A journey which has taken over 76 hours, involved 48 matches of football and seen them travel nearly 4,000 miles ended in cruel fashion as Sheffield United were condemned to another season in League One.
And, if the sight of seeing their dream of a Championship return evaporate for at least another year was not difficult enough, the pain Nigel Clough’s side felt after this simply breathtaking contest was compounded by the fact that, despite finding themselves trailing 5-1 on aggregate with less than 20 minutes gone, they had chances to stall Swindon Town’s progress.
Play-off semi-finals are meant to be tight, cautious affairs. This second-leg was anything but.
Last night’s skirmish will live long in the memory of all those who witnessed it. Admittedly, depending upon their allegience, for very different reasons.
For United, who watched Swindon book their place in May 24th’s showpiece event at Wembley, it also served to remind that courage does not always receive its reward.
When Swindon, who saw Ben Gladwin and Michael Smith score two goals apiece before Jon Obika pounced, carved an oportunity they took it. The visitors were presented with plenty themselves and, demonstrating remarkable levels of character and tenacity, also converted five of their own.
However, despite the best efforts of Jamie Murphy, Chris Basham, Steven Davies, Matt Done and Che Adams, that did not prove enough. Due, in no small part, to an earlier lack of control.
History has been an unwelcome companion for United throughout the course of this competition.
Nevertheless, as they attempted to make it seventh time lucky in the end of season knockouts, it provided a source of encouragement too.
Mark Cooper’s team had not won at Bramall Lane for 45 years before Thursday’s dramatic first leg and, given Clough’s concerns about referee Darren Bond’s decision-making, controversial victory. United made the journey south on Sunday searching for their first away success in Swindon since December 1995 when John Reed, Adrian Littlejohn and Jan Age Fjortoft were among the scorers.
The visitors also kicked-off knowing they had never reached a play-off final after establishing a first-leg lead.
Inevitably, given the hyperbole which surrounds every promotion battle, much of the criticism levelled at United en route to Wiltshire was over-blown.
Despite questions about the durability of back four weakened by the absence of Terry Kennedy and John Brayford, they entered this game boasting a better defensive record than their opponents.
Instead, as Sam Ricketts had demonstrated during the previous meeting between these two rivals, it the manner rather than the sheer volume of goals United usually concede which has provided cause for concern.
The vulnerability at set-pieces, which the 33-year-old ruthlessly exposed before Nathan Byrne’s dramatic intervention, was seldom in evidence. Instead, the former Tottenham Hotspur youngster tormented United’s rearguard in much more imaginative fashion with Gladwin the main beneficiary.
After underlining the importance of a fast start, Swindon nevertheless had barely broken sweat when he thundered a perfectly placed low drive beyond Mark Howard.
If that effort owed as much to Gladwin’s technique as it did United’s troubles at the back, his second highlighted United’s inability to keep Byrne at bay as his low centre made its way across the six yard box before it was touched home into an empty net.
Worse was the come when Smith scored his 17th of the campaign from close-range.
But while United’s woefully slow start will provoke plenty of questions, their desire was not in doubt as first Murphy and then Basham changed the entire complexion of the game.
Smith appeared to have ended their resistance after Jermaine Hylton was upended. But the visitors were impossible to shake-off with Davies and Obika exchanging strikes before Done and Adams struck.
United’s hopes of imposing themselves were punctured as early as the 10th minute when Swindon raced into a two goal lead. Gladwin, whose first-half penalty miss four days earlier had threatened to cost his side dear, made no mistake from the edge of the box with an emphatic finish before prodding home at the far post following another Byrne assist.
In between, Ryan Flynn had spurned an opportunity to level after heading over Wes Foderingham’s crossbar.
When Bob Harris shot wide following Gladwin’s second, United probably sensed it was going to be a long evening. Smith rammed home the point by converting Swindon’s third with less than 20 minutes gone.
Murphy reduced the deficit with a shot which wrong-footed Foderingham after taking a deflection off Nathan Thompson while Basham, stooping to head home after escaping his marker, sent a shiver through three-quarters of a stadium which, barely 10 minutes earlier, had been a cauldron of celebration and noise.
Now, as the emerged for the second period, Swindon found themselves facing a huge test of character.
Should they protect their advantage or look to further extend their lead?
United signalled their intention to chip away at any fissures in their confidence with Murphy, Basham and Flynn all going close during the early skirmishes.
Marc McNulty, preferred to Steven Davies in attack, spurned an excellent chance to leave the contest on a knife-edge after being released by Flynn who, moments later, tested Foderingham’s handling with an angled drive.
It turned-out to be a pivotal moment of the tie as, on the hour, Smith pounced from the penalty spot after Jermaine Hylton had been clipped by Howard. Davies headed home Harris’ centre after replacing McNulty.
Obika responded with a wonderful solo goal and, although Done and Adams left the outcome balancing on a knife-edge, Swindon prevailed.
SWINDON TOWN: Foderingham 6, N Thompson 6 (Obika 57, 6), Byrne 7, Luongo 7, Stephens 6, Turnbull 6, Gladwin 7 (Rossi-Branco 90), Kasim 6, Smith 7, Hylton 6 (Rodgers 62), Ricketts 7. Not used: T Belford, Barthram, Rossi-Branco, Randall, Marshall.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Alcock 6, Harris 6, Basham 7, Flynn 7 (Adams 85), Murphy 7, McNulty 6 (S Davies 60), Done 6, Coutts 6, McEveley 6, Freeman 6. Not used: Turner, Doyle, B Davies, McGahey, Holt.
CAUTIONS: McEveley, Coutts, Rodgers, Alcock.