Hartlepool United 1-1 Torquay United - To become a Football League team again and to become a Football League manager is something I will treasure for the rest of my life, says Hartlepool United boss Dave Challinor

Sunday 20th June 2021
Hartlepool United 1 – 1 Torquay United
Kickoff 20/06/2021 14:00

(after extra time – Hartlepool United win 5-4 on penalties)
Vanarama National League Promotion Final
Sunday 20 June 2021
Stephen McCartney reports watching on BT Sport

HARTLEPOOL UNITED celebrated winning promotion back to the Football League after holding their nerve from the penalty spot at the end of an epic Vanarama National League Promotion Final at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate.

The Pools spent four seasons in the top flight of non-league football and became the first team to clinch promotion to League Two after competing in the Eliminator play-offs, where three goals inside the opening 24 minutes helped them beat seventh-placed finishers Bromley 3-2 at Victoria Park.

The fourth-placed finishers than came away from Stockport County with a 1-0 win before sealing promotion after beating runners-up Torquay United after 14 penalties.

Gary Johnson’s side finished four points behind promoted champions Sutton United and beat Notts County 4-2 (after extra time) at Plainmoor in the Play-Off Semi-Finals and will spend an eighth season outside the Football League next season and will be cursing their luck after having two goals controversially ruled out in this game.

Hartlepool United striker Luke Armstrong gave his side the lead 10 minutes before half-time before Torquay United forced extra-time courtesy of a headed goal from their Brazilian goalkeeper Lucas Covolan five minutes into injury-time.

The first four penalties in the shoot-out were missed and Matt Buse had his penalty saved by Hartlepool United keeper Brad James, who made amends for his error that gave Covolan his dramatic last-gasp equaliser.

Torquay United started the game on the front foot but Hartlepool United had the ball in the net inside five minutes when Nicky Featherstone’s corner from the left was spilt by Covolan but he was fouled by Gary Liddle at the far post and the whistle was blown before the ball bounced into the corner of his goal.

However, Torquay United’s celebrations were also halted by referee Simon Mather with seven minutes and 43 seconds on the clock.

Holding midfielder Amari Little floated in a deep free-kick towards the far post and centre-half Joe Lewis pushed Rhys Oates in the back by the time Kyle Cameron glanced a downward header into the corner.

An open first-half saw Hartlepool fashion an opening when Featherstone played the ball into Oates’ feet and he skipped past three men before unleashing a left-footed drive from 25-yards, which Covolan dived to his left to gather at the second attempt.

Torquay United’s right-back Ben Wynter played the ball to winger Adam Randell who floated in a cross towards the far post which Cameron sent his towering header over the crossbar whilst under pressure from eight-yards.

Oates played the ball inside to Hartlepool midfielder Gavin Holohan who fed Armstrong, who stretched to poke his shot against Lewis, who lost his footing and the ball struck the Torquay centre-half and looped over the crossbar.

Featherstone whipped in a cross towards the near post for Armstrong to send his diving header towards the corner of the net from 12-yards, testing Covolan, diving to his left to push the ball around the post.

James made a couple of comfortable saves as Torquay United fashioned a couple of chances within a couple of minutes.

Striker Connor Lemonheigh-Evans fed Randell, who took a couple of touches before scuffing a left-footed weak shot from inside the D, which was held by James low to his right in the 25th minute.

Cameron then headed the ball through to Lemonheigh-Evans who flicked the ball with the outside of his right-boot towards goal, bringing a comfortable save from the keeper down on his knees.

Torquay United continued to press for the goal that their dominance deserved.  Wynter drove towards the edge of the Pools’ box and the ball came out to Randell who curled his right-footed shot towards goal, forcing James to jump up to push the ball over his crossbar.

However, Hartlepool United grabbed the lead in the 35th minute.

Right-wing-back Jamie Sterry released Oates down the right and he cut into the box before his angled drive struck Armstrong at the near post.  He spun two defenders (Sam Sherring and Asa Hall) and showed great composure to take a touch before rifling his right-footed shot in off the underside of the crossbar and in to the back of the net from seven-yards out.

Oates and Armstrong both linked up well in attack for Hartlepool United and Covolan denied Oates with a brilliant save at the end of an enthralling first-half.

A corner came in from the right and Oates rose and buried a free-header towards goal from six-yards at the back stick, only for Covolan to produce an excellent reflect save, pushing the ball over his crossbar.

Johnson’s half-time words at the interval had the desired effect as his side dominated the opening 10 minutes of the second half but Hartlepool United held firm under severe pressure.

Torquay United striker Danny Wright was played in behind down the left but his angled drive was held by James at his near post inside the opening four minutes.

Former Bristol City man Lemonheigh-Evans drove towards the edge of the Hartlepool box but he sliced his right-footed shot harmlessly wide but they failed to make the pressure count.

Referee Simon Mather disallowed a second Torquay United goal in the 59th minute, seemingly for a foul on the keeper.

Lemonheigh-Evans played Wynter on the outside and he floated in a cross which was met at the near post by Cameron’s looping header, which sailed into the top far corner, only for celebrations to be halted.

Torquay United kept plugging away for a deserved equaliser and in the 63rd minute Lemonheigh-Evans played the ball into Hall, whose 30-yard curler dipped just over the top of the far post.

It was going to be a long final 20 minutes as Hartlepool United were starting to tire, having started pre-season training exactly 365 days ago.

Substitute Jake Andrews, who suffered a cut to his leg during the first period of extra-time, receiving treatment for nine minutes, stroked a left-footed angled half-volley flashing past the diving keeper and past the far post from 18-yards as the game went into injury time.

However, Torquay United scored a deserved equaliser with 94 minutes and 13 seconds on the clock.

Goalkeeper Covolan came up for a corner and stayed up as the ball went out of play for a Torquay United throw-in.

Little was given the freedom of Ashton Gate to float a long ball into a crowded box and Hartlepool keeper James came off his line but was beaten by a dramatic towering header from his opposite number, planting his header from within a crowd into an empty net from 10-yards.

Torquay United had the momentum going into extra-time and were patient with their first opening in the sixth minute.

Little, Hall and Wynter moved the ball inside Hartlepool’s half before Andrews’ ambitious left-footed drive from 30-yards sailed over the crossbar.

Little then fed Wright down the left-hand side of the penalty area and cut the ball inside to substitute Billy Waters, who took a touch before unleashing a left-footed angled drive, which was saved at the second attempt by James, smothering the ball to his left.

Andrews insisted he wanted to stay on after picking up an injury and was treated by two physios, one of them stitching up the right leg, Johnson brought on Buse and the referee blew for half-time with 24 minutes and 50 seconds on the clock.

That was after a chance for Hartlepool’s Mark Shelton, who cracked a right-footed half-volley flashing past the left-hand post from 25-yards after the ball came out to him.

There was just one chance in a cagey second period and it came Torquay’s way but striker Wright met Little’s deep corner with a header, which cleared the crossbar from 10-yards out, inside the final four minutes.

Neither side could find the winner so promotion was settled by a sudden-death penalty competition.

Hartlepool United went first and captain Featherstone’s right-footed penalty was saved by Covolan, diving to his right to prevent the ball nestling into the bottom left-hand corner.

Torquay United’s Waters suffered a John Terry moment in Moscow, slipping over on contact and slicing his shot wide of the right-hand post.

Armstrong was the next person to miss, his right-footed spot-kick towards the bottom right-hand corner forced Covolan to dive to his left and use a strong hand to make another save.

Wright failed to hold his nerve, smashing his right-footed penalty against the crossbar as he tried to put the penalty straight down the middle with James diving to his right.

Hartlepool United took the lead with the fifth penalty, Shelton leaving Covolan almost rooted to his spot as the ball went to his left and nestled into the net.

Hall equalised, drilling his right-footed penalty straight down the middle, as James dived to his left.

It was 2-1 to Hartlepool United when Sterry’s emphatic penalty send the Brazilian keeper the wrong way as the ball was placed into the bottom left-hand corner.

Lewis equalised when his right-footed shot sent the keeper the wrong way, finding the right-corner of the net.

Luke Molyneux – who came on to the pitch just 17 seconds before the end of extra-time – now had his moment in this epic Promotion Final, rifling his left-footed shot into the roof of the middle of the goal, sending the keeper the wrong way.

Little held his nerve, too, making it 3-3, sending the keeper the wrong way with his right-footed top right-hand corner finish under huge pressure.

Now into sudden death, Hartlepool United substitute attacker Daniel Elliott made it 4-3 with a left-footed shot into the right-corner, sending the keeper the wrong way.

Lemonheigh-Evans was clinical, finding the bottom right-hand corner with his right-foot.

Ryan Donaldson, Hartlepool’s club captain and a 90th minute substitution, found the right-corner with his right-foot to give his club the advantage.

James, however, made amends, diving to his right and using a strong left hand to push Buse’s right-footed penalty, up in the air and striking the underside of the crossbar to seal promotion.

“I probably knew, regardless of the result, I was going to be crying by the end of today.  It’s not a great space to go into a game, there’s so much on it,” Hartlepool United manager Dave Challinor told BT Sport.

“I wish we had won it half-an-hour or 45 minutes earlier to be honest but we had to come through diversity and whenever you do that, there’s no better feeling.”

Reflecting on Torquay United’s dramatic last-gasp equaliser, Challinor said: “You don’t want to know (how I was feeling).  I was cheering when (goalkeeper) Alisson did it for Liverpool (scoring a 95th minute header against West Bromwich Albion to seal Champions League qualification) as I’m a Liverpool fan but it suddenly comes back and bites you on the backside but Brad will take the blame for that in terms of not getting there – then he made up for it in the penalty shoot-out.  Somebody has to be the hero, in football you’ve gone from villain to hero in less than 45 minutes.”

Challinor added: “There’s no better stage than to do it here.  You’re tried and tested.  We spoke before the play-off scenario in terms of the last two games we’ve not really been challenged, if you like.  We were 3-0 up against Bromley and then we went to Stockport and held on.

“I was disappointed with our second half. That goal was probably coming from half-time. Players’ made the decision to defend the goal, which I wasn’t overly happy about and things come back but thankfully we can learn lessons from it here, the ultimate victory.”

Challinor was obviously delighted to earn promotion and take Hartlepool United back into League football.

“I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for them (my family), to have their support. It’s been a long journey to get here.  They play an awful, well, the biggest part in that and sometimes from my perspective I maybe don’t show that enough so to be able to celebrate with everyone today, is brilliant.

“To become a Football League team again and to become a Football League manager is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

“The hard bit will be telling the players ‘they’re back in next week’. That will be tough, but things turn around quickly.

“If we hadn’t have gone up, this squad would have been dismantled. Hopefully with us becoming that Football League team we can keep some of it together and build. As with everyone, we’re a little bit greedy, aren’t we, so we will look to go again and hopefully have a good run next season.”

Meanwhile, the 2021-22 Vanarama National League campaign gets underway on Saturday 21 August 2021, while  Matt Gray’s Sutton United will be playing League Two football for the first time and Oates, who was Challinor’s star performer, especially the previous two play-off games, can torment League Two defences.

Hartlepool United:  Brad James, Jamie Sterry, David Ferguson (Zaine Fancis-Angol 77), Gary Liddle, Timi Odusina (Luke Molyneux 120), Ryan Johnson, Mark Shelton, Nicky Featherstone, Rhys Oates (Daniel Elliott 72), Luke Armstrong, Gavin Holohan (Ryan Donaldson 90).
Sub: Ben Killip

Goal: Luke Armstrong 35

Booked: Ryan Johnson 7, Rhys Oates 56, Luke Armstrong 79

Torquay United: Lucas Covolan, Ben Wynter, Dean Moxey (Jake Andrews 84, Matt Buse 105)), Amari Little, Sam Sherring, Joe Lewis, Kyle Cameron (Benjamin Mbunga-Kimpioka 77), Asa Hall, Danny Wright, Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, Adam Randell (Billy Waters 89).
Sub: Shaun MacDonald

Goal: Lucas Covolan 90

Booked: Dean Moxey 45, Joe Lewis 56, Amari Little 76

Attendance: 6,606
Referee: Mr Simon Mather
Assistants: Mr Nick Dunn & Mr Mark Stevens
Fourth Official: Mr Martin Woods