A superb performance for The Posh saw them through to the playoff final with a surprisingly comfortable victory over MK Dons.
The atmosphere at London Road was electric. This was a big game and it had the feel of one too. Darragh MacAnthony lapped up the support in a lap of honour before former playoff legends such as David Farrell and Ken Charlery also helped crank the atmosphere up before the kickoff.
Darren Ferguson made three changes from the starting line-up that had played in the first leg. James Wesolowski was introduced to the midfield with Nathaniel Mendez-Laing dropping to the bench. Grant Basey replaced the suspended Charlie Lee at left back with Paul Jones taking the place of Joe Lewis in goal, after the latter was diagnosed with a fractured knee-cap.
The Posh knew that they needed an improved performance. The one at Stadium:MK had not been good enough and they now had to do things the hard way. There would be no second chances this time. It was clear from the off-set that Posh knew this. They wanted this. Right from kick-off there was an increased tempo to their play, on and off the ball, and suddenly MK Dons looked rattled. A side that had been so comfortable in the first leg in possession were starting to hit the ball long and Sam Baldock, playing the lone role up-front, could not get any meaningful possession.
There was a hunger in the Posh players eyes that had been missing from the first leg. Everything was sharper, quicker and more accurate. Craig Mackail-Smith was first to test David Martin in the MK Dons goal but from that moment on there was a feeling that he may well have been in for a busy night. It wasn’t long before the deadlock was broken either. When GRANT MCCANN lined up a free-kick on the corner of the eighteen-yard box it was typically in a crossing position. For McCann it represented a shooting opportunity. With David Martin expecting a cross he had left a gap at the near post. McCann spotted it. With concentration etched in his face the Northern Ireland international swung his wonderfully able left-foot at the ball. The shot beat the wall, Martin scrambled across, but it was to no avail with the ball nestling in the corner of the net. The goal was the cue for wild celebrations. McCann slide on his knees before being mobbed by his fellow team-mates.
The tie was at 0-0 now. Any advantage had been eradicated and both teams knew that they had 80 minutes to win the game. 80 minutes to send themselves to Manchester. MK Dons were shocked. Their game-plan had been undone early. They were on the back-foot but they weren’t about to roll over. Not at this stage. Daniel Powell brought a nervous looking Paul Jones into the action for the first time in the match but the stand-in ‘keeper produced a comfortable save to turn the ball around the post.
Still it was Posh who had the momentum, though. They were a different team to the one that had been so poor on Sunday. This was Posh playing to their potential. Roared forward by the London Road crowd, the team were reacting and almost extended their lead before half an hour was on the clock. After some intricate passing between Rowe and Boyd, Basey sensed a chance to attack. Bombarding forward he collected the ball, took a touch and drilled the ball across the box. It only needed a touch, with MK defenders knowing that they could not take the risk of trying to clear it, if they had the likely result was an own-goal, Mackail-Smith and Wesolowski sensed the moment was there to put Posh in-front. Charging forward both players flung themselves at it but somehow the ball evaded both of them and went, harmlessly out for an MK Dons throw-in.
The pressing game that The Posh were applying to the visitors was working perfectly. MK hadn’t had a chance so far. Yet, defensively they would have been wary that Posh were vulnerable. You can never count on Peterborough United to keep a clean-sheet. And all the host’s hard-work was almost undone in an instant as a result. A hopeful, high ball into the box caused panic and when Gary MacKenzie flicked a header into the path of Daniel Powell the winger lashed the ball goalwards. Paul Jones was beaten but somehow the ball cannoned off the under-side of the crossbar before it was scrambled clear by some desperate Posh defending.
The last chance of the half fell to George Boyd when he deflected a Grant McCann shot goalwards, producing a good save from David Martin. It had been a fantastic half for Posh, though. They seemed to want it more than the visitors. First to every second ball and looking dangerous on the counter Darren Ferguson would have known another 45 minutes like that would probably fire them to the playoff final.
PITCH INVASION: Thousands entered the London Road pitch after Peterborough United reached the playoff final.
Any fears that Posh’s performance might drop after half-time were quelled almost instantly. MK Dons thought they would have been safe playing the ball back to defence from kick-off, normally they would have been, but this wasn’t a normal occasion. Three Posh players charged forward, putting pressure on Dean Lewington and gaining possession before finding Lee Tomlin. However, the former Rushden man would have been disappointed with his final effort, sending the ball well wide of the target.
Then it happened. The goal that raised the roof off the stadium. The goal that put Posh in the lead in the tie. The goal that made the dream reality. When Lee Tomlin collected the ball, out on the right hand flank, he delicately clipped a cross into the box. All of a sudden it was two-on-two. George Boyd and Craig Mackail-Smith, two club legends, were about to further emphasised their status. Boyd brought the ball out of the air with his left-foot and the space opened up. He was round the last defender. One-on-one he shanked his shot, hitting it straight at David Martin but CRAIG MACKAIL-SMITH had found space. London Road held its breath. Mackail-Smith shot but Luke Chadwick somehow got back, blocking the shot. Posh were not about to be denied tonight, though. The rebound fell straight back to the striker who smashed it home from close-range to spark scenes of sheer jubilation from a sold out London Road.
Peterborough were almost there. Almost. Old Trafford was in sight. And it should have got better moments later. George Boyd had been everywhere for Posh throughout the game, he may not have had his most effective game in terms of moments of genius but his contribution to the team was second to none. Snapping at people’s heels, linking up ball, working back defensively, this was Boyd the team player, rather than the individual. And as Posh surged forward he found space once again. He rounded Gleeson but went down under the challenge. However, Lee Tomlin was the first to react. He spotted his opportunity and seized upon the loose ball before lashing it beyond Martin and into the back of the net. As he peeled away in celebration his, and everybody else’s, elation soon turned to disbelief. Colin Webster had not played advantage, choosing to bring play back for the foul on Boyd and, in turn, disallowing Posh’s goal. If MK Dons could have felt aggrieved by a particularly dodgy refereeing decision in the first leg it was Peterborough’s turn to this time.
It was now a question of how Posh would react to the set-back. They thought they had won the game only to have it snatched away from them. Would it just not be Posh’s night? All of a sudden MK Dons were on the counter, after McCann’s free-kick had rebounded off the wall, and looking dangerous. Sam Baldock grabbed possession, looking to drive MK forward, and he found Angelo Balanta in space. Somehow though James Wesolowski managed to get back. Encapsulating the desire and courage that had been shown by this Posh team throughout, he stretched out a leg and made an impeccable tackle. A tackle that drew a standing ovation. A tackle that will not be forgotten for a very long time.
It was to be MK’s last real chance. Posh would not be beaten today. Nothing was going to deny them their chance of promotion. Indeed, it was the hosts who looked the more likely scorers of the next goal. McCann had been forced into going off, with Chris Whelpdale coming on to replace him, and the latter almost provided the Posh with the ammunition to get the third goal of the night. As he escaped down the right flank, MK were struggling to get back, committing more and more men forward in the hope of an elusive equaliser, and he cut the ball back for Tommy Rowe to hit goalwards. It represented another chance for Posh to grab a third. But MacKenzie was well placed on the line to deflect the ball away.
It was only delaying the inevitable though. London Road seemed calm; strange considering the amount that was riding on these last few minutes. Yet the players had given them nothing to worry about. Everything they did was assured and it had meant that MK Dons had not posed much of a threat all game. They seemed to know that it was over too. Fighting amongst themselves, out of frustration, they hadn’t really got going. Posh had them rattled.
Karl Robinson tried, in vain, to make something happen. Sean O’Hanlon was substituted, replaced by Lewis Guy, who went to join MK’s 4 man attack but all it did was open more space for Posh to attack into. Mackail-Smith’s tireless energy was again on display as he charged down MacKenzie who wanted more time that he had. Nicking the ball of the usually reliable centre back he bore down on goal. But Martin denied him of capping off a superb Posh performance in style, deflecting the ball onto the post.
In the end it didn’t matter. As the final whistle blew thousands of Posh fans stormed onto the pitch whilst the MK Dons fans, players and staff commiserated each other after another playoff defeat. This was to be Posh’s night.
Well, what an evening? It’s one of the games that will be remembered. An “I was there moment” that nobody will forget. And, it’s after times like this that you realise why you follow a football club. Why you make those trips to Yeovil on a Tuesday night. Why you bother to continue going when all is lost. Why you bought a season ticket after a thoroughly abysmal campaign last year. Because of nights like these. From the moment that MacAnthony paraded around the pitch to when the players celebrated in the directors box the night felt like it was going to be a special one and it didn’t disappoint.
To single one player out from last night is hard. They were all inspirational. James Wesolowski was unbelievable, Gabriel Zakuani was a rock despite playing with an injury that would keep most players out for months, Grant Basey kicked every ball despite only playing a small part in the campaign, Grant McCann was the most composed person in the stadium, George Boyd charged around like a mentalist for 90 minutes and Mackail-Smith just continues to amaze. Every member of our squad should take a bow. They were fantastic.
However, in reality, it will all be for nothing if we don’t win at Old Trafford. Somehow the memory will be tarnished. The goals, that tackle, the pitch invasion, it won’t feel the same if we don’t manage to go on to seal promotion. If we play like that again, I’d like to see Huddersfield try to stop us.
Up The Posh.