The League Two playoffs finally kicked off on Sunday evening, the last of the English league’s to get the season reignited after a dramatic ‘final-day’.
Undoubtedly, more neutrals will have tuned in for the Championship equivalent earlier in the day, only to see Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday fight out a tense 0-0 draw, amassing just two shots on target between them.
Those who showed an interest in the rarely televised League Two were rewarded with a goal fest regardless of the fixture they chose, with Blackpool beating Luton Town 3-2 and Carlisle United and Exeter City drawing 3-3.
Both matches were set up to be close affairs, Luton had twice got the better of Blackpool this season, claiming six points from the Seasiders with 1-0 and 2-0 victories. Meanwhile, Carlisle and Exeter has become a tie guaranteed to provide goals, with the Cumbrians having won 3-2 on both occasions prior to the playoffs. There have been 20 goals in their last four meetings.
Of the four sides, Luton finished closest to automatic promotion in 4th but could only secure a trip to Bloomfield Road and an opportunity to overcome an abysmal playoff record. Over the last 20 years, The Hatters have failed in all four of their playoff campaigns, a statistic made even bleaker The Seasiders’ positive record of being the only to side to have been promoted from each division through the system.
Some calamitous goalkeeping saw Blackpool take the lead on 19-minutes, amidst calls for a possible handball. However, just 9-minutes later the home side were 2-1 down, having been torn apart all too easily by Luton’s attack. Within that period, The Tangerines wasted a great opportunity to go 2-0 up and striker Kyle Vassell hit the crossbar at 1-1.
Despite those chances, Luton deserved their half-time lead and could easily have extended it before the break, the home side looked vulnerable for a long period.
Further north at Brunton Park, Carlisle once more found themselves behind to Exeter after Joel Grant headed his side in front. Fortunately for The Cumbrians, The Grecians’ defender Jordan Moore-Taylor turned a cross into his own net on 32 minutes, levelling the tie.
Exeter regained the lead just before half-time and were able to extend it shortly after the interval through David Wheeler, with Grant providing his second assist of the evening.
Carlisle had already won twice when being 2-1 down to Exeter this campaign, including in the regular season’s final day. Yet suddenly they were two behind when it mattered most. After making use of all three substitutions, the home side scored twice in two minutes to level the match which ended 3-3.
The Devon club had two goals disallowed for close off-side calls and rattled the woodwork at the game’s death. Despite those chances and earlier lead, Exeter are still yet to beat any of their playoff rivals this season, something they will need to overturn to progress on Thursday night.
Blackpool began their second half perfectly, with ex-Luton man Mark Cullen scoring his second of the night with an impressive strike from distance on 47-minutes. From then on, The Seasiders looked on top of proceedings, testing goalkeeper Stuart Moore throughout and looking to capitalise on his uncertain handling.
With just over twenty minutes to go the home side’s constant pressure earnt them a penalty. Luton captain Scott Cuthbert had been pulling the shirt of Tom Aldred during previous set-pieces, which this was brought to the attention of the officials by Blackpool’s players and coaches. Despite this opportunity to then stop, the centre-back hauled his counterpart to the ground in the area, giving Cullen the opportunity for a hat trick against his old side which he took from the spot.
Later in the match, the home side rode their luck as they played more defensively and looked certain to concede when four defenders were unable to clear from their own penalty area. Having survived that scare and what seemed like an eternity of injury-time, Blackpool go into Thursday’s second-leg with a slight advantage.
If those first matches are anything to go by, this season’s league 2 playoffs will go down as classics, and both ties will surely see more goals. Exeter and Carlisle appear to know no other way of playing each other than going all-out, whilst it remains to be seen whether The Grecians can defend a lead. The same can be said about Blackpool, who despite their single goal advantage, have just as hard a test in their second match.
Gary Bowyer’s men held the lead twice on Sunday evening, firstly they capitulated and were behind less than 10 minutes later, and although they held on at the end, it is clear that a defensive game plan will not work for them over 90 minutes.
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