The Great Escape: How we pulled it off!

Old Trafford, Sir Matt Busby Way, Manchester, M16. There could be no more daunting venue in which to face 11 full internationals in front of 75,927 fans, roaring on their Premiership champions.

But as he headed north for a nail-biting Survival Sunday, Alan Curbishley had already admitted that he would have taken that final day scenario during Hammers' long, dark winter of discontent.

Indeed, after his side had turned an 89th-minute, 3-2 lead into an improbable 3-4 stoppage time defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on 4 March 2007, Curbs was left to survey the damage of bottom place and a cavernous 10-point gap to safety, with just nine matches remaining.

Certainly, the Premiership table did not make happy reading down West Ham way:

15th - Wigan Athletic - Played: 29. Points: 32. (Goal Diff: -14)
16th - Sheffield United - Played: 29. Points: 31 (Goal Diff: -16)
17th - Manchester City - Played: 27. Points: 30 (Goal Diff: -13)
18th - Charlton Athletic - Played: 29. Points: 24 (Goal Diff: -23)
19th - Watford - Played: 29 Points: 20. (Goal Difference: -25)
20th - West Ham United - Played: 29. Points: 20 (Goal Diff: -29)

Things could only get better. And they duly did.

A controversial victory at Blackburn Rovers (2-1) proved the catalyst for tremendous three-pointers against Middlesbrough (2-0) and Arsenal (1-0).

Not even back-to-back defeats against fellow strugglers Sheffield United and title-chasing Chelsea could knock the Hammers out of their stride, though, and following wonderful wins over Everton (1-0), Wigan Athletic (3-0) and Bolton Wanderers (3-1), those 18 points from a possible 24, had given the in-form Hammers a real lifeline to cling to.

Heading to Manchester United for that nervy, final 90 minutes of a hair-raising campaign, Curbs' commandos had battled their way out of the bottom three knowing that their fate was finally in their own hands:

16th - Sheffield United - Played: 37. Points: 38 (Goal Diff: -22)
17th - West Ham United - Played: 37. Points: 38 (Goal Diff: -25)
18th - Wigan Athletic - Played: 37. Points: 35 (Goal Diff: -23)
19th - Charlton Athletic (R) - Played: 37. Points: 33 (Goal Diff: -26)
20th - Watford (R) - Played: 37. Points: 27 (Goal Diff: -30)

If Hammers could avoid defeat at Old Trafford, then safety was guaranteed, while victory for Sheffield United over Wigan Athletic would condemn the Latics to relegation.

And in a final twist of the knife, the 16th-placed Blades would depart the Premiership if they lost to Paul Jewell's visitors and the Hammers returned from Old Trafford unscathed!

With all eyes on centre stage at the Theatre of Dreams and an ear listening out for events across the Pennines in the City of Steel, a dramatic afternoon was set to unfold:-

Old Trafford - 6 minutes: Wayne Rooney's 20-yard free-kick is deflected over to the relief of the Hammers. Wigan will be relegated.
Bramall Lane - 12 mins:
Kevin Kilbane's low, left-wing cross is rifled home by Paul Scharner from 18 yards to put Wigan ahead. Sheffield United will be relegated.
Old Trafford - 30 mins: Hammers have Yossi Benayoun to thank as he makes a double goal-line clearance to deny both Alan Smith and Kieran Richardson.
Bramall Lane - 38 mins: Jagielka's well-flighted cross is bravely headed home by Jon Stead, who clashes heads with 'keeper Mike Pollitt as he equalises for the Blades. Wigan will be relegated.
Old Trafford - 45 mins: Robert Green's huge, stoppage time drop-kick finds its way to Carlos Tevez via Bobby Zamora and the Argentinian ace sneaks between Gabriel Heinze and Wes Brown to give Hammers an audacious lead with his seventh goal in nine games. Wigan will be relegated.
Bramall Lane - 45 mins: Jagielka turns from hero to villain as he recklessly handles Kilbane's stoppage free-kick into the danger area, leaving ex-Hammer and former Blade David Unsworth to blast home from the penalty spot to put Wigan back in front. Sheffield United will be relegated.
Bramall Lane - 54 mins: Danny Webber agonisingly raps the Wigan post.
Old Trafford - 57 mins: Internationals Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ronaldo step from the bench as Sir Alex Ferguson ups the stakes!
Bramall Lane - 74 mins: Having already been booked for dissent, Wigan's Lee McCulloch is then sent off for chopping Michael Tonge.
Old Trafford - 90 mins: Having survived John O'Shea's penalty appeal and seen Ronaldo's downward header saved by the busy Robert Green, the Hammers again have their 'keeper to thank for palming over Scholes late sizzler seconds before referee Martin Atkinson calls time on the champions. Hammers are safe!
Bramall Lane - 90 mins: Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny is in the thick of it in the Wigan penalty area but the Blades' 11 men cannot force a saving equaliser against the depleted Latics and Mike Dean's final whistle signals relegation for Sheffield United.

"It's such a cruel game," bemoaned Neil Warnock after seeing his side make an instant return to the Championship. "We just couldn't climb the final hurdle and we've suffered the consequences."

The joyous Paul Jewell added: "Wigan shouldn't have been in this position but we were and it's now great honour to be able to stay in the Premiership."

And having pulled off a mini-miracle to keep 15th-placed Hammers in the Premiership the final word went to Curbs.

"To come away from Old Trafford with the win was the bonus ball," he beamed. "But whenever United tried to create anything we got there, we blocked it and put our bodies on the line. It was a great effort and we've pulled off an amazing escape!"

by Steve Blowers