JUST when the play-offs seemed to have wrung every last drop of drama out of a week that has had the nation gripped, along came another classic.
Doncaster Rovers, despite trailing 2-1 from the first leg and falling further behind inside 108 seconds last night, took Charlton Athletic all the way to penalties before having their Wembley dream dashed.
Top scorer John Marquis’s spotkick being saved by Dillon Phillips, followed moments later by Tommy Rowe firing wide from 12 yards, meant heartache for manager Grant McCann’s bold side despite Marko Marosi keeping out Naby Sarr’s effort.
Sunderland now await the Addicks in a repeat of arguably the most dramatic final of all time, the 1998 Division One promotion decider that saw eight goals shared before Michael Gray fluffed his lines to send the London club up.
Matching that level of drama on May 26 could be a tall order. But if this madcap week has taught us anything it is surely that anything can happen once the play-offs come around.
Certainly the portents going into the second leg at The Valley were not overly promising. Charlton had bossed the first leg and been unfortunate not to take a bigger lead back to London.
This was reflected in the pre-match talk emanating from the Charlton camp, which suggested the job of reaching Wembley was already done.
Lee Bowyer, the Athletic manager, even went so far as to suggest that the London club belonged in the Premier League – fanciful talk that may have contributed to the triumphant mood among the sell-out home crowd before a ball had been kicked in anger.
To the Allez Allez Allez tune that has become de rigueur in football grounds up and down the country this season, the locals were singing confidently that ‘the Reds are going up’.
That may still be the case but, boy, did Doncaster give the London club a scare. That much was apparent long before Andy Butler’s late leveller had sent the tie into extra-time.
As early as the half-hour mark, in fact, with the reaction of Krystian Bielik after striding out of defence and looking up to see every red shirt closely marked betraying how the nerves had started jangling in south east London.
The Pole jumped up and down on the spot, waving his arms around in a manner more reminiscent of a toddler having a meltdown at not getting his or her own way.
Bielik’s extreme reaction could be put down to not only a stunning 11th-minute equaliser from Rowe, but also the confident manner of Doncaster’s performance.
The Rovers captain’s seventh goal of the season was sublime. Collecting a neat lay-off from Herbie Kane, Rowe unleashed a 20-yard shot that was destined for the net from the moment his left boot made the sweetest of contacts.
It was the perfect response to falling behind so early on. Bielik was the man to double Charlton’s aggregate lead with a thunderous header from a Josh Cullen free-kick.
Once level on the night, Rovers were the better side. James Coppinger, the most venerable of veterans, had a big role in this with some delightful play.
He tested Dillon Phillips with a snapshot that the Charlton goalkeeper did well to hold. Phillips was also called into action by, first, Marquis and then Kane before Danny Andrew headed wide from a Mallik Wilks cross after showing great tenacity to get past his marker.
For Charlton, this was not part of the script. Having been the better side when triumphing 2-1 at the Keepmoat Stadium, Athletic were expected to wrap things up back at The Valley.
But from the moment Rowe struck in such devastating fashion this had become a night to expect the unexpected.
As play raged from one end to the other in the second half only a brilliant interception by Andrew prevented either Josh Parker or Lyle Taylor from tapping in and surely finishing off Rovers.
The value of the full-back’s defensive work became apparent when the visitors levelled the tie with just two minutes remaining.
As with the night’s opening goal it was a set-piece that did the trick with Butler rising highest to power an unstoppable header beyond Phillips from a corner.
Cue extra-time and the visitors taking the lead ten minutes into the first half. A surging run and cross from Wilks created an opening for Marquis that the top scorer was never going to miss.
Charlton’s response came within 60 seconds. A right-wing cross from Jonny Williams should have been dealt with by Marosi, but he slipped and Darren Pratley fired in from close range. Both sides then had big penalty appeals turned down, Marquis handling in his own area and then Bielik flattening Rowe at the other end only for referee Gavin Ward to wave play on.
Marquis then had a great chance to play Kieran Sadlier clear at the finish, but his pass was awful and penalties ensued.
Charlton Athletic: Phillips; Sarr Bauer, Bielik (Solly 111); Dijksteel, Cullen, Aribo, Morgan (Pratley 46), Purrington; Parker (Williams 95), Taylor. Unused substitutes: Maxwell, Pearce, Forster-Caskey, Solly, Lapslie.
Doncaster Rovers: Marosi; Blair (May 86), Downing, Butler, Andrew; Whiteman, Rowe; Wilks (Wright 106), Coppinger (Sadlier 96), Kane (Crawford 80); Marquis. Unused substitutes: Lawlor, Anderson, Beeston.
Referee: G Ward (Surrey).