Hitmen in form ahead of PNE’s Wembley date

Joe Garner celebrates scoring the third goal against Swindon in April
Joe Garner celebrates scoring the third goal against Swindon in April
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League One has not been short-changed in terms of entertainment in the play-offs.

Preston North End striker Jermaine Beckford’s deft dink over Chesterfield goalkeeper Tommy Lee set the pace last Thursday night.

The two goals Beckford then put past Lee’s replacement Joe Murphy in Sunday’s second leg, upped the ante further.

For pure edge-of-the-seat and thrill-a-minute drama though, nothing could beat Swindon’s 5-5 draw with Sheffield United on Monday.

The second half was more akin to a game on the school playground, play flowing from end to end.

Swindon prevailed 7-6 on aggregate, their 2-1 win at Bramall Lane in the first leg proving decisive.

The manner in which the Robins defended was clearly a concern to their manager Mark Cooper as he turned his thoughts to their Wembley meeting with North End on Sunday week.

Cooper said: “I’m sure Simon Grayson was rubbing his hands together watching it.

“With the firepower at their disposal I’m sure they’ll fancy their chances.

“But on the Wembley surface we’ll fancy ours.

“The players will have a couple of days off and then we’ll be back at work.

“We have just got to enjoy the night and the feeling of getting to Wembley. I’m pleased and delighted we are there but the work starts now.

“I’m very proud of them and proud because at the start of the season we were written off as relegation fodder.

“Even to get to Wembley is a magnificent achievement for us.

“We know we have our faults and we play a certain way and at times we have to concede and we know that.

“But we are not bad going forward – we can score goals and entertain.”

The Blades never gave up against Swindon, with them just a goal away from taking the second leg into extra time.

Swindon’s flaws at the back will have been carefully noted by Grayson and his PNE staff.

Reflecting on the 5-5 draw, Cooper said: “I really cannot put into words what I have just seen.

“It was a freak, I’m sure it will be talked about for decades.

“It was like two heavyweight boxers trying to knock each other out.

“We kept scoring, they kept scoring. If we kept playing it could have been 10-10.

“It was the most ridiculous game of football you’ll ever see. Brilliant goals and rubbish defending.

“I must give credit to Nigel Clough and his players, it was an unbelievable game of football.”

Swindon goalkeeper Wes Foderingham admitted it had been a seat-of-the-pants job in the closing stages of the second leg.

“When seven minutes was added it was a bit of squeaky bum time,” said Foderingam.

“If they got another goal that would have meant extra time and the momentum would have been with them.

“I’m sure if they had scored another goal you would have heard a pin drop in the stadium.

“It was important we stayed switched on and defended properly for the last six or seven minutes of the game.

“Our defending was almost our downfall. I don’t think there’s one thing in particular that has got us through.

“I think we made it a lot more difficult for ourselves really.

“We were our own worst enemy letting them back into the game.

“I don’t think I’ll ever play a game like that again for the rest of my career.

“It was an absolute rollercoaster of emotions.

“We started really well and got three goals up and I’d say a little bit of complacency came into our game.

“I’m sure you saw a lot of errors in that game but, come Wembley, hopefully you’ll see a much calmer Swindon Town.”

The league meetings between PNE and Swindon this season both went with home advantage.

In November, the Wiltshire side beat Preston 1-0 at the County Ground thanks to an 87th-minute header from Andy Williams.

That was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination.

The goal had a touch of fortune about it, a Ben Gladwin cross deflecting off David Buchanan and into the path of Williams.

Grayson’s men scored in every league game after that until that fateful last day of the season at Colchester.

At Deepdale, North End beat Swindon 3-0 on April 25, Joe Garner netting a hat-trick.

Garner was on target less than two minutes into the clash, meeting a cross from Paul Gallagher to lift a shot into the net.

He doubled the advantage with a header from another Gallagher delivery.

Garner completed his treble after a Beckford shot had come back off the bar.

Much will be made of the fact that Cooper rang the changes that day in order to keep some of his regulars fresh for the play-offs.

It did not go down well at the time with MK Dons boss Karl Robinson, who at that moment were competing with PNE for automatic promotion.

An early injury concern for Swindon ahead of Wembley is defender Nathan Thompson.

He suffered a hamstring strain in the 57th minute of Monday night’s clash and had to be helped from the pitch.

Top scorer Williams missed the second leg with an injury but is expected to be fit for the final.