A last gasp extra-time goal from Luke Waterfall helped guide Grimsby Town to the National League playoff final, after a pulsating 5-4 victory against Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground.

By Amos Murphy

Chaos prevails as Grimsby book place in National League playoff final

As the A-list duo of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney watched on at the Racecourse Ground, not even in their wildest Hollywood dreams would they have imagined the chaos that ensued. Eight goals shared evenly after 90 minutes, a penalty, plenty of rash tackles, a last minute winning goal and a healthy portion of heart in mouths moments.

It had appeared early on as if it was going to be a comfortable afternoon for the hosts. Despite an early disallowed goal from Grimsby’s John McAtee’s, Wrexham started on the front foot and were awarded a penalty after just 12 minutes.

As he had done so often this season, it was Paul Mullin’s surging run in behind the defence that led to the foul, which the dominative striker stood up to take himself. Clattering his effort against the crossbar, Mullin’s playoff blushes would be spared when his effort rebounded against the woodwork and dropped unceremoniously across the line.

Deservedly ahead, Wrexham’s game plan would naturally switch to consolidating their position, continuing to press for a second goal and ensuring Grimsby were not afforded any route back into the game. Such an approach would hold out for only 120 seconds.

Wheeling away with his hands clipped to his ears in celebration, McAtee’s curling strike from 20-yards out silenced a stadium whose playoff final dreams were hardly given the chance to manifest.

Perhaps fortunate to be on level terms, Grimsby would continue to ride their luck as the half played out, with goalkeeper Max Crocombe tipping two goal bound efforts around the post, before appearing to clatter Wrexham’s Bryce Hosannah inside the penalty area. Unmoved by the home side’s protests, referee Adam Herczeg waved away any penalty appeals.

As the sunshine turned into grey clouds above the Racecourse, it felt like the Wrexham supporters were experiencing a nightmare they’d already lived through. A town whose football club acts as a beating heart to the community, and one that had been left to rot in non-league, was once again about to get its heart broken by the playoffs.

By the time Luke Waterfall headed the visitors ahead early in the second half, the anxiety had already turned into despair for the Wrexham faithful. Ghosting in at the back post, the Grimsby captain was left unmarked by the Reds’ defenders and took full advantage of the opportunity.

Much like their visitors response early in the first half, Wrexham’s reaction was swift. Levelling things up through Ben Tozer, the Reds would only have to wait two minutes before regaining the lead. Controversially converting into the Grimsby net, with what appeared to be a handball, Mullin’s second of the afternoon saw Wrexham take the lead.

From losing to leading in the blink of an eye, Wrexham’s dazzling qualities going forward had once again bailed them out when they most needed it. But, as had far too often been the case for Parkinson’s side this season, it was their fragilities at the back that would allow Grimsby yet another way back into the clash.

In similar fashion to the flurry of goals that had seen Wrexham take the lead, the visitors would also score twice in quick succession, firstly through Ryan Taylor’s back-post header. Unwavering in their efforts to retake the lead, the Mariners would capitalise on another lapse in concentration from the Wrexham backline to fire themselves in front, with goalscoring hero from their eliminator against Notts County, Emmanuel Dieseruvwe nodding home Grimsby’s fourth of the afternoon.

Almost inevitably though, the tie wouldn’t be settled there, as local boy and cult-hero Jordan Davies popped up with 10 minutes left on the clock, to, not for the first time this afternoon, send the Racecourse into bedlam. Half-chances for either side came and went, before the referee eventually blew full-time on proceedings.

As the players stood huddled in front of the dugouts ahead of extra time, all the emotions that taken a stranglehold over both sets of supporters returned tenfold. A season’s work on the line, yet in sharp contrast to the 45 minutes that had proceeded it, the first half of extra time played out in an understandably cagey manner. Neither side wanting to chance their arm, no player wanting to the one who made the mistake to cost their team.

With energy sapped and nerves jangled, extra time felt like a breather for both sides, rather than an added 30 minutes to find a winning goal. While opportunities may have come at a premium, Tristan Abrahams ought to have made the Wrexham goalkeeper work with his strike midway through the second half. Almost confused by the concept of a shooting chance, the Grimsby substitute could only find the side netting.

Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter. Waterfall’s second of the afternoon in the final minutes of extra time secured Grimsby’s progression into the National League playoff final. Jubilation in the away end was matched by heartbreak in the home end. Delirious, the Grimsby players held each other in disbelief, as once again they’d won it at the death.

An immediate promotion back to the Football League remains a possibility for Grimsby, who will travel to London next weekend to take on either Solihull Moors or Chesterfield for a place in League Two.

For Phil Parkinson and Wrexham, they will no doubt have their day. Perhaps a casualty of the National League’s one automatic promotion spot curse, their efforts this season have ultimately rendered meaningless. It will be back to the drawing board for them and their owners, as their non-league sentence will extend to another year.

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