At last. 107 points. 117 goals. But it all came down to a small handful of plucky penalties for the record-breaking Notts County, who clinched a return to League Two with a 4-3 victory over Chesterfield on penalties from 1-1 in regular time.
For all of the measured and skilful football that the sport’s oldest professional outfit had demonstrated, it threatened to fall into insignificance. Instantly on the ropes, the league’s second-placed team were behind within minutes from a Stuart Dallas penalty.
The signs of fragility were clear even before this. Chesterfield’s Ryan Colclough enjoyed a shot on-goal inside the first 60 seconds, before Notts County conceded a free kick inside the penalty area. A sign of the Wembley wobblies for one of this season’s most dominant teams across all leagues.
Further sucker punches could have followed for County, who came close to going two behind when Dallas enjoyed a further chance on 13 minutes. Chesterfield’s top scorer Liam Mandeville continued to cause problems, as County desperately tried to get a grip on the game.
Jones has endured three anterior cruciate ligament injuries in the duration of short career. He helped to ensure County’s storied season did not end a round earlier, scoring a last-gasp winner over Boreham Wood
By the stroke of half-time, the league runners-up were beginning to enjoy more of the ball. Their best chance of the match to that point came at the feet of Sam Austin 51 minutes in, who blasted the ball and the opportunity that came with it over the bar.
Jodi Jones, County’s magician in the semi-final, arrived from the bench. One of many remarkable stories in this match-up, Jones has endured three anterior cruciate ligament injuries in the duration of short career. He helped to ensure County’s storied season did not end a round earlier, scoring a last-gasp winner over Boreham Wood.
On a day when their Nottingham counterparts gained a significant point in the Premier League relegation battle, ‘The Magpies’ were desperate for some good fortune of their own. Connell Rawlinson had an excellent chance just wide of the goalpost a little past the two-thirds mark.
The final was growing increasingly edgier, every pass and tackle that little more tight and tentative. ‘The Spireites’, with League Two in sight, decreased their intensity. County had only failed to score on one occasion all season, but it was an occasion the Derbyshire side were hoping to repeat.
A further glimmer of an opportunity appeared out of the Brent sunshine on 81 minutes via a wide free kick, but it flitted to nothing. The implausible outcome of this two-horse race season seemed to be nearing, Chesterfield the pretenders.
All hopes of this Hollywood ending coming good were however to be revived. John Bostock scored from a free-kick on 87 minutes. Another comeback was brewing.
But this was not to prove the irrevocable shift in the match’s mood. After finishing regular time all guns blazing, Chesterfield soon retook the lead, as Armando Dobra’s goal provided the crucial distance.
Back to square one for County it seemed. The first half of extra-time soon passed. This record-breaking team had to muster grit of epic proportions to return to the Football League.
Up stepped star man Ruben Rodrigues. Taking a swoop on Chesterfield’s keeper, he netted the all important equaliser on 107 minutes.
A frantic few minutes ensued. Jodi Jones came close to another fairytale winner just one minute from time. Notts County have punished their National League opponents with 117 goals this season. But the biggest one of them all would just not follow.
For all that County the club have made the National League look like light work this season, the match served as a brutal reminder of its ruthless promotion system.
It has been a long time coming. Their fans have endured their share of heartache. For a long stretch of this final, it looked as if Notts were destined for a fourth consecutive play-off collapse
Their race with Wrexham for the league title, which has left them with over one hundred points and no automatic promotion, has been a dramatic example of its flaws. But it also accentuates the drama of play-off encounters like this one, where a gulf of 23 points between two teams can be rendered worthless in the lion’s den of Wembley.
That most uncaring of conclusions was to follow. Ollie Banks of Chesterfield opened the scoring on penalties, before Macauley Langstaff followed in the net. Darren Oldaker was the first to be denied, before Ruben Rodrigues established a lead.
Chesterfield equalised via Lawrence Maguire, before Jodi Jones restored Notts’s advantage. At 3-2, the stakes were high on Chesterfield’s Jeff King. He was to be denied.
Waiting in line was John Bostock. The man who ensured promotion did not slip away in regular time. An overhit Panenka was not to be it, a chance to put the shootout beyond redemption missed.
Chesterfield’s Joe Quigley was the next to score, leaving County one goal from promotion. This time, there was to be no further drama. Cedwyn Scott buried the ball between the posts.
It has been a long time coming. Their fans have endured their share of heartache. For a long stretch of this final, it looked as if Notts were destined for a fourth consecutive play-off collapse.
So many inside Wembley Stadium would have hoped that the club’s return to the League Two had been simpler. Football is not a meritocratic business. Notts County had to dig their heels in, come back from behind twice and clinch it in the toughest of fashions. No one and nothing can now deny them a coveted return to a Football League they helped found.