West Ham's immediate fate was all but certain before kick-off. At least now it is back in their own hands. Cardiff await Sam Allardyce's men in Wales in the play-offs on Thursday night, though it is a perilous prospect for a side whose automatic promotion bid was often unflattering.
"It'll be disastrous if we don't go up," admitted Allardyce following this ultimately meaningless victory. The majority of fans have long felt that. But such a frank conclusion was a remarkable volte-face for Allardyce after his assessment last week that his side had enjoyed a "fantastic season" regardless of their inability to seize one of the top two berths. It was not long before he was back clawing positives from negatives and distancing potential criticism.
"I stuck my neck on the line at the start of the season and said we wanted to get promotion in the first year, but I've got a two-year contract …
"We've been so close and been there so long — it's only a miraculous set of results from Reading that has taken it away from us ...
"Four out of five years 86 points would be enough so we've been unlucky this time." And so on.
Having started the day third, two points adrift of Southampton, the Hammers needed the Saints to suffer an almighty slip up to give their own tribulations any relevance. Optimism began to dissipate as early as the 16th minute when news arrived from St Mary's that Southampton had taken the lead against relegated Coventry. Three minutes later, Upton Park was hushed; Southampton had scored again.
West Ham could have struck first in the battle for automatic promotion had Ricardo Vaz Tê not spurned a far-post header from five yards in the third minute. The Portuguese striker climbed well and headed down into the turf, but, agonisingly for those deceived by its trajectory, the ball leapt inches wide of the upright.
As the half progressed the home side exercised concerted pressure over a side who were merely rubbernecking at the promotion battle. First, Mark Noble's looping left-wing cross hit the face of the crossbar. Then Carlton Cole, maligned this season for his ability to miss even the most presentable of chances, headed West Ham 1-0 up from the resulting corner.
The ball should not have found the net as Paul McKenna, the Hull midfielder, was on the line and directly in its path, but he botched his clearing duties.
Eight minutes from the break, Vaz Tê squandered his second chance of the match when one-on-one with the Hull keeper. Cole compensated after the interval with a delightful second goal, chesting down a hanging pass from Henri Lansbury before stroking the ball home.
Having been derided for playing football in the clouds for much of the season, it was ironic that a floated ball into the heart of the penalty area such produce a goal of such outstanding quality.
Hull's Corry Evans found the net nine minutes from time thanks to a hideous header from Guy Demel which dropped inside his own six-yard box. With the play-offs in mind West Ham substituted critical players in the closing stages and looked surprisingly shaky — Hull's Richard Garcia had a diving header disallowed for offside – as the game drew to a meaningless conclusion.
If their season ends in similar fashion, Allardyce's tenure in east London will be unsustainable.
"There's no cup or league game that has got the same atmosphere as the play-offs," he said. "Getting through the first two legs is the hardest thing, so we can't afford to look to Wembley yet."