An East Anglian derby, a broken record and last-gasp drama were the highlights of what has been an end-of-season spectacle to remember.
With sixth spot in the Championship secured on the final day, there was a derby clash to look forward to as local rivals Norwich City and Ipswich Town battled over two legs for a place in the final. The other tie saw Middlesbrough, impressive over the past nine months, took on Brentford, who knew that managerial catalyst Mark Warburton was departing Griffin Park at the end of a terrific campaign.
As expected, there was tension looming over both Portman Road and Carrow Road, even before a ball was kicked. After a tight-knitted affair ended 1-1, both sides knew something had to give in the return fixture, which it did. The Canaries stormed to a 3-1 victory (4-2 on aggregate) over the arch-enemy, aided by the additional man after Christophe Berra was dismissed for what was going to be a well-placed finish by Norwich winger Nathan Redmond. A resilient back four became an undone back three, as the Norfolk side booked their first visit to Wembley for 29 years.
A last-minute effort from on-loan defender Fernando Amorebieta was the difference as Aitor Karanka’s side held on for a vital advantage heading into the second leg at the Riverside. Leading 2-1 from the first leg, a capacity crowd inspired a dominant display from Middlesbrough, winning 3-0 (5-2 on aggregate) after their free-flowing style outwitted and outclassed the West London team. The multi-million pound showpiece was poised in the balance between two sides that were separated by only a point at the end of the regular season.
The final was decided in the first 15 minutes by a touch of brilliance from two of Norwich’s hottest partnerships: Cameron Jerome and Redmond. Although a closely fought battle from this point, the men from Teesside could not find their rhythm after their only bright spark when Jelle Vossen crashed the crossbar from around 25 yards. But the day belonged to Alex Neil’s team, who return back to the top flight at the first time of asking, the second team in two years to do so via the play-offs.
In League One, Preston North End faced Paul Cook’s Chesterfield with Sheffield United competing for another chance for promotion against Swindon Town.
Simon Grayson’s Preston were tipped for second-tier football from the start of the season since their agonising play-off semi-final defeat to Rotherham. They never looked like a side in turmoil this time round. A 1-0 win away at the ProAct Stadium began what was a performance to remember, hitting Chesterfield for three to make it 4-0 on aggregate and a passage to the coveted final.
A tightly contested affair between the Blades and the Robins was played out at Bramall Lane, Nathan Byrne scoring the decisive goal to give Mark Cooper’s side a 2-1 lead to defend. What was to come in the return leg was extraordinary. As Swindon scored three quick-fire goals in the opening sequence, the away fans were dreading the final outcome. However, the Yorkshire outfit replied a hat-trick of times, but as they had the momentum, the pendulum swung again as Swindon made it 5-3. United salvaged two late goals to confirm the highest scoring play-off match in history (5-5; 7-6 on aggregate), but couldn’t take the game to extra-time.
Both the Lilywhites and the Wiltshire men were on the verge of guaranteeing a position in England’s second tier, but it was the former who took the game to their opponents. A first-half brace from in-form loanee Jermaine Beckford and a tap-in from Paul Huntington proved which team wanted to win the most. It was 4-0 soon after half-time when Beckford sealed his hat-trick and condemned Swindon to another year in League One. For Grayson’s side, an imminent return to the Championship since 2011.
In League Two, Wycombe Wanderers contested against Plymouth Argyle whilst Southend United played Stevenage.
After sustaining pressure from a late Argyle comeback, Gareth Ainsworth knew his side had to work to earn their ticket to London which was the case. Leading 3-2 from the first leg, Wanderers took a two-goal lead when Paul Hayes and Alfie Mawson converted. The Devon club rekindled some hope with a consolation in the second half, adding some gloss to the aggregate scoreline (5-3), but instead will play in the fourth tier from August.
In the other semi-final, it was all as even for the second leg as nothing could separate Stevenage or Southend in a 1-1 stalemate. At Roots Hall, once Tom Pett gave the Hertfordshire side the advantage, it was all square as Ryan Leonard equalised soon after. As extra-time commenced, the Shrimpers did not look like an outworn eleven as a late surge created two well-taken goals (3-1 on aggregate), the only difference between two teams with not much to differ them.
The majority of Wycombe and Southend’s final hurdle towards the finishing line was too close to call. Once an additional 30 minutes was to be played, the deadlock was finally broken, assisted by a touch of good fortune as Shrimpers goalkeeper Daniel Bentley deflected Joe Jacobson’s free-kick in off the post. Phil Brown’s side were to have their own slice of good luck during some late drama as Joe Pigott dispatched the ball from inside the Wycombe penalty area to send the tie to penalties. After an exciting shootout, it was Southend who, although they may not have deserved the victory, regained their spot in the third tier (1-1 AET, 7-6 on penalties).