Promotion shootout beckons for last-gasp Brakes
Tony Breeden saved two penalties and scored one as Brakes completed a memorable play-off semi-final win at the Valley Stadium, writes Paul Okey.
Leamington’s promotion dream looked in tatters as the clock ticked into the 94th minute with the home side still hanging on to Ash Sammons’ superb 35th-minute opener.
However, Courtney Baker-Richardson pounced to level the tie after an almighty scramble in the Redditch box and the momentum stayed with Brakes through extra-time and into penalties.
Redditch boasted an enviable home record and started all guns blazing, with Sam Merson’s long throws their weapon of choice.
George Carline slashed a loose ball wide inside the first 30 seconds, while Merson was the beneficiary of more hesitant defending from the visitors, producing a superb half-volley which drew an acrobatic save from Breeden.
Another Merson missile led to a shot from Robert Thompson-Brown which was blocked and Leamington were finally able to draw breath.
It took until the 21st minute for Brakes to register their first shot, with Jack Edwards’ acrobatic effort sailing over the bar after Sam Austin instigated a swift counter.
Connor Gudger worked space to get in another shot from distance but failed to trouble Jose Veiga in the home goal, while an Austin strike was bravely charged down as Brakes worked up a head of steam.
However, it was Redditch who drew first blood, with Merson’s long throw again the source.
The ball was returned to him and his drilled cross went across the edge of the box and into the path of Sammons who lashed the ball first-time into the roof of the net.
Brakes were stung by the opener and it needed a double substitution in the 64th minute to spark them into life, with Ben Mackey and Baker-Richardson introduced in place of Joe Halsall and Daniel Dubidat.
Leamington were still restricted to long-range efforts, however, with Edwards, Austin and Richard Taundry unable to hit the target as the visitors’ desperation increased.
A last throw of the dice from Paul Holleran saw Rob Ogleby come on in place of Lee Moore in the 78th minute and the move nearly paid dividends straight away as the ball dropped invitingly inside the six-yard box only for Redditch to somehow smuggle it away from danger.
Sammons was unable to reprise his first-half effort with a shot from distance as the hosts looked to kill off the game and Breeden needed to make himself big to keep out a Carline strike as the winger bore down on goal.
That brief flurry aside, it was all Brakes as they loaded the box and it needed some frantic defending from the home side to block a succession of shots, amid the usual claims for handball.
With Leamington committed to attack, Merson almost took advantage, racing clear down the right. But instead of going from goal, he tried to pick out Luke Shearer and the ball took a fortunate deflection off the trailing leg of a defender and went out for a corner.
As injury time beckoned, Redditch looked to run the clock down with a bout of keep-ball in the corner which ended with Sammons forcing his way into the box, but Jamie Hood was alert to block his shot.
Willing running from Mackey then earned a corner for the visitors and Breeden joined in the scrum of players on the edge of the box for Austin’s delivery.
Redditch were unable to clear and a mad scramble ended with Baker-Richardson coming in at the far post to bundle the ball past three defenders on the line.
The substitute whipped off his top and was joined in the corner by team-mates, fans and former Brakes Matty Dodd and Richard Batchelor as the visitors celebrated the very latest of great escapes.
Invigorated by their equaliser, Leamington looked to make the most of their good fortune in extra-time.
Gittings, Baker-Richardson and Austin all sent efforts from distance wide before Edwards blazed over from just eight yards with the goal at his mercy.
Home skipper Sammons was valiantly trying to take the fight to Brakes on his own and a sidefoot effort looked to be heading for the bottom corner before a stray boot deflected it wide.
It was getting into next goal wins territory as the game entered the second period of extra-time and Sammons dragged a shot wide while Veiga was grateful to cling on to a sweetly struck Ogleby volley.
Edwards headed a corner over the bar from six yards and then saw Veiga produce a superb stop with his legs after Austin had picked the midfielder out from the byeline, with Taundry sending the rebound sailing over the bar to signal the need for penalties.
Mackey and Sammons had their efforts saved before Austin put Brakes ahead.
Breeden again guessed right to keep out Shearer’s strike and stepped up to emphatically beat Veiga to put his side two goals to the good.
Merson kept Redditch in it but Taundry’s cool finish meant Carline needed to score to keep the tie alive.
And when the bail sailed over the crossbar, it was Breeden’s turn to be at the heart of another celebratory scrum as Leamington savoured a truly unforgettable night.