The last of the English divisional play off finals is set for bank holiday Monday afternoon as Plymouth and Wimbledon try to take the step up to League One football for next season. It’s welcome relief for the fans of these two teams, who have had plenty of troubles to contend with in recent history.
Argyle have been in England’s fourth tier for five seasons and almost went out of business in 2011. Their resurgence this season marks the 20th anniversary of their last visit to Wembley when they reached the then fourth division play off final and earned promotion to the third tier by beating Darlington 1-0.
Wimbledon’s well documented history has been even more dramatic, as the ‘Phoenix’ club only formed in 2002 after the controversial move of the former Wimbledon to become MK Dons. This is the first time in the club’s short history that they’ve reached a football league play off final, and will mark their first visit to Wembley since the famous 1988 FA Cup final between the former Wimbledon club and Liverpool. Manager Neal Ardley made over 300 appearances for the original Dons and will lead his team out as the ninth longest serving manager in England’s top four divisions.
Plymouth overcame south coast rivals Portsmouth in the semi finals in two closely fought legs. They laid the foundations in the first leg away from home with a 2-2 draw in which they led 2-1 but were pegged back with a second-half Portsmouth penalty. Argyle had finished the regular season in 5th place, three points ahead of 6th placed Pompey, and they confirmed their place in the final with a 1-0 home win to make the aggregate score 3-2. Peter Hartley bundled in a corner in the 91st minute to snatch victory when the game looked to be heading for extra-time, but they had been the better side throughout and deserved to progress.
Wimbledon finished 7th in the table, a full ten points behind semi final opponents Accrington, but made a mockery of league positions to come through 3-2 after extra-time in an eventful second leg. The first leg had been on the way to ending in a 0-0 draw, but Tom Beere’s 93rd minute goal finally broke the deadlock to give Wimbledon a slender advantage as they travelled to Accrington for the second leg. The home side took a decisive 2-0 lead by the hour mark, but Adebayo Akinfenwa’s 68th minute header drew the sides level on aggregate to take the game into extra-time. Lyle Taylor scored the ‘winning’ goal in extra-time to make it 2-2 on the night and give Wimbledon their first trip to Wembley since the club started afresh.
As well as finishing above the Dons in the League Two table, they also had better home and away records over the course of the season, scoring more goals and conceding less than their rivals. The teams have met three times this season in the league and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, with the away side faring best on each occasion. Plymouth beat Wimbledon 2-0 in the league back in August, then followed up with a 3-2 win at the Dons in the Johnstone’s Paint clash in September. Wimbledon came out on top in the last meeting in April, winning 2-1 at Home Park courtesy of Akinfenwa’s late winner.
Pilgrim’s boss Derek Adam said his side deserved the trip to Wembley and praised his player’s hard work while refusing to take too much of the credit in what has been his first season in English football. He has big game experience north of the border though, having managed Ross County to victory over Celtic in the 2010 Scottish Cup semi final, before losing to Dundee in the final at Hampden. He also noted however, that while he’s delighted for the club, the players and fans, “You only have a good day out at Wembley when you win.”
Dons manager Neal Ardley also highlighted the ‘immense’ excitement of taking Wimbledon fans to Wembley, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that they took on a deflated Accrington in the play off semi final. their opponents slipped out of the automatic promotion spots on the very last day of the season having been favourites to go up, and that may well have had a big effect on the Accrington players heading into the play offs. Whether Wimbledon will have quite enough to cope with an attacking Plymouth side remains to be seen, and they may have to wait a little bit longer to continue their own progression up the league ladder.
Plymouth to win the League Two play off Final
Monday 30th May, 15:00 GMT