Stoke all smiles after tale of two cities

LONG before the phrase ‘doing a Derby’ became the voguish term to describe abject failure in the Premier League, Stoke City had cornered the market in top-flight under-achievement.

Their meagre haul of 17 points in 1985 was recognised as the lowest ever return until Sunderland went one worse 21 years later.

Now, finally, they have the chance to erase that painful memory of life amongst the elite after securing promotion following an unbearably tense afternoon yesterday that also culminated in the relegation of opponents Leicester City.

Needing a point to secure automatic promotion, Stoke concluded the season in relative comfort despite the need for an excellent late save from keeper Carlo Nash to avoid defeat, and the final whistle triggered an extraordinary explosion of joy amongst home fans who have long since grown used to life amongst football’s also-rans.

That was in stark contrast to the painfully cruel shift in emotions felt by Leicester who began the day needing only to match the efforts of Southampton, who eventually beat Sheffield United after every pulsating swing and fluctuation of a 3-2 victory was conveyed to Ian Holloway’s side via the roars and groans from the stands.

Immediately, of course, the task facing manager Tony Pulis and this unfashionable club is to ensure they avoid repeating the fate of Derby and make the most of an opportunity few would have imagined at the start of the season.

Pulis, though, has constructed a formidably combative side, built around an impressive defence, the quality of Liam Lawrence, the mercurial talents of striker Ricardo Fuller and the not-so-secret weapon of Rory Delap’s long throw.

Quite how many of the players who were mobbed will feature on the opening day of the Premier League season is anyone’s guess.

“I’ll have a drink tonight and we’ll let the dust settle for a few days before we look at next season,” Pulis said. “Nobody needs to tell me how hard it will be but I have a chairman, Peter Coates, who is a football man and understands what will be required.”

Leicester’s is a tale of extraordinary decline from the days when they were regulars in the top half of the Premier League table and in Europe under Martin O’Neill.

Indeed, they lifted the League Cup as recently as 2000 but the years following relegation have provided a litany of frustration and they now follow the path taken in recent years by Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. League One, the FA Cup first round and, humiliatingly, a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy awaits.

Speculation now surrounds Holloway’s future and the manager accepted full responsibility, whilst bemoaning the fact his side finally produced a performance of substance when it was too late.

“I can’t express my feelings at this moment other than to say I feel I’ve let my family and the Leicester City family down,” said the manager who arrived at the club in November.

“If we had played like that more often we wouldn’t have been in this position. When I came here I was talking about the play-offs, not relegation. But everything I have touched hasn’t worked.”

STOKE (4-4-2): Nash 7; Wilkinson 6 (Buxton 20 6), Cort 7, Shawcross 7, Dickinson 7; Lawrence 8 (Pugh 90, 6), Delap 6, Whelan 7, Cresswell 6; Fuller 6, Sidibe 5 (Ameobi 90, 6).

Subs Not Used: Simonsen, Pearson.

LEICESTER (4-4-2): Henderson 9; Stearman 8, McAuley 6, N’Gotty 7, Mattock 6; Hume 5, Worley 6 (Fryatt 84 6), Oakley 6, Bell 7 (Chambers 90, 6); Howard 6, Hayles 5.

Subs Not Used: Douglas, Clapham, Wesolowski.

REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral) 6: The sodden pitch and pressure-charged atmosphere conspired against the referee but he laid a marker by stamping down on three early tackles.

MATCH RATING: **** The football itself wasn’t riveting but the sheer drama provided by the news of significant scores from around the country created extraordinary tension.

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