Peter Crouch is a columnist for Sportsmail
It still does not seem real. Even saying the words now — Stoke City relegated — feels bizarre but here we are, on the final weekend of the season, bottom of the table, our fate sealed.
I genuinely thought we would be facing Swansea City on Sunday still in control of our destiny.
After we drew 0-0 with Liverpool, I felt we had a real chance of staying up – all we had to do was beat Crystal Palace and Swansea. When you say it like that it sounds easy, doesn’t it?
But we couldn’t see it through and that 2-1 defeat by Palace confirmed what we had feared: we will be playing football in the Championship next year. I can say now, without hesitation, my feelings at the final whistle were among the worst I have experienced in 20 years as a footballer.
I had made plans to go out last Saturday but as soon as I knew we were down, those plans were ripped up. You feel empty, guilty for letting down the supporters. How could you possibly think about going out to enjoy yourself when a result like that has affected so many people’s lives?
The city of Stoke is proud of its team. We have been in the Premier League for 10 years, played in an FA Cup final and those three consecutive ninth-place finishes showed we were well established. When we came 13th a year ago, it felt like a disaster, so imagine how this feels…
My feelings at the final whistle were among the worst I have experienced in 20 years
Going out on the lap of appreciation, my initial thought was ‘oh my God’. I was apprehensive that the fans would turn. I have played at stadiums where teams get booed off at half-time if they are not winning, so I fully expected there to be a backlash, maybe season tickets being thrown on to the pitch.
You can really study supporters when you go on those walks. So I looked into the stands and could see the disappointment and hurt in the eyes of our fans but, do you know what, my admiration for them grew further for the way they reacted.
There have been times this season, particularly early on when Mark Hughes was manager and we were struggling to win the games we used to win, when the atmosphere was poor and they were quick to voice their frustrations.
But I think they knew the lads who have been playing every week have tried for them. We have not played well but never gave up. That’s why the fans stuck with us. It needs to be said, too, that the applause from Palace fans was a touch of class on a horrible day.
You never expect to be relegated as a player. I had experienced it once before in my career — at Southampton in 2005 — but I was young then and the gravity of the situation didn’t sink in.
This time, though, I drove home feeling it was the worst season of my career. I am not going to go into all the reasons why I think we have lost our Premier League status. If people look closely at what has happened over the past 12 months, they will see it is plainly obvious but this is not a time for laying blame.
I simply want to say well done to Huddersfield, Brighton and Newcastle, three promoted teams who stayed up. It is hard to stay in the Premier League but they all did it before the last round of matches, which can sometimes be carnage.
You can get some crazy results on the final day and I have heard it said that we would be happy to get trounced by Swansea if it led to them staying up and Southampton going down, given that Mark is now their manager after leaving us in January.
I had to cancel my plans on Saturday night after we were relegated to the Championship
Let me assure you nothing could be further from the truth. I am embarrassed we are bottom of the table – a few weeks ago West Brom were well adrift yet we ended up being relegated before them. To finish the campaign 20th out of 20 would be as bad as it could get.
So we will go to Swansea and give it everything. What goes on with other teams is no concern to us. I’m not bothered that a win at Swansea would confirm Southampton’s safety, I’m only bothered about getting the win that could stop us finishing bottom.
Pride is riding on this game. It should, however, have been so much more. This should have been our cup final. The fact it isn’t has left me and many others absolutely heartbroken.
Queens Park Rangers are a club that will always be close to my heart and manager Ian Holloway is someone I love to bits.
So it was sad to see this week that QPR, after a tough season, felt the need to move on from Ian. It looks like they will go for Steve McClaren, who is a very good coach with vast experience, but I can’t help but have sympathy for Ollie.
When I started out at QPR, Ian had taken over from Gerry Francis and he was a tremendous character. He had such an infectious way about him that it really helped me get to grips with ‘proper football’ in what was my debut season. He loves QPR and he will be distraught that it has ended for him.
My dad still goes to watch QPR play and many of my friends are season ticket holders, so I keep up to date with everything that is going on there. If Steve comes in and makes the right improvement, I’d love to think they would have a chance of winning promotion next year.
Ian Holloway lost his job as QPR manager following a tough season at Loftus Road
THE SIR ALEX TALK I’LL NEVER FORGET
It is hard to find an original way to pay tribute to the best manager bar none and a man who has won all there is to win in the game.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a legend and it has been encouraging to hear the positive bulletins that have come through in recent days after he was taken ill last weekend. The number of good wishes he has received since then illustrates what a special person he is.
I spent most of my career trying to get one over on him but in November 2015, I got a taste of what it was like to play for him in the all-star Unicef game organised by David Beckham.
Sir Alex Ferguson (right, pictured with Jose Mourinho) is recovering from a brain haemorrhage
Sir Alex managed our Great Britain and Ireland side and the talk he gave beforehand will stay in my memory forever. Where I was sitting in the dressing room, I had Becks, Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Andy Cole to my left and I remember looking at them as Sir Alex began to talk and tell us what we should be doing at corners and set-pieces.
Of course, this was a light-hearted occasion but the thing that struck me most was the hush that descended when he walked in — literally everyone stopped talking when we saw him — and the way those lads looked at him. Everyone was concentrating, hanging on his every word.
For a split-second, you realised what it would have been like to play with them and for him in the 1990s and it must have been some experience being in there during his heyday. There has not been another manager like him and his ability to sell big players but then rebuild title-winning sides was incredible.
He is a legend, a figure who commands instant respect and admiration. It was awful to hear that he was taken to hospital but let’s hope Sir Alex will make a full recovery. He carries everyone’s best wishes.
I played under Sir Alex during a Unicef all-star game and I hung on to every word he said
FORGET STYLE… YOU CANNOT ARGUE WITH UNITED’S RESULTS
Criticising Manchester United has been all too easy this season. They do not play the same way as Manchester City, Liverpool or Tottenham and that has made them a consistent target.
To be honest, it is something I have struggled to understand.
Look at the table — with one game to go, they have second place sewn up. Of course, people will argue that they did not get close enough to City in the title race but, as far as I can see, this has been a very good season for them. I know the style sometimes frustrates the fans but you cannot argue with results.
Jose Mourinho deserves more credit for what he has won at Manchester United so far
It pains me to say this, as my mum’s side of the family support City and I used to play for Liverpool, but how can you knock United when they have secured second place in the table and reached the FA Cup final?
If United beat Chelsea next Saturday — and I really wouldn’t be tempted to bet against them — that will be three trophies in the space of 16 months. The game is about getting trophies and results and Jose Mourinho has proven he is the man to get them.
I do not for one minute think that City will have it all their own way next season in terms of the title race.
I said a couple of weeks ago that I expect Liverpool to be in the mix but United will be right there, too. They have plenty more to give – and the right man to get the best out of them.
WHAT I’VE BEEN UP TO…
I was at London’s Landmark Hotel on Thursday to see Mohamed Salah presented with the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award. It was a great night made all the more special by bumping into Pat Jennings and Chris Hughton, two men who had a huge impact on my career as a teenager.
Pat is an amazing character and in great health – he looks almost the same as he did when he was playing!
WHO’S CAUGHT MY EYE…
Robert Huth. He is leaving Leicester City and, fittingly, had a big send-off on Wednesday night. I played with him at Stoke and, after Didi Hamann, he is my second favourite German! I always felt he left us too early and he proved that point by winning the Premier League title with Leicester.
NEXT UP FOR ME…
A summer break! This is my last column of the season. I’ve really enjoyed writing it. I’m sure you’re devastated but don’t fret Crouch fans, I’ll be back for the World Cup. I bet you can’t wait!
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO…
It should be ‘What I haven’t been listening to’. I’ve saved myself for the new and eagerly awaited Arctic Monkeys album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino released on Friday.