Football has given us plenty of gifts over the last few weeks. The Champions League semi-finals alone provided viewers with enough drama to last a lifetime as Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur set up an all-English final with their respective stunning comebacks.
Manchester City and Liverpool then concluded a nail-biting title race last weekend when City’s win over Brighton & Hove Albion ensured the Reds’ 97-point tally was, painfully, not enough to end their top-flight title drought.
Prior to this and going back perhaps just a tad, Watford were the architects of another remarkable comeback as they beat Wolverhampton Wanderers at Wembley to reach the FA Cup final.
Alongside those, however, the EFL play-offs have been taking place, and they deserve to be mentioned alongside these moments. Twelve teams from the three EFL divisions have battled all the way through their extra games and six will now head to Wembley to have one last stab at promotion after providing us with some of the most gripping drama of the 2018/19 campaign.
The EFL Play-Offs Show the Quality of the Football League
Villa’s Comeback Leads to Shoot-Out Success
Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion were pitted together for their semi-final, with the Baggies looking to return to the Premier League at the first attempt and Villa hoping to go up after losing in the final to Fulham last season.
Dwight Gayle gave West Brom the lead in the tie, but quickfire second-half goals from Tammy Abraham and Connor Hourihane turned the game on its head and swung it in Villa’s favour. They were then further helped by a controversial second yellow card for Gayle, which meant he would be suspended for the second leg.
Craig Dawson’s header was all that separated them at the Hawthorns in round two, but the singular goal and the lack of strikes in extra time took the game to penalties. Jed Steer was the hero for Villa, saving Albion’s first two penalties, and Abraham’s spot-kick sent Villa to Wembley for the second year running.
Super-Sub Marriot the Rams’ Hero
Kemar Roofe gave Leeds the advantage in the first leg against Derby County with the only goal away from home, but all the action in this one came at Elland Road.
Stuart Dallas’ tap-in looked to have Leeds on course for Wembley, but Jack Marriott, less than a minute after being introduced for the injured Mason Bennett, pounced on a mix-up at the back to bring Derby back into it.
Mason Mount levelled the tie less than a minute after the restart and Harry Wilson’s penalty completed the turnaround before Dallas cut inside and fired home for Leeds.
The Whites were reduced to ten men soon after and Derby made them pay when Marriott raced through and dinked over Kiko Casilla to put the Rams 4-3 ahead on aggregate, ending any chance Leeds had of promotion to the Premier League. Their 16-year exile continues.
King Maguire’s Stunner Enough For Sunderland
The lowest-scoring of all the ties, Sunderland needed just one goal across their two legs against Portsmouth. It was a stunner, though.
After 62 minutes at the Stadium of Light, the ball fell to Chris Maguire in the Portsmouth area and he volleyed home brilliantly to give the Black Cats a slender lead.
Alim Ozturk’s red card threatened to derail their bid, but Jack Ross steered his side through a feisty second leg which saw midfielder Luke O’Nien kicked by a fan.
The incident everyone is talking about ?
Last night Sunderland full-back Luke O’Nien was punched and kicked by a Portsmouth fan after falling into the crowd! ?
“That’s disgraceful!” ? pic.twitter.com/2eyG2xUHLm
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) May 17, 2019
Charlton Overcome Doncaster Fightback
Charlton Athletic withstood the pressure of Doncaster Rovers to edge through to Wembley after a penalty shoot-out.
Goals from Lyle Taylor and Joe Aribo in the first leg at the Keepmoat Stadium had the Addicks in charge, but Matty Blair’s goal right at the end ensured they still had it all to do at the Valley.
Krystian Bielik put Lee Bowyer’s side in front after only two minutes to reaffirm their position, but Doncaster showed the fight that got them into a play-off position in the first place and forced extra time through Tommy Rowe and Andy Butler.
Rovers edged ahead on aggregate through John Marquis, but Darren Pratley immediately pegged them back and took the tie to spot-kicks.
Rowe’s miss when he was in a must-score position sparked a pitch invasion, and Charlton avoided an upset much to their supporters’ delight.
Newport County Make History
The week prior to League Two’s closing fixtures, Newport County were 11th in the league. However, a midweek win and a draw on the final day, plus some fortuitous results elsewhere, secured the final play-off spot for the Exiles.
They were up against Mansfield Town, who took the lead in the tie through CJ Hamilton’s stunning opener. Despite the heroics of goalkeeper Conrad Logan, though, the Stags were pegged back when Padraig Amond scored the rebound of his saved penalty.
A goalless draw ensued in leg two, although it was probably one of the most entertaining 0-0 games of the season. It culminated with Newport, who only survived in League Two by two points in 2016/17, winning the shoot-out to secure their spot in the final.
Tranmere Edge Through
Finally, the EFL’s top goalscorer was at it again as James Norwood edged his Tranmere Rovers side through against Forest Green Rovers.
Tranmere, who were only promoted from the National Leauge last season, took a thin lead to Nailsworth after Ollie Banks’ stunner and were also helped by the early dismissal of Gavin Gunning.
Joseph Mills headed Forest Green level on aggregate at the New Lawn but, before half-time Norwood volleyed Tranmere in front again, much to the delight of Premier League referee and apparent Rovers fan, Mike Dean.
Yes – that is Mike Dean celebrating Tranmere’s win at Forest Green pic.twitter.com/W2xHQmM33E
— George Elek (@GeorgeElek) May 13, 2019
The EFL play-offs have, without doubt, been a joy this year. They serve as a reminder that football does exist beyond the borders of the super-rich and domestic dominance. They’re not done yet though, as the Wembley Stadium is now set to host the finals of all three divisional EFL play-offs.
Championship – Aston Villa v Derby County – Monday, May 27 – 3.00pm
League One – Charlton Athletic v Sunderland – Sunday, May 26 – 3.00pm
League Two – Newport County v Tranmere Rovers – Saturday, May 25 – 3.00pm