Take it all in. Albion will be playing European football for the first time in their history next season.
Two goals from Evan Ferguson and one by Pascal Gross, which enabled him to draw level with Glenn Murray as our leading scorer in the Premier League with 26, sealed a 3-1 victory over Southampton and started the biggest party at the Amex since promotion in 2017.
That day against Wigan, not many Albion fans would have thought that six years later their side would have qualified for Europe, and done so in such style.
Europa Conference League football has definitely been sealed with this victory but Albion are, to all intents and purposes, bound for the Europa League. They go into their last two games 16 goals better off than their final-day opponents Aston Villa.
There was a brief scare when Mohamed Elyounoussi made it 2-1 early in the second half and Theo Walcott had a goal disallowed for the narrowest of offsides. But if any Albion player can be relied upon it’s Gross, and his low finish made it 3-1 20 minutes from time. Job done – Europe here we come.
Joel Veltman’s return after four games out with a hamstring injury was one of four Albion changes to the side beaten by Newcastle with Alexis Mac Allister, Ferguson and Julio Enciso all back in the starting XI.
Albion began well and had a lot of possession in the opening stages as Southampton, with Joe Aribo operating as a lone striker, funnelling men behind the ball at any hint of danger.
The opening goal nearly came after eight minutes. As the visitors’ defence hesitated, Mitoma nipped in and burst into space but sent a right-foot shot curling a few inches wide of the right-hand post.
Moises Caicedo nearly finished a move he started on the edge of his own box but shot straight at McCarthy but it was Saints who had the best opportunity of the opening 20 minutes. A 3 v 2 break left space for Carlos Alcaraz to pick his spot but he shanked a shot from 12 yards wide of the post.
Mac Allister got another clattering, this time from Jan Bednarek, which earned him a booking and it nearly got much worse for the Southampton defender in the 21st minute when he slipped trying to control McCarthy’s pass. Mitoma nipped in, lifted the ball over the keeper but saw it bounce back off the post into McCarthy’s grateful grasp.
But the Saints’ keeper will feel he should have stopped Albion’s opening goal in the 29th minute. Mac Allister played the pass to Ferguson on the right-hand edge of the box. He took a touch before rattling a right-foot shot which had too much power for McCarthy, the ball going through his legs.
Alcaraz was booked for a hefty challenge on Enciso before Ferguson doubled the lead on 40 minutes. Mitoma made it, outmuscling Romeo Lavia on the left and racing into space before curling a cross with the outside of his foot that was so perfect Ferguson didn’t have to break stride as he smashed it low past McCarthy with his right foot. A sumptious assist and finish by two of our breakout stars this season.
Mitoma had another opportunity before the break but found the side netting trying to beat McCarthy at his near post.
Facundo Buonanotte came on for Enciso at the break and Albion dominated the early part of the second half. But it was Southampton who got back in the game on 58 minutes when James Ward-Prowse’s inswinging corner flicked off the head of Elyounoussi giving Jason Steele no chance.
Southampton sensed a change of mood and Walcott thought he’d equalised five minutes later after he raced clear and clipped the ball over Steele, but fortunately for Albion the VAR ruled that he had strayed inches offside. A turning point if ever there was one.
Albion’s regrouped and after Bednarek had cleared Veltman’s goalbound header off the line they re-established their two-goal lead in the 69th minute. Mac Allister’s corner was cleared to Gross on the edge of the box and he chopped inside Lavia before firing a low shot that beat McCarthy at his near post.
The roar of relief could have been heard in Southampton and Albion set about managing the closing stages. They came close to embellishing their lead, Mac Allister hitting a blockbuster of a volley from the edge of the box which flew half a yard over before substitutes Deniz Undav and Danny Welbeck both went close.
There have been some dark days in Albion’s history, some very dark days. Who would have dared think during the worst of them that one day their club would achieve what De Zerbi and his players have done this season.
But as the Amex crowd belted out ‘We’re all going on a European tour’ and the sun shone it felt like the very best of times.
Albion: Steele, Veltman (Undav 74), Dunk, Colwill (van Hecke 89), Estupinan, Caicedo, Gross, Mitoma (Gilmour 89), Mac Allister, Ferguson (Welbeck 65), Enciso (Bounanotte 45).
Subs: McGill, Ayari, Moran, Peupion.
Referee: Paul Tierney