Hartlepool make their return to the Football League after a dramatic Playoff Final

Hartlepool United ensured their return to the English Football League four years after being relegated for the first time in 96 years with a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Torquay United at Ashton Gate on Sunday afternoon.

Luke Armstrong’s 35th-minute goal looked to be enough for victory in normal time for Pool after Kyle Cameron had two goals disallowed, one in either half for Torquay.

However, no one was expecting what happened with almost the last kick in normal time. Lucas Covolan a former youth player at Brazilian sides Vasco da Gama and Athletico Paranaense was the surprising savour for the Gulls.

He came up in the fifth minute of stoppage time for Torquay’s final corner. Although it was initially cleared, Covolan stayed upfield and when the ball was played back in, he of all people rose highest to head past Hartlepool keeper Brad James to send the game into extra time.

In a game that was a superb advertisement for non-league football a draw would have probably been the right result in league circumstances unfortunate for Torquay, they had to be a winner on this occasion.

The lottery of penalties began with the initial four takers all failing to convert. Covolan saving first from Nicky Featherstone and then from Armstrong before Billy Waters and Danny Wright missed for Torquay.

Both sides followed scoring their next two penalty kicks each before substitute Matt Buse’s strike down the middle of the goal was superbly tipped onto the crossbar by Brad James to give Pool a 5-4 victory.

As it happened

Disallowed goals

Both teams had goals disallowed early in the game. First Hartlepool had a goal ruled out as Gary Liddle was penalised for pushing Torquay goalkeeper Covolan into his own net.

Next, it was Torquay’s turn to have a goal denied for a push after Cameron got his head to an Adam Randell free-kick but to the Gull’s frustration there was no clear evidence of infringement on the replays.

Things were looking as they weren’t going Torquay’s way when Cameron had his second goal of the afternoon chalked off just after the hour mark when he was adjudged to have fouled Hartlepool keeper James as he challenged for the ball.

Defence heroics

Armstrong seemed to cause the opposition problems all afternoon and it was him who look to capitalise on Torquay’s misfortunes as the Gulls defence stood strong denying not once but twice.

First Joe Lewis deflected his close-range effort over the bar; then Covolan produced a magnificent diving save to push Armstrong’s effort round the post.

But it was the Hartlepool forward who finally broke the deadlock as Armstrong excellently controlled Rhys Oates’ shot on the edge of the six-yard box using his immense strength to hold off and turn Sam Sherring before blasting his shot off the underside of the crossbar.

Pool were lucky not to extend their lead with the last chance of the first half as Oates found himself in space, unmarked from a corner but saw a powerful header yet again parried over the bar by the stunning Gulls keeper Covolan.

Hartlepool almost scored a second in the final five minutes and put the game to bed as both Mark Shelton and Gavan Holohan had shots blocked by the heroics Torquay defence.

As the game drew to a close Torquay threw everything at the Pool defence as they got the goal they perhaps deserved all though it came through an unlikely source of the Gulls goalkeeper no more than his performance probably merited.

Waters had a couple of efforts blocked in the first period of extra time as his Torquay team-mate Jake Andrews was stretchered off with a serious-looking leg injury.

With both sides tiring chances were few and far between as the extra 120 minutes came to an end before Danny Elliott had a shot blocked for Pools in the final minute as the game went to penalties.

Nerves showed in the shootout

In the shootout, Covolan saved the first two Hartlepool attempts while Walters slipped, and Wright hit the bar for Torquay. Each team would convert on their next four attempts before Donaldson beat Covolan, leaving it to Buse, who saw his effort tipped onto the bar by James.

Hartlepool joy as four-year EFL exile ends

Hartlepool’s promotion ends a four-year bid for promotion from non-league football for a club that had previously spent 96 uninterrupted years in the Football League.

They were relegated out of the football league after a high turnover of managers and some unstable ownership over the last decade or so.

But Raj Singh’s takeover in April 2018 provided some much-needed stability and self-belief to the Monkey Hangers, with this season under Dave Challinor being their first since relegation when they have managed to break into the top 10.

Their fourth-placed finish meant they played in the first round of play-offs, beating Bromley 3-2 before winning 1-0 at third-placed Stockport County last week.

Now they have been promoted, Pools fans will hope they can have a stable and long-lasting return to the EFL, where they feel their club rightly belongs.

Man of the match – Bradley James

If Torquay had won, Covolan would have been the easy choice here and you could make a case for him despite Torquay losing however James gets the nod proving that manager Dave Challinor was right to start him ahead of Ben Killip.

He kept Hartlepool in the game while his side were under immense pressure, and he saved the decisive penalty from Buse that ensured the Pools return back to the Football League after a four-year exile.

Post-match thoughts

James makes up for his mistake

Speaking in his post-match interview with the BBC following the match, the on-loan goalkeeper criticised himself for the game even going that far as he felt if he had stayed on his line for Covolan’s equalizer, he would have saved it. While that’s debatable, what isn’t is that he shouldn’t have come off his line to begin with. All of that is forgotten after his heroics in the penalty shootout.

Torquay rue missed penalties

It’s hard to criticize a team that scores a 95th-minute goal by the goalkeeper just to force extra time and eventually a penalty shootout and had two goals disallowed that likely should have stood, but after Covolan saved the first two Hartlepool penalties if either Walters or Wright converts, Torquay go up.

Challinor finally gets to manage in the EFL

After an outstanding playing career at Tranmere Rovers, Bury and Stockport County, the 45-year-old Hartlepool manager will at long last get his opportunity to test himself and have the proud accolade as Football League manager after missing out in this very game two years ago with AFC Fylde.

That Hartlepool became the first team outside of the top three to be promoted in National League history showing the many qualities Challinor has as a manager.

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