Williams, who has been so reliable throughout Southampton's recovery this season, was the next to err, losing possession to Hayles who delayed his shot and was driven wide of the target by Jones.
In between the Saints had fashioned an unlikely equaliser when Jason Dodd found Rory Delap unmarked inside the area to score with a left-foot shot from 12 yards.
The next Southampton blunder came in the 29th minute with Delap losing possession in the centre circle allowing Steed Malbranque to race clear and hit the outside of the post with Jones unprotected again.
Furious home manager Gordon Strachan had seen enough and raced from his bench seat to remonstrate with his defence.
While the home side improved after the break, Fulham were in no mood to surrender a hard-earned point which at least ended their recent sorry sequence of Premiership failures. But the main incident of note in the second half came when Stra chan, his arms flailing, grabbed the ball well outside his technical area and proceeded to berate Delap for a mistake, although the irate Scot could have chosen any one of his team for the same treatment.
Fulham always looked the more likely to score again and the busy Davis exchanged passes with Marlet on the edge of the area before shooting over while Jones, his uncertainty still evident, was fortunate when Dodd headed off the line from Marlet nine minutes later.
Strachan sent on Kevin Davies in the 72nd minute in place of the ineffective Marian Pahars and six minutes later, the replacement came close to snatching what would have been an undeserved winner. Davies beat Fulham goalkeeper Van Der Sar with a low drive, which hit the base of a post before coming out.
Fulham also hit the woodwork two minutes later when Louis Saha, who had begun the match on the bench, hit the outside of a post with a drive and in the end, both sides appeared happy to settle for a point which inches them closer to the golden vision of Premiership safety.
ONE goalkeeping error, one notably skilful finish and some inexplicably jittery defending in the first half made for a compelling, if hardly exceptional match. That neither team managed to win it had much to do with the managers doing their upmost at half-time to ensure there would be no repeat of the errors that had occurred with frequency beforehand.
Will either club be relegated? Surely not. Both, after all, were hardly expected to make greater progress beyond finishing a few places above the bottom three in the Premiership. The weight of history was against Fulham. They had not beaten Southampton in a league fixture for 67 years and had lost their previous six matches. Yet the possibility of this extending to a record of sorts was offset by an attacking approach right from the kick-off.
They found themselves taking on a Southampton defence that was uncertain in the extreme. This was epitomised by Fulham's goal after just seven minutes, but there were numerous other examples. Paul Jones has had his ponderous moments, and there was one such now when he failed to smother Sylvain Legwinski's through ball to Steve Marlet.
This, seemingly, was a straightforward piece of goalkeeping of the kind that an individual at this level should have had little difficulty accomplishing. Yet somehow Jones allowed Marlet to take the ball beyond him without apparent physical exertion, and the finish was a simple affair.
This lack of steadfastness permeated the entire defence, for Paul Williams and even new England man Wayne Bridge struggled to exert any control.
Poor Williams almost gave away a second goal when Barry Hayles caught him in possession and failed to score only through attempting to dribble around Jones and being forced too far to his left. Hayles had another chance after an unlikely error by Bridge, but could shoot only against the goalkeeper's legs. Then Steed Malbranque drove disappointingly wide of the post.
All credit, then, to one particular Southampton player for not losing his composure. In the 22nd minute a through ball from Jason Dodd was immaculately controlled by Rory Delap, who opted for the most narrow of gaps between Edwin Van der Sar and his near post. It was a finish, dare one say, worthy of the recently retired Matt Le Tissier, who was acclaimed on the pitch before the start.
Neither defence was as profligate as this in the second half. They hardly could have been. A substitute from each side hit a post, which proved to be the summation of the action.
The focus by now was on the testimonial of Le Tissier at this stadium in May.
Even in his crocked state he could surely have brought some finesse to these proceedings.
This may not have been one of Fulham's prettiest performances of the season but no one connected with Jean Tigana's side will care about that. After six straight league defeats and 15 goals conceded, the FA Cup semi-finalists at last ended their dismal Premiership run with a point that could prove priceless come mid-May.
The statistics showed that Fulham had not won in the league at Southampton for 67 years and how badly the Cottagers needed that run to end in the first meeting between the sides at St Mary's.
With his team plunging into free-fall, manager Jean Tigana restored Welsh captain Andy Melville to his starting line-up in order to add some much-needed steel to the defence while Jason Dodd and Rory Delap returned for the Saints.
Within seven minutes, Southampton were behind courtesy of a horrible error by goalkeeper Paul Jones.
Sylvain Legwinski played a hopeful ball into the box and instead of collecting it comfortably, the cap-less Jones, who may have had the sun in his eyes, was guilty of a dreadful fumble as he allowed Steve Marlet to tap into an empty net. Three minutes later, with his side still shell-shocked, Jones partially atoned for his mistake by keeping out a Barry Hayles effort with his legs.
It was just the start Fulham needed but as so often in recent weeks, they could not sustain it. On 21 minutes, St Mary's celebrated a wonderful equaliser. Skipper Jason Dodd played a dangerous ball over the top of Fulham's defence and Delap, with superb control, lashed it into the net.
For the rest of the half, it was end-to-end entertainment, aided by a comedy of defensive errors, and Hayles must be wondering how he failed to restore Fulham's lead instead of being forced wide with the goal at his mercy.
Both defences tightened up considerably after the break as the game moved into a more cautious phase. A couple of well-timed runs by the under-rated Matt Oakley almost opened the door for Southampton while Fulham's Sean Davis shot over the crossbar.
The dark-suited Gordon Strachan, gesticulating as passionately as ever in the dug-out, watched nervously as his team threatened to concede too much possession.
With 20 minutes left, in a bold attempt to take all three points, Tigana sent on two strikers in Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte, the latter playing against his old club. Strachan responded immediately by replacing Pahars and Anders Svensson with Jo Tessem and Kevin Davies and it was this pairing that almost won the game with 12 minutes remaining. Tessem's glorious pass ripped through the centre of Fulham's back line and Davies thumped his shot against a post.
A winner then for Southampton, who are becoming the Premiership's draw specialists, would have been hard on the visitors. Out of danger Fulham most certainly are not, but for once they proved they could scrap as well as strut.