Brackley Town have avoided relegation with a nail-biting 1-0 win over Hednesford Town on an extraordinary and highly dramatic final day in the Conference North.
With Colwyn Bay winning 5-2 at Worcester City and Stalybridge Celtic drawing 4-4 at home to Gainsborough Trinity, Saints had to defeat Hednesford to beat the drop but for long periods it seemed they were doomed as they struggled to pose much of a threat on the visitors’ goal.
That all changed with 15 minutes remaining, however, when substitute Ryan Rowe hammered home from 15 yards to send St James Park wild.
The home side still had to survive a nerve-wracking final few minutes but survive they did, with the full-time whistle sparking scenes of jubilation around St James Park.
Brackley had looked dead and buried just three weeks ago when a torrid run of just one win in 12 games had seen them slump down the table to second bottom, but Jon Brady’s side found form at just the right time with three wins from their final three games seeing them safe by the narrowest of margins as Colwyn Bay were relegated.
Brackley made one change from the win over Hyde with experienced defender Frank Sinclair coming in for Tom Sharpe, while Hednesford named winger Glenn Walker in their starting line-up against his former club, with Steve Diggin and Marvin Robinson on the bench.
Knowing a win would guarantee their survival, Saints made an encouraging start and were almost ahead inside two minutes when Stuart Pierpoint headed over Greg Kaziboni’s cross.
However, despite that early opening, Brackley looked nervy and tentative for much of the first half, perhaps understandably given the significance of the occasion, with Hednesford, who came into the game on the back of five defeats in their last seven, in the ascendency.
The visitors enjoyed the bulk of possession and looked the likelier to score in a scrappy and cagey first half, with Dean Snedker twice called into action to gather long-range attempts from Jamey Osborne and then Richard Batchelor.
When Saints did get hold of the ball, they looked a threat with Owen Story causing problems and it was his tenacious run and excellent pass that saw David Moyo through on goal, but the striker could only drag his shot wide in a golden opening for the home side.
That came against the run of play, however, and Hednesford remained the side who posed the greater threat with Lloyd Kerry’s free-kick was well held by Snedker.
The news of goals flying in elsewhere was doing little to ease the nerves around a tense St James Park, especially with Saints struggling to make much headway.
Brackley continued to live dangerously as they retreated deep inside their own half for large periods, which allowed Hednesford to work the ball around, and it almost led to the opening goal when Nick Rushton was set through on goal but an excellent save from Snedker denied the visiting striker and kept Saints on level terms going into half-time.
The early stages of the second half were equally uneventful, but that wasn’t the case elsewhere as goals continued to fly in with Colwyn Bay scoring three goals in eight minutes, which meant Brackley were relegated as it stood, and that seemed to have an immediate affect on the field.
Only a stunning point-blank save from Dane Crane denied Pierpoint following Moyo’s drilled cross as Saints suddenly showed some urgency.
Despite their desperation, though, Brackley were unable to create much in the way of clear-cut chances and instead it was Hednesford who were looking more dangerous on the break, with Osborne again denied by Snedker.
Story fired a long-range effort wide as things became increasingly frantic for the hosts, who pushed more and more men forward.
But then came the game and the season’s decisive goal. With 15 minutes remaining, Brackley put the ball in the box and Ryan Austin, playing as an emergency centre-forward, chested the ball down for substitute Ryan Rowe to hammer home and send St James Park wild.
With goals still going in at Stalybridge and Worcester, the drama and tension was far from over as Hednesford piled forward in search of a goal, but Saints held out and survived four nail-biting minutes of stoppage time to clinch their third straight win and avoid relegation from the Conference North after a quite remarkable day full of twists and turns.
Brackley: Snedker, Sinclair (Rowe 60), Austin (c), McDonald, Fitzsimons, Story, Odhiambo, Whittall, (Green 60), Kaziboni, Pierpoint (Sharpe 67), Moyo
Subs not used: Carruthers, Farrell
Hednesford: Crane, Hurst (Todd 45), Campion, Westwood, Thomas (Robinson 70), Walker, Osborne, Thorley, Rushton (Diggin 70), Kerry, Batchelor (c)
Subs not used: Diggin, Robinson
Referee: Ian Dudley