Sky Bet League Two play-off final
Southend United 1-1 Wycombe Wanderers
(Southend won 7-6 on penalties)
Brian Jeeves and Rowland Lyons reporting from Wembley Stadium
JOE PIGOTT grabbed a last gasp leveller and goalkeeper Daniel Bentley saved spot-kicks from Matt Bloomfield and Sam Wood as Southend United clinched a place in Sky Bet League One after a dramatic play-off final penalty shoot-out victory over Wycombe Wanderers at Wembley Stadium.
This was the Shrimpers third, and without question most important, appearance at the home of English football. And backed by more than 20,000 ardent fans, they were determined to make it a case of ‘third time lucky’ after defeats at the hands of Crewe Alexander in 2013 and Clapton Orient almost eighty-three years previous to that.
Wycombe Wanderers’ could point to a play-off final with Preston North End some twenty-one years ago for their last taste of a Wembley final. Nevertheless, the current crop of Chairboys players had produced some polished displays during the regular League Two season and went into the match with an air of confidence having handed Southend their biggest defeat of the season when the sides met at Adams Park back in December.
But there was a bizarre blow for the Buckinghamshire outfit in the opening five seconds. The influential Sam Saunders landed awkwardly on his ankle straight from the kick-off and was replaced by Matt Bloomfield in what was possibly Wembley’s quickest ever substitution.
That aside, early exchanges were somewhat tentative. Bloomfield scuffed his shot after finding some space, while Steven McLaughlin and Ben Coker orchestrated Southend’s best moments from the left flank.
Blues began to ask some serious questions. Young Chairboys goalkeeper Alex Lynch did well to palm away Will Atkinson’s teasing flag-kick, and then expertly clung to Barry Corr’s goalbound header as Southend looked for an opening. Soon after, Irishman Corr went even closer, nodding just off target after meeting another pinpoint Atkinson delivery headlong.
Blues believed they’d taken the lead when Corr met another delicious centre from David Worrall to head past Lynch, but their joy was short-lived as referee Simon Hooper ruled the effort out for an infringement in the build-up by defender Cian Bolger.
Wycombe hadn’t displayed much of an attacking threat, but as the half drew to a close Blues keeper Bentley had to be on his toes to cling to Paul Hayes’ close-range header, them Sam Wood fired just over as the Chairboys came more into the contest. And the Wycombe revival continued after the break as Hogan Ephraim’s angled drive was deflected behind, much the relief of all connected with the south Essex side.
Blues responded, and went agonisingly close when Worrall stretched out a leg but was unable to direct Atkinson’s cross past Lynch. At the other end, Joe Jacobson’s dead-ball effort did little to trouble an unmoved Bentley.
Both sets of fans cranked up the volume in a bid to give their charges an advantage. Wycombe’s Aaron Holloway headed Jacobson’s corner just over, while Corr could only find Lynch’s midriff and substitute Joe Pigott was too high as the end-to-end nature of the contest continued.
Blues continued to press. Adam Barrett perhaps should have done better, heading wide after Atkinson and Michael Timlin had worked a short corner routine. Meanwhile, Bentley produced a superb save low to his left as Hayes looked certain to hand Wycombe the lead. And the Blues keeper had to be on his metal again, brilliantly tipping over Aaron Pierre’s thundering header. But with neither side able to make the breakthrough, extra-time was required to find a winner.
And in the additional time, Wycombe seized the advantage. Jacobson’s fizzing free-kick cannoned back off the bar, but agonisingly for Southend rebounded over the line after hitting unlucky keeper Bentley who was diving backwards.
Blues players were clearly deflated by the goal, and this seemed to filter through to their hordes of fans who were now somewhat subdued and fearing the worst. Coker showed that he’d not given up the fight, producing a fantastic saving tackle to deny the marauding Holloway a second for the Chairboys.
But in the burning embers, a dramatic twist turned the tie in Southend’s favour. With literally the last kick of the game Southend dramatically drew level when Charlton loanee Pigott turned on the proverbial sixpence and dispatched low beyond Lynch, sending the Southend contingent into delirium in the process.
And from the resulting penalty shoot-out, Southend held their nerve and finally clinched their place back in league One. Pigott, Leonard, Payne, Timlin, Barrett, Weston and Bolger all scored their spot-kicks while Bentley saved from both Bloomfield and Wood, earning Blues a dramatic sudden death 7-6 victory much to the delight of their huge travelling support.
Southend United: Daniel Bentley, John White (Capt), Ben Coker, David Worrall (Jack Payne 97′), Michael Timlin, Barry Corr, Will Atkinson (Myles Weston 80′), Cian Bolger, Ryan Leonard, Stephen McLaughlin (Joe Pigott 60′), Adam Barrett Subs not used: Luke Prosser, Ted Smith, Gary Deegan, Jake Cassidy
Booked: Cian Bolger (foul), Ryan Leonard (foul)
Goals: Joe Pigott 120′
Wycombe Wanderers: Alex Lynch, Joe Jacobson, Nico Yennaris (Peter Murphy 111′), Aaron Pierre, Sam Saunders (Matt Bloomfield 4′), Marcus Bean, Paul Hayes (Capt), Sam Wood, Aaron Holloway, Alfie Mawson, Hogan Ephraim (Steven Craig 85′) Subs not used: Charlie Horlock, Matt McClure, Max Kretzschmar, Fred Onyedinma
Booked: Paul Hayes (foul), Alfie Mawson (foul), Sam Wood (foul)
Goals: Daniel Bentley (own-goal 96′)
Referee: Simon Hooper
Assistants: Jonathan Hunt and Billy Smallwood
Fourth Official: Graham Scott