Amid gripping last-day drama befitting a muddled and utterly absorbing Championship season, Stoke City yesterday sealed promotion with a draw that also relegated Leicester City to the third tier for the first time in their 124-year history.
Twenty-three years on from exiting the top flight with a then record low points total of 17, Stoke are back and the Potteries masses are celebrating with a vigour. The fact that an open-top bus tour has already been organised for tomorrow suggests the loss of the title to West Bromwich Albion is seen as a trifling side issue.
Third-placed Hull City's defeat at Ipswich Town meant that Stoke could have lost on a sodden final afternoon and still gone up. The fine margins were on the Leicester side – and riding the roller coaster of score flashes from elsewhere was more exciting than watching a scrappy game.
Ultimately, Stern John's 69th-minute decider for Southampton against Sheffield United was the blow that broke Leicester hearts but they went desperately close to a winner of their own, one that would have sent their arch-rivals Coventry City down instead.
"Everyone in there [the dressing room] is hurting like hell," said the Leicester manager, Ian Holloway. "It's absolutely devastating."
His downbeat, apologetic mood contrasted hugely with that of his good friend Tony Pulis. "I am delighted for everyone connected with the club, particularly the chairman, Peter Coates," the Stoke manager said. "We have done fantastically well but nobody has to tell me how different it is in the Premier League.
"I'll now have a drink, take two days to recover and then buy Peter a drink, hoping he will give me more backing. We know we have to drastically change the whole structure of the club.
"I told my staff not to come near me with any scores during the game," he added. "I didn't want to know them and thought we dipped a bit when the crowd went up because of what was happening to Hull."
Stoke dominated the first half without often threatening. Although Ryan Shawcross's header looped wide and one from Mamady Sidibe flew straight at Paul Henderson in the Leicester goal, there was little sign of a breakthrough until Ricardo Fuller went close with a hooked shot.
Leicester arrived with the attitude of protecting one point and striking out for two more if circumstances dictated. They started with Barry Hayles alone up front, but became bolder and had much the better chances in the second half.
After Fuller had been denied for a second time by Henderson, a David Bell corner was headed against a post by Gareth McAuley, then Iain Hume and Richard Stearman brought outstanding saves from Stoke's Carlo Nash.
A premature pitch invasion by celebrating fans left a sour taste in Holloway's mouth and he will not have looked forward to the call he was due to get last night from his chairman, Milan Mandaric, who was absent because of family commitments in America.
"If I had seen performances like that all season, we wouldn't have been where we are," Holloway added. "This is my lowest point and I take full responsibility. I feel I have let my family and the Leicester City people down."
Stoke City (4-4-2): Nash; Wilkinson (Buxton, 21), Cort, Shawcross, Dickinson; Lawrence (Pugh, 90), Delap, Whelan, Cresswell; Fuller, Sidibe (Ameobi, 90). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk); Pearson.
Leicester City (4-2-3-1): Henderson; Stearman, N'Gotty, McAuley, Mattock; Worley (Fryatt, 84), Oakley; Hume, Howard, Bell (A Chambers, 90); Hayles. Substitutes not used: Douglas (gk), Clapham, Wesolowski.
Referee: M Dean (The Wirral).
Booked: Stoke Dickinson; Leicester Howard, McAuley.
Man of the match: McAuley.
Ups and downs
Champions: West Bromwich Albion.
Promoted: Stoke City
Play-offs: Hull City, Bristol City, Crystal Palace, Watford. Play-off fixtures: 10 May: Crystal Palace v Bristol City.
11 May: Watford v Hull City. 13 May: Bristol City v Crystal Palace. 14 May: Hull v Watford. 24 May: Final.
Relegated: Leicester, Scunthorpe, Colchester.
* LEAGUE ONE
Champions: Swansea City.
Promoted: Nottingham Forest.
Play-offs: Doncaster Rovers, Carlisle United, Leeds United, Southend United.
Play-off fixtures: 9 May: Southend v Doncaster. 12 May: Leeds v Carlisle. 15 May: Carlisle v Leeds. 16 May: Doncaster v Southend. 25 May: Final.
Relegated: Bournemouth, Gillingham, Port Vale, Luton Town.
* LEAGUE TWO
Champions: MK Dons.
Promoted: Peterborough United, Hereford United.
Play-offs: Stockport County, Rochdale, Darlington, Wycombe Wanderers. Play-off fixtures: 10 May: Darlington v Rochdale. 11 May: Wycombe v Stockport. 17 May: Rochdale v Darlington; Stockport v Wycombe. 26 May: Final.
Relegated: Mansfield Town, Wrexham.