The way the final stages of the2011-12 campaign have been going, no one should have been surprised that another of the end-of-season prizes was decided by late drama. But surely no drama has come as late as this, with the 22nd kick of a penalty shoot-out finally proving decisive.
It was missed by the Sheffield United goalkeeper Steve Simonsen after his opposite number, Alex Smithies, had put Huddersfield ahead with their 11th kick, all the outfield players on both sides having tried their luck. Somehow, Huddersfield failed with their first three kicks and still prevailed, while the unlucky Simonsen, who saved two of them, ended up as the villain.
Until the penalties, the occasion lacked drama and quality – six out of 10 players failed to convert their penalties before the sudden death stage – but Huddersfield will not care. They earned promotion to the Championship a year after falling at the final play-off hurdle and after finishing nine points behind Sheffield United in League One.
Simon Grayson, their manager, returns to the second tier after being dismissed as manager of Leeds earlier in the season. "The chairman attracted me with his ambition for the club and it has been rewarded," he said. "You've got to have the nerve to take penalties and the goalkeeper was unbelievable."
For Sheffield United there was a familiar feeling of despair after their fourth defeat in as many visits to play-off finals, with no goals scored. They were overtaken late in the season for an automatic promotion place by their fierce local rivals, Sheffield Wednesday, after failing to win any of their final three league matches.
Danny Wilson, their manager and a former Wednesday player and manager, had won here as player, but has achieved a hat-trick of play-off final defeats as a manager, having lost with Bristol City and Swindon.
The game was poor, with most of the noteworthy incidents coming late in the second period and in extra time. The 50,000-plus all-Yorkshire crowd in a sweltering Wembley saw a first half that had plenty of endeavour but not too much subtlety. Huddersfield made the early running and their supporters the early noise, but Jordan Rhodes, whose 40 goals in all competitions this season gave him an average of a goal per game started, could not escape the attentions of the Sheffield United central defenders. United's more direct approach, getting the ball into Huddersfield's penalty area high and often, looked a reasonable one with Smithies flailing uncertainly at several crosses.
However, Simonsen was almost the first to pick the ball out of the net when Danny Ward smacked the crossbar from 20 yards in the opening moments of the second half. That seemed to wake up both sides and play began to switch quickly from end to end, the two teams swapping near misses and let-downs, but Huddersfield came closest to settling it in 90 minutes. First Simonsen sprawled to save Town captain Peter Clarke's header and when Tommy Miller hit the rebound past the prone keeper, Michael Doyle cleared the ball off the goalline.
Extra time could not separate the teams, although it was not for the want of effort. United's man of the match Stephen Quinn, still full of running after 105 minutes of non-stop endeavour, forced a diving save from Smithies at his near post after cutting in from the left. Simonsen, not to be outdone, flung himself to his right to parry a goal-bound shot on the turn by Huddersfield substitute Alan Lee, and when he was beaten by Lee Novak's header, Nick Montgomery came to his rescue with a twisting clearance.
And so to penalties. Each goalkeeper saved twice and each team missed once before competence suddenly took over in the sudden death stage, with all kicks converted until only the two goalkeepers were left. Smithies scored, Simonsen shot high. "[Grayson] asked me of I wanted to take one and I said yeah, I'll take the eleventh," Smithies said. "I just ran up and blasted it. I'm absolutely over the moon."
Huddersfield (4-4-2): Smithies; Hunt, Morrison, P Clarke, Woods; Johnson, Miller, Ward (Lee, 98), Higginbotham (Roberts, 79); Novak (Arfield, 116), Rhodes.
Sheffield Utd (4-4-1-1): Simonsen; Lowton, Maguire, Collins, Hill; Williamson, Montgomery (Taylor, 120), Doyle, Flynn (O'Halloran, 108); Quinn; Cresswell (Porter, 85).
Referee Roger East.
Man of the match Quinn (Sheffield Utd).
Match rating 5/10.