CHRIS Senior broke Mansfield Town hearts at Wembley today when he headed the winning goal for Darlington in time added on at the end of gruelling extra-time in today’s FA Trophy final.
It was the only goal of a largely poor contest and came just as both sides were thinking about penalty kicks.
But, even though the timing of the goal was so hard to take for Stags’ patchwork side, it was little more than Darlington deserved after creating all the best chances of the afternoon.
Keeper Alan Marriott was by far the busier of the two and the Quakers had hit a post, had another kicked off the line by Tyrone Thompson and missed two free headers in a game in which the North-Easterners had enjoyed a distinct edge.
Mansfield, with just four players available for the subs’ bench and both Adam Murray and Paul Connor playing on with injuries that should have kept them out, can take heart from the fact they shut out a decent Darlington side for 120 minutes.
No one could question Stags’ commitment and effort for the cause on the day.
Indeed, many of Stags magnificent 14,000 following were probably dreaming of a repeat of their 1987 penalties success at the home of football when they won the Freight Rover Trophy.
But it wasn’t to be as a difficult season caught up with them in the end.
In the big team decisions, Marriott got the nod over Neil Collett in goal, Dan Spence was preferred to Paul Stonehouse at left back and Paul Connor, despite not being fully fit with his calf strain, played a lone role up front with Murray, also not fully fit, playing in the hole behind Connor.
As always seems to be the case, Wembley Stadium was warm and bathed in sunshine as the teams came out for their warm-ups.
But it had clouded over a little as the sides came out for the game and stood for the national anthem.
The roar that followed that made the hairs on the back of the neck prick up and it was Mansfield who kicked-off.
Murray almost unlocked the Quakers’ defence with 80 seconds on the watch as he chipped a delightful through ball for Connor to chase down the middle, Russell alert to the danger and racing out his box to win the race by a fraction of a second.
Moore came off worst from a collision with Adam Smith and needed treatment for a facial injury.
Marriott did well, under pressure, to punch away three visitors’ first corner by Brown on the right on 11 minutes.
Then Naylor did well to head away a dangerous Bridge-Wilkinson cross into the centre.
Briscoe won Mansfield’s first corner on 18 minutes which Nix sent over and Foster met with a header that sailed over the bar.
Marriott held onto a Moore cross from the left a minute later, threatening to spill in for a second but hanging on.
Mansfield’s second corner was easily cleared and Darlington broke swiftly, the move ending with Wright firing well over from 20 yards.
Hatch was in the way of a low Murray drive on the half-hour as both sides struggled to create a clear opening.
Adam Smith cut in from the right for Darlington and went inside two opponents, but Briscoe slid in before he could trouble Marriott and won the ball cleanly.
Hatch was lectured for flattening Murray just over 30 yards from goal. Nix floated in the free kick but Darlington again easily cleared.
The Quakers finally got the ball on target on 36 minutes as Moore sent a diving header at Marriott from a left wing cross.
Soon after Marriott was down well to grab a low Bridge-Wilkinson cross from the right as the visitors looked to have settled the best and began playing the better football.
But they had to make a change in midfield on 39 minutes when the outstanding Verma came on for Gary Smith.
A loose pass by Hatch just outside his own box gifted the ball to Connor. But, with Murray square, Connor was well tackled by Miller to spare his team mate’s embarrassment.
It did win Stags the first of two more corners, the second of which deflected off a home player towards Briscoe who couldn’t keep his finish down.
Adam Smith got in Mansfield’s first on-target effort as we entered the four minutes of stoppage time with a low shot from Connor’s accurate nod-down just outside the box.
Briscoe almost chipped Connor in on goal but once more Russell was there first.
That brought a tight, largely dull half to a close with a goal.
On the re-start Darlington put on immediate pressure with some good first time passing, though couldn’t test Marriott.
Stags finally regained the ball and a burst from Briscoe on the right saw him feed the bal to Connor who, well policed, had to lay it square for Smith who fired a low effort into the sidenetting.
Mansfield’s best move of the game so far came on 55 minutes as Briscoe bustled his way past three challenges on the right before drilling a low ball into the six yard box where, first time, Connor helped it goalwards, but over, from five yards.
There was worry as Campbell got the better of Naylor down the left and square to Wright who looked a certain scorer until Spence produced a crucial tackle on 58 minutes.
Campbell sent over the subsequent corner and Miller was allowed a free header which, thankfully for Stags, he failed to connect with properly and saw it skim wide of the target.
On 62 minutes Murray swapped passes with Briscoe and then fed Connor who, back to goal, swivelled well to send a firm low shot on target that forced Russell down to grab.
On 74 minutes Verma was too high with a rising 25 yard shot from Wright’s head down. Then Briscoe was well wide with his low, ambitious 35 yard effort.
There was more hearts in mouths for Mansfield as a low Verma cross from the left passed through everyone.
Senior, only on a few minutes as sub, skinned Silk inside out on the left and drilled in another low cross which Marriott gathered.
More Stags pressure followed but, after promising approach play, Briscoe scuffed his subsequent shot as he burst forward in the box and it was cleared.
A mistake by Thompson almost let Senior away, Silk managing to slide the ball out for a throw before he could get clear.
Naylor and then Thompson were furious when what looked well-timed tackles were penalised with free kicks as we entered the final two minutes.
And from the second of those on 89 minutes, 25 yards out and to the left of centre, Bridge-Wilkinson curled a superb free kick over the wall and saw the ball hit the post high up just under the angle.
It was the nearest the game had come to a goal.
Two minutes of stoppage time were signalled as the Stags fans raised the volume one last time.
But it was Darlington who should have sealed it with the last action of the game as Bridge-Wilkinson’s right wing cross found Wright eight yards from goal who, with Marriott at his mercy, somehow guided his stopping header wide.
The whistle blew and we were into extra-time with a weary Stags knowing they were fortunate to still be in with a shout.
Boss Duncan Russell, who had spent most of the game seated with assistant Paul Hall barking the orders in the technical area in front of him, joined Hall on the pitch for the team talk as players’ aching limbs and cramps were dealt with as best as they could.
Stags immediately had to defend a Darlington corner as the 30 gruelling extra minutes began.
Then Thompson headed away another corner while Wright guided a header wide from a deep cross soon after.
On 95 minutes Stags mad their first change as Cain took over from Smith on the wing.
In his first involvement he played a square ballot Nix who helped it on for Briscoe to screw a low effort wide of the left hand post from 18 yards.
Terry joined the action for Darlington and when he hit the ball forward, Wright got a touch which wasn’t far wide of the post.
On 103 minutes Terry also saw the game’s first booking for his challenge which left Spence flat out and needing treatment.
Into the second period of extra-time and Terry’s through ball to Senior almost unlocked the Stags’ defence until Foster threw himself in the way of his shot.
Murray could barely walk by now and received warm applause on 108 minutes as he was replaced by Mitchley.
Marriott was again out of his box to sweep up before Senior could reach a through ball.
A couple of injuries allowed the players a well-earned breather and drinks as the afternoon took its toll.
On 112 minutes Cain managed to squeeze a cross through everyone but Connor, who can’t have expected it to reach him at the far post, was unable to get his diving header on target.
Stags had another major let-off on 114 minutes as, from a left wing Brown corner, Wright saw his header cleared off the line at the far post by Thompson and Marriott then produce a great save to tip over Miller’s follow-up header.
With three minutes left a Cain corner was easily headed away and seconds later Nix was well over from 35 yards as the spectre of penalties loomed large.
But that was shattered in the first minute of stoppage time as Darlington broke through.
A long Brown throw from the left set up the chance. It was helped on and, when Wright outjumped Marriott, the ball sailed against the crossbar.
With Marriott now trying to get back into position, it was sub Senior who got there first to the rebound and buried his close range header to spark wild celebrations behind the goal.
With only seconds remaining Cain went on a strong run and won a free kick which earned Brown a booking.
But the Quakers defended the free kick and the whistle went to leave Mansfield’s tired players dejected and broken-hearted.
DARLINGTON: Russell, Arnison, Chandler, Miller, Hatch, Wright, Moore, G. Smith (Verma 39), Brown, Bridge-Wilkinson (Terry 100), Campbell (Senior 74). Subs not used: St Louis-Hamilton, Gray.
STAGS: Marriott; Silk, Foster, Naylor, Spence; Briscoe, Nix, Thompson, A. Smith (Cain 95); Murray (Mitchley 108), Connor. Subs not used: Stonehouse, Collett.
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell of Nuneaton.
GOAL: Darlington – Senior 120 (+1).
CAUTIONS: Darlington – Terry 103, Brown 120 (+3) (both fouls).
CHAD STAGS MAN OF THE MATCH: Adam Murray.