Hartlepool United 1 Torquay United 1 (Hartlepool win 5-4 on penalties after extra-time)
- Credit: Phil Mingo/PPAUK
Battling to the very end, after the most draining season imaginable, Torquay United lost in the cruellest way - on penalties - after a Play-Off Final which drained everyone at Ashton Gate of their last drops of emotion.
Gary Johnson's Gulls had two Kyle Cameron goals disallowed, the first a highly controversial decision, but when the Gulls' Brazilian goalkeeper Lucas Covolan, of all people, sent the match into extra-time with a 94th minute header, their raucous fans believed that this was going to be their day.
They did not deserve to lose. In fact, on the balance of play and their relentless pressure through the second half and extra-time, they almost certainly deserved to win.
But in a shoot-out that started so well, with two saves by that man Covolan, United finally lost in 'sudden death' when substitute Matt Buse's shot was deflected onto the bar by Pools goalie Brad James.
Here's how those penalties went:
Nicky Featherstone - saved by Covolan 0-0
Billy Waters - miss 0-0
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- 5 John 'flabbergasted' as he is shortlisted for top award
- 6 Death of former Gulls winger Tony Scott in Australia
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Luke Armstrong - saved by Covolan 0-0-0
Danny Wright - hits bar 0
Mark Shelton - scores 1-0
Asa Hall - scores 1-1
Mark Sterry - scores 2-1
Joe Lewis - scores 2-2
Luke Molyneux - scores 3-2
Armani Little - scores - 3-3
Danny Elliott - scores 4-3
Connor Lemonheigh-Evans - scores - 4-4
Ryan Donaldson - scores 5-4
Matt Buse - saved by James 5-4
Johnson named the same starting XI, with 'defender' Kyle Cameron on the left of midfield, and bench which had beaten Notts County in the Semi-Final.
Wright's 35-second header against Notts was as dramatic a start as you could wish, and United could - should? - have been in front after only eight minutes.
Pools had already scrambled one corner behind and had Ryan Johnson booked before referee Simon Mather made a big, and disputed, decision.
Cameron rose at the far post to head home a Little free-kick from the left, but as United's players and fans celebrated a 'goal', Mr. Mather ruled that Wright had pushed a defender alongside Cameron.
It looked a harsh call, to say the least, a view confirmed by fans watching the game on TV.
Rhys Oates had a low shot comfortably saved by Covolan and Joe Lewis, who put in a mountainous performance at centre-back, did well to deflect a Gavin Holohan effort over the bar.
But it was the Gulls who really had the better of the early stages.
Little was busy in midfield, where his match-up against Gavin Holohan already looked like an important duel, and from a Wynter-Randell move on the right, Cameron headed wide in the 14th minute.
When David Ferguson crossed from Pools' right five minutes later, Armstrong met the ball with a powerful lunging header and Covolan did well to tip the effort round his near-post.
The game was evenly poised when United went close three times just before the half-hour mark.
Randell and Lemonheigh-Evans had shots saved by Brad James, easily enough both times, after 'assists' by Evans and Cameron.
Then Wright chested down a Dean Moxey cross and Hall unleashed an 18-yard drive which Gary Liddle blocked with James beaten.
In the 33rd minute James also had to arch up to tip a rasping drive by Adam Randell over his bar.
But it was then, with the Gulls enjoying their best spell of the game so far, that Hartlepool took the lead.
In the 35th minute, United could not clear a cross from their left and Armstrong, with his back to goal, showed good strength to turn and lash the ball into the roof of the net from just inside the angle of the six-yard box…0-1.
In the 43rd minute both sets of fans rose to applaud Danny Shurmer, the Pools fan who died two days before the final at the age of only 43.
Moxey picked up a booking for a foul as the first-half moved into stoppage-time, but just before the actual interval whistle Covolan pulled off a brilliant save to keep the score at only 0-1.
Another inswinging Ferguson corner was met by Oates' head only six yards out, but Covolan somehow tipped the ball over his bar - it was a remarkable close-range effort.
There had been little between the sides in the first half, and Cameron, Little, Randell, Sherring and Lewis were all playing well for the Gulls.
But they had failed to get Lemonheigh-Evans into the game as much as they would have liked, and it was a message that Johnson appeared to have given during the interval, for United's new Player Of The Year was much busier at the start of the second half.
Liddle was lucky to slice a Moxey cross behind as Torquay forced two quick corners after the restart, although Little and Lemonheigh-Evans both took the wrong options with overambitious long-range shots off target.
The growing tension showed as Lewis and Oates got involved in an off-the-ball spat which earned them both a booking.
In the 59th minute United and Cameron thought they had 'scored' again.
Cameron rose to meet a long cross from the right by Wynter, he appeared to beat James and send his header into the net, but again Mr Mather ruled a 'foul'.
United piled it on.
Hall curled a 25-yard drive just over the angle of post and bar.
Cameron appeared to be switched up front for a moment, but then reverted to the left.
Lemonheigh-Evans went down under a challenge by Odusinya, but Mr Mather waved away the Gulls' penalty appeals, probably correctly this time.
United fans' frustration grew as Hartlepool seemed to start time-wasting tactics.
Little cut in from the left and let fly with a 30-yarder which thumped into James' chest.
The pressure was incessant.
Pool boss Dave Challinor made the first change, in the 72nd minute - Danny Elliott in attack for Oates, who appeared to be suffering from cramp.
As tiredness started to grow, mistakes crept in, spoiling some promising attacks for United. One such error earned Little a booking as he went to retrieve a mist ouch.
In the 76th minute Johnson made his first change - and it was Benji Kimpioka for Cameron.
Covolan was virtually a spectator as United threw everything they had at a Hartlepool defence which dropped ever deeper, mainly through sheer pressure.
Jake Andrews replaced Moxey with six minutes left as Wright received touchline treatment for a head injury.
Hartlepool briefly lifted the siege to go close through Shelton, deflected behind by Sherring, and Holohan blocked.
Randell sent a 20-yard drive over the bar for United, moments before being replaced by Billy Waters.
Little sent yet another ball into the goalmouth, Wright's header was goalbound until it hit Waters and flew behind.
Torquay fans bayed anew as six minutes of stoppage-time was announced.
And that 'extra' had already been running for four minutes when, with nothing to lose, Covolan galloped into the Hartlepool goalmouth for a corner.
Pools only half-cleared, Little swung the ball into the 'mixer' one last time and there was United's 6ft 4in goalie to head the ball home from eight yards…1-1!
James never got there, and this time there was no foul!! And into extra-time we went.
United were still on the front foot. Liddle just blocked from Waters, Andrews drove a 20-yarder over, Waters was denied by James.
Then Andrews, already limping, went down clutching his right calf. Several minutes of treatment could not mend him and he was eventually stretched off in obvious distress.
On went Matt Buse.
Neither team had much left as the first period of extra-time moved into the second. Players were going down with cramp all over the pitch - Little and Sherring the latest victims.
Still Lewis continued his phenomenal afternoon in the heart of United's defence, never making a mistake, never afraid to have the ball, always driving his team-mates forward, even taking long throws!
Wright rose to meet a Little corner, but sent the ball over the bar.
In the 120th minute Shelton nearly snatched victory when, as United only half-cleared a Featherstone free-kick, he unleashed a left-foot volley which was screaming towards goal before it hit Wright and flew behind.
And so, after so much drama and effort, it was all down to penalties...
Hartlepool United (3-5-2): James; Odusina (Molyneux 120), Liddle, Johnson; Sterry, Featherstone, Shelton, Holohan (Donaldson 90+1), Ferguson (Francis-Angol 76); Armstrong, Oates (Elliott 72); subs not used - Killip (gk).
Booked: Johnson 7, Oates 56, Armstrong 81.
Torquay United (4-4-1-1): Covolan; Wynter, Sherring, Lewis, Moxey (Andrews 84/Buse 105); Randell (Waters 88), Little, Hall, Cameron (Kimpioka 76); Lemonheigh-Evans; Wright; subs not used - MacDonald (gk).
Booked: Moxey 45+1, Lewis 56.
Referee: Simon Mather (Yorks).