Phil Brown guided Southend United to promotion after an exhilarating 7-6 penalty shootout victory over Wycombe Wanderers in the League Two play-off final at Wembley.
Southend fans had started leaving as goalkeeper Daniel Bentley’s own goal looked to have sealed the game for Wycombe but with just seconds to go Joe Pigott sent the game to penalties.
Bentley then turned hero, as he pushed Sam Wood’s penalty onto the bar and sealed a dramatic win.
The game started in the worst possible fashion for Wycombe, who lost midfielder Sam Saunders after just a few seconds of the match to a calf injury. The player on loan from Brentford was emotional as he made way for club hero Matt Bloomfield.
This loss seemed to shake them up and they almost fell behind when Cian Bolger angled his header just wide from a Will Atkinson corner.
The Shrimpers then found the net on 22 minutes, when Barry Corr met David Worral’s free-kick and sent if flying in. The goal was disallowed though, as the whistle had gone for Bolger’s foul on ex-Arsenal man Nico Yennaris.
Corr’s influence on the game though was being stifled by the formation and the striker came into the game more when Brown switched to a 4-4-2, bringing on Joe Pigott for Stephen McLaughlin, to partner Corr.
Wycombe’s Joe Jacobson was then thankful to referee Simon Hooper, who waved away what appeared a blatant penalty, when he went through the back of Corr as he rose to head the ball.
As the game drew to a close, it was Gareth Ainsworth’s men who built pressure with Hayes missing a chance before Bentley tipped Aaron Pierre’s header over acrobatically to send the tie into extra-time.
And it was Wycombe who struck the first blow, after Joe Jacobson rattled the crossbar with a well taken free kick, only to see it hit the diving body of Bentley and roll into his own net.
The Chairboys did well to run down the clock and were almost there when they lost possession cheaply in the opposition half and allowed Curtis Weston to break. Beating Marcus Bean down the left, he found Corr, who headed into the path of Piggot, who kept his composure and slotted home with just 20 seconds left on the clock, to send the game the distance.
The shootout saw The Shrimpers suffer an early blow, when Ben Coker’s drive deflected off the legs of Alex Lynch putting them behind. They levelled though, as Bloomfield, a Wycombe player since 2003, saw his penalty saved by Bentley.
The decisive moment then came when Bolger smashed his penalty home and forced Wood to keep Wycombe’s hopes alive. But Bentley proved to be the hero and deflected Wood’s penalty on to the post, to send his team to League One.
Not separated after 46 games, 120 minutes of football and 12 penalties, the game illustrated just how close the race for promotion to League One was. The win has perhaps saved Phil Brown’s management career, as he once again has proved his ability in the play-offs, following his success with Hull City in 2008, through the iconic Dean Windass goal.
For Ainsworth though, whose side occupied the automatic promotion places for nine months, the failure to be promoted is difficult to take. Having outdone their season target of 55 points and mere survival in the football league, when the dust settles, it is almost certain the fans will be proud of their side’s drastic transformation. With many of their loan signings due to return to their parent clubs and the contracts of top players like Hogan Ephraim due to expire, squad retention will be crucial if The Chairboys are to mount the same charge next campaign.
By Alex Knight