Oxford United’s season ended in heroic failure at Bloomfield Road this evening.
Trailing 3-0 from the home leg, the U’s briefly raised hopes of a miraculous recovery when Matty Taylor gave them an early lead, but those dreams were quickly stamped into the sands of Blackpool’s Golden Mile as goals from Elliot Embleton and Kenny Dougall extended the Seasiders' advantage before the break.
A Rob Atkinson header in the second half was cancelled out by a Jerry Yates goal and a further leveller from Mide Shodipo underlined the never-say-never attutude of this outstanding group of players, but ultimately United will return as a League 1 side next season while Blackpool head for Wembley to play either Lincoln City or Sunderland in the final.
Knowing they needed a quick goal, United were quickly out of the traps and after seven minutes were back in the tie when James Henry’s free kick was nudged forward by Josh Ruffels and Taylor silenced the baying Blackpool fans with a typically cool finish. Be honest: you dared to dream didn't you?
That dream lasted less than five minutes and having conceded two in three minutes in the first game, this time United did the same thing in even less time.
Three minutes after taking the lead we were back to square one as Pool levelled on the night with Embleton restoring the three-goal advantage with a well-taken effort, driving the ball beyond the dive of Jack Stevens from the edge of the box.
On 13 minutes the lead was four for the first time as Ballard flicked a corner on and Dougall rose at the back post to head home and spark wild celebrations among the 4,000 home fans and despair for those watching at home in Oxfordshire.
As you would expect, United had seen the wind taken from their sails. No side has ever come back from three goals down after the first leg and they were now in an almost impossible position: commit too many men forward and get picked off by a buoyant Blackpool side whose power had been too much just three days earlier, or settle down, stay patient and find a way to get past a defence they hadn't breached in the three previous meetings this season.
Cameron Brannagan, playing despite limping off in the first leg, and the ever-reliable James Henry did their best to drive them forward, demanding the ball and helping their side enjoy 60 per cent of the possession in the first half. The one thing you can never accuse this team of is throwing in the towel. Written off when bottom of the league after ten games, written off after back-to-back defeats at Easter, and now seemingly dead and buried again, the U's refused to accept their fate.
Hopes were rekindled when Henry curled an early effort against the post soon after the break, and when Atkinson ghosted in at the back post to quietly head home the equaliser at 2-2, United had over half an hour to find three goals.
Same problem: the flickering flame of something unforgettable was extinguished far too quickly, this time when Yates brought the ball down and thrashed it past the horribly exposed Stevens to make it 3-2. You can't get to Wembley if the scoreline becomes a tennis score and 6-2 was, in reality, now beyond even United's reach
They never gave up, their heads never dropped, but the damage had been done before this leg even kicked off. Shodipo made it 3-3 on the night with a close range goal; his loan from QPR has proved successful for all concerned and a return of 13 goals is a great effort.
Who knows? Another quick goal and anything could have happened as the home fans grew increasingly anxious. Shodipo and Henry went close but Blackpool's three-goal cushion from the first game proved enough. Good luck to them in the final. Their magnificent fans have been through tough times and were loud and proud this evening.
Once the dust settles then United's fans can feel proud as well- to reach the play-offs two years in a row and to overcome so many hurdles in this most challenging of all seasons should be applauded.
It will be I'm sure, when Oxford is finally Reunited.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Darrell Fisher, Steve Edmunds and Rex/Shutterstock, stats by OPTA