GRIMSBY TOWN 0
CHELTENHAM TOWN 1
Coca-Cola League Two Play Off Final | 28.05.06
This was what the marathon 2005/06 season boiled down to. The Mariners had had a successful campaign after disposing of Derby and Tottenham in the Carling Cup and residing in League Two’s top three for all-but the final two weeks of the season.
Unfortunately automatic promotion was not achieved after a combination of results involving an academic home draw with Northampton and Leyton Orient’s win at Oxford. County rivals Lincoln were subsequently dispatched in the Play Off Semi Finals, whilst ex-Mariner John Ward saw his Cheltenham side overcome early season pacesetters Wycombe in the other semi.
The form book was in Town’s favour though; four previous meetings between the two sides had produced three Mariners’ wins and one draw. The two league games during the campaign had both gone in Town’s favour as well – a comprehensive 3-0 win at Whaddon Road and a narrow 1-0 success in the return in Cleethorpes.
However, there was an underlying story to the Mariners’ trip to Cardiff. Manager Russell Slade had not agreed a new contract and a question mark hung over his future at the club and was the main talking point amongst the 15,000 Town fans in attendance.
Slade was able to name his strongest starting XI with only veteran John McDermott missing through injury. Player of the Year Rob Jones was preferred to Ben Futcher at the back despite the latter’s starring role in the Play Off Semi Final win over his former club Lincoln. Top scorer Gary Jones avoided suspension after referee Mike Dean overturned his decision to send the ex-Tranmere man off in that Lincoln tie.
Unfortunately for Town, everything that could go wrong on the day did. They got off to a woeful start; Rob Jones was looking a shadow of the player that had dominated the regular season and he was twice caught napping in the opening ten minutes – Steven Gillespie and Steve Guinan both wasting marvellous chances to put the Robins ahead.
The Mariners were trying to get into their rhythm but they were dealt a further blow on 27 minutes when talisman Michael Reddy exited play after a clash of heads with ex-Mariner Craig Armstrong. The injuries sustained meant both players were substituted.
Reddy’s replacement, Gary Cohen, was soon into the thick of the action, forcing a fine save from Shane Higgs after a low drive from 25 yards. Junior Mendes then tried his luck from distance as Town enjoyed their best spell of the game.
Then, on the stroke of half time, came the controversy. Andy Parkinson advanced into the area and was upended by the outstretched boot of Gavin Caines. It looked a stone bonker of a penalty but referee Mr Taylor waved away the Town protests.
In the second half neither side looked like breaking the deadlock until the Robins received a huge slice of fortune on 63 minutes. Guinan picked the ball up on the right-hand side of the area and curled an effort across the box. Everyone anticipated the touch from substitute Kayode Odejayi but it never came and the ball nestled in the bottom corner of Steve Mildenhall’s goal.
It could have been even worse for the Mariners just minutes later. Town had pushed up and left a huge gap at the back, which Guinan exploited. Woodhouse felled the goalscorer as he was clean through but somehow escaped a red card. Northern Ireland International Grant McCann took the penalty but saw Mildenhall pull off the save to keep his side in the game.
The majestic McCann was arguably the difference between the two sides and he struck the bar with an exquisite lob as the game approached the final 20 minutes.
For all their pressure, the Mariners struggled to create chances and it was top scorer Gary Jones that came closest to levelling when he headed Mendes’ cross goalwards – Higgs somehow clawing the ball out from his near post as the Robins hung on for promotion to League One.
TOWN: Mildenhall; Croft (Futcher), R. Jones, Whittle, Newey; Mendes (Goodfellow), Woodhouse, Bolland, Parkinson; Reddy (Cohen), G. Jones. Subs not used: Kalala, Toner.
CHELTENHAM: Higgs; Gill, Caines, Duff, Armstrong (Bell); Vincent (Spencer), Finnigan, McCann, Wilson; Gillespie (Odejayi), Guinan. Subs not used: Brown, Bird.