We beat Chesterfield on penalties to secure promotion back to the EFL at Wembley this afternoon.
Having twice come from behind thanks to goals from John Bostock and Ruben Rodrigues, the match went to penalties and produced an unlikely hero in the shape of goalkeeper Archie Mair, who came off the bench to make two excellent saves – leaving the stage set for Cedwyn Scott to score the decisive spotkick.
Luke Williams named an unchanged squad from our dramatic semi-final victory over Boreham Wood, meaning Sam Slocombe continued in goal and was guarded by a back three of Kyle Cameron, Aden Baldwin and Connell Rawlinson.
In front of them, holding midfielders Bostock and Matt Palmer were flanked by wing backs Adam Chicksen and Aaron Nemane, with Sam Austin and Rodrigues supporting striker Macaulay Langstaff.
Richard Brindley, Jim O’Brien, Jodi Jones and Scott were named alongside Mair on the bench.
On an occasion when a fast start would have been useful to set the tone, we failed to find it as Chesterfield applied pressure from the off.
Our efforts to grow into the game weren’t helped by a bizarre situation involving Slocombe, who conceded an indirect free-kick just outside his own six-yard box after what appeared to be confusion while he was taking a goal kick. Chesterfield laid the ball off for Jeff King, who saw his fierce strike well blocked by the keeper.
That was only to be a temporary reprieve, though, as moments later Dallas escaped into the left-hand channel and was clipped by Slocombe as he flicked the ball into the centre of the box. The referee pointed to the spot and Andrew Dallas scored the penalty.
The striker, on loan from Solihull Moors, was involved once again moments later as our sluggish start continued – Palmer this time being robbed by Dallas, who was left to curse a big block from Baldwin on the edge of the area.
Our first bright attacking moment came on 17 minutes when Nemane escaped to the byline and saw his lofted cross flash across goal without a telling touch from either Austin or Chicksen.
A half-chance then followed for Rodrigues, who couldn’t get his shot away inside the area. The Spireites launched a quick counter and Slocombe did well to deny Dallas at the other end.
We were struggling to create opportunities in our usual way but had a glimpse of goal as half-time approached, Nemane’s shot from a wide angle squirming out of our former goalkeeper Ross Fitzsimons’ hands but being mopped up by a defender.
And, after Rodrigues’ barnstorming run ended with a misplaced lay-off to Chicksen at the crucial moment, the referee called time on what had been a disappointing opening period under the arch.
Early in the second half, Austin curled a shot over in what proved to be our only chance before Rawlinson sent the ball inches wide with a glancing header on 67 minutes.
Ryan Colclough issued an immediate response as he scampered into the area and fired the ball across goal and wide and, with his side defending resolutely, they were looking on course for promotion as the clock ticked down.
But, after Cameron was fouled 25 yards out in line with the corner of the area, we had an opportunity to capitalise on a set piece – and, to the delight of the mass of Notts fans behind the goal, Bostock did just that as his near-post shot wasn’t dealt with by Fitzsimons, who allowed the ball to slip through his grasp and into the net.
Following the drama of our semi-final against Boreham Wood, we were forced into extra time once again – but this time we were dealt a huge blow as, three minutes into the first half, the tricky Armando Dobra was able to square up Rawlinson and curl the ball into the top corner from the edge of the area.
Desperate for another equaliser, Palmer produced a defence-splitting pass for Langstaff shortly afterwards but the forward could only drag his left-footed shot wide of the far post.
Rawlinson then passed up what looked like a decent opportunity to head the ball goalwards by instead trying to nod it down for a team-mate, with the ball then being cleared, moments before Langstaff drew a save from Fitzsimons at his near post.
And the opening period ended with another half-chance for Rawlinson, who benefited from excellent close control from substitute Scott but couldn’t guide his low effort on target from 20 yards.
The biggest 15 minutes of our season awaited and, with Chesterfield showing signs of fatigue, all hope was not lost.
And the optimists were proven right as, shortly after the restart, Fitzsimons punched a cross towards Rodrigues whose scuffed strike sent the ball into the turf and looping over the keeper into his empty net.
We applied plenty of pressure thereafter without creating anything clear-cut and, after Jones had curled an effort wide of the far post in the dying seconds, Mair replaced Slocombe in preparation for penalties.
A big boost came before the shootout as Cameron celebrated his victory in the coin toss, ensuring the final dramatic moments of our incredible 2022-23 campaign would be played out in front of our supporters.
That didn’t appear to affect Ollie Banks, who found the net with the first kick, but Langstaff responded in perfect style as he smashed the ball down the middle.
Darren Oldaker was next up and he couldn’t beat the huge figure of Mair, who dived to his right to push the ball away and was delighted to see Rodrigues slot beyond the motionless Fitzsimons to nudge us in front.
Lawrence Maguire kept his cool to score the next one but, with Jones responding in composed fashion, there was huge pressure on King to find the net with his side’s third.
What followed was one of the finest penalty saves you could ever wish to see as Mair dived to his right and contorted his body into an incredible position to save with a combination of his hand and foot.
The stage was therefore set for Bostock to send us back into the EFL – and it looked for all the world like he’d done it as the ball looped goalwards with Fitzsimons deceived. It came back off the bar, though, and Chesterfield had a lifeline, which they took through Joe Quigley.
Nevertheless, we had a second bite at the cherry and the responsibility was on Scott, who had a golden opportunity to banish the memories of his miss from the spot against Wrexham, to fire us back into the EFL.
And, sure enough, he sent Fitzsimons the wrong way to write him, Mair and their team-mates into history.
STARTING XI: Slocombe (Mair 120'); Cameron, Baldwin (Brindley 118'), Rawlinson; Chicksen (Jones 55'), Nemane; Bostock, Palmer, Austin (Scott 66'), Rodrigues; Langstaff
BOOKINGS: Bostock 38', Jones 97', Mair 120'