When Sheffield United finished the season with 90 points in third place, we tied the unfortunate record of the total number of points in the Football League without automatic promotion. The other holder of that honour is Sunderland, who cruely missed out on promotion on penalties in the playoff final of playoff finals – the 4-4 thriller with Charlton.
If you remove completely the thrilling spectacle angle (and I mean completely), United in the League One final was much the same as Sunderland. So near, and yet so far.
It was a strange experience on the day. I’d read a number of accounts of fans before the game about nerves, but this is the first playoff final where ahead of the game I was fairly relaxed. United have an appalling record in playoff finals. Of the three I’ve been to before this season, I’ve seen three losses – in 1997, 2003, and 2009, with a place in the Premier League on the line in each. I felt well prepared for playoff misery. I hadn’t even seen us hit the back of the net once in any of the finals.
So, with a place in the Championship up for grabs and off the back of three failures, you can forgive me for not getting excited by another potential failure in the run-up to the game.
The game itself was pretty dreadful for the first 80 minutes – barely a chance created by either team – with a flurry of late activity, with two teams clearly desperate not to suffer another 30 mins in the baking sun. Steve Simonsen pulled off three excellent stops, and Nick Montgomery denied the prolific Rhodes a winning goal with an last gasp goal-line clearance.
Extra time, and the switch to 4-4-2 by Danny Wilson opened up the game at both ends a little, but by the end of it 0-0 was probably the result the cagey performances by both teams deserved.
Penalties are always the proverbial footballing lottery. Sepp Blatter’s recently launched an inquiry into an alternative (though the footballing world would probably prefer an inquiry to find an alternative to Sepp Blatter). A game has to be decided somehow. In the end the game turned on which goalkeeper was able to take a decent penalty – as much a toss of a coin as you can get in football surely.
With the first three penalties missed you wondered whether anyone would score one. In Williamson’s case you even had Smithies tip round an effort that had been drifting wide – just to make extra-specially sure it was missed. Up until Neill Collins ran up to strike the ball, United still hadn’t hit the back of the net in a playoff final before.
With Collins scoring, and Simonsen saving the third Terriers pen from ever-horrible Alan Lee, this was a great chance to win it. Score two of the remaining three penalties and United were up. For the first time in the afternoon, I actually started to believe that this might be the day we win a playoff final – you could almost taste it.
It was not to be. Matty Lowton has had an excellent season, and many including myself would have been happy to see him take a penalty. Sadly, his effort was saved. Then came reserve left-back Andy Taylor, brought on late-on specifically to take a penalty – a surprise to lots of us who were totally unaware of any penalty-taking prowess. And with good reason too. The moment the ball crashed against the post was the moment all the hope I had seconds before vanished.
We then followed that with a back and forth of pressure penalties, where individuals you wouldn’t expect to be any good showed surprising ability – and where any miss would have ended the game. Porter for the fifth and Matty Hill’s top corner effort at 7-7 in particular stood out as being pretty ballsy penalties.
With Smithies scoring the eleventh Terriers pen for 8-7, the task fell to Simonsen, having already saved two of the initial pens. The resultant miss by Simonsen is particularly harsh for him, and I can’t imagine after possibly his best performance in a United shirt that many fans will be putting defeat down to how the eleventh choice penalty-taker dealt with his penalty. A final in the baking sunshine at Wembley, decided by the final kick of what was a drab game – it was like 1997 and Crystal Palace all over again.
So, another playoff cruelty – in an exciting new way! We’ve had the last minute Hopkin goal. We’ve had the three-down-by-half-time final. We’ve also had the final-where-we-got-two-red-cards final. Now we have the final decided by a shoot out involving every player finishing the game.
90 points, 92 goals. No promotion. It’s a cruel way to end the season. Off the back of an abysmal year before, Danny Wilson has done a fantastic job in lifting the players he inherited, getting the likes of Neill Collins and Michael Doyle to be essential players in the team when most fans would have been happy for him to ship them elsewhere. The level of football played has been the best for many years. We’ve had all manner of set backs. And Danny now has to lift us again.
There will almost certainly be a big clearout in the coming months. Various players have expiring contracts. These include:
– Steve Simonsen (excellent in the final, shaky at other times)
– Lee Williamson (excellent in the season, less so in the final)
– Kevin McDonald (key to the midfield in the season, ideal for the Wembley pitch, sadly injured ahead of the final)
– Ched Evans (excellent in the season, in jail for the foreseeable future), and
– James Beattie (dreadful in the season, and who will be missing the first game of next season through suspension were he through some miracle to be fit anyway)
Couple that with the likely bids that will be coming in for young stars Matty Lowton and Harry Maguire this summer, which we’ll probably accept, and it’s looking in some ways to be a bigger rebuild job than this time last year for Danny in getting a decent squad together to push for promotion.
Still, despite everything I’m actually feeling far less despondent that I would have thought I’d be. It’s a sad end to what has been an otherwise really enjoyable year in League One. Let’s regroup, and get that automatic place next year.
Written by Joe Clift, We Are Going Up’s Sheffield United blogger