The Hatters’ League Two play-offs adventure continued with a dramatic win on penalties at a sold-out Edgeley Park against Salford.
They will face Carlisle at Wembley in eight days for the last remaining League Two promotion spot, after Antoni Sarcevic converted the decisive kick from 12 yards.
Earlier, County, trailing by one goal following the first leg in M7, had levelled thanks to a glancing Tanto Olaofe header midway through the second half that sent the tie into extra time. A deflected effort then gave the visitors the advantage with fewer than 10 extra-time minutes left, only for Jack Stretton promptly to net a second for the Hatters – and require matters to be settled from the penalty spot.
The Hatters took to the field on a gloriously sunny Saturday lunchtime, showing four changes from the starting line-up at Moor Lane seven days earlier. Captain Paddy Madden returned, together with Joe Lewis, Olaofe and Ryan Rydel – replacing Neill Byrne, Ryan Croasdale, Myles Hippolyte and Stretton, all of whom were named among the substitutes. Joining them on the bench were Will Collar and Sarcevic, following recovery from their respective injuries.
Salford, with an unchanged side from the first leg, created the inaugural chance of the contest with three minutes on the clock. Matt Smith, whose headed goal had proved the difference between the two teams the previous weekend, connected with a cross from the left by skipper Ibou Touray – but on this occasion nodded his effort into the arms of Ben Hinchliffe.
Hinchliffe then saved a shot from the edge of the box by Conor McAleny, before catching a header from Callum Hendry (again, following a Touray delivery on the left), keeping out with his feet another Smith attempt, and springing up on his line to hold Stevie Mallan’s swirling effort from distance, as the ‘Ammies’ continued their bright start.
The mid-point of the first half had just passed when the Hatters fashioned an opportunity, as Rydel crossed from the left for Olaofe to head beyond the near post. And shortly after the half-hour, Rydel sent over another delivery that Madden nodded past the far upright.
A third headed effort wide consequent upon a cross from the left – courtesy of Kyle Knoyle and Chris Hussey, respectively – preceded another collection of three, as Olaofe followed Fraser Horsfall and Callum Camps into Referee Toner’s notebook ahead of the interval.
Five minutes of added time saw County earn three corners, and from the the second of those, swung in by Hussey on the right, Madden went closest of all to levelling the score on aggregate before the break, as he headed against the underside of the crossbar.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Salford 0.
Within 30 seconds of the resumption, the visitors almost doubled their overall one-goal advantage, after Luke Bolton was played through – only to be denied by the legs of Hinchliffe. And County’s Number One came to the rescue again a minute later, when he dived to smother a low shot from McAleny.
Madden volleyed high and wide from beyond the ‘D’, prior to a triple substitution that saw Collar, Croasdale and Sarcevic introduced just after the hour mark. And, roared on by the County Faithful, the Hatters pressed to get themselves on level terms for the tie – forcing visiting goalkeeper Alex Cairns to save on the line, after Oalofe had headed on Knoyle’s cross from the left by-line.
With 22 minutes of the second half remaining, they – and Olaofe – achieved just that, as the striker met Rydel’s cross from the left to head into the far-top corner of the net, and EP duly erupted in a cacophony of blue and white noise.
The momentum continued largely to be with County for the remainder of normal time – with Madden going closest, following a deft flick that narrowly cleared the bar – although, as six additional minutes were announced, Bolton produced a lung-busting run down the right from his own half that required Hinchliffe to be alert and block in front of the near post, before Sarcevic cleared the ball from the line.
FULL-TIME (after 90 minutes): County 1 (Olaofe, 68), Salford 0 ( 1-1 on aggregate).
The first period of extra time saw both ‘keepers in action early on – with Hinchliffe saving once more from the dangerous Bolton, and Cairns scrambling behind a Rydel delivery from the left. And Hussey executed a spectacular goal-line clearance – hooking away substitute Louie Barry’s lofted effort from the left.
The final 15 minutes of play were to produce drama, and two goals, as, first, Mallan’s shot from distance took a deflection off Horsfall to soar past Hinchliffe and into the top-right corner of the net, and then, 90 seconds later, Stretton headed home from close range after Hippolyte’s throw-in from the left had been flicked on by Horsfall and Sarcevic. But with the balance of the tie left ultimately unaltered, penalties were required.
FINAL SCORE (after extra time): County 2 (Olaofe, 68; Stretton, 113), Salford 1 (Mallan, 111) ( 2-2 on aggregate).
The shoot-out at the Railway End saw Matthew Lund blaze over, and Hinchliffe save from both Adrian Mariappa and Mallan. And although Cairns kept out Croasdale’s spot-kick, Madden, Collar and, finally, Sarcevic put theirs away to take County to Wembley.
PENALTIES: County 3 (Madden, Collar, Sarcevic), Salford 1 (Barry).
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Lewis (Croasdale, 61), Horsfall, Hussey; Knoyle, Evans (Collar, 61), Wright (Hippolyte, 66), Camps (Sarcevic, 61), Rydel; Olaofe (Stretton, 94), Madden (Capt.).
Unused Subs: Jaros, Byrne.
Booked: Horsfall, Camps, Olaofe, Rydel, Sarcevic, Knoyle, Hippolyte.
Man of the Match: Rydel.
Attendance: 10,023 (911 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.