Football can be such a cruel game and this has never been illustrated more vividly than Sunday’s play-off final when Orient’s promotion dream turned into a nightmare at Wembley.
The O’s had a place in the Championship within their grasp, not once but twice, yet Rotherham produced a stunning comeback to leave Russell Slade’s side’s hopes in tatters.
Having taken a 2-0 lead into the break, Orient were only 45 minutes away from crowning a brilliant season with promotion but the Millers turned the final on its head at the start of the second half.
When the match drew to a conclusion on penalties, the O’s led 3-2 and were again within touching distance of going up. But a couple of minutes and two penalty saves later and Orient were on the floor after their extraordinary journey came to the harshest of endings.
A penalty shoot-out is a brutal way to decide a cup tie, but when a whole season rests on it the despair of defeat is only magnified. This is no way for a team to have their entire year’s work dashed.
For Orient, it was a glorious opportunity missed and while it is hoped they will respond and go one better next season, there is certainly no guarantee of reproducing this level of success.
The Millers looked the more composed side early on at Wembley and could have easily won a penalty in the opening minutes when captain Nathan Clarke appeared to push Alex Revell in the area.
Rotherham threatened on a number of occasions and Jamie Jones was called into action when the Orient keeper was forced to block a close-range effort from Wes Thomas.
The O’s had not really troubled the Rotherham defence when they opened the scoring in the 34th minute with a superb individual effort from Moses Odubajo. The ball was headed out to the edge of the area and the 20-year-old winger chested the ball before planting a half-volley into the roof of the net. Odubajo ripped off his shirt and raced away to celebrate his spectacular strike in front of the delirious Orient fans.
But it got even better just five minutes later when the O’s extended their lead and appeared to take a firm grip on the final. Rotherham failed to clear the ball and Odubajo turned provider as his low cross, from the right, fell perfectly for Dean Cox to tap into the unguarded goal.
Orient fans were in ecstasy and living out their fantasy with a scoreline they couldn’t possibly have dreamt of the previous night. It was almost too good to be true and the Millers looked ragged as they were relieved to get to half-time 2-0 down.
At this point, the O’s were trading as short as 1-20 for promotion and with good reason as it looked as if the team were in an unassailable position.
It is just over two years since Orient failed to win from being two goals in front but their worst fears started to unfold in the space of five second-half minutes.
Slade’s side were guilty of conceding a series of cheap free-kicks outside their area, which was asking for trouble against players with the calibre of delivery of Ben Pringle and the excellent James Tavernier. The decisive free-kick was conceded after 55 minutes when Clarke was penalised for a foul on Revell. Tavernier sent a cross into the area and Jones made a mess of the situation after failing to punch the ball away. It ricocheted off Mathieu Baudry and fell into the path of Revell for a simple finish into the empty net.
This was a defining moment in the final because it galvanised a Rotherham side that has picked up more points, than any other League 1 side, from losing positions this season. It gave their fans hope and within five minutes the Millers were level after an astonishing finish.
Former Orient striker Revell was 35 yards out when he controlled the ball and struck a stunning looping volley over the despairing dive of Jones. It was a remarkable strike and all of a sudden the match had swung in favour of United.
One of the abiding memories of the goal was the euphoric celebrations of portly Steve Evans running onto the pitch after their dramatic equaliser. It was no surprise the Millers manager needed a towel to wipe away the sweat after his extravagant celebrations.
At this point, there was half-an-hour left but you felt the entire balance of the final had tipped towards Rotherham.
To Orient’s credit, they stopped the bleeding and had their fair share of the play but neither side could find a winner inside the distance.
Slade’s side shaded extra time but the best chance still fell to the Millers, through an unlikely source, when Scott Cuthbert almost scored an own goal but the defender’s header was tipped around the post by Jones.
Neither team had done quite enough to win the contest and the only way to separate them was from the spot.
Shooting towards the sea of Orient fans, Kieran Agard netted before Lloyd James buried his effort. The first key moment came when Lee Frecklington’s penalty was brilliantly saved by Jones. John Lundstram and Nathan Clarke fired home along with Rotherham’s Ben Pringle which gave the O’s a 3-2 advantage.
But Tavernier netted before Orient’s lead was wiped out when Baudry’s penalty was kept out by Adam Collin. Richard Smallwood drilled the ball home to pile the pressure on Dagnall and when the striker’s penalty was parried by Collin the dream was over.
It was a horrendous way for a record-breaking season for the O’s to end. Players collapsed on the turf, in tears with heads in their hands, as Rotherham celebrated a second successive promotion.
An exhilarating afternoon which had provided every emotion possible, from euphoria to desolation, had reached a catastrophic climax.