THE most memorable of seasons ended in the cruellest of fashions.
Sheffield United, despite amassing a remarkable 90 points and 92 goals en route to third in the League One table, were denied an immediate return to the Championship when they were beaten in this play-off final by Huddersfield Town.
By a vicious twist of fate goalkeeper Steve Simonsen, having earlier delivered one of his most accomplished displays in a United jersey, was responsible for missing the crucial attempt after 21 efforts had failed to produce a winner.
Danny Wilson, having addressed his troops before meeting with the press, painted a bleak picture of “disappointment” and “devastation” in the South Yorkshire club’s dressing room.
But United were defiant too.
Stephen Quinn, one of those whose future at Bramall Lane is now shrouded in doubt, said: “We’ve grown as a squad and that’s why we’ll come back even stronger.
“We’ll be ready to go again next time.
“I absolutely love this club and I hope to be here.
“Obviously all of that will be looked at over the summer but, despite what’s happened, this has probably been the most enjoyable season of my career with the way we’ve gone about things and I’ve got to thank the gaffer and his staff for that.
“I’m gutted for the fans too because they’ve stuck by us all year but, like I say, we’ll bounce back.
“You can be sure of that.”
Football can be a vindictive and fickle mistress.
United, who finished one place and nine points ahead of their rivals in the final rankings, have produced some exhilarating displays under Wilson’s tutelage before circumstances conspired to prompt a radical change of approach during the closing stages of the campaign.
At Wembley, where the temperature at pitch-side outstripped those in Bombay and Barcelona, Town shaded a predictably subdued contest and forged the more clear-cut chances on the day.
Having experienced the pain of defeat at this stage of the competition 12 months ago, Simon Grayson’s charges have earned their shot at the Championship.
But, as Wilson had insisted beforehand, United deserved one too after spending eight long months seducing the neutrals despite their chaotic relegation last term.
Forty-nine matches and 74 hours’ worth of hard work ruined by what Quinn labelled the “lottery” of spot-kicks.
“The lads have been brilliant all season,” he said. “It’s a horrible way to sort something like this out but it’s the same for both teams.
“Twenty-two players have had to suffer the same.
“We were just unlucky.”
Defensively, United were assured.
Neill Collins and Harry Maguire, who both found the back of the net during the shoot-out, subdued Town’s prolific marksman, Jordan Rhodes, as Wilson’s men srecorded a third successive clean sheet.
In attack, however, they lacked the guile to complement Richard Cresswell’s graft.
Quinn, the afternoon’s most eye-catching performer, threatened to tease his way through on several occasions only for a defender to intervene at the crucial moment.
With Rhodes consigned to the periphery of the contest, it was the unlikely figure of Peter Clarke who asked United’s rearguard the most taxing questions as Town roused themselves after the interval.
Simonsen excelled during normal and extra time - batting away the captain’s shot and denying Alan Lee - before thwarting both Tommy Miller and the Town substitute from 12 yards.
“It’s a horrible feeling but it’s completely unfair on Simmo,” Collins said.
“There’s absolutely no blame attached to him because he’s done his job out there all afternoon.”
With new financial regulations set to bite and the likes of Quinn, Lee Williamson, Matthew Lowton and Richard Cresswell attracting admiring glances from elsewhere, the effects of United’s failure to achieve promotion are likely to be felt long beyond what already promised to be a busy summer in the transfer market.
Wilson, the United manager, refused to discuss the possible implications afterwards, preferring instead to “talk only about the game”.
But Grayson, his counterpart at The Galpharm Stadium, paused to sympathise, saying: “How we recovered from missing the first three penalties I honestly don’t know.
“I didn’t watch them. I knew what was happening by the reaction of the
crowd and then watched the replays on the big screen.
“I’m delighted but, at the same time, I also feel so sorry for Sheffield United and I really do hope they go up next year.
“They’re a good team, a good club and have a damn good manager.”
With the loss of James Beattie (suspension) and Will Hoskins (injury) compounding the problem caused by the jailing of leading goalscorer Ched Evans in April, United were dealt a further blow before kick-off when midfielder Kevin McDonald’s hamstring failed to respond to treatment.
Nevertheless, with Cresswell working like a Trojan in attack, they exposed Alex Smithies’ vulnerability in the air during the early skirmishes, although the Town goalkeeper recovered his poise to dispatch his penalty before Simonsen’s miss.
Matt Hill and Cresswell both had shots blocked before Danny Ward hit the United woodwork soon after the re-start.
Clarke twice went close either side of a low effort from Quinn who later saw a close-range shot smothered by Smithies.
United’s Chris Porter saw a header deflected wide during the opening period of extra-time before Simonsen thwarted Lee.
With Town failing to convert any of their opening three penalties, Cresswell later acknowledged United suspected they were on the verge of their first victory in these divisional showpieces at the fourth attempt.
But it was not to be.
“That’s the worst, cruellest way to lose a game of football,” Wilson said.
“We’ve got to give Huddersfield credit. What we have to do is dust ourselves down and focus on following them up there next time around.”