Millwall and Swindon eye promotion prize
At the New Den.
Both Millwall and Swindon tantalisingly occupied the second automatic promotion spot in League One at different moments during their match at the New Den on the final day of the season.
The as-it-stands table also had Charlton briefly in second, but in the end Leeds came from behind to defeat Bristol Rovers to reclaim the position in which they had started the day and secure a place in the Championship for next season.
However, the same prize is still on offer for Millwall and Swindon after they came through play-off semi-final ties to set-up an intriguing battle for the final League One promotion spot at Wembley on 29 May.
Millwall, who finished the season in third place, were good value for their 2-0 aggregate victory over Huddersfield Town, while Swindon defeated Charlton on penalties after their tie had finished 3-3 on aggregate.
Kenny Jackett's Lions kept successive clean sheets against a Town side that had scored more than 100 goals in all competitions and sealed their passage to Wembley with a comfortable victory at the New Den on Tuesday.
"We had injuries at the start of the campaign but we have hung in there," said Jackett, whose team have only lost three times since the turn of the year to bounce back from the disappointment of defeat by Scunthorpe in last season's play-off final.
"We wanted to progress after last year and have done that with our play on the ball and goal scoring."
Steve Morison (right) turns away from Neal Trotman during Millwall's second leg victory
There was no greater example of that on Tuesday evening than striker Steve Morison, who struck the 23rd goal of a very successful first campaign at this level after joining from Stevenage last summer.
Morison, a no-nonsense individual, ensured a torrid night for Town's central defensive pairing of Neal Trotman and Peter Clarke with his willingness to search out space in wide areas and drive towards the byeline.
His play epitomised the endeavour and verve that Millwall showed in front of a fantastic atmosphere at the New Den, yet earlier in the campaign he struggled for form and was the subject of abuse from a certain section of supporters.
The low point came when Morison missed what he describes as an absolute sitter close to the goal-line in an FA Cup tie at Staines in late November.
Listening to Morison after Tuesday's game, it was obvious that he still could not understand how he failed to tuck that chance away but Jackett kept faith in his striker, who scored an injury-time winner against MK Dons in Millwall's next fixture and has not looked back since.
Morison has won twice at Wembley in the FA Trophy and is now determined to help Millwall end a sequence of six straight play-off failures, while Huddersfield are left to reflect on a tie in which they woefully under-performed.
"We have some good young players but maybe I have more belief in them than they have in themselves," said manager Lee Clark afterwards.
"But we did not get done by a lack of passion, commitment or desire."
In the dejected away dressing room, Clark reminded his young team that he was a member of the Sunderland side that lost the 1998 Division One play-off final against Charlton on a penalty shoot-out after a 4-4 draw.
"We dusted ourselves down and went on to smash all sorts of records the following season," added Clark, recalling the Black Cats team that won the title with 105 points and a goal difference of +63 in 1998-99.
Putting a positive spin on their defeat, Huddersfield have a wealthy and committed owner in Dean Hoyle and a talented young squad that should ultimately benefit from the experience of this play-off campaign.
The situation is less stable at Charlton - and it is difficult to calculate the price of Nicky Bailey's penalty miss on Monday evening.
Addicks chairman Richard Murray observed before the second-leg against Swindon that it was "a hugely important game for the club" - bland words on the face of it, but the context surrounding the encounter suggests otherwise.
His comments are open to interpretation but the fact that the club sold the influential and highly promising teenager Jonjo Shelvey to Liverpool at the end of April, a time when the club's promotion hopes still hung in the balance, hinted at severe financial problems. Subsequent reports suggested the proceeds of the sale would be used to merely cover the club's wage bill over the summer months.
The south London side had suffered two relegations in the previous three seasons. They managed just eight league wins last season and finished bottom of the Championship after a campaign of almost unremitting misery.
Six straight wins with an unchanged side at the start of the current season suggested a change in fortune but Charlton will be spending at least one more season in the third tier of English football, while many fans are already expecting the current squad to be decimated by a combination of cost-cutting measures.
Swindon fans celebrate after their side clinched a place at Wembley
I imagine most people connected with the club will have woken on Tuesday still wondering how they failed to reach the final. The Addicks might have trailed 2-1 after the first leg at Swindon but they deservedly led 2-0 at the break at The Valley and should have gone on to win the tie.
Charlton had 20 shots on target and repeatedly bruised the woodwork but poor finishing, tough luck and good goalkeeping ensured the match went the distance.
Bailey is a Charlton supporter and his devastation was clear for all to see as he was helped off the field by two team-mates.
It was the midfielder's awful pass that started the break that led to Swindon's goal and his was the only penalty of the 10 taken that failed to find the back of the net.
I don't often feel sympathy for a footballer but I did for him as he buried his face in his shirt. He is a fine, determined player who can be proud of his efforts this season.
Charlton's pain was Swindon's ecstasy - and the Wiltshire club's amazing season now goes the full distance. They were the better side in the first leg at the County Ground but slightly fortunate at Charlton.
Striker Billy Paynter was clearly not match fit and Danny Wilson's team were generally so poor in the opening half that the manager asked his players at the break whether they were going to so tamely surrender the opportunity they had worked so hard all season to create.
The Robins showed the mental grit and desire to find an equaliser at time when they trailed 2-0 on the night and were down to 10 men following the dismissal of skipper Gordon Greer.
All five of their penalties spoke of bottle and composure and in Charlie Austin, Danny Ward and Vincent Pericard have plenty of artillery even if Paynter is below par.
Now they head for Wembey to take on Millwall - their recent match agaianst the Lions having ended in a 3-2 defeat, while the contest at the County Ground earlier in the season finished in a 1-1 draw.
An interesting aspect of the final is that Morison and Austin, who joined Swindon from Poole Town, have both emerged as key players for their respective clubs after breakthrough seasons following a move from non-league football.
But, barring an unexpected summer development, only one of them will have the chance to see whether they can cut it in the Championship when the new campaign kicks off.