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Sunday 17th May 2015 ko 14.00

Conference Promotion Final

BRISTOL ROVERS 1 (Harrison 30)

GRIMSBY TOWN 1 (John-Lewis 2)

AET Bristol Rovers won 5-3 on penalties

Att 47,0229 at Wembley Stadium

Entry £10 (Member clubs’ allocation- “Neutral Zone”)

Programme £5

Now I know the Conference Premier is pretty much League 3 these days. I know it’s almost entirely full-time and I know there are many former Football League clubs in its ranks. The vital word here is “Former” though, and take it from me, a fan of a club that did lose its place in the League, it hurts a lot it when you get relegated. You get used to the comments like “How on earth did you end up there?” and every time you go to a game you cheer your club on straining every mental sinew to get back to whence you came. There’s nothing wrong with the Conference, but believe me the fans of at least half of the clubs in its top flight hate being there.

That, and some artfully discounted tickets is why a 5th level game can half-fill the national stadium, and the nervous tension was obvious as the fans walked along Wembley Way. I wasn’t the only one to pick up on it either, photographic maestro Stuart Roy Clarke was there, facing the wrong way capturing the half-excited, half-worried expressions of the fans. I had my own challenge, like many large stadia unless you’re in the club or hospitality areas the SLR camera is verboten, so I used the occasion to relearn my compact camera, no bad thing with 3 professional games in Stockholm coming up soon.

The nerves clearly transmitted themselves pitch side, and early on in particular to Bristol Rovers. An early Grimsby chance was poorly defended and rebounded off just about everyone, but importantly Lenell John-Lewis last! Rovers keeper Will Puddy could and probably should have should have been sent off for handling Ollie Palmer’s shot outside his area, as the game was frantic rather than considered.

Rovers’ profited from more poor defending to equalise from Ellis Harrison’s shot from an acute angle, and the pivotal moment should have been the through ball to Rovers’ Matty Taylor. He dashed through but fell inside the box with Grimsby keeper James McKeown in close attendance. The stadium took a deep breath, waiting for the penalty and red card, so were surprised when Ross Joyce booked Taylor for diving. The stadium screens opted not to show the incident at half-time, but the social media watching on television told the story, Mr Joyce had got the decision right.

The action was far too frantic for the mental health of the two managers, it tightened up considerably in the second half, and extra-time failed to see any changes in tactics, or goals so penalties looked inevitable from a long way out. The real quirk was Rovers switching goalkeepers for the shoot-out, Steve Mildenhall replacing Puddy a lot later than he could easily have done.

You do wonder whether something as important as a place on the Football League ought to be decided by penalties, but then if not that, then what? Two hours of football produced a stalemate even down to evenly split possession statistics. Extra-time was sufficiently dull for daft alternatives to be discussed. Anyone fancy the rule that if the tie is all-square after extra-time the club second-from-bottom of the Football League gets reprieved? You’d have sold no end of tickets to Cheltenham Town fans….

The shoot-out was a tale of two former Oxford United players. Jon-Paul Pittman blasted his kick over the bar, and in the end it was left to Lee Mansell to coolly send McKeown the wrong way to return Rovers to the Football League at the first time of asking. For Grimsby the agony of exile continues…..