FC Halifax Town beat Chorley 2-1 after extra-time in the National League North play-off final at The Shay to seal a return to the Conference Premier a year after their relegation.
Goals from defenders Kevin Roberts and Scott Garner - both only their third of the season - decided a tense contest in front of a Conference North record crowd of 7,920 either side of Adam Blakeman’s equaliser.
Around the time of Halifax’s lowest point of the season, just days before their 1-0 defeat at Stalybridge, boss Billy Heath had assured Garner that Town would get promoted, but it was Garner who had the final say and ensured a second successive play-off final win for Heath.
The Town chief sprang a pre-match surprise by naming Richard Peniket, who scored in both legs of the semi-final against Salford, in attack in place of top-scorer Tom Denton.
A milder surprise was Heath’s decision not to play 3-5-2, a system which he adopted successfully in both league wins over Chorley.
As on Sunday before the Salford second-leg, kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes. But unlike Sunday, Town’s start was more measured, with both teams easing into the game.
Dion Charles’ deflected shot wide was the only effort of note of a competitive but subdued opening. Play-off finals aren’t renowned as all out attack goal-fests, and this was no different.
Chorley looked organised and worked hard, but appeared to lack the invention and spark of a Matty Kosylo or Jordan Sinnott, although Peniket had an uphill struggle at the other end in battling against three uncompromising centre-backs.
Chorley defended with nine men behind the ball, and Town didn’t attack with enough pace and tempo to break them down.
Josh Wilde was forced off injured midway through the first-half, and was replaced by Denton, with Heath, presumably unimpressed by his team’s lack of incisiveness, switching to a 3-5-2, and shifting Charles to an unfamiliar role at left wing-back.
It didn’t make much difference to a poor spectacle.
The first effort on target didn’t arrive until after the half-hour mark when Scott Garner’s prod towards goal went straight to Ritchie Branagan.
Chorley’s best chance of a cautious first-half arrived when Roberts inadvertently nodded a cross back through the six yard box, but Jack Sampson failed to connect.
Sampson then had the visitors’ first shot on goal, but it was comfortably held by Sam Johnson as the game limped towards half-time.
David Lynch had gone closest for Halifax with a rising drive just over the bar, but both teams were probably glad of the chance to return to the drawing board at the interval.
More of the same probably suited Chorley, so Halifax couldn’t have wished for a better start to the second-half as Sinnott finally found some space to run into before slipping the ball in-behind Adam Blakeman, which Roberts rushed on to before finishing coolly under Branagan from an angle.
Sinnott led another Town charge upfield after a Chorley corner 10 minutes later, but Kosylo showed far less composure than Roberts had when put through, and blazed high over the bar.
And that miss looked even worse when Blakeman curled a superb left-footed free-kick low into the far corner from 25 yards after Nathan Hotte was adjudged to have fouled the Chorley man.
The two sides were now at least going toe-to-toe, with Chorley surviving a frantic goalmouth scramble before the visitors wanted Denton dismissed for an alleged elbow on Scott Leather.
Johnson then failed to catch Jake Cottrell’s cross, but Chorley couldn’t convert the loose ball, while Denton’s tame prod at goal was straight at Branagan.
Town were on Plan C by now as Heath had reverted to a back four, but The Shaymen were lacking the cohesion and fluidity of recent weeks in attack, and looked disjointed.
Matt Challoner was given far too much time to pick out substitute Jason Walker from the right, but the Chorley top-scorer could only head straight at Johnson.
Sinnott’s drive was parried by Branagan before Sampson headed softly at Johnson; the game was very watchable by now, but advisably with hands over your eyes at times.
Blakeman had the last chance of normal time when he drove straight at Johnson from 20 yards, but Town fans were subjected to the stress and strain of extra-time for the second weekend in a row.
Halifax started extra-time in a 4-4-2 but continued to look flat and weren’t playing with any rhythm. Chorley were more assured but lacking a cutting edge up-front.
After Sinnott’s rasping free-kick was parried for a throw-in by Branagan, and from Sinnott’s cross after the resulting throw, Garner rose highest to flick an excellent header into the far corner, prompting hundreds of Halifax fans to run onto the pitch in celebration,
Sinnott could have sealed the win on the break but Branagan brilliantly denied him before the keeper unbelievably had a last-gasp chance from a corner but volleyed over from 10 yards.
Halifax: Johnson, Roberts, Garner, Hotte, Brown, Wilde (Denton 24), Kosylo, Lynch (Clarke 79), Sinnott, Charles (Moyo 63), Peniket. Subs not used: Drench, Morgan.
Scorers: Roberts (48), Garner (101)
Shots on target: 8
Shots off target: 8
Chorley: Branagan, Challoner, Leather, Teague, Jordan (Charnock 38), O’Keefe (Walker 58), Whitham (Roscoe 105), Blakeman, Cottrell, Carver, Sampson. Subs not used: Jarvis, Beesley.
Scorer: Blakeman (60)
Shots on target: 5
Shots off target: 6
Town’s man of the match: Jordan Sinnott
Referee: Daniel Middleton