Tooley’s Take

Phil Tooley takes a look at the game and its context 

Chesterfield 2 Notts County 2 (after extra time) Notts County won 4-3 on penalties

National League Promotion Final, Wembley Stadium

We saw it, we roared it, it’s raw, it’s sore. Play-offs prolong regulation seasons and make them so much more exciting, but they can hurt, really hurt, unless you’re the one.

Notts fans didn’t care one bit that their two goals would never trouble a Goal of the Season compiler, they didn’t care that they were probably rattled more than in just about any other game in their incredible 107-point season, they didn’t care that at no stage were they in the lead at Wembley, or indeed that over the three games between the side this season they were in the lead for just 13% of the time compared to Chesterfield’s 48%. Nope, because they have returned to being the Oldest League Club in the World! Congratulations, this season, Notts are the One.

In the frustration of falling at the final hurdle, many will be disappointed, distraught, blame the manager, blame the keeper, blame the referee, but looking back on the season, and more specifically, the play-off campaign, for me, all it’s done is reinforce my belief that the 2023/24 season is there for the taking.

Sure, some key players will possibly have worn our royal blue for the last time at Wembley, but Paul Cook’s recruitment has built a side that was (for the first time since Paul Cook was here last) just 90 (or 120) minutes away from promotion. The side at Wembley created significantly more openings than the free-scoring opponents, the side was the only team this season that outscored Wrexham in the two head to head games, the side this season (despite many frustrating games) frequently purred in ways that make you gasp with delight. #Cookball will prevail next season.

The fans were awesome, as they have been all season, in both voice and numbers, Armando Dobra’s stunner brought delight that only a stunner on a stunning stage can bring, but on a day like that, in a sport based on results, only one result is acceptable, and sadly the Magpies stole it.

Archie Mair, on loan from Norwich City, had faced eight penalties in his relatively short pro-career and for 119 minutes, he was a spectator. Of those eight, four of them hadn’t gone passed him, 50-50. Sam Slocombe, who’s start to the game was a very different sort of mare, had failed to save any of the last ten penalties he’d faced, so a last-gasp swap and the Scot continued his impressive 12-yard record. Clever.

From the sixth minute Andrew Dallas pen, every Spireite wanted that to be the only one taken during the encounter and in the dying embers of normal time, that looked odds-on, but the impressive John Bostock levelled when his free-kick squirmed through when we could all see it probably shouldn’t have.

Dobs’ class renewed the hope (it’s always the hope that kills you) only for Spawny; The Movie, Part 2 to be released. Ruben Rodrigues, a massive creative talent in the NL (perhaps the most creative) who’d been nullified to the point of almost forgetting he was on the park, tired of mind and tired of limb, made a technical hash of a half-volley only to see it pitch a yard in front of him and bounce in a Barnes Wallis sort of style to level things up again. At that point, you kind of knew it wasn’t to be.

Every Town penalty on target, two very well saved, bitter disappointment. Immense pride though with a performance that restricted 42-goal Macauley Langstaff to only one half-decent chance whilst (and it’s been the Achilles heel all season) Town created plenty and should have scored more than one in 90.

Both teams had players with empty tanks on 90, let alone during the additional half hour, both unchanged XIs had also played 120 minutes six days earlier in equally tense encounters, and all three of those games reinforced the quality of teams and skill levels (in both play and coaching styles) present in the National League.

The attendances of over 25,000 in the two semi-finals and 38,000 in the final could not be recreated in any other country in the world at such a level of football. If that doesn’t persuade the EFL to realise that they need a three-up, three-down for next season, then there’s something fundamentally wrong.

Like it or loathe it, Wrexham have helped to develop an awareness of ‘non-league’ football in (sic) England, and Notts County have shown how well football at this level can be executed with (potentially) no tangible reward. Only Bradford City in L2 averaged a higher attendance than Wrexham, Notts would have been fourth in the attendance table and Town sixth. Oldham averaged more than Mansfield Town and Southend United more than Gillingham. Actions, not evaluations, are needed.

It’s a tough morning, it’s going to be a vital summer of recruitment, but a year from now, after the eliminators, semi-finals and finals of the play-offs over the last three seasons, Chesterfield won’t be in them in May 2024. We’ll already have been crowned champions.

Phil’s Positive: Chesterfield are now the best team in the National League and next season will prove it. Plus, how well did Jeff King defend!

Next Match: Let’s all take a break and look forward to finding out the pre-season and NL season fixtures.

Chesterfield (4-2-3-1 to start): Fitzsimons; King, Palmer, Grimes, Clements; Jones, Oldaker; Colclough (Banks 70), Mandeville (Akinola 89), Dobra (Maguire 105); Dallas (Quigley 79). Sub (not used): McCallum.

Goals: Dallas (pen) 6, Dobra 93 (Chesterfield), Bostock 88, Rodrigues 107 (Notts)

Penalties: Chesterfield (went first): Banks (scored), Oldaker (saved), Maguire (scored), King (saved), Quigley (scored). Notts: Langstaff (scored), Rodrigues (scored), Jones (scored), Bostock (hit bar), Scott (scored)

Referee: Matt Corlett

Bookings: King, Grimes, Oldaker plus manager Paul Cook (Chesterfield), Bostock, Jones (Notts)

Attendance: 38,138

Netcoms IT 1866 Sport Man of the Match: Armando Dobra (chosen by Jamie Hewitt)