When the chips are down...

Well, we are almost there. And no, I refuse to accept that we are totally safe from the drop until the mathematics really do add up.

I know I am probably the only person now not prepared for a booze-up to celebrate our survival in the top flight, but some of us are still emotionally-scarred following our relegation in 2003 with 42 points, still a record and just where we are now.

But this is the time for assessment of our season. We are tenth, our highest placing since December, with us picking up 15 points from our last ten games, a season after winning promotion. It is really hard to argue against those stats and Sam's management. I still recall with disgust the two points we took from our final nine games before inevitable relegation just two years ago.

What we now have is not a team of superstars, we cannot afford that, but we have a squad who behave like professionals, fight for themselves, the shirt and us. The team that should have beaten the new champions last week, cost just ?24m, and that includes the ?15m for Matt Jarvis and Kevin Nolan.

We have twice now almost beaten Manchester United this season at the Boleyn, and the six points we have taken from Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool will be the difference between staying up and a catastrophic relegation.

We had four free transfers, one loan striker, plus Gary O'Neil and Ricky Vaz Te - who cost under ?3m the pair - on show against Man United and then Wigan. Frankly I am not sure Big Sam has to argue his corner any more, in the current financial climate, our current position is little short of miraculous.

Sam seems to have so many detractors, I saw the Mail on Sunday's Pat Collins was at it again recently, he really does hate our man. While Roberto Martinez was deluded enough to think Wigan are better than us. Possession is one thing, finishing quite another. Also bravery, team spirit, fight and desire.

So many people inside and outside the game, have a sneer on their face where we are concerned, they all seem to know better. Old Fergie was rattling on about the ball being in the air, but the stats showed Manchester United had more long passes than we did.

Everywhere we go, managers and players have that smug look about them, but we have beaten Swansea, West Brom and Fulham at our place, while drawing at Liverpool. Every one of those managers has suggested they were the better team. The same goes for Norwich, Stoke and Southampton. It gets boring, really.

Now Martinez is at it. The same man who said earlier in the season that he does not consider goals from set-pieces to be 'real' goals. What utter nonsense.

Barcelona had more than 60 per cent possession against Bayern Munich this week, and lost 4-0. The Germans are now being hailed as the best in Europe, but looked to be playing to a similar style to ourselves, if not with slightly more quality.

They had width, a big striker and players attacking from midfield, and the ball was shifted forward quickly. I love Barca, they are the best team I have ever seen, just better in my book that the Brazil of 1970. But they were over-powered by an intense pressing game. I know this is not the best comparison, because we are talking about football from different planets, ours and the Germans.

But sometimes a little praise is due rather than the easily scripted slagging that Sam always gets. He thinks that players' reputations suffer from being associated with him, and that's sad.

And we have seen all the right attributes from West Ham of late. To come from where we were under Avram Grant to our current position should silence all Sam's detractors. The direct route to Andy Carroll is there, but also a lot of very decent football on the floor.

Sam keeps alluding to the safety of the 42 point mark, without being prepared for too much chat about his part in our downfall ten years ago when we had that exact total. And Sam masterminded a particularly nasty match at the Reebok that virtually sealed our fate.

Our current heroes Kevin Nolan and Jussi Jaaskelainen were in Sam's Bolton side that day, April 19, when our world really fell in. We were beaten 1-0, Ian Pearce was sent-off and Joe Cole should have been for an end of match rage at anyone in sight.

There were plenty of rumours after that game about the dark arts employed by Bolton that day, claims at personal abuse about family and friends etc. Surely our Sam is not like that!

Two days later our then manager Glenn Roeder was in hospital with a brain tumour. Playing Bolton in those days did that to people.

By the end of the campaign we were third from bottom on 42 points, Bolton one place above on 44, so that miserable day in Bolton did for us. I'm tempted to say, all is forgiven Sam, but it's really hard.

But then as now, when the chips are down, you can rely on Sam. He saved Bolton that season, we went down with a squad that included the current manager of Sunderland, that is when Paolo Di Canio decided to turn up, of course. You recall he spent a long time back in Rome after falling out with Roeder and playing just six of the last 22 matches, the final few for the best manager we never had, Sir Trevor.

Maybe if Paolo had played a bit more that season, we wouldn't have gone down. But then he is still a hero in many peoples' eyes. Probably not Roeder's, though. Strange that.

Also in that squad was Michael Carrick, now with five Premier League winners' medals and potentially a strong candidate for the Footballer of the Year award. Watching him on Monday night guiding Manchester United to their 20th title did make me wonder what might have been had we not gone down in 2003 and he was still with us.

The same applies to Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson, also regulars like Carrick in the current England squad. Freddie Kanoute, David James, Trevor Sinclair as well as Cole were there, too. The best players, if not the best team, to ever go down.

Well, we have been down that 'what might have been' road a few times since. Now we have a different team - to my mind probably not as good individually as the 2003 vintage - to acclaim. And acclaim we should.

Yes, apart from a total disaster, we are safe. Saturday's 2-0 win over Wigan and Man Utd's defeat of Aston Villa has seen to that. Villa and Wigan can get to 46 point maximums, but that's not possible for both with the pair playing each other on the final day. And even I will admit that neither side is going to win every other game left now. So, yes, we are safe.

And that, just like Bolton felt a decade ago, is down to Big Sam. Love him or hate him, he does what is written on the tin.

A couple of anniversaries are coming up. Grant's sacking will be two years ago on May 15. I recall being part of the Irons army trooping back through Manchester Piccadilly that day after the debacle of relegation at Wigan, and hearing the cheers from all around that station when news filtered through about the old fraud's sacking.

Then, of course, we have Sam's second anniversary on June 1. It's hard to believe he has been with us for less than two years. And just look at us now.

He arrived when the place was a shambles. Nolan has talked recently of the club being on its knees with people not wanting to be here, and the damaging factions that dominated a humiliated dressing room.

Our owners decided to continue paying Premier League wages if not transfer fees, and Sam galvanised us away from a disaster of Wolves, Blackburn or Blackpool proportions. Just look where our former Premier League rivals are now. That could have been us without a firm hand, good organisation and experience.

I embarked on this season with trepidation. We had a team of free transfers, Championship quality players with many having injury histories to frighten anyone. I doubted Sam's reliance on controversial agent Mark Curtis, still do. But it's three Curtis clients - Nolan, Andy Carroll and Matt Jarvis - who have all played a huge part in our survival.

And you only have too look at the contributions of Sam's Bolton old boys, Jaaskelainen, Joey O'Brien, Ricky Vaz Te and Matt Taylor, to know he was right to bring them here.

Guy Demel has seemingly got over his injury problems and produced outstanding performances, Winston Reid - who I felt was a disaster in his first season in the top flight - has improved out of all recognition.

And what a buy James Collins was. He also has had injury nightmares to overcome but has been wonderful at the back. I saw somewhere a stat that says he has made more blocks in the box than any other player in the top flight this season, that says it all.

Collins has played 26 times this season, which is a miracle considering his injury record here in his first spell and at Aston Villa. What would they give for Ginge to be in their defence at the moment?

Frankly, Sam put together a squad by Premier League standards that was as cheap as chips. We now go to fallen champions Manchester City on Saturday with little real pressure. It will be nice to see Carlos again.

We probably will only get another three points this term, surely Reading will be finished by then. And just remember they went up taking the mickey out of us as champions. How the mighty have fallen.

Now we are about to see Sam sign a new contract, and a summer of wheeler-dealing being triggered. He wants Carroll and will have to use all his influence to get him. He has explained the new fair play regulations well, they are designed to protect the rich and make it impossible for the rest of us to try to aspire to that level.

I'd like to be a fly on the wall in chats between our owners, the Davids, and Sam. Gold and Sullivan want the new regulations because it will hold down wages (I've never worked for a boss anywhere who felt differently.) But Sam doesn't agree because he is being restricted. It should be an interesting summer.

As for cheap chips... my match-going pals have given me massive stick for refusing to pay nearly ?9 for two bowls of chips in a Plaistow pub last weekend. I stomped away in a huff, forgetting that one bowl was for a young lad in a our party. Starving, he was.

I'm sure his dad, from the richer, posher end of Surrey, will understand when I suggest, from 200 miles away, to ' let him eat cake.'

Big Sam, I suspect, will want his cake and eat it, in the summer transfer market. And I would not be shocked to see Carroll still here next season. But for now, Sam and our team deserve praise for what has been achieved in lest than two years. Pretty or not.

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