Merouane Zemmama's sublime winning free-kick kept Middlesbrough's hopes of reaching the play-offs flickering on an evening when Tony Mowbray's side delighted in ruining Southampton's proposed promotion party.
Victory would have offered Nigel Adkins's side a passage to the Premier League but now they may need to beat Coventry at home on Saturday to be absolutely sure of pipping West Ham United to the second automatic promotion place behind Reading. Two points adrift of sixth placed Cardiff, Boro – who were lucky not to have Seb Hines sent off early in the second half – must win their final game at Watford while hoping the Welsh team stumble. But judging by the resounding chants of "Only one Tony Mowbray" at the final whistle optimism is far from extinguished on Teesside.
It took only 47 seconds for Billy Sharp to score his seventh goal in as many games. Connecting with the impressive Adam Lallana's crisp through header Rickie Lambert wrongfooted Boro's goalkeeper Jason Steele before slipping a pass to Sharp who gleefully lashed the ball into the roof of the net. Meanwhile Hines and Stephen McManus were left counting the cost of their collision.
"The Saints are going up," chirruped the jubilant away end, throwing in a few choruses of "Only one team in Hampshire" by way of variation. Gradually though a hint of nervousness seemed to afflict the 2,500 strong travelling south coast choir. Such increasingly tentative notes reflected Boro's growing assurance in possession and, during stoppage time at the end of the first half, Mowbray's team were rewarded with an equaliser. A 25-yard volley from Nicky Bailey following a cross from substitute Joe Bennett, it took the slightest of deflections off Richard Chaplow before going past Kelvin Davis.
It could, though, have been worse for Adkins. Seconds before the interval Boro's Lukas Jutkiewicz controlled the ball on his chest before directing a shot into the bottom corner, only to denied a goal by a flag for a marginal offside.
The second half saw Southampton push, frantically, for another goal and Sharp looking distraught after missing a decent chance. Fortune again deserted them when Hines, already on a yellow card, brought Lallana down on the edge of the area. Although it was clearly a free-kick rather than a penalty, Boro fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the referee somehow allowed the defender to remain on the pitch.
Boro made the very most of this reprieve, eventually taking the lead thanks to that fabulous free-kick from Zemmama, the Moroccan displaying wonderful technique in curving a 20‑yard dead ball over the wall and on into the top corner.