Hartlepool United 1-1 Torquay United match report: Penalty joy for Pools as they secure promotion back to the Football League
EFL football is coming home!
Hartlepool United secured promotion from the National League in the most dramatic of fashion as they beat Torquay United 5-4 on penalties.
Luke Armstrong’s first half opener was devastatingly cancelled out by Torquay goalkeeper Lucas Covolan to force extra-time and ultimately penalties.
Setting the scene
The last 12 months to the day had been building up to this moment. On 20 June 2020, a depleted Pools squad returned to East Durham College for the first day of pre-season training.
At that point, Dave Challinor had just eight players contracted with the rest of the squad made up of out of contract players and trialists.
Yet one year on, and Pools had got themselves on the brink of a Football League return with a strong squad who have brought the good times back to Victoria Park.
A fourth placed finish followed by play-off wins over Bromley and Stockport County set up a final date with Torquay.
The Gulls looked dead-certs for the National League title at one stage in the season but had to settle for a second bite at the promotion cherry via the play-offs.
A damp Ashton Gate was the setting, hardly anyone’s first choice for the final but the prize was all the same.
Saturday night saw hundreds of Poolies take over Bristol city centre, chanting for hours in the pouring rain in Millennium Square and making the most of the occasion. After all, they don’t come around very often.
As expected, Challinor stuck with the side that had achieved play-off wins in each of the last two Sunday’s.
There was no place for Lewis Cass in the squad despite the Newcastle United loanee recovering from a hamstring injury that had kept him out of the previous two matches.
And with most starting players out of contract this month, this could prove to be the final time some of them turn out in a Hartlepool shirt.
The reduced crowd from both sides certainly made their voices heard as the game got under way with an almighty roar.
And it took Pools only five minutes to get the ball in the net as Nicky Featherstone’s corner was spilled by Torquay goalkeeper Lucas Covolan, but the referee quickly blew for a foul by Gary Liddle.
There was more disallowed goal controversy at the other end just moments later as Kyle Cameron headed the ball past Brad James sending the Torquay contingency wild as the entirety of Ashton Gate thought Torquay had taken the lead – except referee Simon Mather, who took his time before calling a foul on Rhys Oates.
A very harsh call for The Gulls, who felt they should have had an early lead in the promotion final.
Pools’ best chance of an exciting opening quarter-hour saw Gavan Holohan’s edge of the box strike deflect into the path of Luke Armstrong whose close ranged stretched effort looped narrowly over the crossbar.
Despite the lack of goals, the match was becoming an exciting and finely poised contest as Armstrong came close once again with a header only to be denied by Covolan.
After twice coming close, it would be third time lucky for Armstrong and Pools as they drew first blood in the 35th-minute. Oates’ strike fell nicely to the Salford City loanee on the edge of the six yard box as he turned and blasted the north east side into the lead off the underside of the crossbar.
First goals often prove crucial for Hartlepool, who were unbeaten in their last 24 matches after scoring first.
Another great moment would soon follow, this time in the stands as both sets of supporters paid tribute to loyal Pools supporter Danny Schurmer, who sadly passed away during the week.
That applause almost turned into cheers for Hartlepool fans once again as Oates almost doubled the lead in first half stoppage time. His header from David Ferguson’s corner being brilliantly tipped over by Covolan as the referee blew for half-time.
After four years, Pools were 45-minutes from a Football League return.
Torquay’s wait had been even longer, seven years, compiled with a brief stint in the sixth tier – they wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Within minutes of the restart, Ryan Johnson came close to turning the ball into the back of his own net as The Gulls applied the pressure.
Just before the hour mark, Cameron found the net for Torquay again and was denied by the referee again. This time for a foul on James.
Pools don’t have the best record with referees in play-off finals but this one was certainly aiding Challinor’s side as he turned a Torquay penalty shout down.
From there, Pools were doing well to keep Torquay at arms length and limiting their chances.
With just four minutes remaining, Mark Shelton and Gavan Holohan both came close to sealing it – if only it was that easy.
Danny Wright’s flick on was then turned just over by Armani Little as the fourth official held up six minutes of stoppage time.
Torquay had scored more late goals than any side in the National League this season and that wasn’t about to change on Sunday afternoon.
Gulls goalkeeper Covolan had made several strong saves during the afternoon and he’d prove a hero at the other end too with a 95th-minute header to force extra-time.
A deserved equaliser for Torquay but a heartbreaking one if you're a Pools fan as an absolutely bizarre National League season took another late twist.
Pools dusted themselves off and managed to remain competitive in extra-time but there were no clear cut chances to speak of as penalties loomed.
The shoot out proved to be as thrilling as the game as the opening four penalties were missed before players started to convert.
Torquay’s Matt Buse had to score but was denied by a fine fingertip save from James to send Pools back to the Football League.