SWINDON Town’s Wembley dream lay about the County Ground in tatters last night as Peterborough United stole into the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final in dramatic fashion.
Posh won a penalty shoot-out after the game finished 1-1 after 90 minutes and 3-3 on aggregate to break Town hearts and leave home fans wondering what might have been after the Robins led until the 75th minute through Alex Pritchard’s strike.
A fine battling display in the first half had put Swindon in control and Town should have been another goal up after Dany N’Guessan was manhandled in the box only for referee Keith Stroud to wave the claims for a penalty away, but the hosts sat back on their advantage after the interval, inviting pressure from a direct but unconvincing Peterborough line-up.
Britt Assombalonga headed home the equaliser with 15 minutes left of the tie and in the shootout both Massimo Luongo and Tijane Reis failed to even test Posh keeper Bobby Olejnik. A bitter way to lose.
Mark Cooper made three changes to his starting line-up following the goalless draw with Colchester United on Friday night. Nathan Thompson’s suspension led to Raphael Rossi Branco being restored to the Robins side, while Jacob Murphy and Yaser Kasim came in for the cup-tied Michael Smith and injured Nile Ranger.
The home side had the first sight of goal in the third minute. Neat build-up play down the right, involving Pritchard and Jacob Murphy, ended when Nathan Byrne scooped a shot over the Posh crossbar after Luongo had his effort blocked by Michael Bostwick.
Peterborough, who boasted a boisterous travelling contingent, came close two minutes later when Assombalonga rose well at the near post but the striker could only head Alcock’s cross wide of Wes Foderingham’s right-hand post.
The visitors’ Congolese frontman was back in the thick of the action in the 11th minute. His savage, swinging effort from the top corner of the penalty area dipped on Foderingham at the last second but the Swindon keeper managed to get down well low to his left to keep it out.
At the other end, Town were convinced they should have had a penalty when Alcock appeared to hack N’Guessan to the ground as the Frenchman ran past his marker onto Murphy’s raking pass, but referee Keith Stroud was unmoved. It was a diabolical decision. Replays suggested Alcock was lucky not to be handed an early bath, let alone giving Swindon the chance to open the scoring from the spot.
Despite not getting the decision, Town were buoyed by their early superiority. Pritchard flashed a drive past Olejnik’s right-hand post and then curled a wayward free-kick wide from 25 yards as the Robins prodded and probed without really testing the Peterborough goalkeeper.
Peterborough looked dangerous on the counter-attack, with Town’s lop-sided back four allowing the Posh widemen plenty of space on the flanks. Jack Payne chipped an effort over the top in the 23rd minute after Tommy Rowe produced a spectacular air-kick on the edge of the area, before the lively Pritchard danced around two challenges and curled over.
With 13 minutes of the first half remaining, Swindon drew blood. It came in an ugly manner – Luongo managed to burrow his way into the penalty area and squeezed a cross into the six-yard box, Alcock slapped his clearance straight at N’Guessan and Pritchard mopped up the loose ball, taking a touch before firing beyond Olejnik.
It was just reward for a first-half performance full of heart and fight on the part of the home side.
Peterborough quickly had a couple of chances to strike and instant response but Alcock’s miserable evening continued as he ballooned over from range, while Rowe nodded off target from Swanson’s free-kick.
Posh were gaining a stranglehold on proceedings as the period drew to a close but it was Town who had the chances to double their lead, as Luongo flashed a first-time effort so wide that it looked like it was heading shopping in the Tesco’s on Ocotal Way, and Pritchard saw a deflected effort bounce out for a corner.
Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson tried to shift the game in his side’s favour by swapping Kyle Vassell for on-loan Bournemouth striker Josh McQuoid but again it was Town who enjoyed a clear sight of goal.
In the 48th minute, Troy Archibald-Henville lifted a ball down the right channel, Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Olejnik left it to one another, N’Guessan nipped in and his shot skidded into touch off the left-hand upright.
It was the last chance of note for a good quarter-of-an-hour, as Swindon became more and more content to soak up Posh pressure and counter quickly, while their guests looked bewildered in the final third.
To add to the confusion, a series of bizarre decisions from referee Stroud had both sets of coaching staff holding their heads in their hands on the sidelines.
All the fluency, rhythm and energy of the first half seemed to have drained from Town’s performance but Peterborough, struggling for ideas like a hungover inventor, didn’t look as though they had the guile to breach the home side’s defences.
And in the end it took a Swindon player to open up his own backline. Murphy, who had been brilliant on his full debut for the Robins, played an errant pass in his own penalty area, sliding in Bostwick down the right channel.
It was an invitation the Posh midfielder lapped up gleefully, dinking a perfect cross onto the forehead of Assombalonga, who headed powerfully beyond Foderingham. It was the goal which forced penalties.
In the shoot-out, Luongo and Tijane Reis both missed the target altogether and, despite Foderingham saving from Swanson, Posh skipper Rowe tucked in the spot-kick that sent the visitors to Wembley, This game can be so cruel.