West Brom 1 Aston Villa 0 (2-2 on aggregate - Aston Villa win 4-3 on penalties)
Welcome to the Championship play-offs, where unrelenting drama in the £180million pursuit of the Premier League is never far away.
Aston Villa are returning to Wembley for the second year in a row after a nerve-shredding night, winning on penalties with goalkeeper Jed Steer producing two brilliant saves and Tammy Abraham scoring the crucial goal from the spot.
Last season Villa were beaten in the final by Fulham but they will return later this month for another date with destiny, with boyhood fan and head coach Dean Smith aiming to end the club’s three-year exile from the top-flight.
This Midlands scrap was another absorbing advertisement for this unforgiving route to promotion, as West Bromwich Albion forced extra time after dominating much of this second leg at the raucous Hawthorns.
Craig Dawson’s header in the first-half brought the scores level on aggregate and Albion survived the late dismissal of skipper Chris Brunt to put supporters through another agonising 30 minutes and then the dreaded shootout.
Steer saved Albion’s first two penalties, from Mason Holgate and Ahmed Hegazi, and it was Abraham who delivered with Villa’s final kick to book their place in the final.
Smith said: “It’s amazing what can happen as Jed was at Charlton on loan earlier this year and now he’s a hero for us.
“We worked very hard at penalties from the day we knew we were in the play-offs. We had a plan and worked at it for four weeks.
“I’m actually disappointed we lost the game, our quality wasn’t good enough, but it’s job done in terms of getting to Wembley. We’ve got players who will have know how last year felt and hopefully we can go one better.”
While Villa have a shot at redemption, it was a cruel ending to a capricious campaign for West Brom, who played their part in a rollercoaster ride of a game and were the better side.
Without suspended leading scorer Dwight Gayle, who was sent off in the first leg, this was an entirely different encounter but the Hawthorns was bouncing, a cauldron of noise from start to finish.
With the stakes so high it was typically frenetic, and the crucial opening goal for Albion came just before the half-hour mark.
Holgate’s huge throw into the Villa box from the right eluded the visiting defence and Dawson rose majestically to nod the ball into the corner. The Hawthorns erupted.
Albion had won all of their five Championship home games after James Shan replaced Darren Moore and Villa were struggling to create any chances.
At times it was difficult to believe it was the same Villa who recorded a club record ten wins in a row earlier this year.
Albion should have added another goal in the second half. Jacob Murphy’s shot was cleared off the line by Tyrone Mings, Matt Phillips headed over the bar and Brunt bent a shot wide.
As the tension began to rise, Brunt was booked for a late challenge on John McGinn, which could easily have been a red card. Yet he was sent off ten minutes from the end, for another foul on McGinn, after a long-running tussle.
Albion needed an outstanding save from Sam Johnstone to deny substitute Albert Adomah towards the end of normal time, and Villa wasted a chance in the 118th minute when substitute Keinan Davis headed straight at the home goalkeeper.
Penalties were inevitable, and Steer saved from Holgate and Hegazi, with Abraham having the final word to spark scenes of delirium in the away end.
Shan, Albion’s interim manager, said: “I’m gutted and the players are distraught in the dressing room.
“The lads gave everything I asked them to do. I’ll look back on this with a sense of pride and I’d like to thank the players.”
West Brom (3-4-3)
Johnstone; Dawson, Hegazi, Bartley; Holgate, Brunt, Johansen (Morrison 71), Gibbs; Phillips (Harper 75), Rodriguez, Murphy (Adarabioyo 82). Substitutes Bond (g), Townsend, Leko, Montero. Booked: Johansen, Brunt. Sent off: Brunt.
Aston Villa (4-3-3)
Steer; Elmohamady, Tuanzebe, Mings, Taylor; Hourihane, McGinn, Grealish; Green (Adomah 75), Abraham, El Ghazi. Substitutes Kalinic (g), Hause, Jedinak, Whelan, Kodjia, Davis. Booked: Mings, Taylor.
Referee: Chris Kavanagh (Lancashire)
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