Last-day mayhem at Molineux
After 90 tortuous minutes, the afternoon ended as it had begun: with Molineux bathed in sunshine and two sets of football supporters blissfully singing songs of survival.
For Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, a dramatic season of highs and lows was suddenly consigned to the dustbin of history. Despite teetering on the brink of relegation, it only mattered that they had both secured their Premier League status for another campaign.
When managers Mick McCarthy and Steve Kean appeared in the media room at one of English football's grand old clubs in the aftermath of Blackburn's 3-2 victory, they looked as though they had been to hell and back.
Wolves and Blackburn fans are united in their Premier League survival celebrations
"Emotionally I've been through the wringer," said McCarthy, who had to watch on helplessly during a second half in which his Wolves side were in and out of the relegation zone so many times because of events at Molineux and elsewhere that at one stage the fans had to remind their team what they needed to do to survive.
"I'm sick of permutations," he spat, unable to hide his disdain at not being able to focus solely on his side's performance. "I knew they'd matter, of course. But the excitement generated by five teams being in the scrap at the bottom on the final day is outrageous, really."
Outrageous is a perfect way to sum up the sequence of events that unfolded on Sunday. Going into the game 15th (Blackburn) and 16th (Wolves) in the table, both sides knew that a win would keep them up, but that any other result meant they were relying on other teams to do them a favour.
Blackburn started like a train, hitting their hosts on the break with speed and guile as strikers Jason Roberts and Junior Hoilett caused panic in the Wolves' rearguard. McCarthy's men had no answer - by half-time Roberts, Brett Emerton and Hoilett had given Rovers a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead and all but secured their safety.
"It's been a bumpy ride, the last six months, but that first half is the best 45 minutes we have put together this season," said a relieved Kean, who took over from the sacked Sam Allardyce in December when Blackburn were 13th in the table and led them to a 15th-placed finish, four points above the drop zone in the final analysis.
But at half-time, with Blackpool surprisingly holding Manchester United at Old Trafford and Birmingham level away at Spurs, Wolves were the bottom three. "We knew that wouldn't help us, it wasn't a good thing for us," said Kean. "We knew they would throw caution to the wind."
So what, with his side 3-0 down at home to a fellow bottom six club, did McCarthy say to inspire his troops? Surprisngly, perhaps, he chose a low-key approach.
"There weren't a whole load of expletives, no," revealed McCarthy. "There was no point, because the lads were on their knees. It was more a case of encouraging. We had to pass it better, deal with balls into the box, just play better really.
"I told them to go and score one goal, because that might be the goal that keeps us up. And if you score one, go and get another, cos that might help too. We knew goal difference could be the deciding factor. They responded."
And how they responded. Wolves threw on striker Sylvan Ebanks-Blake for defender Michael Mancienne and after Stephen Hunt headed a gilt-edged chance wide, Ebanks-Blake fired off target from 20 yards.
The hosts were handed a lifeline by keeper Wayne Hennessey's brilliant low save to deny Hoilett after Kevin Foley's slip but as the Blackburn supporters partied like it was 1995, some Wolves fans could hardly watch, choosing instead to check their phones or listen to the radio as results filtered through from other grounds; results that were having a defining impact on their status as a Premier League club.
Spurs went in front against Birmingham, which meant Wolves were momentarily out of danger; Blackpool took a shock lead at the champions, but they were quickly pegged back. As news continued to filter through, McCarthy was constantly being kept abreast of the situation.
"Someone on the bench was giving me pieces of paper," said the former Republic of Ireland manager. "They either read 'We're down' or 'Happy days'. The message was clear."
When Jamie O'Hara's clever free-kick pulled Wolves back to 3-1 it changed nothing, but within five minutes huge goals in other games threatened disastrous consequences. Wigan took the lead at Stoke and then west Midlands rivals Birmingham, unthinkably, equalised at Tottenham.
An eerie silence descended on Molineux. With 15 minutes left of a captivating Premier League season, Wolves were going down, poised to return to the Championship along with already relegated West Ham and Blackpool, now losing 4-2 at Man United.
Their cause seemed lost. But a few people, somewhere high up in the Steve Bull Stand, had realised what Wolves needed to do, and started getting their message across through song. It was a matter of seconds before the majority of the 29,009 present were singing "One goal, we only need one goal," a revelation that looked as though it had been lost on the players on the pitch.
It was true. If Wolves could manage just one more goal in the handful of minutes remaining, even though it would mean losing the game 3-2, it would keep them up at the expense of Birmingham on the basis of goals scored.
As the clock ticked down the home fans bayed for the goal that would bring salvation, and when it came their delirium was a sight to behold. Hennessey's long punt downfield was flicked on by Steven Fletcher and Stephen Hunt, cutting in from the right, unleashed a left-foot thunderbolt that flew into the far corner from 18 yards and left Paul Robinson flapping at thin air.
It was joy unconfined for the Molineux masses as men, women and children hugged each other and wept openly in the aisles. It was no place for a neutral, though those few of us present should feel lucky to have witnessed such unbridled glee.
With both teams safe, there was a brief lull as neither side volunteered an attack. "Mick gave me a look at 3-2 and I knew we were both OK," said Kean after. McCarthy told it slightly differently: "I gave him the spaniel eyes. We'd had a ding-dong battle for 92 minutes, so I think you can forgive us the finish."
A Birmingham goal at White Hart Lane could still gatecrash Wolves' party, but when it emerged Spurs had won the match 2-1 in injury time there was no longer any doubt about the outcome: Wolves, in the most incredible fashion, and Blackburn, had both survived.
Fans raced on to the pitch from every angle despite unrealistic PA announcements urging them to keep off. Eventually, after drinking every last drop of delight, they made their retreat, as first Blackburn and then Wolves were afforded a celebration in front of their own sets of supporters, a spectacle that would seem foreign on any other day but chimed in perfectly with proceedings on this most maverick of occasions.
Kean's thoughts in the news conference soon turned to next season, of how Blackburn's rich Indian owners could make a "significant investment" in the team and how it is now an "exciting time for the club".
His opposite number McCarthy, weary and almost demob happy, had no such thoughts for the future. "What will I do tonight? I might stay sober actually, just so I can remember the feeling. Then again, I might not. I'll sit on the sofa and have a bottle of beer and I'll enjoy what we've achieved."
McCarthy might not want to even think about football in the next couple of weeks, but for a cast of thousands at Molineux on a magical May day, it was a rich reminder of why we continue to live in thrall of the most beautiful game of all.