Leamington returned to Step Two after a two-year absence following a dramatic extra-time victory over visitors Hitchin, writes Paul Okey.
Courtney Baker-Richardson proved the match-winner, curling home a superb goal nine minutes into the second period of extra-time.
However, it needed a superb last-gasp save from Tony Breeden and a ‘how did he miss?’ moment from Canaries captain Dan Webb to preserve the hosts’ advantage.
There was little sign of the drama to come as Brakes toiled following Matt Lench’s 11th-minute opener for the visitors, with Paul Holleran’s side looking all set to bow out of the play-offs with a whimper for a second successive year.
Lench chested the ball over the line from close range after Webb had got up to win Ben Walster’s free-kick and with something to hang on to, Hitchin’s spoiling tactics prevented Brakes finding any kind of rhythm.
The early goal also served to dampen the enthusiasm of the home fans in a record crowd of 2,102 at the Phillips 66 Community Stadium and it was not until the closing stages of the second half that they found their collective voice.
To be fair to them, there was little to get them worked up on the pitch, with only pantomime villain Brett Donnelly raising their temperatures with a string of niggly challenges which earned him a yellow card and the ire of the home fans.
Jack Edwards forced Michael Johnson into a sprawling save and the visiting keeper showed good hands to hang on to a Connor Gudger shot which picked up pace on the bounce, but with Ahmed Obeng an isolated figure it was slim pickings for the home side.
Brakes’ first piece of swift interplay nearly brought them reward in the final minute of the first half, with Rob Thompson-Brown brought down by Lewis Rolfe for a booking which would eventually prove costly for the centre-back. However, Richard Taundry’s free-kick slid just past the far post with Johnson at full stretch.
Thompson-Brown spooned the ball over after working space on the edge of the Hitchin box as Brakes looked to up the pace at the start of the second period and Courtney Baker-Richardson did well to get in ahead of his marker only to head well over.
Johnson was equal to another Taundry free-kick from a promising position and there was a rare moment of panic at the other end when Gudger and Breeden got in a tangle from a Lucas Kirkpatrick cross, the defender hurriedly firing the ball behind for a corner.
Richard Batchelor was introduced for Obeng just past the hour, with Revan replacing a limping Callum Gittings in the 68th minute.
Taundry stood up a cross into the box after patient build-up play from the hosts, with Baker-Richardson’s header providing catching practice for Johnson.
With Hitchin slowing the game down at every opportunity, Brakes were unable to get up a head of steam as the game drifted towards a conclusion.
Gudger injected some urgency when he won a 50-50 ball in midfield and released Baker-Richardson, but with the ball running across him, he was unable to guide it on target as Johnson rushed out from his goal.
Taundry needed to produce a brave diving header at his near post to cut out a dangerous free-kick from Walster as Hitchin ate up vital seconds in the Leamington half and with his work seemingly done, Donnelly was replaced by Liam Brooks in the 87th minute to the usual catcalls.
However, with the 90 minutes up Brakes were handed a lifeline when Revan battled to the byeline and was sent tumbling by Rolfe. Referee James Durkin pointed to the spot and showed a second yellow card to the defender who took an age to leave the field of play.
But despite the wait, Thompson-Brown kept his nerve to send Johnson the wrong way.
The momentum was now firmly with Brakes and Mace headed wide at the far post before Jamie Hood drew a stunning fingertip save from Johnson in added time.
With Leamington on the front foot, the final whistle came at just the wrong time and allowed the aggrieved visitors to regroup.
An ambitious overhead from Baker-Richardson and a blocked shot from Revan were the only efforts of note as Hitchin dug in for penalties.
The huff and puff was there from Leamington, with Batchelor adding extra bite in midfield but it took until the 124th minute for them to find the quality. Baker-Richardson appeared to running into a dead end in the Hitchin box, but from out of nowhere he produced a superb curled effort which looked destined to beat Johnson from the moment it left his boot.
The joyous scenes that greeted the goal suggested Leamington thought they had done enough but Hitchin roused themselves for one final push.
Their chance looked to have gone when Webb skied the ball over the bar after Breeden had flapped at a corner but the Hitchin captain was yet to endure his nightmare moment.
That came as the game drifted into the last of the 120 minutes.
Lench whipped in superb cross from the left and Lucas Kirkpatrick’s header looked a goal all the way until Breeden got a hand to it a full stretch, clawing it back from almost over the line. Webb was quickly on to the rebound but, with the goal gaping, he somehow screwed the ball high and wide for. A moment he will struggle to forget on Brakes’ day to remember.
brakes: Tony Breeden, Richard Taundry, Connor Gudger, Darren Pond, Jamie Hood, James Mace, Courtney Baker-Richardson (Richard Gregory, 119), Callum Gittings (Kurtin Revan, 68), Ahmed Obeng (Richard Batchelor, 64), Jack Edwards, Rob Thompson-Brown. Subs not used: Joe Magunda, Tom James.
Hitchin Town: Michael Johnson, Will Wright, Ban Walster, Jay Dowie, Dan Webb, Lewis Rolfe, Matt Lench, Lucas Kirkpatrick, Brett Donnelly (Liam Brooks, 87), Rob Burns (Callum Donnelly, 80), Josh Bickerstaff. Subs not used: Martin Bennett, Jonny McNamara.