IT’S 11 long years since Huddersfield Town were last in the Championship.
And it took 11 nerve-jangling, gut-wrenching penalties to get them back there, with keeper Alex Smithies firing himself into club folklore as the man to put away the crucial kick.
If that’s what it was like for the fans – and 52,100 from West and South Yorkshire created a superb atmosphere in London – imagine how it felt for the players who were put on the spot?
In what must number among the most amazing penalty shoot-outs football, never mind Wembley, has witnessed, Town, in front of their own supporters, missed their first three, through Tommy Miller, Damien Johnson and Alan Lee.
Even Charles Dickens’ eternal optimist Wilkins Micawber would have been worried when Lee’s effort was saved by Steve Simonsen and Matt Lowton ran up with the chance to put Sheffield United 2-0 to the good with just two penalties apiece to go.
But Town fans have long known Smithies, only in the side because Ian Bennett failed a fitness test on his hand injury, is something of a specialist spot-kick saver.
And the 22-year-old didn’t disappoint.
Having already thwarted Lee Williamson, he denied Lowton, and when captain fantastic Peter Clarke drove home Town’s fourth attempt with real aplomb, then ex-Galpharm loan defender Andy Taylor hit a post for the Blades, it was all level at 1-1 and the momentum seemed to have shifted.
Amazingly, the next 12 takers (Scott Arfield, Jordan Rhodes, Gary Roberts, Calum Woods, Jack Hunt and Sean Morrison for Town), all scored, and with the shoot-out tied at 7-7, both sides were down to their keepers.
Smithies fired his net-bulging effort past Simonsen, who then dug his heel into the spot as if taking a goal kick – and promptly drove his attempt over the bar as the West end of Wembley went wild and the East subsided in misery.
You had to spare a short thought for Sheffield United, who occupied an automatic promotion place for so much of the campaign.
But with Town finally winning through the play-offs at the third time of asking, elevation from League I has certainly been earned the hard way.
And even Status Quo sounded sweet as Wembley well and truly rocked to the tune of one massive blue and white-striped party.
It was always the result that was going to matter most in a match played in stifling heat, and while it was far from a feast of entertainment, Town certainly created the better chances.
The first half was instantly forgettable – cat and mouse but not nearly as entertaining as Tom and Jerry, with caution the watchword.
But things came to life during a second half which began with Danny Ward rifling a shot against the bar after Sheffield had only partially cleared a Woods cross.
United dangerman Stephen Quinn, playing in behind rugged lone striker Richard Cresswell, shot into the side-netting when set up by lively right-back Lowton.
But Town remained the more dominant team and came close to clinching victory inside normal time.
Simonsen got down low to keep out Clarke’s header, with Miller’s follow-up cleared off the line by midfielder Michael Doyle.
And when Ward fired the subsequent corner in, Clarke out-jumped the Blades defence to head firmly goalward only to be denied by Simonsen again as Sheffield hung out for extra time.
Centre-back Clarke was in action in his own box eight minutes into the first period, bravely blocking to deny Quinn, who then brought a good save from Smithies after a mazy run into the area ended with a low shot.
But Town were back on the offensive in the final 15 minutes, when Gary Roberts set up fellow substitute Lee, whose shot was saved, then the determined Clarke had another firm header blocked by Nick Montgomery.
Johnson’s foul on Chris Porter gave United a chance to snatch victory with a free-kick just outside the area, but Williamson’s effort was coolly collected by Smithies, soon to take centre stage!