Jordan Maguire-Drew's outstretched right boot provided the final touch to a memorable playoff campaign for Grimsby Town, whose one season hiatus from the Football League ends with victory over first-time hopefuls Solihull Moors. 

By Amos Murphy

Jordan Maguire-Drew celebrates after netting the winner for Grimsby Town - Credit: Grimsby Town Football Club

Maguire-Drew provides finishing touch to Grimsby masterpiece

Having arrived at Solihull Moors to escape the pressure of a big club, the feeling of despair was all too familiar for Neal Ardley. A National League playoff final loser in 2020 while in charge of Notts County, the Epsom-born coach would yet again end up on the defeated side two years later. Slumping to the floor at full-time, Ardley's efforts had once more rendered meaningless.

It was minnows Harrogate Town who denied Ardley and Notts County that day, with the Yorkshire side promoted to the Football League for the first time in their history. History wouldn't repeat itself this time around, with plucky Solihull denied a maiden spot in League Two by a determined Grimsby Town outfit.

Despite going the distance to extra time, it was always going to finish one way. Grimsby, who had battled through two exhausting away fixtures to reach the final, while netting last-minute winners in each, operated with a sense of destiny on the London Stadium turf.

Even after Kyle Hudlin had put Solihull ahead in added time of the first half, Grimsby's approach remained the same. Under the composed stewardship of Paul Hurst, the Mariners continued to chip away, equalising midway through the first half via a stylish John McAtee strike, before Jordan Maguire-Drew bundled home with nine minutes left on the clock.

Against the backdrop of boos from the Grimsby supporters toward a trio of National League executives, the match began in a frantic fashion, with chances flowing at either end. Registering the first chance of the game after just two minutes, a deflected shot from Solihull's Callum Howe would squirm just wide of the Mariners' upright.

Valliant defending became a constant feature of the opening 45 minutes, with Joe McDonnell forced into action after a deflected clearance from teammate Hudlin looked to be heading goalward. Parrying the ball away with a strong right arm, the Moors goalkeeper would deny Grimsby a fortunate opener.

With both sides playing at an intensity usually alien to important finals, the clash swiftly developed into a match befitting of the big occasion, even if the eerie nature of a half-empty London Stadium took away from the spectacle. Coming close through Andrew Dallas, the Solihull talisman created some space for himself inside the penalty area, before covering defender Luke Waterfall threw his body in the way of the curling strike.

As the half went on, Grimsby's attack began to click into gear, with tricky winger Erico Sousa predictably at the heart of all things positive for the Mariners. Twisting and turning on the right-hand side, the Portuguese forward provided the cross for Grimsby's best opening of the half, but with an open goal gaping at the back post, Harry Clifton was unable to convert from close range.

Sensing a goal, the travelling Mariners fans began urging their side forwards, yet on the brink of half-time, it would be Solihull who found the breakthrough. Rising highest inside the box, Hudlin's effortless leap was matched with a stabbed header into the ground, as the 6ft 9in striker converted Joe Sbarra's whipped cross with ease.

Having gained notoriety for his status as the tallest player in English football, Hudlin paid homage to a former giant of the game with his celebration. While the Peter Crouch-esque robot dance may need some improvement, the 21-year-old's predatory instinct in front of goal certainly didn't.

On balance, the half-time scoreline provided a fair reflection of the game, given the problems Solihull had caused their opponents earlier in the half. Yet, as referee Martin Woods trudged off the London Stadium pitch at half-time, the same boos that had punctuated the opening period of the game were there once more, as the Grimsby fans protested against a penalty decision that didn't go their way.

Driving into the box, the ever-dangerous McAtee had managed to release a pass before Kyle Storer clattered into the Grimsby maestro, yet neither the referee nor his assistants deemed it worthy of a spot-kick.

Aggrieved by the decision, Grimsby's game plan after the break was simple: attack. In the knowledge leaders Solihull would afford the Mariners time and space, Hurst's men played the game on their terms, to the extent that when the equaliser arrived, it came as a surprise to nobody.

Chances for Clifton had come and gone, on what looked like it was going to be a forgettable afternoon for the Grimsby-born midfielder. Instead, as has so often been the case this season, Grimsby's reprieve would come through McAtee, whose bursting run in-behind the Solihull defence would end with the creative midfielder slotting home a composed right-footed strike.

Having carved a way back into the clash, Grimsby's hard work was almost undone immediately, when last-man Waterfall looked to have dragged Dallas down in front of goal. Just as he had done to the Mariners' protests in the first half, referee Woods waved away claims of any wrongdoing, much to the disgust of Ardley and co. on the touchline.

Looking to settle the game themselves, the Grimsby equaliser acted as a catalyst for Solihull to push on and search for an elusive second, but the Moors would agonisingly spurn two golden chances late in normal time. Firstly through Dallas, whose over-stretched frame was unable to guide a point-blank header goalward, whereas teammate Alex Gudger's headed effort sailed harmlessly over the crossbar. For the second consecutive season, the National League playoff final was heading to extra time.

When the eventual winning goal arrived from Maguire-Drew, it was a script Grimsby had performed numerous times before: long throw-in from Jordan Cropper, opposition defenders fail to clear the ball, before a back-post tap-in presents itself for a Mariners' attacker. A potent weapon that had proved the undoing of Wrexham in the previous round, would once again provide the magic touch for Grimsby in the final.

Redemption for boss Hurst, who had been relegated with Grimsby at the end of last season. Sticking with the Mariners throughout the campaign, even when hopes of an automatic promotion spot dwindled, the 47-year-old has battled against the odds and masterminded an impressive playoff campaign.

Dead and buried until the 96th-minute against Notts County, Grimsby's character has never faltered. A winner in the 29th-minute of extra-time against the Magpies would provide passage to a semi-final clash against favourites Wrexham, where Grimsby once again embraced the chaos to prevail in North Wales.

From that first goal at Meadow Lane, to their last at the London Stadium, and everything else in between, nothing was able to knock Grimsby off their path with promotion destiny.

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