Huddersfield Town Football Club returned to the second tier of English football yesterday courtesy of an 8-7 victory on penalties over Sheffield United in the nPower League One play-off final.
The shoot-out followed 120 minutes of goal-less action, in one of the least enthralling play-off finals in recent memory.
Town nearly broke the deadlock twice, 20-year-old winger Danny Ward hitting the woodwork just before half time, while Michael Doyle blocked Tommy Miller’s shot with less than 10 minutes to go.
Half an hour of extra time followed, in which neither side, clearly playing within themselves in the 25 degree heat, could open the scoring.
With talk of the game itself naturally limited by the monotony of the “action”, the penalties have accrued the most attention and certainly provided the bulk of the excitement. Carrying on the theme of limp ineptitude from the 120 minutes of play, only four of the opening 10 spot kicks were scored.
On a day where it really was all about the goalkeepers, both Town ‘keeper Alex Smithies and United’s man between the posts, Steve Simonsen, made several decent stops, but a special mention must go to the Blades’ substitute Andy Taylor. Brought on specifically for the shoot-out, his effort hit the post and went out, in a moment the 26-year-old will undoubtedly want to forget.
Come sudden death, and both sides suddenly remembered their penalty taking technique. The first five penalties apiece were scored, so it came down to Smithies and Simonsen swapping the goal line for the penalty spot, in a lottery that would only produce a windfall for one of these players.
The man in question was Smithies, who in a Manuel Neuer-esque manner, showed incredible nerves to do something altogether alien, and fire the ball past his opposite number. Simonsen then stepped up but was unable to convert. As the former Stoke City and Everton ‘keeper dropped to the floor in despair the Terriers’ tails were up, and the celebrations began in all corners of Wembley bar one.
The result means there will be no Steel City derby next year, Sheffield Wednesday having secured automatic promotion back to the Championship, which will only rub salt into this defeat for United fans. There really is nothing worse than watching your enemies succeed.
One may trace back this failure to the loss of Ched Evans, convicted of sexual assault and jailed in April. Lacking their sharp shooter, who had netted 35 times, almost rivalling Jordan Rhodes’ monumental goal scoring haul, the Blades slipped out of the automatic promotion places. With the play-offs always unpredictable, the failure to win any of their final three games really cost Danny Wilson’s side.
Unlucky before in lower league promotion battles, losing out to Queens Park Rangers as Bristol City boss back in 2004, after the game Wilson said:
“What was going to separate (the two sides) was maybe a little bit of magic or like you saw a penalty kick. He [Simonsen] nearly got his hand to two others [penalties] but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I don’t know if that’s fate but for him to miss the penalty, it’s blameless.”
Wilson’s counterpart, Simon Grayson, was elated after the tension of those last few kicks at Wembley: “What an unbelievable end to the game and I really feel for Sheffield United. Hopefully they can come up next year.
“The best way to get promoted is by winning at Wembley.”
With promotion secured, Town will be able to look forward to acquitting themselves in a division noted for its competitive nature. Whether marksman Rhodes will stay, with the possibility of offers over the summer for the 22-year-old, who has netted 71 times in 122 games for the Terriers, remains to be seen. For the moment though, these dogs have well and truly had their day.
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