After a 46-game season, Leyton Orient and Rotherham were tied on points and after 120 minutes of the League One play-off final they were still level. Penalty kicks were the only means left and it was the Yorkshiremen who survived under pressure to book the final place in next season’s Championship.
Orient just did not quite have the resources to see the job through. They had been top until late February, were 2-0 up at half-time here and had a 3-2 lead in the shoot-out with two kicks left each.
But Rotherham goalkeeper Adam Collin saved from Mathieu Baudry and Chris Dagnall, clinching a 4-3 spot-kicks win. Lee Frecklington had missed Rotherham’s second penalty, but their other four were perfect.
Orient owner Barry Hearn will still take his players to Las Vegas next week, as promised, and manager Russell Slade said it could be “just the tonic they need”. This time last year Brentford lost the final and then went on to win automatic promotion this season – Slade said that will be their model for success now.
Steve Evans’ side, though, are already there, back in the second tier for the first time since 2005 and looking forward to local derbies with Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United next season. This result, and their promotion, owes to the far-sighted chairmanship of Tony Stewart and the relentless spirit of his team, who launched a remarkable fightback.
“All season the boys have continued to fight adversity,” said Evans, who dedicated the win to two ill family members and spoke movingly afterwards about their struggle and his own long career, which has taken him into the second tier of the English game. “You need to retain that inner belief,” he said, although it might have been difficult as Orient surged into the lead.
The first goal was spectacular. Kari Arnason headed the ball out of the Millers’ box and it fell to Moses Odubajo in the D. Skipping into position, he volleyed the ball with his left foot. Baudry ducked out of the way and the ball whistled so quickly into the ceiling of the net that Collin could barely wave his arms in surprise.
Rotherham looked like a team still struggling to come to terms with what had just happened as they allowed a soft second five minutes later. A long kick out of the Londoners’ defence fell to David Mooney, who tried to flick it over the Rotherham backline. James Tavernier got his head to it but could only nod it out to Odubajo on the right. He crossed low and Dean Cox turned the ball in at the far post.
Evans reminded his players of the importance of the occasion in a half-time team-talk that turned the game. “I just spoke to them about what it meant to them, their families and children, and when they are granddads, because if Orient got a third it could have been an embarrassing day,” he said afterwards. “I reminded them of what Billy Davies told me – as a game at Wembley Stadium goes on, it is about the hunger and desire in your heart.”
They were a different team in the second half. First Tavernier and then Ben Pringle curled free-kicks on to the roof of the net, but the next set-piece – which Slade said was wrongly awarded – worked out. Os keeper Jamie Jones could only weakly punch the ball clear and Alex Revell stabbed it in.
Revell, who left Orient for Rotherham in 2011, celebrated genuinely, but it was nothing compared to the scenes that followed his remarkable second. A long ball out of defence was nodded down to the striker, in space, 35 yards from goal. He cushioned it on his thigh, let the ball bounce and – seeing no other route to goal – hit a volley that soared and dipped spectacularly over Jones and into the far top corner.
That was enough quality and drama to fill the whole 120 minutes and the final hour of play – normal time and extra time – was far less engaging.
Two tired teams stumbled at each other. Kieran Agard sliced a volley wide on 83 minutes while Jones had to save sharply to stop Scott Cuthbert scoring an own goal early in extra time.
In the second half, Orient had one last chance: Shaun Batt squared to Dagnall, who could not get a shot away under pressure. If that was painful, for Dagnall and Orient, worse was to come.