Hatters' Play-off Heartache History
So yes, it’s our seventh time around to finally scramble our way through the hellhole that is the Play-offs. Any Hatters for whom the sheer whisper of the names Matty Blair, Richard Brodie or, heaven forbid, Stuart Moore, don’t send them into a shiver are frankly just too young to remember the pain they cause.
For those of you who fit that description or suffer from the same footballing sado-masochistic tendencies that I evidently do to have written this piece, here is the sextuple of pain.
Danny Hylton, Nathan Jones, Alan Sheehan and Kal Naismith following the 1-1 draw with Huddersfield in the First Leg of the Playoff Semi Final vs Huddersfield in the 2021/22 season | Photo Courtesy of Gareth Owen
1996-97: Crewe Alex. (The Adebola handball)
For all the flack that Lennie Lawrence took later, the team he produced at the first attempt to get us back into the second tier were exciting and unlucky. Running into a Bury side on their way to a second successive promotion and a Stockport side who were so good that they also got to the league cup semi that year was frankly unfortunate.
The two things that always come to mind when this tie is mentioned are the fact that we beat Crewe 6-0 in the regular season and the aforementioned Dele Adebola handball.
Looking back at the highlights now. While unquestionably his challenge on Ian Feuer did involve a handball, that wasn’t the key difference in the tie that I (am I am sure countless others) had built it out to be. When you consider that after Julian James’ sending-off, we spent the rest of that game with 4 of the 9 outfield players being strikers, we probably did ok to get out of Crewe just the one goal down.
However, none of that should have mattered by the time Oldfield had netted twice in the first half-hour at the Kenny. As much as it pains me to say, if we are going to blame someone for us failing our first play-off attempt, it would have to be my childhood hero Ian Feuer. Both goals in the Crewe comeback are squarely on him. His weak hand gifts the first away and whilst the winner was probably a foul in the modern-day game, a nineties keeper should be way stronger there.
2009-10: York City (Brodie-gate)
Everything about this tie was horrible. Having messed up the emotional high of the ‘KEITH KEANE. HAS SCORED. DIRECT. FROM THE CORNER!!!!’ game by going four games without a win just after, we did at least go into the play-offs on the back of a 14-match unbeaten run.
Everything started going wrong from the moment Shane Blackett’s header in the last minute of the first leg fell to Richard Brodie for him to first score and then start his 'poor-man’s Danny Hylton' version of shithousery that went right through the second leg. The height of which as a set-to with a ball-boy that fed into the toxic atmosphere that was pervading the Kenny at that point.
Adam Newton summed that up on the pitch by getting sent-off for dissent before the stewards managed to trap the York players between the angry invading Luton fans and the tunnel, resulting in Brodie and the rest of the York players being sitting ducks for the ugly scenes that ensued. Leaving myself in a Lok n’ Store rented studio space on Brunswick Street wondering what on earth Simon Pitts was describing.
2010-11: AFC Wimbledon (The Jason Walker final)
Attempt three and finally a final appearance. Albeit not one at Wembley but one at the City of Manchester stadium. Given the semi-final opposition were Wrexham and Fleetwood, from the moment the venue was announced, it was almost certain that the final would be between the two clubs from the other end of the country.
Even so, given our dreadful record in North Wales in our first two non-league seasons (combined 4-0 on aggregate), being 3-0 up by half-time at the Y Cae Ras was frankly unbelievable. However, never underestimate our ability to mess things up, as we looked set to when conceding within the first ten minutes and facing a penalty that would have made it 2-0 shortly afterwards. Once Mark Tyler saved it however, we settled down and never looked in danger from that point on.
The final itself, looking back, was an even one that probably should have gone to penalties, it’s Jason Walker for his failed panenka in the shoot-out that is squarely public enemy number one.
However, personally that was never the moment that was stuck in my mind sat, as I was, directly behind the trajectory of his 89th minute header. His look of confused disbelief, looking for the ball in the net, is burned on my retina. That’s mainly because my face was probably projecting the exact same expression, having only just stopped screaming for a penalty for Seb Brown taking Walker out two minutes before!
It was a header that frankly defied the law of physics in not going in, leading to the shoot-out and everything else that followed, including the longest coach journey of my life (and not just because the driver couldn’t get out of the carpark!!)
2011-12: York City (The worst offside decision of all time?)
I don’t like having a go at officials. Having done the job at youth level, it is disgusting the amount of abuse they get at that level let alone anywhere else. I am the annoying little twerp saying ‘not sure about that’ every time everyone around me is screaming for a pen, winding up the entirety of E block in the process.
As a result, even looking at blatantly incorrect decisions in the cold light of day, I will always look for a justifiable reason why an incorrect decision has been made. However, I have been through Matty Blair’s offside winner hundreds of times trying to find one and it only gets worse every time.
Firstly, Danny Parslow gets so far above both Janos Kovacs and George Pilkington for his flick-on header, that it is inconceivable that anyone would think the header had come of anyone but Parslow.
Matty Blair is also not making his run past defenders. In fact, by the time Parslow heads the ball, not only has he finished making his run to a position of being a couple of yards offside, but he is even half considering starting to jog back onside.
Thanks to the goal coming from a throw in on that side, the assistant is also in a great position, looking straight along the line of the six-yard box with a completely unblocked line of sight.
Which brings us to the big reason that this might be the worst offside decision I have ever seen. Not only are all those things working in the favour of the assistant (clear header, unblocked line of sight, attacking not making a run past players), but the marking of the six-yard box and the cut of the grass that runs right along the pitch with it are in-between Blair and our backline. Working like a prototype VAR offside line without the need for Stockley Park!
I’m not going to say it is the only decision that is both clearly incorrect and I can’t find any mitigation for (Mainly because some smart-ass reading this will send me one that is probably as bad), but I can’t think of any that even come close.
2016-17: Blackpool (Moore’s run to nowhere)
Having moaned about that decision, our second Football League play-off campaign admittedly had a couple of big decisions go our way in the second leg. But we’ll get to those in time.
This time our downfall came because of the man that scored the most crucial of the goals that got us back to the Football League first place and the errors of a loanee keeper. Hopefully not an omen for this time.
Mark Cullen’s first leg hat-trick did include what might well be the best goal scored in our play-off history, with his magnificent curler pulling things back to 2-2. However, there was already a sign of things to come with the opener, that Stuart Moore palmed tamely into his own net.
Our reaction to going 4-2 down on aggregate early in the second leg was terrific however as we were 5-4 ahead in the tie by the hour mark. Even though, despite being in the Kenny end at the time, I am still not sure that Scott Cuthbert's 'header' on the stroke of half time was anywhere near his head. Meanwhile, to call the penalty to give us the lead was about as 'soft' as microwaved chocolate left in 30 degree heat for a couple of hours!
From there though, we really should have seen out the tie and Stuart Moore is the only reason we didn't. Why he felt the need to go anywhere near Cullen's hopeful ball up to Armand Gnanduillet when it was on the edge of the area and the Frenchman had Cuthbert and JJ for company is beyond every in the Kenny except Moore himself (and even with him I'm not convinced)!
Even then, we were heading towards extra-time if it wasn't for Jordan Cook trying to clear a 95th minute corner off the line and only managed fire it against Moore and into the net to lose the tie.
2021-22: Huddersfield Town (Wounded Hatters, Sorba's Set-Piece)
Any Sunderland fan moaning about their injury list should probably look at the time last season we were keeping clean sheets with a back three of Bree, Kioso and Potts, or winning at Stoke City with Danny Hylton in attacking midfield.
They could also just look at the fact that we started Cameron Jerome in the first leg and Danny Hylton in the second, with our second different emergency goalkeeper (6th GK of the season). Or just watch the second leg again and see the state that we threw Elijah onto the pitch up in Huddersfield.
Quite frankly, I looked more fit to be a substitute than he did, cerebral palsy included!
If they were to watch that second leg, the biggest lesson anyone could take from it is that you can dominate a play-off tie and lose. The first 75 minutes of that away leg may well have been the best and most consistent performance we produced in the entirety of last season. Genuinely, I remembered that we had played well, but even I forgot just HOW well.
The only thing we didn't do is avoid giving Sorba Thomas a cheap free-kick. As fans on Huddersfield, Wales and now Blackburn can attest to, Thomas has gone from being the shiny new toy to most people being aware he is just an excellent set-piece taker with a modicum of pace...but what a set-piece taker. One cheap free-kick, one quality delivery, season over.