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Stockport County keeper Ben Hinchliffe made two stunning penalty shootout saves as the Hatters overcame a first-leg deficit to beat Salford City in a gripping League Two play-off semi-final second leg at Edgeley Park.
Stephen Mallan’s deflected extra-time strike cancelled out Isaac Olaofe’s tie-levelling opener and looked set to send Salford to Wembley and keep them on track for a place in the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.
But Jack Stretton headed home from close range within three minutes, after a long throw caused chaos, to take a breathless contest to spot-kicks.
And after Matthew Lund blasted the first penalty wildly over the bar, Hinchliffe made stunning saves from Adrian Mariappa and Mallan before Antoni Sarcevic smashed home his effort to set up a showpiece Wembley final with Carlisle United on Sunday, 28 May.
Relive Saturday’s League Two play-off action
County’s valiant response to being outplayed for much of the first leg – and the majority of the first half – sees them remain on course for back-to-back promotions having won the National League title last term. And it sparked joyous scenes as players celebrated and fans streamed onto the sun-drenched pitch after the penalty drama.
But Salford could have been out of sight after squandering numerous first-half openings on a sunny, energy-sapping day.A hat-trick of opportunities inside the first 10 minutes saw Matt Smith fail to connect properly with a looping header, Conor McAleny hit a low shot straight into the grasp of Hinchliffe, and Callum Hendry waste a decent headed chance.
County, who had not lost since February and missed out on automatic promotion on the final day of the regular season before their first-leg defeat, played with greater tempo.
An injury-ravaged Stockport had struggled up front, where their top three goalscorers Madden, Will Collar and 14-goal Kyle Wootton, were all missing.
Isaac Olaofe scores for Stockport County against Salford City
Isaac Olaofe’s header was just his third goal of the season and forced extra time
Madden’s return provided a focal point, nous and a much-needed spark.
Unsurprisingly, he was at the heart of their brightest moments before the break, although he spurned their clearest chances, glancing a header wide and then smashing the underside of the bar in first-half stoppage time.
But the visitors continued to create the better openings and Hinchliffe had to make a smart save with his foot from Smith and then pull off a tricky stop to keep out Mallan’s swerving strike.
Salford’s pace and movement up front continued to pose a threat after the break, Luke Bolton racing through on goal but making a mess of his finish, while McAleny also went close immediately after the interval.
County regrouped and started to take control, showing a greater intensity that seemed to disrupt and unsettle the visitors.
Madden volleyed an effort over from the edge of the box and Olaofe wasted a glorious chance when he headed straight at keeper Alex Cairns, before making amends with a trickier headed chance soon after when he guided Rydel’s delightful centre into the far corner.
An increasingly frantic Greater Manchester derby continued to ebb and flow, with both sides having chances, most notably when Salford’s Bolton almost scored an astonishing individual goal to win the tie in injury time when he ran from his own half only to see his effort cleared off the line by Sarcevic.
A breathless extra period produced even more drama, with chances at both ends and two goals in three minutes, before Hinchliffe and Sarcevic emerged as the heroes after an error-strewn shootout in which Louie Barry was the only successful scorer for the visitors.Stockport manager Dave Challinor:
“That game had everything, but nothing surprises me in football. It was an occasion full of emotion, and I’m so delighted for the players that we’ve made it to Wembley.
“It’s a great way to win and a horrible way to lose, but we’ve made it and I want the players and everyone involved with the club to go and enjoy next weekend.
“We’ve taken a big, big step today, but we’ve got one more big step to take if we are to achieve our ambition.
“I thought the players kept their nerve really well today. It’s not been easy as Salford are a great team, but this is a brilliant achievement for the whole club, so it’s about preparing properly for next weekend now.”
Salford boss Neil Wood:It was a really tough game, but credit to Stockport, they put a lot of pressure on us. It was relentless at times, and it is difficult to defend against.
“We created enough chances, I thought, but maybe we needed a bit more composure in certain situations. It’s hugely disappointing of course, but at the end of the day it just wasn’t to be. I can’t fault any of the players.
“Every single one of the lads gave it absolutely everything, right up until the dying seconds. We’ve practiced penalties this last fortnight, but you just can’t prepare for the crowd and the hostile atmosphere that the lads taking the penalties were up against.
“It’s hard to take, but I think as a club we’ve made massive progress again this season. This club is still growing so we’ve just got to go again next season