Two memorable nights in south-east London produced two excellent matches this week, a credit to League One in fact and ultimately two worthy play-off finalists. On Saturday May 29, Millwall will meet Swindon at Wembley for a place in the Championship.
Monday night saw Swindon victorious over Charlton at the Valley after a pulsating contest was decided by a penalty shoot-out. Skipper Nicky Bailey was the unfortunate Addick who blasted wide, whilst Danny Wilson’s men kept their cool, composed themselves and delivered spot-kicks of the highest quality – perhaps learning the lessons of Leicester’s Yann Kermorgant – to ensure that the Robins completed an unexpected turnaround.
Having led the tie after the first leg, Swindon were made to work from the first minute as Charlton piled on the pressure, and indeed the home side went into the half-time interval with a 2-0 lead on the night, thus being in front in the tie for the first time. All seemed to be over for the Robins, who were kept in the tie thanks to a string of fine saves from stand in keeper Phil Smith, when skipper Gordon Greer saw red for a rash and unnecessary challenge on Deon Burton. Against the odds, on-loan Bolton striker Danny Ward levelled proceedings on aggregate late on, taking the tie into extra-time. An injury-time straight red card for Charlton’s Miguel Llera was very harshly dished out, ensuring that the final thirty minutes would be played on an equal footing.
End-to-end football followed as neither side showed any hint of fatigue meaning that for the second time this season, a play-off fixture would have to be decided from twelve yards. An inconsolable Bailey was the villain but in truth, Phil Parkinson’s side should have finished the game off in normal time. Swindon weren’t at the races in the first half and Charlton’s early two-goal lead perhaps could and should have been greater. However, we should not take anything away from Wilson’s side, who were vastly improved after half-time and richly deserve their place in the Wembley showpiece.
And so to Tuesday night at the New Den, where Kenny Jackett’s Millwall hosted a Huddersfield team who’s play-off finish perhaps disguises their disappointing form away from home this campaign. Their form was to desert them again as the Lions ultimately ran out comfortable winners to take their place in the final. Millwall started the game the brighter but in truth took the lead slightly against the run of play as top scorer Steve Morison gave them the advantage on the night and in the tie. Paul Robinson headed home with minutes to spare to put the contest beyond doubt for the home side. So the Terriers notched up another defeat away from the Galpharm Stadium, and whilst their away form has been far from disastrous, it perhaps best explains their exit from the play-offs. This writer maintains that Lee Clark’s side are without doubt the best side he has had the pleasure to watch in person this season, and indeed few sides have left Huddersfield with the points that they came for. However, Tuesday saw Clark’s side rarely trouble David Forde in the Lions’ goal and although it wasn’t an exhibition of easy on the eye football, with neither side looking totally dominant, Millwall were comfortable in the end and can look forward to their return to Wembley with much optimism.
And so what to make of the final? The Lions have the upper hand having finished higher and also having beaten the Robins this season. That victory came just a few short weeks ago as the two sides met at the Den on the final day of the regular season, and so Jackett’s men will probably be considered favourites for the final. They will want to put the disappointment of last season’s final defeat to Scunthorpe behind them but Swindon will of course be no pushover. If the semi-finals are anything to go by, we are in for a memorable final, a fitting curtain call to the League One season.