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PLAY-OFF FINAL REVISITED: A look back at one mad, May Monday

Monday 6th May 2019. After an energy sapping extra time win over Sutton Coldfield Town in the play-off semi final on the first of the month, Bromsgrove Sporting found themselves in the Southern League Division One Central play-off final, where they would face Corby Town. The prize? Promotion to Step Three of the Non-League Pyramid. The challenge? 90 minutes (at least) at the Victoria Ground. Prior to the opening whistle, none of the 2943-strong crowd would have expected to see what was to unfold. Here is a look back at that helter-skelter, mind-blowing, Bank Holiday Monday encounter…

Few would argue against the notion that this play-off final was the biggest single game Sporting had been involved in since the 2017 FA Vase semi-final second leg against Cleethorpes Town. Yes, there had been big games; clashes with Worcester City, Coleshill Town, Peterborough Sports and the culmination of our ‘Invincibles’ season all spring to mind, but for the sheer magnitude of just one match in its own right, many would say that this was the biggest in terms of importance since that fixture in Lincolnshire.

Of course, Sporting cruelly lost that second leg, 1-0, crashing out 2-1 on aggregate. You couldn’t blame a Rouslers fan for thinking of that occasion as they walked into the Victoria Ground on play-off final day, praying those demons were not to resurface.

Then there were the opponents for the day. The Steelmen. Corby Town. The record during the season was 2-1, favouring the Northamptonshire outfit. An FA Trophy success, followed by a 6-0 drubbing at Steel Park, on a dismal Wednesday evening… another reason for Sporting fans to have stomach-stricken butterflies circulating, perhaps?

There were certainly much to be optimistic about, too. The most recent meeting of the two teams saw Bromsgrove run out 2-1 winners, thanks in part to Jason Cowley’s sensational, internet-viral volley.

That took place in March, and was part of a 13 match unbeaten run, stretching from the end of January to deep into April, that helped cement Sporting’s second place in the league, the position in which Bren Kelly’s men would eventually finish in the table.

So plenty to be hopeful about as well. There was a powder keg of varying feelings on the day, that were waiting to be ignited. A tantalising electricity in the air, which you could sense was consistently sparking.

One player who went into the game in a buoyant mood was the aforementioned Jason Cowley. It was easy to see why – nobody had scored more league goals than the striker throughout the campaign and he had recently been awarded his third successive Fans Player of the Season accolade.

“I had a lot of emotions but I wasn’t nervous – I was confident. I knew what we were capable of on our day, which was that we could beat any team in front of us,” he commented.

“I was feeling unstoppable and with the bond the team had and the belief the gaffer gave us, we knew we was going into the game to win!”

A big factor in Sporting’s impressive league standing were the goals scored by Cowley and his strike partner, Richard Gregory. Between the two of them, they had amassed an incredible 58 league goals during the season.

For Gregory, who captained the side on the day, the size of the task at hand was one that filled him with incredible excitement.

“To know that the whole town and community was going to be together to support us in our shot at getting to Step Three – it was a great feeling,” he said.

“The atmosphere building up to it was one I’ll never forget. From 1:30pm (90 minutes before kick off), you could really embrace what was about to unfold. As a player, it was important to keep a cool head, as there was a big task ahead for us all.

“As we went out to warm up, I said to the lads that this ground will be full already, so embrace it. Give everyone a clap as soon as we’re out and then get your heads into the game.”

Sporting may not have made it to the final, were it not for a herculean, man of the match goalkeeping performance in the semi-final from Jono Brown.

“It seemed like the longest drive to a match ever  – I felt like I was sat in the back of the car for hours! I was watching England World Cup highlights from 2018 and it really got me going,” Brown said.

“When I got to the group, I was 45 minutes early, which if you know me is not normal. Then, when everyone got there, the changing room music was blasting, but it was strangely quiet at the same time – everyone had laser focus.

“We got the team news and got ready and went out to warm up and the Shed was near enough full already. It was madness and I’d never seen anything like it. Then probably the best game I’d ever witnessed kicked off and it was better than anything any of us could have imagined.”

It was no exaggeration that this was a match worthy of having the title of ‘the best game’ people had seen. But it didn’t get off to the best start for Sporting, as Corby’s Elliot Sandy netted the opener in the 33rd minute.

The Rouslers needed an equaliser. And quick. Step forward captain Gregory, who headed home six minutes later.

“To contribute in the game was very pleasing; we were flat for the first 30 minutes and we needed a lift. After some great work out wide by Jason (Cowley), he thankfully picked me out at the back post and I put it away, which just lifted every one,” Gregory said.

The second half saw Bromsgrove up their game hugely; five minutes in, Gregory had a penalty saved by the feet of Dan George, before 59th and 61st minute goals from the red-hot Cowley saw the home side take a two goal lead.

“The feeling I got was unreal, especially in front of the packed Shed End. It gave me goosebumps,” Cowley commented.

However, Corby would simply not lie down. Stephen Diggin pulled one back just three minutes later, before the wily Jordan Crawford bagged the leveller with just six minutes remaining.

“We just had to make it that bit nervous for every one again by allowing Corby to come back into it and take it to extra time,” jested Gregory.

It nearly went from bad to gut-wrenchingly worse for Sporting, when Sandy pulled the trigger inside the box just two minutes into extra-time. Fortunately, keeper Brown was on hand once again.

“I just remember the ball getting played into the box and it being headed down and then it got pulled back and the whole ground went silent and I just flew out and spread myself as fast as I could and luckily, it directly hit me.”

The time ticked away, the tension mounted. More and more and, then, some more still. The game was on a proverbial knife edge.

The 104th minute. Sporting breakthrough. A striding run forward was capped off with a fine drive, low into the bottom corner.

But this wasn’t Cowley or Gregory.

“I never thought I’d be the one to get the winner,” said winger Kieren Westwood.

He had scored six goals for Sporting since joining in January that year, but none were as big as this well taken, left footed shot.

“Playing in front of a packed VG was unreal. I remember the game being a rollercoaster. It was all a blur. I just remember feeling relief when it went in,” Westwood added.

16 more agonising minutes ensued, which included another penalty miss (Cowley this time finding George too good in the Corby goal), but it ultimately would not matter one jot.

The final whistle blew. Sporting had done it. After their second foray into extra time in just six days, they had done it. Exhaustion, elation, celebration. The maelstrom of emotions that had built up over the course of the match, the course of the season, had led to this. Promotion was sealed.

“As for when the whistle went, you could see what it meant to the fans and I just felt immensely proud to have played a part in it,” said match winner Westwood.

“As soon as the ref blew the whistle, I think everyone showed how much promotion meant to us as a group, as that was our target from the day I signed and we achieved it,” Jono Brown said.

“After the game, I was full of relief because I knew we deserved to get promoted; we all new we did. The fans were amazing throughout the whole game, as they were the whole season. But that was nothing new to me – I loved the fans, like they loved me,” Jason Cowley commented.

“The celebrations were just the best – it was the perfect scenario. I know winning the league was the priority but to go up via the play offs, in front of your own crowd, was again a feeling I will never forget. To captain the side and lift the trophy will remain with me forever,” Richard Gregory reflected.

For manager Bren Kelly, the sense of pride was palpable, as he secured his second successive promotion.

“It was a historic day for the club and one that will live long in the memory for thousands of people. Our first attempt at step four as a club and for me as manager and we thoroughly deserved promotion, with over 100 goals scored too,” he said.

“I would say it was an extremely productive season; the squad we put together was fantastic, especially from January onwards. The play off final itself was not very enjoyable, due to the see saw type of game it was, but to win it the way we did was amazing.

“It was a proud day and a pleasure to secure another promotion.”

A simply incredible day; probably one that those in attendance will never experience the likes of again.

Why probably? Well, you cannot rule anything out. This is Sporting, after all…

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