WEMBLEY hero Alex Smithies summed up Huddersfield Town’s promotion joy in one simple sentence: “We’re feeling on top of the world.”
The 22-year-old stopper got his chance because of a hand injury to regular choice Ian Bennett and emerged the penalty shoot-out hero with saves from Lee Williamson and Matt Lowton before netting the decisive spot-kick himself.
That was immediately before opposite number Steve Simonsen skied his effort over the bar to give Town an 8-7 success after 120 minutes of a goalless final – and Smithies left Wembley clutching the signed match ball courtesy of keeper colleague Nick Colgan, who was on the bench.
“This is the best feeling ever, we are on top of the world,” said Smithies, who had a list stuck on the bottom of his water bottle of where the Sheffield United penalty takers usually place their kicks!
“It’s amazing to be in the Championship because it’s what we’ve been dreaming of all season. The squad and the staff have worked so hard for this and especially the chairman. It’s fantastic for his dream to come true.
“Last season we were all devastated and it’s third time lucky in the play-offs. We bounced back this time but we might have found it a lot harder to bounce back next time if we’d lost this final.
“To be in the Championship is just so good. We are over the moon and it’s unbelievable what it means to us all.
“I was almost in tears when I was looking over to my family in the stands because they were so nervous beforehand.
“There were so many friends and family there, people I’ve been to school with and who I spend a lot of time with – and to make them so proud just means everything to me.”
Having missed their first three penalties through Tommy Miller, Damien Johnson and Alan Lee, Smithies’ saves from Williamson and Lowton kept the team in it and, when skipper Peter Clarke finally got Town on the board and Andy Taylor hit a post for United, the scene was set for an incredible finale and the Blades’ fourth loss in a play-off final (sixth overall).
The research of goalkeeping coach John Vaughan was a key, said Smithies, hence the list stuck to his drinks bottle, and after Clarke had eased the nerves, Scott Arfield, Jordan Rhodes, Gary Roberts, Calum Woods, Jack Hunt and Sean Morrison all netted before Smithies himself.
“I didn’t get nervous at all until it got to the ninth penalty and then I thought ‘if I don’t save one soon I’m going to end up taking one.’
“When we were practising in training, I just hit mine like a goal-kick while the rest of the lads were sidefooting theirs or whatever.
“When it came to the match, I thought I’d just do the same and it was a massive relief when it hit the back of the net.
“While it was an incredible feeling for us, I wish it had been someone other than Steve Simonsen who missed their last penalty.
“He had a great game and was a credit to himself and his club, and for it to finish like that for him was very hard.”
So how did he get the match ball?
“It was thanks to Nick Colgan, and I can’t thank him enough, it’s a really special gesture,” he explained. “Nick was a play-off final hero himself in a shoot-out (for Barnsley against Swansea at the Millennium Stadium in 2006) and he immediately turned around and booted the ball into the crowd.
“He says it’s something he’s regretted every since, because he would have like it as a memento, and so he wanted to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to me.
“It feels strange, because it’s usually the strikers who go home with the match ball, but this one is mine, all the lads have signed it and I will cherish it forever!”
Smithies paid tribute to injured Ian Bennett, who missed out because of the hand injury which forced him off in the semi-final second leg against MK Dons.
“I tried to prepare myself from Monday as if I would be playing and Benno was on the brink, but it was Thursday when he said he wouldn’t make it and I knew I was in,” he said.
“Ian is a fantastic guy and a brilliant professional and he’s been a massive help to me.
“He has done so much for the club as well and it was Ian who got us here, so he deserves a massive part of the credit as well.
“He is such a modest guy that he probably won’t take the praise, but he deserves it and we are all delighted promotion is won.”
Smithies also hopes Town will be able to keep 40-goal striker Rhodes now they’ve gone up.
“It might help us keep him, but it’s not really up to me to say because I don’t know Jordan’s situation,” he added.
“We would love him to stay at Huddersfield Town next year and I’d like to say a massive ‘thank you’ to him for what he has done.
“He has scored so many goals and won us so many games – he’s been a credit to the club and to himself.”
Smithies’ final word was for the fans.
“Going round that pitch with the trophy you could see what it meant to everyone,” he said.
“For me to be Huddersfield born and bred and to have grown up with it all – I live only 10 minutes from the ground – it’s just brilliant.
“I love the club, love the town and love the fans and everyone deserves this. I’m so pleased for us all, and we’ve got a fantastic season to look forward to next time. Amazing.”