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Mark Sykes and Paul Smyth set to realise Wembley dream after reaching League One play-off final

 

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Oxford's former Glenavon midfielder Mark Sykes (left) and Wycombe Wanderers' ex-Linfield forward Paul Smyth (right) are going to Wembley.

Oxford's former Glenavon midfielder Mark Sykes (left) and Wycombe Wanderers' ex-Linfield forward Paul Smyth (right) are going to Wembley.

Mark Sykes (left) helped Oxford into the League One play-off final at the expense of Portsmouth and former Derry City winger Ronan Curtis (right).

Mark Sykes (left) helped Oxford into the League One play-off final at the expense of Portsmouth and former Derry City winger Ronan Curtis (right).

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Mark Sykes (third right) celebrates with his Oxford team-mates after Cameron Brannagan's penalty sent his side into the League One play-off final.

Mark Sykes (third right) celebrates with his Oxford team-mates after Cameron Brannagan's penalty sent his side into the League One play-off final.

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Oxford's former Glenavon midfielder Mark Sykes (left) and Wycombe Wanderers' ex-Linfield forward Paul Smyth (right) are going to Wembley.

Northern Ireland's Mark Sykes and Paul Smyth are set to go head-to-head at Wembley in the League One play-off final next week.

Sykes started as Oxford edged past Portsmouth on penalties in their semi-final while Smyth was again an unused substitute watching his Wycombe Wanderers compete a 6-3 aggregate win over Fleetwood Town.

Sykes returned to Oxford's starting line-up, having been left on the bench in favour of Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn for Friday's first leg, and played a significant role on the right-wing as his side once against held Pompey to a 1-1 draw.

In the resulting shoot-out, a miss from former Northern Ireland U21 international Cameron McGeehan allowed former Liverpool Academy prospect Cameron Brannagan to net the winning spot-kick.

Former Derry City winger Ronan Curtis joined McGeehan lined up for Pompey and the two sides once again proved how hard they are to separate. Having drawn their only previous league game and needed a shoot-out to decide a Leasing.com Trophy meeting, while boasting identical league records of 17 wins, nine draws and nine defeats, it was no surprise how close the two-legged tie proved.

Last week, Sykes told the Belfast Telegraph that getting the chance to play at Wembley, even without supporters, would realise a long-held ambition.

“A few weeks ago a memory came up on Facebook that five years ago I had written ‘Imagine being able to play at Wembley…’,” he said.

“I would have been 17 then and I remember thinking that I could do it one day. Now it could happen."

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Mark Sykes (third right) celebrates with his Oxford team-mates after Cameron Brannagan's penalty sent his side into the League One play-off final.

Mark Sykes (third right) celebrates with his Oxford team-mates after Cameron Brannagan's penalty sent his side into the League One play-off final.

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Mark Sykes (third right) celebrates with his Oxford team-mates after Cameron Brannagan's penalty sent his side into the League One play-off final.

 

Sykes will be keen to add to his two goals and five assists this season, his international team-mate Paul Smyth would probably set for taking to the pitch, having been an unused substitute in both semi-final legs.

The former Linfield forward is on loan at Wycombe from QPR and has scored once in 21 appearances this season.

In Monay's first game, Portsmouth had the better of the first half in Monday evening's second leg and will have felt their 38th minute opener was deserved as Marcus Harness wrong-footed Oxford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood to fire home from the edge of the box after Ellis Harrison had flicked a long ball on.

They were able to hold their lead for only 11 minutes in Friday's first leg and managed it for an even more brief spell this time as Oxford were level by the break.

If Eastwood hadn't covered himself in any glory for the opener when his opposite number Alex Bass made an even bigger gaffe for the leveller, involved in a mix-up with team-mate Harrison who flicked a header into his own net.

Sykes became much more involved after the break as his United side dominated. It was in no small part down to the right-sided attacker's cross and ability to win free-kicks that Portsmouth were hemmed in for long spells.

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Oxford United's Mark Sykes (left) whips in a cross during the semi-final second leg.

Oxford United's Mark Sykes (left) whips in a cross during the semi-final second leg.

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Oxford United's Mark Sykes (left) whips in a cross during the semi-final second leg.

 

When Sykes was withdrawn in the dying minutes, it was his replacement Dan Agyei who terrorised Pompey's tiring legs with direct running and felt he should have had an injury-time penalty when his shirt was pulled by Lee Brown. That was moments before captain Matt Dickie headed wide when unmarked from a corner, soon grateful the penalty win meant he wasn't left to rue a missed opportunity.

"For the Oxford fans at home, that was for you," said manager Karl Robinson, who also gave Gavin Whyte his break in English football before the winger was sold on to Cardiff last year.

"We're in a final. What more can you say? This one big family moves on again for one next challenge."

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Mark Sykes (left) helped Oxford into the League One play-off final at the expense of Portsmouth and former Derry City winger Ronan Curtis (right).

Mark Sykes (left) helped Oxford into the League One play-off final at the expense of Portsmouth and former Derry City winger Ronan Curtis (right).

Getty Images

Mark Sykes (left) helped Oxford into the League One play-off final at the expense of Portsmouth and former Derry City winger Ronan Curtis (right).

 

While Oxford are looking for a return to England's second tier after 21 years out, Gareth Ainsworth's Wycombe could be promoted to the Championship for the very first time.

They carried a 4-1 lead into Monday's second leg and, despite falling behind twice, goals from Fred Onyedinma secured a 2-2 draw on the night and 6-3 aggregate victory.

Now the club are just 90 minutes away from an unlikely promotion, having started the season being tipped for relegation to League Two.

The League One play-off final will be live on Sky Sports next Monday (July 13) at 7.30pm.

Belfast Telegraph