Notts County beat Chesterfield in playoff to return to Football League | Vanarama National League

What an emotional rollercoaster for Notts County’s long-suffering supporters. But after twice seeing their side battle back from the jaws of defeat thanks to equalisers from John Bostock and Ruben Rodrigues that required a large slice of fortune, it was all worthwhile as they returned to the Football League after four years away thanks to the heroics of their substitute goalkeeper, Archie Mair.

The giant 22-year-old was brought on with seconds of extra-time remaining and produced two brilliant saves in the penalty shootout to deny Darren Oldaker and Jeff King, with even a fluffed Panenka from Bostock not denying them. It was devastating for Chesterfield, who finished a whopping 23 points behind their opponents during the league season but were minutes away from claiming victory themselves on two occasions.

Twenty-six miles separate these clubs, who had spent the vast majority of their existences in the Football League until falling through the trapdoor in the space of 12 months of one another. But while County have reached the playoffs in their four seasons as a non-league club, Chesterfield came close to dropping into the sixth tier in 2020 having been relegated two years previously before recovering to qualify for the playoffs in the past three seasons.

Their impressive season under Paul Cook – the former Portsmouth and Wigan manager who returned for his second spell at the helm last year – also saw the Spireites reach the third round of the FA Cup and they ended the campaign with five wins from their last six matches, including an extra-time victory over Bromley in the semi-finals.

County also required a last-ditch extra-time winner, from Jodi Jones against Boreham Wood, to reach the final. Yet if they started as clear favourites, it was Chesterfield who were handed the initiative here inside the opening 60 seconds in a nightmare start for their goalkeeper.

Ruben Rodrigues equalises in extra time for Notts County.
Ruben Rodrigues equalises in extra time for Notts County. Photograph: Michael Zemanek/Shutterstock

Only Sam Slocombe will know what was going through his mind when he decided to take a goal-kick to himself, although the 34-year-old slightly redeemed himself by blocking the resulting indirect free-kick. There was no escaping his second error when a flailing kick at Andrew Dallas as the striker attempted to shoot was immediately penalised by referee, Matt Corlett, with Dallas making no mistake from the penalty spot.

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This was the first time this game has taken place at Wembley in three years, with 21,000 at West Ham’s London Stadium to see Grimsby’s promotion last year. That figure was easily surpassed by the County supporters on their own as they filled out the whole of the lower and middle tiers, although they were forced to watch their side struggle to contain repeated Chesterfield attacks, with Slocombe saving from Liam Mandeville’s powerful shot.

Slowly but surely, however Bostock started to make things tick. The dangerous Aaron Nemane shot straight at Ross Fitzsimons after finding space down the right but the goalkeeper pushed his effort away to safety.

There was no way County could start the second half quite so badly and they came flying out of the blocks. Macaulay Langstaff even managed to outscore Wrexham’s Paul Mullin – working as a television pundit for this match – with a National League record 42 goals for the season and he would surely have taken the chance that fell to Sam Austin after he was set up by Nemane, only for the midfielder to blaze over.

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Archie Mair is the hero as he saves from Jeff King in the shootout. Photograph: John Walton/PA

Luke Williams turned to Jones for inspiration as an over-exuberant Cook was also booked for protesting against a yellow card shown to Oldaker. It was a free-kick from the diminutive winger that was headed inches wide by defender Connell Rawlinson as County spurned another opportunity.

Mandeville could have wrapped it up after a poor clearance from the unfortunate Slocombe and Chesterfield were made to pay a heavy price when Bostock squeezed his free-kick under the despairing Fitzsimons with three minutes of normal time remaining. Chesterfield felt they should have had a penalty just before the full-time whistle but they were given reason to celebrate again when Armando Dobra curled home a fantastic effort at the start of extra time and jumped into Cook’s arms on the touchline.

Yet again, their joy was shortlived as Rodrigues equalised two minutes into the second half of extra-time with a volley that bounced over Fitzsimons before Mair came off the bench to steal the headlines.

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