HUDDERSFIELD Town suffered a nightmare end to the season in the Theatre of Dreams as hopes of promotion crumbled in the wake of Peterborough’s late goal blitz.
It was a cruel end to a campaign which promised so much as three strikes in a devastating eight-minute spell condemned Lee Clark’s men to a first defeat since January.
It was end-to-end for the bulk of the Old Trafford play-off final, and while the final scoreline, sealed by Tommy Rowe, Craig Mackail-Smith and Grant McCann, flattered Posh, it will be of little consolation as Town contemplate another season in League I.
Boss Clark ended days of pre-match debate among fans by choosing to go with his ‘away’ line-up, playing striker Benik Afobe between wide men Gary Roberts and Danny Ward and restoring Scott Arfield to midfield, 22-goal top scorer Jordan Rhodes being left on the bench.
Peterborough kept the side which clinched a place in the final by beating MK Dons in the semi second leg.
Town’s vast travelling army of fans outnumbered their opponents two to one, with chairman Dean Hoyle’s gift of a free T-shirt to every supporter creating a huge wall of blue and white stripes stretching from the famous Stretford End into each adjacent stand.
But it was the Posh contingent who could be heard in the opening stages as their side came quickly out of the blocks on a hard pitch made greasy by pre-match rain.
Craig Mackail-Smith, on 34 goals for the season and needing two more to bring up a century for the club, came close to a fifth-minute breakthrough when he burst onto Lee Tomlin’s pass.
But the challenging Antony Kay got a vital touch as the Scotland international’s shot was deflected against the outside of Ian Bennett’s left-hand post and away for a corner.
McCann’s inswinging flag kick was safely punched clear by former Posh player Bennett, who then collected George Boyd’s swerving eighth-minute long-range effort with little fuss.
Town’s first chances fell to Lee Peltier, who twice got in headers from corners by Gary Roberts, before skipper Peter Clarke brought a first save of the match from Posh keeper Paul Jones with a 19th-minute header after Danny Ward nodded back a Roberts cross.
It took a timely tackle from centre-back Gaby Zakuani to thwart Afobe as he shaped to shoot a minute later, but Posh poured forward on the counter-attack, and Kay did well to hold off Mackail-Smith.
The game was becoming more open, and when Roberts produced a neat 28th-minute cross, Afobe hooked a shot off target as Ward lurked menacingly.
Town survived a 32nd-minute penalty appeal when James Wesolowksi went down under Gary Naysmith’s challenge, while Kay again came to the rescue as he robbed Mackail-Smith near goal.
Boyd’s 44th-minte foul on Peltier set up a free-kick opportunity for Roberts, whose curling shot was pawed away by Jones for the first of successive Town corners, the second of which was flicked on by Kay to Afobe, who was unable to get his shot on target.Related content
Town had come right into the game as the half progressed, but Posh had the final chance before the break, when Mackail-Smith met Boyd’s pass only to poke the ball wide as Bennett came out.
Both sides were playing towards their own fans in the second half.
And after Roberts fouled Boyd 25 yards out, the Posh supporters were out of their seats as McCann curled the free-kick just over.
Ward drove a 55th-minute shot from Afobe’s lay-off well wide before Roberts’ hooked effort from Peltier’s pass was headed away by defender Ryan Bennett.
Then Ward came close with a fine solo effort in the 59th minute when he worked his way from the right flank to the byline and stepped back inside before unleashing a left-foot shot which grazed the top of the bar.
Posh made the first change in the 64th minute, and substitute Charlie Lee, on for left-back Grant Basey, was yellow carded within minutes after catching Peltier with a high foot.
He joined Peltier and Tomlin in referee Steve Tanner’s book, both having committed first-half fouls, and Kay was cautioned on 75 minutes after bringing down Mackail-Smith when he was in full flight.
Tomlin fired that free-kick straight into the wall, but when Naysmith was ruled to have fouled Boyd three minutes later, Posh made the breakthrough, Rowe glancing home a header from McCann’s curling delivery.
It was to prove the start of an avalanche which ended any hopes of a fightback and left Town beaten for the first time in 28 league games.
Mackail-Smith made it two in the 80th minute, picking up Boyd’s pass and leaving Bennett in no-man’s land with a shot which took a deflection off Kay.
Then when Clarke fouled Mackail-Smith just outside the penalty area five minutes later, McCann squeezed the free-kick between Bennett and his left-hand post.