Swindon Town are through to the League One Play-Off Final at Wembley after edging out Sheffield United 7-6 on aggregate following a pulsating 5-5 draw at The County Ground this evening.
Having learnt their lessons after starting slow in the first-leg at Bramall Lane last week, Town flew out of the traps at The County Ground and raced into an impressive 3-0 lead in under half-an-hour.
Ben Gladwin – who has been in stellar form in recent weeks – opened the scoring with a sublime volley before he tucked home from close-range to give the hosts a comfortable lead, and Michael Smith’s 17th goal of the season elevated the Town fans into dreamland.
However, such is the quality of Sheffield United’s star-studded squad, the visitors were always likely to have their say and stay alive in the tie, Jamie Murphy’s heavily deflected strike handing Nigel Clough’s side a lifeline.
After both the lively Nathan Byrne and Massimo Luongo tried their luck in front of goal, The Blades upped the tension levels around The County Ground as Chris Basham’s header chipped into Town’s aggregate lead further.
Both sides went at it hammer and tongue in the second-half and the goal fest continued in earnest, Smith bagged his second of the evening from the penalty spot after Jermaine Hylton was fouled, but Steven Davies’ powerful header made for a very, very nervy finish.
Second-half sub Jon Obika had seemingly won the tie for the home side, but Sheffield United refused to go away as late strikes from Matty Done and Che Adams put the guests on course for an incredible comeback.
But, Town dug in and held on to finally see off the advances of Sheffield United and book their place in the League One Play-Off Final at Wembley on May 24th.
Fresh from their 2-1 first-leg success at Bramall Lane last Thursday, Town Boss Mark Cooper opted to stick with the same Starting XI for this evening’s second-leg showdown with Sheffield United at The County Ground.
But, the Robins were forced to alter the personnel on the bench due to injury, leading scorer Andy Williams (groin) and John Swift (calf) both missed out after sustaining injuries in the warm-up prior to the victory over The Blades last week – whilst Harry Toffolo’s dead leg kept him on the sidelines for a third game in succession.
Meanwhile, Sheffield United Boss Nigel Clough plumped for three changes as his side looked to overturn a 2-1 deficit, Craig Alcock replaced the injured John Brayford whilst Jason Holt and Steven Davies dropped to the bench with Matty Done and Marc McNulty taking their places in the Starting XI.
Nerves were aplenty in and around The County Ground prior to kick-off with a coveted place at Wembley at stake, but, displaying tantalising signs of the side from the first-half of the 2014/15 campaign, Town flew out of the traps in spectacular fashion and went some way to dispelling those pre-match jitters.
Combining their crisp passing game with an impressive tempo when pressing without the ball, Town made the dream start with just three minutes on the clock as Nathan Byrne’s cross was only half cleared to Ben Gladwin, with the midfielder lashing home a superb finish on the volley.
Attacking with a swashbuckling gusto, the home side wasted little time in doubling their advantage as sterling work by Byrne saw the wing-back recover what looked like a lost cause before clipping a cross into the path of Gladwin, who made no mistake when tucking home from close-range.
Town had sent the majority of The County Ground into raptures and they had even more to celebrate before twenty minutes had passed, Sheffield United were hit on the counter after Bob Harris lashed wide and the Robins punished their guests as Michael Smith showed great composure to drill home under pressure.
Swindon had stormed into an impressive 3-0 lead with less than half an hour played, but The Blades were never going to lie down and roll over so easily as Jamie Murphy’s deflected strike handed the visitors a glimmer of hope seconds after Smith had sent the Town fans into ecstasy.
Town continued to dominate proceedings as the impressive Byrne burst through on goal before firing at Mark Howard, before Massimo Luongo powered his way through a cluster of bodies but his shot took a deflection and sailed out for a corner.
However, for all of their swagger and gusto when pouring forward, Swindon always looked vulnerable at the back and they were left cursing their luck as the half-time break approached, Harris’ deep cross picked out the unmarked Chris Basham who’s diving header sailed past Wes Foderingham to throw the game into balance once more.
Harris’ pile-driver and Yaser Kasim’s poor free-kick – which flew over the bar – brought a pulsating and quite remarkable first-half to a close as everyone inside The County Ground were left catching their breathes.
There was no let up in tempo after the interval as Ryan Flynn blazed over as the visitors looked to get back into the tie, but their hopes of reaching Wembley looked to have vanished in one foul swoop just shy of the hour mark.
Jermaine Hylton was hauled down inside the area by Blades’ shot-stopper Mark Howard, and after missing a spot-kick in the first-leg, Michael Smith took over penalty taking duties from Ben Gladwin and he didn’t disappoint as he smashed home successfully from twelve-yards.
However, as was the case in the first-half, Sheffield United hit back almost immediately to keep their slim hopes alive, second-half sub Steven Davies thumping home past the beaten Foderingham.
And, with Sheffield United having to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the Town goal in order to get back into the tie, the Robins hit their visitors on the break as Jon Obika finished off a lovely move to all but send Swindon on their way to Wembley.
But, keeping in with the pattern of what was simply a ridiculous and memorable encounter, Matty Done and Che Adams scored for United in quick succession as The Blades all of a sudden found themselves within just one goal of taking the tie to extra-time.
However, despite throwing everything they had at their hosts, Sheffield United could not find the extra goal they so craved and The County Ground erupted on the final whistle as Swindon Town could finally turn their attentions to Wembley later this month.
FINAL SCORE: SWINDON TOWN 5-5 SHEFFIELD UNITED (7-6 ON AGGREGATE) – LEAGUE ONE PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINAL SECOND-LEG.
SCORERS – Ben Gladwin (3, 10), Michael Smith (18, 59 pen), Jamie Murphy (19), Chris Basham (38), Steven Davies (64), Jon Obika (83), Matty Done (87), Che Adams (90).
SWINDON TOWN (3-5-2) – Foderingham; Stephens, N Thompson (C) (Jon Obika 57), Turnbull; Byrne, Kasim, Luongo, Gladwin (Raphael Rossi Branco 90), Ricketts; Hylton (Anton Rodgers 61), Smith.
Subs Not Used – T Belford, Barthram, Marshall, Randall.
BOOKED – Anton Rodgers, Ben Gladwin, Yaser Kasim, Nathan Byrne.
SHEFFIELD UNITED (4-2-3-1) – Howard; Harris, Alcock, McEveley (C), Freeman; Basham, Coutts; Murphy, Done, Flynn (Che Adams 84); McNulty (Steven Davies 60).
Subs Not Used – Turner, Doyle, Davies, McGahey, Holt.
BOOKED – Jay McEveley, Paul Coutts, Craig Alcock, Mark Howard.
Referee – Keith Hill.
Attendance – 13,065 (1,792 Away Fans).