Newport County AFC gave it absolutely everything at Wembley Stadium but came up just short as Connor Jennings’ goal in extra time stoppage time ensured Tranmere Rovers were promoted to League One with a 1-0 success.
The Exiles had fought so valiantly through extra time with ten men after Mark O’Brien’s dismissal in normal time, but they couldn’t quite get it to penalties as Jennings powered home a header from a Jake Caprice cross to send the Super White Army into the third tier.
Forget the defeat, this class of 2019 are still club legends. You gave it everything today. Thank you.
Unsurprisingly, manager Michael Flynn elected to name an unchanged team from the one which stunned Mansfield Town in a penalty shootout 13 days ago.
That saw the Exiles line-up in the familiar 3-5-2 formation from the off at Wembley Stadium, with lethal duo Padraig Amond and Jamille Matt leading the line up-front.
Tranmere Rovers manager Micky Mellon also named an unchanged team which narrowly edged out Forest Green Rovers over two legs in their play-off semi-finals.
Rovers talisman James Norwood – on 32 goals for the campaign before kick-off – started as the solitary frontman in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Connor Jennings, Jay Harris and Kieron Morris providing the extra forward thinking.
As expected from such a prestigious event as a Play-Off final, it was a tight and tense first-half between the two sides who both had their moments of dominance, but neither could convert anything before half-time.
The Exiles controlled the early exchanges, more in terms of chances created than possession, as Jamille Matt sent a header past the far post inside 60 seconds, and also nearly latched on to a Mark O’Brien flick-on.
Tranmere registered the game’s first shot on target. It came on six minutes but Mickey Demetriou took the sting out of a Connor Jennings shot in an easy hold for shot stopper Joe Day.
Both sides were trying to exploit their respective wings with Dan Butler and Jake Caprice both advancing forward as much as possible, and it was from a Caprice cross where Tranmere had the first half’s best opening on 25 minutes.
The right-back was given far too much room to pick where he wanted to put the cross, but Norwood fortunately sent a powerful volley straight at Joe Day who superbly palmed it away.
Norwood and Connor Jennings were League Two’s formidable partnership – combining directly for six goals – and you could see their telepathy as Norwood almost found his teammate with a neat cross, but O’Brien put in a last-ditch challenge.
That was all before half time in terms of clear cut opportunities but there was plenty of hopeful attempts which just kept rising high into the respective sets of supporters.
Norwood sent another header wide when David Perkins probably should have played a through ball much earlier, while Jennings and Perkins also failed to hit the target.
For County, Joss Labadie twice sent audacious attempts over the crossbar, while Robbie Willmott saw a shot saved by Scott Davies and Scot Bennett and Amond also came close.
With Tranmere man mountain Manny Monthe dealing with most of County’s aerial threat, it was no secret that they were targeting the side of ex-Exile Sid Nelson and they got more success with those attempts.
The centre-half was struggling under the bombardment of crosses into his channel and could have given County a penalty early on when a Matt shot hit his arm, but referee Ross Joyce was uninterested.
Into the second half and that was just as cagey an affair as the first half with both sides knowing any error was probably going to be capitalised upon and send the other into League One.
Such was the tension not just on the pitch but in the stands as well that chances were more restricted heading into the closing stages of the contest.
Labadie scuffed a shot just wide shortly before the hour, before both sides had glorious chances to open the scoring in and around the 70th minute mark.
On 69 minutes, Jennings and Norwood broke clear but stalled in their advance. The latter took a shot which was deflected into Jennings’ path, but Dan Butler put in some heroic defending to thwart the shot.
Four minutes later, County came unbelievably close to the opener. Butler’s cross was a beauty to the back stick for Matt, but Davies pulled off a wonderful one-handed save to tip it onto the post then palm it back out of the way of the County attacker.
That chance started a decent period of possession for the Exiles where they started to control almost everything, and Davies had to make a smart save to thwart Amond.
But with a minute of proceedings to go, Ollie Banks launched a hopeful ball which sent Norwood in the clear, leaving O’Brien not choice but to haul him down and take the second yellow card.
It therefore became imperative to get into full time and then think about a reshuffle. Norwood almost broke County hearts in the second minute of stoppage time from another looped Banks pass, but completely messed up a chip and scuffed well wide.
Amond saw a header from a corner-kick saved as County had the only opportunity in first half extra time, amidst a superb defensive shift in keeping the onslaught from Tranmere out.
County's final substitute Keanu Marsh-Brown forced another low save from Davies inside the opening 60 seconds of the final period as County again made a lively start.
But the Tranmere long balls were a constant menace and Butler had to stand his ground well to block wide a curling Norwood attempt on the counterattack.
It was so finely tuned that one goal was going to settle the contest and Tranmere went and got it in heart-breaking circumstances as only 60 seconds were left on the clock.
Some neat play around the right flank allowed Caprice to put in another pinpoint delivery and Jennings was there to power home the header to send Tranmere into League One.
Newport County AFC (3-5-2): Day, Poole, O’Brien (C), Demetriou, Butler, Labadie (Dolan 72’), Bennett, Sheehan (Bakinson 91’), Willmott (Marsh-Brown 105’), Amond, Matt (Azeez 103’)
Subs not used: Pipe, Crofts, McKirdy
Tranmere Rovers (4-1-4-1): Davies (C), Caprice, Nelson (Buxton 114’), Monthe, Ridehalgh, Banks, Morris (McNulty 81’), Harris (Pringle 53’), Perkins, Jennings, Norwood
Subs: Pilling, Dagnall, Mullin, Gilmour
Referee: Ross Joyce