Stockton Town secured their place in the Northern Premier League East Division play-off final after a dramatic 2-1 win at Cleethorpes Town.
The Anchors couldn’t have asked for a better start to the game, with Adam Nicholson heading home the opener before Kev Hayes doubled the lead on 21 minutes.
Cleethorpes battled back into the game and pulled a goal back shortly after when Ben Middleton glanced a header into the roof of the net.
A resilient and battling team performance in the second-half, with goalkeeper Callum Roberts on top form, saw the Anchors hold out and book their place in Saturday’s final – where they will face local rivals Marske United.
Manager Michael Dunwell made two changes to the side that beat Brighouse Town, with C.Roberts and Nicholson coming back into the starting line-up.
It was the visiting Anchors that began the game on the front foot, and looked to go ahead inside the opening exchanges. Nathan Steel went close with a header before Hayes drew a terrific low save from Tom Jackson.
Cleethorpes had their first chance on seven minutes, when Loz McKay’s corner to the back post was headed narrowly wide by McCauley Snalgrave.
Stockton continued their early pressure, which paid off on 15 minutes when the deadlock was broken. Nathan Mulligan’s corner was headed by Nicholson out to Tom Coulthard.
Coulthard was on hand to put the ball back into the six-yard box, where Nicholson headed home from close range.
Just six minutes later, the Anchors doubled their lead. Hayes’ initial low cross was turned onto the post by Tim Lowe before Steel recycled the ball and found the winger again.
Hayes came back inside, getting a yard on his marker, and found the bottom corner to send the visiting support into raptures.
Cleethorpes found a way back into the game, five minutes later, when Lowe’s deep free-kick was glanced on by Middleton and into the net.
The visitors were left bemused when an indirect free-kick was awarded for an apparent back-pass just three minutes later, but Tom Portas’ brave block kept Alex Flett’s effort from going in.
The game continued at a high tempo, and the Anchors were denied a third when Hayes was denied by a stunning save from Jackson in the 36th minute.
It was the turn of C.Roberts, close to half-time, to produce a wonder save of his own, denying Brody Robertson from point-blank range.
Heading into the second-half, the Anchors were 45 minutes away from booking their place in their first ever play-off final, but knew they would have to dig in deep.
C.Roberts produced a couple of saves inside the first 15 minutes of the second-half, but the Anchors went within inches of making it 3-1 when N.Mulligan curled around the wall and inches wide of the post.
It was the turn of C.Roberts again to keep the scoreline as it was, in the 68th minute, when he tipped over Middleton’s header. The Stockton shot-stopper wasn’t done there, though.
Through a number of players, a strike was heading goalward, and was somehow pushed away by C.Roberts after seeing the ball at the last moment.
Jonathan Franks and Liam Cooke went close in the final minutes of normal time, before six minutes of additional time was shown by the fourth official.
Despite the hosts going close, the final whistle blew after seven minutes of injury time, which was followed by jubilant celebrations between the players, management and supporters.
Cleethorpes Town: Jackson, Lowe, McKay (Dawson, 38), Venney, Cooke, B.Middleton, Lofts, Flett, McMenemy, Robertson, Snelgrove (Vernon, 69)
Subs Not Used: Smaller, Dixon, H.Middleton
Stockton Town: C.Roberts, King, McWilliams, Portas (Franks, 75), Nicholson (Hall, 89), Coulthard, Hayes, N.Mulligan, Steel (Owens, 90), Cooke, M.Roberts
Subs Not Used: D.Mulligan, A.Conway
Goals: 0-1, 15 min, Nicholson; 0-2, 21 min, Hayes; 1-2, 26 min, Middleton
Referee: Jack Hall
Assistants: Gary Caley and Harry Atkin
Words: Andrew McDonnell
Photo: Harry Cook