Blackpool completed a 6-3 aggregate victory over Oxford in their Sky Bet League One play-off semi-final following a thrilling 3-3 draw in the second leg.
Cushioned by a 3-0 lead from the first leg, Blackpool booked a return to Wembley for the first time since their 2017 League Two play-off win over Exeter. Goals from Elliot Embleton, Kenny Dougall and top scorer Jerry Yates secured a May 30 date against Lincoln or Sunderland, who meet at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
But Neil Critchley’s normally miserly defence also conceded three times, as Matty Taylor’s early goal gave United hope while Rob Atkinson and Olamide Shodipo twice drew the visitors level on the night.
Roared on by a 4,000-strong partisan home crowd – back at Bloomfield Road for the first time since around 1,000 attended a test event against Swindon last September – Blackpool ensured they are now just 90 minutes away from a return to English football’s second tier after a six-year absence.
Two goals from Ellis Simms and another via Ollie Turton four days earlier had made this second leg appear virtually academic, with Oxford needing to produce a remarkable turnaround.
Blackpool had only conceded five goals in the last 10 matches of the regular season, but Taylor’s low right-footed finish into the corner on seven minutes suggested Oxford were up for the fight.
However, the Tangerines levelled five minutes later with a stunning equaliser. Embleton had only scored once all season, but the Sunderland loanee’s curling effort from 18 yards had the mark of a natural finisher.
Then, two minutes later, Dan Ballard did superbly to turn the ball back inside from the far post and Dougall, who netted at the Kassam Stadium back in March, doubled his own seasonal tally to make it 2-1 on the night and 5-1 on aggregate.
Oxford did not capitulate as Atkinson’s superb header after 52 minutes made it 2-2, but fittingly Yates – whose name was chanted virtually all game by the home fans – slipped his markers to drill in his 23rd goal of the campaign soon after.
Yates immediately ran to the bench, lifting a t-shirt in memory of Blackpool youngster Jordan Banks, who died after being struck by lightning while playing football. There was also a minute’s applause before the game, while Blackpool players warmed up wearing the same t-shirts to remember the nine-year-old.
Shodipo ensured the U’s had parity on the night when he equalised 16 minutes from time, scrambling home Dan Agyei’s cross from the right, but nothing could spoil the Tangerines’ evening.
“It is a fantastic effort because the players have been through so much this season,” said the Blackpool manager, Neil Critchley, after the game. “We have changed pretty much the whole squad and it took us time to develop that understanding of how we want to play. And I still think we will get better.
We have had to endure Covid and were one of the only teams in the division who didn’t call games off,” Critchley added. “We have had significant injuries and since January, we have had a schedule like no other in the division. My thoughts are with my players and they deserve this moment. They deserve to go to Wembley.”