Blackpool manager Neil Critchley believes a season finale at Wembley is no more than his players deserve following a relentless campaign.
The Tangerines booked their place in the League One play-off final with an enthralling 3-3 draw against Oxford at Bloomfield Road, as a 6-3 aggregate victory was secured.
Having lost the home leg 3-0, Matty Taylor’s seventh-minute finish gave the U’s the briefest of sniffs of a comeback for the ages but hope was crushed when Elliot Embleton and Kenny Dougall netted shortly after to make the score 5-1 on aggregate.
Although Oxford duo Robert Atkinson and Olamide Shodipo scored either side of Pools top scorer Jerry Yates’ 23rd goal of the campaign, the result was never in doubt and Critchley could reflect on a rollercoaster journey.
“It is a fantastic effort because the players have been through so much this season,” he said. “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.
“We have had significant injuries which we haven’t made a big deal of. And since January, we have had a schedule like no other in the division.
“For us to be in this position is credit to how the players prepare and train every single day. My thoughts are with my players and they deserve this moment. They deserve to go to Wembley.”
Either Lincoln or Sunderland will stand in the way of Blackpool returning to English football’s second tier after a six-year absence but Critchley was ecstatic to have 4,000 supporters back roaring the team on.
“Our support was unbelievable,” he added. “Was it 4,000? It sounded like 40,000. They made me and the team proud by what it meant for the fans.
“They deserve this moment and we now want to go to Wembley and win.”
Having lost in the 2020 League One play-off final, Oxford came up short again but U’s boss Karl Robinson has vowed to rebound – after a well-deserved break.
“We are all down at the moment but hopefully we will come back as a force next year,” said Robinson.
“We start again on Monday morning and we go again. We will bounce back because we always bounce back.
“I need a break because I am running on nothing. It has been a long two years.
“We showed fight but we have come up short. I didn’t expect this team to concede six goals over two legs. That was never the game plan.
“We came here to score three and we scored three but their goals came from nothing.
“But we have not lost this game which is important. We showed that we are not a pushover. But we fell short and we were not good enough over two legs.”