Stockport County 0-1 Hartlepool United verdict – Rhys Oates' late strike books Pools a place in the play-off final against Torquay United
Hartlepool United secured their place in the National League play-off final following a 1-0 win over Stockport County at Edgeley Park.
Rhys Oates was the hero once again with a late strike from distance proving to be the difference as Pools edged past a previously 18 unbeaten Stockport side.
The National League play-off matches so far this season had been a far cry from the tense, cagey affairs you expect when the season is on the line. The previous three play-off matches had yielded 16 goals between them.
But for Stockport and Pools it was all about getting through, regardless of how they did it – claiming a spot in the promotion final against Torquay United at Ashton Gate on June 20 (2pm kick-off) was paramount.
The Hatters have spent the past decade bouncing around the top two divisions of non-league football following their first ever relegation from the Football League in 2011.
Pools are desperate to avoid experiencing a similar fate having dropped out of the EFL for the first time in 2017.
As expected, Dave Challinor named an unchanged starting line-up from the side that had beaten Bromley 3-2 in the play-off eliminator match the week prior.
But on the bench there was a notable return as goalkeeper Ben Killip came in for Henrich Ravas to mark his return to the matchday squad for the first time in over two months due to a serious elbow injury.
A boisterous crowd saw the hosts enjoy a lot of the ball early on with striker Paddy Madden missing a glorious early chance from close range after being set-up by a low Macauley Southam-Hales cross.
At the other end, Hartlepool started to threaten themselves with Rhys Oates breaking clear down the right and attempting to pick out a man in the middle. Luke Armstrong’s shot was well blocked, as was Mark Shelton’s on the follow-up before Stockport could clear.
From there, Pools started to grow into the game without really testing The Hatters.
Two speculative long range efforts from Rhys Oates rounded off a cagey first half encounter of clear chances as the sides went in goalless.
This was more in-keeping of what you’d expect for a play-off final with both teams cancelling each other out.
The early exchanges of the second half were end to end with Pools having a strong penalty shout turned down before Brad James was forced into a smart stop at his near post by John Rooney.
The match remained very tight with Elliott Newby and Mark Shelton with chances at either end. But with 14-minutes remaining, Pools finally found the breakthrough as Ryan Johnson picked up the ball on halfway before picking out Oates. The Pools player of the season charged towards goal before arrowing a ball into the bottom right corner from 25-yards.
All of a sudden, Pools had one foot in the play-off final. It was just about hanging on now.
The last minute of the game was a heart in the mouth moment for Pools as Richie Bennett met James Jennings’ cross well only to be brilliantly denied by James.
And that was it for Pools. The full-time whistle blew and the elation was palpable in an otherwise heartbroken Edgeley Park.
See you in the play-off final.