In League One, the sense that this was to be the year of the south coast started to grow as winter turn to spring. Brighton & Hove Albion soared away at the top of the table, and as the home straight of the season came into view, the pre-season favourites Southampton also began to pull away into the distance, themselves securing an automatic promotion place with a couple of games of the season still to spare. All attention, then, turns to the end of season play-offs, and this evening brings the first of the second legs of the semi-finals between Huddersfield Town and AFC Bournemouth.
For much of the autumn and winter, Huddersfield Town looked as likely as not to bag that second automatic promtion place. They begin this evening at Galpharm as the favourites ahead of Bournemouth, following a 1-1 draw at Dean Court at the weekend. Huddersfield finished the season in third place in the table, five points behind Southampton but seventeen ahead of Bournemouth, who sneaked home on the last day of the season, just ahead of Leyton Orient and Exeter City. Huddersfield supporters may well think that the sixteen point buffer should give them the definitive advantage over Bournemouth this evening, but season play-off watchers will be more than aware that end of season league positions can count for little over one hundred and eighty minutes after the regulation forty-six matches have been played.
Such considerations may be behind Huddersfield’s nervy start to this match. Bournemouth start brightly, and create several half-chances before Danny Ings has the first clear chance of the match, dragging a shot across the penalty area and wide when he might have hit the target. After their skittish opening, however, Huddersfield begin to assert themselves and, having had a couple of decent chances themselves, they score after half an hour, when Gary Roberts’ in-swinging corner finds Lee Peltier at the far post, and his header beats the defender on the goal-line. It feels, at this point, as if Huddersfield may go on to cruise to victory in this match. They seem to be overrunning Bournemouth and hit the post, but this half has a sting in its tail.
A minute from half-time, Bournemouth are level with a goal that comes about thanks to a moment of rashness from a Huddersfield defender. Adam Smith’s run into the penalty area looks hand enough, but Peter Clarke’s tackle is somewhere between clumsy and reckless, leaving the referee with no alternative but to award a penalty kick. Steve Lovell, who started his career with Bournemouth thirteen years ago and returned to the club earlier this season, blasts the ball into the roof of the net to bring Bournemouth level. Their relief lasts for two minutes before Huddersfield reclaim the lead. Danny Ward’s shot from the edge of the penalty area beats the Bournemouth goalkeeper Jalal, and the referee barely has time to restart before blowing for half-time.
Huddersfield start the second half strongly, and have an outstanding chance to extend their lead when Gary Naysmith pulls the ball back for Jordan Rhodes, who shoots over when it seemed difficult not to hit the target. It is a miss that proves costly for Huddersfield. It has looked all evening as if there may be gaps in the Huddersfield defence that could be exploited if Bournemouth can break effectively, and it is through a combination of his and a moment of individual brilliance that brings the vistors level. Just after an hour has been played, the sweep the ball wide from just inside the Huddersfield penalty area and then inside for Lovell, who in a graceful, thrilling movement, controls the ball, slips it around the Huddersfield goalkeeper Ian Bennett and into the roof of the net from an exceptionally tight angle. It’s a brilliant goal, a moment of genius to crown a splendidly entertaining game.
As so frequently in the play-offs, then it all comes down to the final half an hour. One could forgive Huddersfield for being utterly deflated by the goal, but they fight back with resilience and, with a little over a quarter of an hour left to play, Benik Afobe is played through from an angle, manages – just – to work his way around the goalkeeper but, slightly off-balance, lifts his shot over the crossbar. At the other end of the pitch, a downward header skids up off the ground and into the arms of a grateful goalkeeper. It feels as if neither side wants this match to go to extra-time, and with two minutes to play Roberts curls a shot from an angle narrowly wide of the post for Huddersfield. Extra-time beckons.
It takes less than thirty seconds of the first period of extra time for the Bournemouth defence to get itself into a pickle, almost allowing Huddersfield a way through before the ball is scrambled away. Although they huff and puff, though, there seems no easy way through the Bournemouth defence. In spite of the fact that the two teams have played one hundred and eighty minutes against each other, the pace of the game refuses to yield and, with three minutes to go of the first period of extra time, Bournemouth snatch the lead, when Mark Pugh finds himself a little space on the left-hand side and crosses for Danny Ings to head into the cotner of the net. Bournemouth’s delight, however, is short-lived, and in stoppage time, Gary Roberts’ corner finds Antony Kay, whose perfect header sails into the corner of the goal to bring Huddersfield level.
It is Bournemouth who take the bull by the horns at the start of the second period, but tiredness is now finally starting to show and, six minutes in, Bournemouth’s Jason Pearce is sent off for a rash tackle on Kevin Kilbane. Bournemouth immediately shuffle their pack and Danny Ings is substituted, but the match has now swung back to the other end of the pitch again, and it now feels as if it is down to the visitors to do what they can to hold out for the last ten minutes or so. They manage this reasonably successfully until the very end of the game, when a goalmouth scramble is bundled behind and, from the resulting corner, Daniel Ward shoots narrowly wide. After two hundred and ten minutes, the two teams could not be separated and a place in the final will now come down to a penalty shoot-out.
The two managers embrace at the end. The players form huddles in the centre circle. This has been a match that neither team deserves to lose and, if penalty shoot-outs are a lottery, it is perhaps right that the only way to seperate them is by this method. The first two kicks are calmly placed into the bottom left-hand corner, both goalkeepers diving the wrong way. Liam Feeney is second up for Bournemouthm, and… his shot is a poor one. A comfortable save. Ward scores for Huddersfield, and a glimmer of light opens between the two teams. Next up for Bournemouth is Robinson, and he hits the crossbar. Kilbane doubles the Huddersfield advantage with the next penalty. Cooper pulls one back but next up Kay, underside of the crossbar, and down. The ball spins, but behind the line. Huddersfield Town are through to the League One play-off final.
At the very end, a joyful pitch invasion. Sixteen points may have seperated the two teams over the course of the season, but it required two hundred and ten minutes and a penalty shoot-out to prise them apart this evening. Huddersfield Town supporters would certainly have had cause to feel aggrieved had they ended up losing tonight. In truth, though, neither side really deserved to lose this evening, and Bournemouth supporters should, if such a thing is possible, take heart from the fact that their team showed shovels full of commitment this evening and that they may well find themselves well positioned for a push at promotion again next season. A south coast hat-trick in League One, however, is off, and Huddersfield Town can relax for a day or two now and sit back tomorrow night to see who will be joining them in the final. It’s a harsh way to lose and it’s a harsh way to win but, for sheer entertainment, this must rank as one of the matches of the season.
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