Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 2
The success or otherwise of a team's season can be judged, not by the league table, but by the response to their lap of honour after the final home match.
When the players of Aston Villa emerged for theirs at 5.10pm on Saturday, the stadium was virtually empty, the applause muted, and the occasion farcical.
The post mortem was already beginning.
And yet, almost forgotten amid the frustration of this 2-1 defeat to Manchester City, was a statistic that seemed to contradict the atmosphere: Villa's average home league attendance of 37,353 was their highest since 1976-77.
Not even the League Championship team of 1981 or the European Cup-winning team of 1982 could boast such approval from the public.
One might argue that, given the torment of recent years, the Villa supporters are really a charming collection of masochists.
Why else would they flock in such large numbers to see David O'Leary's "honest bunch of men", knowing that a defeat is as likely as a victory?
On Saturday, despite an encouraging improvement in the second half, defeat was always inevitable. From the moment, in the fifth minute, Shaun Wright- Phillips revealed his pace and elegance, one knew that Villa would fall short.
Phillips took possession midway inside the Villa half, evaded the challenges of Jlloyd Samuel, Gareth Barry and Mark Delaney, and struck the ball into the far corner of the goal.
It was a brilliant intervention, worthy of a player destined for a long international career, but it seemed to highlight the problems in the Villa defence.
Samuel has endured a wretched season and, having been substituted at half-time, might be wondering if his Villa career is under threat.
Delaney experienced, by his own admission, "a torrid" afternoon and he also faces uncertainty after the club refused to open discussions over a new contract.
Delaney was at fault for City's second goal, allowing Antoine Sibierski to deliver a cross that drifted to Kizito Musampa at the far post. Musampa, brilliant and baffling in equal measures, had the time and space to score with a cultured half-volley from inside the penalty area.
City continued to dominate, continued to miss chances, and continued to make Villa look like a guild of toilet cleaners who had turned up to a royal wedding by mistake.
True, Steven Davis might have scored twice from close range for Villa in that first half, but even O'Leary had to admit that City were superior in every department.
By the start of the second half, significant changes - Nolberto Solano on in place of Thomas Hitzlsperger; Eric Djemba-Djemba in place of Samuel - made Villa look a bit more attractive and more befitting of their surroundings.
Suddenly the tempo increased. Suddenly passes were finding the right men. Suddenly the Villa supporters found their collective voice.
Just after the hour mark, they pulled a goal back after a brilliant succession of firsttime passes. It culminated with Solano passing for Lee Hendrie who stepped over the ball to allow Juan Pablo Angel to score on the turn. It was Angel's ninth goal of the season.
The expected equaliser did not materialise and it was City who came closest to scoring, first when Shaun Wright-Phillips broke clear but lobbed the ball wide of Thomas Sorensen's goal, and second when Musampa struck the ball hard and low against the far post.
Perhaps a draw would have been a fairer result but a point would have been papering over the cracks. This team, which, prior to the match, still had a chance of qualifying for Europe, are not yet good enough to be in the Uefa Cup.
"I am hoping I will have a busy summer," O'Leary said. "I know the players I want and I have told the chairman [Doug Ellis] about them, so I will now leave it up to him.
"In general we had the same squad as last season, but without the injuries we suffered this year. I am talking honestly and they are the facts, so it is a tribute to the players that we went into this game with something still to play for."
O'Leary has already begun the task of deciding how to spend the £15 million that has been made available. A new striker is certain, as is a new centre back, a new left back, and a creative midfield player.
The expected changes will be tantamount to a revolution but O'Leary knows that excuses will wear thin if the team fails next season.
Scorers: Shaun Wright-Phillips (5), 0-1; Musampa (12), 0-2; Angel (61), 1-2.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Sorensen; de la Cruz, Laursen, Delaney, Samuel (Djemba-Djemba, 46); Hendrie (L Moore, 78), Davis, Hitzlsperger (Solano, 46), Barry; Angel, Vassell. Substitutes not used: Postma, Ridgewell.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-4-2): James; Mills, Distin, Onuoha, Thatcher; S Wright-Phillips, Reyna, Barton, Musampa; Sibierski (B Wright-Phillips, 71), Macken (Croft 79). Substitutes not used: Weaver, Sommeil, Jordan.
Referee: R Beeby (Northamptonshire). Bookings: Villa - Solano (foul); City - Barton (foul).
Attendance: 39,645. Villa man of the match: Nolberto Solano - did more in 45 minutes than any other Villa player did in 90. Intelligent on the ball, hardworking off it.