Swindon Books Final Place in Ten Goal Play Off Thriller

Swindon progress to Wembley after epic game (Image from Getty)With a place in the League One play off final at stake, Swindon Town entertained Sheffield United at the City Ground in the second league of their semi final clash. Swindon held a 2-1 advantage going into the match with manager Mark Cooper knowing that a draw would be enough for the Robins to confirm their place at the Wembley showcase. Sheffield United, who finished eight points behind Swindon in 5th place in the League knew that they would have to attack the game and score at least twice to win (there is no away goal rule in the playoffs). With the match balancing on a knife edge, the crowd made its way to their seats expecting a nervous clash between two evenly balanced sides. To their surprise what followed in the next ninety minutes was one of the most dramatic high scoring playoff matches of all time. As the referee blew his full time whistle, few could believe what they had just seen – a ten goal thriller that was high paced and full of action from the 1st minute to the last.

The game was on a knife edge heading into the second leg  (Image from Sky Sports

The game was on a knife edge heading into the second leg
(Image from Sky Sports

It was Swindon who came charging out of the blocks first using their five man midfield as a battering ram against Sheffield’s bewildered back line. The pressure paid off with Swindon taking the lead within four minutes. Some clever play down the right hand side resulted in Nathan Byrne whipping the ball into the box only for Craig Alcock to head it clear from inside his six yard box. Unfortunately for Alcock his header fell to the right boot of Ben Gladwin who rifled the ball into the net from 18 yards. The 22 year old midfielder, brought in two seasons ago from Hayes & Yeading in the Conference league has been in superb form this season and he added to his tally with his second goal of the game only six minutes later.  With Sheffield failing to clear their lines, Nathan Byrne capitalized by chasing down what looked to be a lost ball before crossing it across the face of the goal for the easiest tap in for Gladwin. Sheffield United were in disarray so when Swindon added a third on 18 minutes, the game looked all but over. Again it was that man Byrne on the right hand side causing the problems with another delightful cross into the box which the Sheffield defensive failed to clear properly once again. Picking up the loose ball, striker Michael Smith turned his marker before rifling his shot past Mark Howard in the United goal.

Nigel Cloughs side needed a miracle to turn this around. Now trailing 5-1 on aggregate, Sheffield needed a quick response if they were to stay in the game and they got it pretty much from the restart thanks to some good link up play down the right with two of the six Scottish players (Flynn and McNulty) in the Sheffield United starting lineup combining to set up the goal.  McNulty’s defense splitting pass was met by Jamie Murphy whose weak effort was bundled into the net thanks  to a deflection off Swindon defender Nathan Thompson. Sheffield were now on the attack and added a second just before the break with Robert Harris setting up Chris Basham to head home with a superb diving header. Both sides decide against making changes at the break but it would appear as though the half time team talks were the same; go out and kill this game off. The second half started with the same energy and drive as the first had ended. Sheffield with the bit between their teeth were pushing hard for an equalizer when the ball got turned over and caught them out of position. A long kick by Swindon goalkeeper Wesley Foderingham put Sheffield under extreme pressure with their defensive frailties showing again. First Smith was pulled over by Alcock as the pair chased the bouncing before Jermaine Hylton was bundled over in the box by Howard. Smith dusted himself off to covert the resulting penalty and put Swindon 4-2 ahead. Sheffield heads did not drop however and when left back Harris, who had been a constant threat with his crossing abilities picked up the ball and whipped in a beautifully curled cross towards substitute Steve Davies, there was only one outcome. His header gave Sheffield hope with 25 minutes left to play.

The superb Nathan Byrne battles with Ryan Flynn for the ball  (Image from AP)

The superb Nathan Byrne battles with Ryan Flynn for the ball
(Image from AP)

That hope however was eventually dashed as substitute Jonathan Obika sealed Swindon’s passage to the final with a delightful move. Breaking out of defence Swindon drove the ball up field with Australian Matt Luongo leading the charge. Sheffield, who had thrown everyone forward in hopes of getting the goals they needed were caught short once again at the back so when Luongo threaded a pass to Obika, the former Tottenham youth player only had Alcock and the keeper to beat. Bringing the ball back inside to beat Alcock, he coolly slotted past Howard sending the Swindon fans into hysteria. Sheffield needed three goals to send the game into extra time and they almost managed it, grabbing two late goals thanks to a Matt Done close range finish and a stunning solo effort by Che Adams but in the end they simply ran out of time. Swindon now travels to Wembley on the 24th May to face Preston N.E. with the winner earning a place in the Championship next season. For Sheffield it is another play off heartbreak making it their eighth successive playoff defeat and consigning them to yet another season in League One. However Nigel Clough’s men can be proud of the way that they rallied in the game after going behind and never gave up. That attitude and approach next season could end their Championship hiatus once and for all.

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Derby Starlet Attracts Interest From Europe’s Best

Will Hughes (Image from TeamTalk.com)For Derby County fans, there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about in the past 10 years. The club, once one of England’s top clubs have suffered badly in the last decade with relegation, receivership and play off anguish. But now there is a sparkle coming out of Pride Park in the form of 17-year-old wing sensation Will Hughes. The bleach blond-haired youngster has exploded on the scene this season with some fine performances which has started to attract the attentions of Europe’s biggest clubs including Barcelona. Hughes joined Derby only last summer from his local team Mickleover but has been the find of the year, breaking not only into the first team but also gaining recognition at international level for England Under 17 and recently Under 21 teams. He is widely regarded as an exciting prospect with the potential to become a world-class player in the years to come.

Starlet Hughes has dazzled this season

Starlet Hughes has dazzled this season
(Picture by Kate Lowe)

Hughes moved to Derby with his family at the age of only 2 so it seems fitting that he make his mark with his hometown club. Under the carefully tutelage of manager Nigel Clough, who first noticed Hughes during a reserve team outing and promoted him to the first team for the penultimate game of campaign last season, Hughes has flourished as a left winger. With a combination of explosive pace, close control and self belief, it’s not hard to understand why Clough was keen to see more of what Hughes could do. He gave the youngster his first team break against Portsmouth, bring him on as a substitute with just over 20 minutes left. Hughes grabbed his chance with both hands and impressed his manager so much so that Clough started him in the final game of the season against Peterborough United. Clough saw in two matches the potential this youngster had and knew that he would have to include him as a member of the first team from next season on. But Clough is clearly aware of the need to protect his player and keep him grounded as he develops.

Boss Clough is keen to hold on and protect Hughes

Boss Clough is keen to hold on and protect Hughes
(Image from Getty)

Hughes impressed again in pre season and forced his way into the starting line up for the Rams this season where he has remained ever since. Starting 24 games so far, Hughes has been a revelation as part of a new batch of youngsters emerging at Derby. He is joined in the first team by Jeff Hendrick, Mark O’Brien and Mason Bennett in a new look Derby side that is working their way up the Championship table. Hughes has been instrumental in this rise with his wing play, assists and goals, bagging two already. Clough believes the player has an incredible future in front of him and is constantly impressed by his attitude and play whether he starts a game or comes from the bench:

“When he came off the bench at Colchester, he was very good indeed. I thought he was the star of the subs. He looked comfortable. I don’t think he gave the ball away and he made our equalizer. We are very pleased with him. People say ‘is he really only 17?’. It is like having a senior pro in the team. His composure belies his age and there are not many 17-year-olds in the country playing to the standard that he is; it sets him apart.”

The praise doesn’t just stop with Clough as Hughes international boss Stuart Pearce has also been vocal on his impression of the young left winger, shortly after his debut for the Under 21’s against Northern Ireland in November of this year, subsequently becoming the second youngest player to ever do so. Hughes didn’t look out-of-place in the international arena and could have found himself on the score sheet with a debut goal if it wasn’t for a last gasp challenge by a Northern Ireland defender. Pearce spoke candidly about Hughes after the player made his debut for England Under 21’s:

“Will’s technically a very sound player. He rarely gave the ball away in training or in the game he played [against Northern Ireland], which is vitally important at international level. He’s progressing really well.”

Hughes makes his England Under 21 debut

Hughes makes his England Under 21 debut
(Picture from Telegraph.co.uk)

Pearce knows that if Hughes continues to improve, it won’t be long until he follows the likes of Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha into Roy Hodgson’s full England squad. Clough too knows that the better Hughes gets the more attention he will draw to himself and the harder it will be to hold on to his prize asset. With Barcelona rumoured to be constructing a dossier on the player and both Manchester clubs sending scouts on a regular basis to Pride Park, it may be only a matter of time before Hughes moves on to bigger things. In the meantime the Derby fans will be enjoying seeing their team and Hughes in particular light up the Championship, praying that their new star can help push them up the league and towards promotion back to where they feel they belong, the Premiership.