This year’s playoff semi-finals for the Conference were as unexpected as they were exciting, and there wasn’t even a hint of a penalty shoot-out and Exeter City and Cambridge United make their respective preparations for Wembley in just under a fortnight’s time.
The games always looked too close to call with Torquay slight favourites to progress from one game but in indifferent form while Cambridge were assumed to be too strong for a mercurial Burton side who, on their day, have the run of any team in the Conference.
The first semi-final saw possibly one of the comebacks of the season. Exeter were the better team in the first leg but their inability to create a clear opening cost them dear when Tim Sills headed home Lee Phillips’ pinpoint cross to put Torquay into the lead. The Grecians then had a legitimate goal chalked off for offside before Wayne Carlisle finally drew Exeter level. The game looked to be all square going into the second leg before City Matt Taylor’s backpass put his keeper Paul Jones under pressure and his attempted clearance hit the back of Gulls winger Chris Zebroski, who was left with a simple tap in.
That scoreline seemed to take the wind out of City’s sails for the start of the second leg and it was a cagey opening at Plainmoor, where Torquay were happy to sit back and Exeter couldn’t find a way through, although Dean Moxey had a header cleared off the line.
In the second half Paul Buckle’s men looked to have struck the killer blow when Sills flicked on a cross for long-serving utility player Kevin Hill to fire home and send the home fans into raptures and the aggregate score up to 3-1 for Torquay. Ryan Harley’s assured finish for Exeter twenty minutes from time looked like a mere consolation but City had the bit between their teeth and Torquay started to get nervy and a few minutes later Zebroski’s outstretched leg brought down Exeter’s top scorer Richard Logan in the area and loanee Ben Watson cooly slotted home the penalty to draw City level.
The Gulls abandoned their defensive stance but that opened up the game even further and with plenty of attack minded players on the pitch for the away team, there was always the danger Exeter could hit the Gulls on the counter and in the 89th minute Carlisle’s cross was met by Logan to put Exeter in pole position for the first time in 179 minutes. Torquay pushed forward yet further, desperate to hit back immediately, but a poor free kick gave Exeter another break and Watson’s pass left Carlisle with an easy one-on-one to turn what looked like a certain defeat into a rout and Exeter on a second trip to Wembley in as many years.
In Cambridgeshire there were sighs of relief at the end of their first leg in Burton. The U’s went two-nil down in the second half thanks to a Darryl Clare penalty and Darren Stride’s header but Jimmy Quinn’s men got lucky with a somewhat questionable penalty and an even dodgier free kick, although there was no quibble about the quality of substitute Lee McEvilly’s strike to draw the U’s level. Although a tad harsh on Burton, the game had been pretty evenly contested until Nigel Clough’s men broke the deadlock.
The return leg at the Abbey started out straight from the Cambridge script when Robert Wolleaston poked home after thirty seconds. Burton definitely hadn’t seen their lines beforehand though and Clare brought things level just over ten minutes later with a trademark header from a corner. The Brewers just about had the better of the half but Cambridge were the team that grew into the ascendency in the second half although quite weather Wolleaston meant his second half lob is another question. Burton did their best to rally but couldn’t find their way past a well-disciplined U’s backline, and Quinn’s men continued their good run to book a date with their old chums from the league days, Exeter.
Considering Cambridge very nearly went bust when they were relegated out of the league two years ago they’ve managed to steady their ship and have been genuine contenders from the word go this season, while Exeter’s tradition of finishing the season on a high as one of the form teams of the Conference continues. Although City were the first team to defeat Cambridge at The Abbey this season, the final is too close to call and could well go down to penalties.
Of the losers, Burton can look back on this season with pride, having secured their best ever finish and first appearance in the annual playoff lottery. Clough’s team have been slowly improving year on year and will surely be among the challengers next season.
Torquay on the other hand still have a chance of some silverware when they take on Ebbsfleet in the FA Trophy final at Wembley this weekend, although it will probably seem like scant consolation if they do win. Fleet may even be slight favourites for the game with fresher legs, good end of season form, and the chance to take advantage of a team that is licking its wounds. With Paul Buckle in charge The Gulls are unlikely to put in a poor performance but it remains to be seen if they’ll be suffering a playoff hangover or will be out for some form of revenge.
As for the Gulls prospects next season, they’ll have to cut their cloth a bit finer having spent heavily for promotion this season. They’re unlikely to do an Oxford and get mired in mid-table while sorting things out behind the scenes but next year’s Conference is already shaping up to be tougher still and Torquay will need to get over the defeat quickly.
For Cambridge and Exeter supporters though, the talk will be of Wembley and nothing else for the next two weeks. Manchester United v Chelsea could have nothing on this match.