Blackpool 3-3 Oxford United (6-3 on aggregate): Seasiders book their place in the League One play-off final after breathless second leg
Blackpool are into the play-off final for the eighth time in their history.
The Seasiders, already the most successful side in English play-off history, will take on either Lincoln City or Sunderland at Wembley on Sunday, May 30, with a place in the Championship on the line.
It comes after the Seasiders drew 3-3 with Oxford United in a topsy-turvy second leg of their semi-final, winning the tie 6-3 on aggregate.
Pool, leading 3-0 from Tuesday’s game at the Kassam, got off to the worst possible start when the U’s took the lead inside seven minutes.
But the Seasiders produced an inspired response, scoring twice in as many minutes to the delight of the returning 4,000 Pool fans - and there was a cauldron of noise inside Bloomfield Road throughout.
Oxford would draw level on the night for a second time at the start of the second-half and again late on after Jerry Yates had put Pool ahead.
But in the end, it proved immaterial, with the damage already done in Blackpool’s dominant first leg victory.
The draw means Blackpool have now won 17 of the 25 play-off ties they’ve taken part in, but they remain unbeaten in their last 12 semi-final games.
Luke Garbutt was fit enough to start on his 28th birthday having recovered from a back injury which forced him off during the first leg.
Critchley opted to make just one change to his side from Tuesday night, replacing Keshi Anderson with Demetri Mitchell.
Anderson dropped down to the bench, presumingly rested having only just returned from a four-month lay-off.
Elsewhere, neither Grant Ward or Sullay Kaikai were risked, despite both making good progress in their recovery from injury.
Daniel Gretarsson, Matty Virtue and CJ Hamilton also remain sidelined and will miss the remainder of Blackpool’s play-off campaign, as will Bez Lubala who is still unavailable due to a ‘club matter’.
Oxford, meanwhile, made one change from the first leg, as Anthony Forde replaced Jamie Hanson at right-back.
Cameron Brannagan, who hobbled off with a hamstring strain on Tuesday, was fit enough to start, but Sam Winnall - who also took a knock to his hamstring - was left out.
Before the game got underway, a poignant minute’s applause was held to pay tribute to Blackpool boy Jordan Banks, who tragically passed away recently.
The minute was laced with emotion, with Pool fans also accompanying the applause with chants of “there’s only one Jordan Banks”. The Seasiders also wore special tribute t-shirts during the warm-up.
Buoyed by the returning Pool faithful, who were in electric form long before kick-off, Critchley’s side made a bright start to the game.
Demetri Mitchell had a shot charged down after cutting in from the right as Pool went straight onto the front foot, looking to extend their aggregate lead, rather than sit on it.
The in-form Ellis Simms, who had bagged five goals in his last three games leading into this game, was left unmarked from an early corner, but the Everton man could only head straight at Jack Stevens.
Pool knew they just needed to avoid conceding early to help calm their nerves, but their hopes were dashed after just seven minutes as Oxford got the early breakthrough they required.
It was such a soft goal to concede from Blackpool’s point of view, after Dan Ballard had conceded a harsh, albeit needless free-kick by the touchline.
The Seasiders failed to deal with the initial delivery and Oxford striker Matty Taylor, opportunistic as ever, did well to drill the ball beyond Chris Maxwell and into the far corner.
It was the first goal Oxford had scored against Blackpool at the fourth attempt this season, waiting more than four hours to finally break the Seasiders’ resolve.
It was a frustrating setback, but Pool didn’t sulk. In fact, their response was nothing short of heroic.
They almost levelled straight away, Kevin Stewart forcing a smart save out of Stevens at his near post.
But just four minutes after going behind, the tangerine army drew themselves level on the night with an absolutely sublime strike from Elliot Embleton.
The Sunderland loanee, roaming in from the left, had options in the box, but he ignored them and instead opted to curl a peach of an effort into the far corner, beating Stevens all ends up who was at full stretch.
Barely two minutes later, Blackpool were ahead.
Kenny Dougall was the man to get it, hooking home expertly after Dan Ballard had reached with all his might to keep a deep corner in play.
The atmosphere at this point was pure bedlam, the Seasiders already dreaming of Wembley glory.
Pool continued to go hell for leather and showed no intention whatsoever of sitting on their four-goal lead.
Mitchell, who was a constant menace with his driving runs down the right wing, almost deceived Stevens with a deep cross, but the Oxford keeper backtracked and managed to tip the ball over his bar.
The game, at long last, eventually calmed a little towards the end of the first-half, although Pool still remained well in the ascendancy.
In the 37th minute, Oxford made their first foray into the Blackpool box since their early opener, but Mark Sykes blazed high and wide from the edge of the box.
Pool were given another warning that this tie wasn’t over just yet, as James Henry ballooned over after Cameron Brannagan’s hopeful long-range shot had deflected into his path.
The hosts, who replaced Dan Ballard with ex-Oxford man Marvin Ekpiteta at the break, were given a let-off at the start of the second half.
James Henry was found in space just inside the Blackpool box but fired a powerful effort towards goal which rattled the post, with Maxwell beaten.
Pool clearly didn’t heed that warning because, just seven minutes into the second period, Oxford drew themselves level on the night.
It was another soft goal to concede from Pool’s point of view, as Rob Atkinson was allowed the time and space to head the ball back across goal and into the bottom corner from a deep free-kick.
Not that it bothered Pool though, they simply produced another fantastic response.
Two minutes after being pegged back, the Seasiders restored their lead on the night through Jerry Yates, who fired across the keeper after being left on his own at the back post.
Yates celebrated the goal by holding aloft a Jordan Banks t-shirt.
Pool could have put the tie to bed for good with 20 minutes to go, but Simms could only fire into the side netting on the turn from Mitchell’s right-wing cross.
With the Seasiders beginning to drop off a little, Critchley introduced Jordan Gabriel, Keshi Anderson and Gary Madine off the bench to freshen things up.
The game took another twist with 15 minutes to go when the U’s bagged their third of the night, substitute Olamide Shodipo forcing the ball home after a goalmouth scramble.
As you would expect, Pool came under a bit of pressure late on, but they remained a threat on the break and Yates almost bagged his second of the night, seeing his fierce drive well pushed over by Stevens.
Yates wasted another golden chance to win the second leg outright late on, but was again denied by a flying dive from Stevens.
The Seasiders eventually coasted through the five minutes of stoppage-time, with the celebrations well and truly underway by this point.
Wembley here they come.
Blackpool: Maxwell, Turton, Ballard (Ekpiteta), Husband, Garbutt, Dougall, Stewart, Mitchell (Gabriel), Embleton (Anderson), Simms (Madine), Yates (Robson)
Subs not used: Moore, Thorniley
Oxford: Stevens, Forde, Atkinson, Moore, Ruffels, Brannagan, Lee (Shodipo), Henry, Sykes, Barker (Agyei), Taylor
Subs not used: Eastwood, Hanson, McNally, Gorrin, Hall
Referee: Keith Stroud
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