WHAT a difference a year makes.
Roll the clock back 12 months and Burton Albion were inconsolable after crashing out of the League Two play-offs with Wembley in touching distance.
Off Bradford went to the home of football – and promotion – while the Brewers went home to lick their wounds.
And in the Essex sunshine on Saturday they ended that hurt with a 2-2 draw at Southend to set up a final clash with Fleetwood a week today.
Battling, brave Burton went into Saturday’s game a goal to the good after their 1-0 win over the Seasiders at the Pirelli Stadium.
Adam McGurk was the hero of the first leg – and so he was again at Roots Hall, levelling the game at 2-2 with just over 20 minutes to go.
The goal came after Southend had scored twice, through Ryan Leonard and Anthony Straker, to bring the tie level after Marcus Holness’ early strike gave Albion the perfect start.
For Holness, the goal completed his redemption from an horrendous nightmare a year ago.
It was his unfortunate mistake which allowed Bradford in for the tie-swinging early goal at the Pirelli as they won 3-1 to take the tie on aggregate.
So, it was fitting that Holness, a vital figure in the absence of Ian Sharps, should make amends against Southend.
It was a team effort which got Albion through, though, and one which typified the whole of 2013/14.
Even though there was no Sharps, no Zeli Ismail, no Damien McCrory and no Jimmy Phillips, the players who came in got the job done – some of them while clearly playing on one leg.
While this year’s team might not quite have the natural talent of last year, they have got further on determination, desire and a touch of bloody mindedness.
Now all that lies between them and their goal is one more match – one more massive match – at the home of football.
Whatever happens, the 800 Albion fans at Roots Hall will not forget Saturday’s match in a hurry.
Boss Gary Rowett made three changes to his side following the first leg win.
Ismail missed out altogether after his hamstring failed to recover from a tweak, while Sharps was suspended, as he will be for the final, following his red card in the first leg.
Billy Kee, meanwhile, dropped to the bench.
In came Shane Cansdell-Sherriff at centre-half after a month out with an Achilles injury, David Gray on the right of midfield and Dominic Knowles up front as Rowett looked for mobility and energy in attack. Zander Diamond was also back on the bench after his loan spell at Northampton.
Southend made one change, with Straker replacing Jacob Murphy.
Kevan Hurst moved from the left to the right in a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation, with former Albion transfer target Barry Corr leading the line.
Much of the pre-match speculation centred on how the Brewers would deal with the target man without the tall presence of Sharps.
The game got under way in a thunderous atmosphere at Roots Hall, with the gate just under 10,000, most of them screaming on the men in dark blue.
Albion dealt well with the hosts and probably just about edged the first 10 minutes, with Chris Hussey’s shot bouncing through to Southend keeper Daniel Bentley and McGurk’s free kick easy for the home custodian.
On the quarter-hour Burton had their first warning when Leonard’s cross found Corr and he headed powerfully at goal, although straight at Dean Lyness.
Seconds later the Albion goalie had to be far more alert as he did superbly to tip over Hurst’s stinging drive from the corner of the box.
On 20 minutes, the Brewers should have had the lead with the kind of incisive move that Rowett wanted to see.
Robbie Weir broke brilliantly and found McGurk with an accurate ball.
Southend were overcommitted going forward but with just one more good ball needed to free Knowles on the keeper, McGurk’s pass was a touch off target and John Egan managed to clear.
Albion did not have long to wait to score, though, as Holness netted a minute later.
Weir was fouled near the touchline and Hussey swung a ball in to the back post, where Holness had found acres of space to hammer a header in from six yards. It was only his second ever goal for the club.
It could have been 2-0 just two minutes later when Knowles wriggled free down the byline but his low centre just evaded the fast-closing McGurk.
It was all Albion as the home faithful were silenced – but the lead lasted only 11 minutes.
Phil Edwards did superbly to prevent Corr netting from a Straker cross, helping the ball out for a corner.
But Burton did not quite manage to get the corner away and Leonard levelled with a quite brilliant scissor kick on the turn, beating Lyness into his bottom right corner.
The crowd came alive and Southend poured forward as Albion’s backline creaked under the pressure.
Less than 10 minutes after levelling on the day, the Seasiders levelled the tie with a goal Gray will want to forget.
As a Southend attack came to nothing he got control of the ball 35 yards out.
In trying to do the right thing and pick out a careful pass, he delayed a fraction too long and was robbed by Michael Timlin. He found Straker in space in the box and the forward did the rest, finding the net from 10 yards.
The Brewers had to reach half-time without conceding a third, and they managed it after Jakub Sokolik was narrowly off target with a flicked header from Ben Coker’s corner.
Rowett tweaked things at the break, sending Hussey forward to the left wing, with Callum McFadzean going to left-back.
After an early scare when Leonard surged past Lee Bell and had a low shot from a tight angle blocked by Lyness, Albion managed to get on top.
Kee came on for Knowles and gave the Brewers a new dimension up front.
He teed up McGurk on 56 minutes and only a terrific tackle from Coker stopped the striker from beating Bentley at close range.
Bell then blazed well over from the edge of the box and Kee had a shot well saved low down by Bentley.
On 69 minutes, McGurk grabbed the vital goal which took Burton to only their second ever Wembley appearance.
Hurst fouled the lively Alex MacDonald near the touchline and Hussey shaped a decent inswinging ball in.
Southend failed to clear and the ball bounced to McGurk, who smashed it gleefully past Bentley.
Soon after, MacDonald, yet to register for Albion this season, should have headed a dangerous cross from Hussey back to McGurk but elected to have a go himself and headed straight at Bentley.
Hussey was looking more like the winger of the first few weeks of the season and had a shot blocked on 82 minutes after he had ghosted past John White.
Southend began to pour forward in the final few minutes looking for the goal to keep themselves in the tie.
Lyness and his defence were under constant bombardment, with the best chance falling to Leonard in the second of six minutes’ stoppage time.
His searing drive from 15 yards, though, sailed inches wide of Lyness’ right post.
A minute later the keeper managed to clear with his feet as about three Southend attackers tried to get in on Cansdell-Sherriff’s backpass.
Some more backs-to-the-wall defending followed before referee Paul Tierney called time on a terrific tie – with the right result for the Brewers.
Wembley here we come!