THE wait goes on. Twenty seven years after first dipping their toes in the lottery that is the play-offs, Sheffield United are still waiting to enjoy the sweet taste of success.
Rarely, though, during those eight fruitless attempts at trying to prevail in the end-of-season deciders can the Blades have been involved in such drama as last night, the highest-scoring game in play-off history.
An incredible 10 goals were scored by two teams who have now shared 22 in four pulsating meetings this term.
And while United came up just short, mainly thanks to a woeful opening 18 minutes that saw Nigel Clough’s side fall 3-0 behind on the night and 5-1 on aggregate, they did play a full part in one of the play-offs craziest games.
Only the night when Neil Warnock’s Blades reached the 2003 final by beating Nottingham Forest 4-3 in the second leg can surely come close to matching last night’s amazing clash.
Not, of course, that this will be much consolation this morning as United reflect on how a 63-game season ended with five goals being scored at the home of a promotion rival and yet it was not enough to earn one final match at Wembley, against Preston.
What, ultimately, dashed those dreams was a beginning to the game where the visitors’ defence bore the look of many a motorist who has come a cropper on the notorious ‘magic roundabout’ that sits outside the County Ground.
Confusion and chaos abounded in the Blades’ backline and the upshot was the Robins racing into what proved to be an unassailable advantage.
Nathan Byrne, the man who had secured their precious first-leg victory at Bramall Lane with a stoppage-time strike, was the main tormentor. Twice, he made ridiculously light work of the Blades’ backline to create openings for Ben Gladwin, which were gleefully accepted.
The first came inside three minutes, Gladwin powering a header beyond Mark Howard after being picked out by a searching delivery from the wideman.
Swindon’s second came seven minutes later, Byrne winning a 50/50 duel with Bob Harris before expertly setting up Gladwin with a deft cross that was just begging to be tapped in.
It was a nightmare start for Clough’s men and one that got even worse on 18 minutes thanks to more slack defending on the part of the visitors.
Michael Smith was the beneficiary this time, the striker nipping in front of Jay McEveley to claim possession in the six-yard box before turning sharply to fire past the exposed Howard.
United, by now four goals behind on aggregate, needed a swift response and it came within 60 seconds.
Jamie Murphy, who had twice earlier opted to pass to a team-mate when he could have shot, fired in an effort that took a deflection off Nathan Thompson and, suddenly, Clough’s men had a lifeline.
Crucially, they also had belief, which grew even further seven minutes before the break.
Chris Basham met Murphy’s cross with a fine diving header that gave Wes Foderingham no chance in the home goal.
The visitors started the second half as they had finished the opening period, on top.
However, Marc McNulty wasted a great opportunity when played clear by Ryan Flynn and Basham saw his header from Murphy’s cross deflected just behind.
When Howard upended Jermaine Hylton just before the hour after an innocuous long ball had been allowed to bounce into a dangerous area and Smith drilled in the penalty, those misses looked even more costly.
Once again, though, the Blades responded immediately via a wonderful left-wing cross from Bob Harris that unmarked substitute Steven Davies headed in from close range.
Swindon may have restored their advantage when Jon Obika fired in six minutes from time, but the visitors were far from finished.
First, Matty Done curled in a shot just before the end and then Che Adams, only recently introduced off the bench, fired in another just as the tie reached the 90-minute mark.
Suddenly, Swindon were rocking and the fourth official indicating there would be seven minutes of stoppage time did nothing for the locals’ heart-rates.
There was, though, to be no fairytale ending as the Robins held on to condemn United to a fifth consecutive season in League One.
Ugly scenes then broke out as a section of the home fans invading the pitch at the final whistle, headed for their Blades counterparts and police had to wade in to restore order.
A couple of United players, including Steven Davies, were also jostled leaving the field and Swindon are likely to face FA punishment for the disgraceful scenes.
Swindon Town: Foderingham; Thompson (Obika 57), Stephens, Turnbull, Ricketts; Byrne, Kasim, Gladwin (Branco 90), Luongo; Smith, Hylton (Rodgers 62). Unused substitutes: Belford, Barthram, Marshall, Randall
Sheffield United: Howard; Freeman, Alcock, McEveley, Harris; Flynn (Adams 85), Coutts, Basham, Murphy; Done, McNulty (S Davies 60). Unused substitutes: Turner, Doyle, B Davies, McGahey, Holt.
Referee: K Hill (Hertfordshire).