In a season full of so many memorable performances, the O’s saved one of their best for tonight when they stormed into the League One Play-Off Final with a 2-1 win over Posh in front of a packed home crowd.
After such a tight first leg, it was perhaps no surprise that the match was goalless at half-time, but an engrossing opening period was followed by an incredible second-half which saw Orient take the lead on the hour mark when Dean Cox volleyed home the rebound to his own free-kick in stylish fashion from just inside the Peterborough box.
Despite the attacking talent that Posh possess, the O’s lead never really felt under threat during a faultless performance and they doubled the lead with just a couple of minutes left when Shaun Batt raced in to the area before calmly pulling the ball back to fellow substitute Chris Dagnall who fired into the far left corner, giving the keeper no chance.
Orient were put through an agonising five minutes of stoppage time which saw Peterborough get a goal back through Conor Washington, but ultimately held on to secure a much-deserved place at Wembley in a couple of weeks’ time.
Both sides made a solitary change to their starting XIs from the first leg. Having made a lively impact from the bench in Saturday’s close encounter, Lloyd James replaced loanee John Lundstram in the heart of the O’s midfield. Meanwhile Kgosi Ntlhe made way for Nathaniel Knight-Percival in the Posh defence.
The Orient faithful turned out in their numbers to fill every seat inside Brisbane Road and the atmosphere was buzzing from the warm-up. Together with the impeccable surface – a stark contrast to Peterborough’s London Road pitch – it was a scene more than befitting of such a meaningful fixture to both sides.
It’s nothing unusual to see the O’s make a high-tempo start to a game this season, but Posh were visibly taken aback by the sheer pace with which Orient came out of the traps tonight.
Within a minute, the home side won a throw-in on the right – deep inside the Posh half. Scott Cuthbert launched the ball into the box as he did on so many occasions in the first leg and fellow defender Mathieu Baudry’s flick-on led to an almighty goalmouth scramble which looked destined to be converted by David Mooney or Baudry but the ball was somehow smothered by visiting keeper Bobby Olejnik.
Kevin Lisbie, Cox and Mooney have combined to devastating effect on so many occasions this season and excellent link-up play between the trio just after the 10-minute mark enabled Mooney to send a cracking volley goalwards from 20 yards, however his effort narrowly evaded the top right-hand corner.
The visitors enjoyed a good spell of possession midway through the half but a couple of long range efforts from Jack Payne were not enough to give Orient too much cause for concern.
As the rain began to hammer down in E10, playing conditions became tougher for both sides and a Lisbie header wide followed by three back-to-back corners for the home side was the only action in either final third for a large chunk of the half.
The scorer of Peterborough’s controversial goal in the first-leg, Britt Assombalonga, latched on to a loose ball which had skidded beyond Nathan Clarke to fire a shot over with 10 minutes of the half remaining but the imposing striker generally looked isolated upfront for the visitors for the majority of the opening 45.
Deciding to make the most of the slippery conditions, James tested Olejnik’s handling from 35 yards with a real piledriver of an effort soon after but the Austrian keeper did well to turn it round the post.
Within a minute of coping so well with the rain, Olejnik spilled a cross from deep – which he surely would have held in ordinary weather – into the feet of Mooney but the Irishman couldn’t direct his shot home beyond the crowd of bodies in the area.
But unlike Saturday’s game there was to be no goal before the break, setting up a tantalising second half.
Both sides were clearly gunning for the first goal straight from the restart and the opening five minutes were just as fast-paced as those in the first half. Danny Swanson sent a wild effort wide of goal after being slid in by Posh teammate Nicky Ajose on the right and Cox sent in a testing corner before Moses Odubajo had a powerful left-footed shot blocked on the edge of the area for the hosts.
Peterborough right-back Mark Little was a real threat to the O’s throughout the first leg of this tie and he reminded everyone how dangerous he can be going forward on 55 minutes when he hit a low shot across the face of goal which skimmed the left-hand post on its way out for a goalkick.
Orient’s goal-hero in the first leg, Moses Odubajo, was drifting infield regularly after the break, and his excellent turn on the edge of the Posh 18-yard box shortly before the hour-mark allowed him to get a free shot away but he could only hit it straight at Olejnik with his weaker foot.
Moments later, Lisbie found himself in the same pocket of space on the edge of the box and the striker used his experience to draw a foul which ultimately led to the O’s taking the lead.
Cox drove the set-piece into one of the many Posh bodies lined up across the face of goal and the winger showed incredible reactions and agility to bury a first-time volley into the bottom left corner of the net before being mobbed by his teammates.
Joint-LMA League 1 Manager of the Year Russell Slade decided to introduce Batt for Lisbie – who was given a standing ovation by the home crowd – soon after Orient had taken the lead, knowing what problems the big striker caused Peterborough’s defence when he came on in the first leg.
Moments after the change in personnel, Mooney broke away through the heart of the Posh defence and laid the ball left to the unmarked Batt who hit a low first-time shot goalwards but Olejnik did well to hold on – even if the O’s substitute might feel he could have done better.
Peterborough made three attacking subs in the space of five minutes after that scare in an attempt to claw their way back into the tie but their intentions never looked like coming to fruition.
On 88 minutes, Batt – who had been shifted out to the wing – broke down the right and seemed to delay playing a cutback too long with his teammates racing into the area to support him but, in fact, the forward had kept his composure brilliantly and fed the ball into the feet of fellow substitute Dagnall who showed just as much of a cool head to take a touch and direct his shot beyond Olejnik.
It looked and felt as though Orient had put the tie beyond doubt but in the second of five minutes added-time, Posh managed to pull a goal back when a long ball forward fell to the feet of Washington just outside of the box and his low shot wrong-footed O’s keeper Jamie Jones to give the visitors hope of a dramatic comeback.
An exceptionally nervous couple of minutes ensued for the home side as they wasted an opportunity to hold the ball up in the Posh final third and conceded a corner in the dying seconds, but Slade’s men stood firm in the face of the kind of pressure most of them will never have experienced before to make sure of a momentous victory for the club.
The final whistle saw O’s fans from every corner of the stadium flood onto the pitch to celebrate alongside the players who have given them a season they will never forget and, of course, one that still has a trip across town to Wembley awaiting them on Sunday 25th May when they will face either Preston or Rotherham in the League 1 Play-Off Final.
ORIENT: Jones, Cuthbert, Baudry, Clarke (C), Omozusi, Odubajo, James, Vincelot, Cox (Dagnall, 73) Mooney, Lisbie (Batt, 69)
SUBS: Larkins, Sawyer, Bartley, Lundstram, Simpson
GOALS: Cox (60), Dagnall (88)
BOOKINGS: Odubajo (82)
P’BOROUGH: Olejnik, Little, Alcock, Baldwin, Knight-Percival (McCann, 80), Swanson (Washington, 75), Payne (Isgrove, 75), Bostwick, Rowe (C), Ajose, Assombalonga
SUBS: Day, Brisley, Ntlhe, McQuoid
GOALS: Washington (90+2)
BOOKINGS: Knight-Percival (49)
REFEREE: Mick Russell
ATTENDANCE: 8,545 (1,416)
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