If you wanted to see a hint of the essence of the unconfined joy of football coupled with a hint at the traditions of the game in England, it was on display behind the goal at Peterborough United’s London Road this evening. When, at the third attempt, Craig Mackail-Smith bundled the ball over the goal-line to complete the home side’s over-turning of what had been, at one point during the first leg, a 3-1 deficit, the terrace behind the goal exploded under lights turned amber by decades of tobacco smoke, a joyous explosion of care-free abandon.
London Road has two such terraces, one at each end of the ground. The Moyes End, which sits opposite it, has its final hurrah this evening before being demolished and replaced by something thoroughly modern. Fifty-odd miles down the M1, there is already something thoroughly modern. Peterborough United travelled to Buckinghamshire at the weekend and, after a good start, almost saw their world cave in. With a man sent off and having fallen two goals behind, it was starting to look as if they might have missed their window of opportunity of making the Old Trafford final.
This, though, was only part of the story of the first leg. Peterborough United took almost 4,400 supporters to the first leg, and this was a match played out in front of banks and banks of empty, black tip-up seats in a crowd of 12,600. With no 2018 World Cup coming to England and almost universally unloved, the experiment of transplanting a club almost sixty miles feels, after seven and a half years, as ragged as it ever has. It feels as if it is failing and, while football supporters have a tendency towards sympathy for those of other clubs in trouble, it seems difficult to believe that it would be sadly missed.
So, Peterborough United had the groundswell of public support behind them. How must it have felt in the away dressing room before where, deep in their subconsciences, the players must have known that the only people willing them to win were what passes for their support? How must it have felt to take the pitch to an atmosphere something akin to that of a bear-pit? Peterborough’s support was making an evening of it tonight, creating a wall of noise to carry their team to the final. There was no need for any embellishment to “create” an atmosphere on the part of the stadium team at London Road this evening. The job was being performed for them by Peterborough’s supporters.
After eleven minutes, the roof over the London Road End almost lifted off as Peterborough took the lead, and it was a goal of sumptuous cheek and skill. A free-kick on the right-hand side of the penalty area seemed primed for a lofted cross towards the six yard area, but instead Grant McCann opted to curl the ball over the wall, catching the goalkeeper completely unaware, and dropping it into the corner of the net. In the lead on the night but only level on aggregate, the chances kept coming to put Peterborough in frornt. Grant Basey whipped over a low cross which Craig Mackail-Smith and James Wesolowski only narrowly missed. Mackail-Smith also forced a save from the goalkeeper and, whilst the ball rattled the crossbar at the other end of the pitch, by half-time it felt as if there was an irresistable momentum behind Peterborough United this evening.
The second goal arrived nine minutes into the second half. Peterborough have been impressive in attacking positions all season, and the second goal demonstrated tenacity and instinctive finishing. George Boyd’s shot was blocked by the goalkeeper and Mackail-Smith, having seen his first effort blocked by a defender, bundled the ball over the line. London Road erupted – a sheer wall of noise and celebration behind the goal. The visitors threw themselves forward in search of a goal to force the match into extra-time, but they started to come undone at the seams. Two of their players started pushing and shoving at each other and, if anything, the match ended with Peterborough looking more likely than not to increase their lead, with Mackail-Smith hitting the base of the post and another shot fizzes across the face of goal.
At full-time follows another joyful pitch invasion. In the Peterborough supporters this evening, we have seen amongst best that English football has to offer. They were full-heartedly behind their team from the beginning to the end of this match, and the team itself also deserves congratulating for battling back from a point during the first leg at which it might have seemed as if a place in the final was slipping away from them. Moreover, for the criticism that may be offered in the direction of manager Darren Ferguson, there can be no question that his team has been the most attractive to watch in the bottom two divisions of the Football League this season. They held a narrow lead for most of the second half this evening, but it often felt as if they were almost pathologically unable to stop attacking. It may prove to be different matter against Huddersfield Town in the final, but tonight, against supine opposition, it was an irresistable force to which their rivals – sentenced to another season in League One by this result – had no response. The Football League play-offs have been a delight to watch so far, and this match was no exception. The final seems likely to be a fascinating affair.
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