Although it looked for all the world that Bromley had it sealed, Brackley Town from a division lower were the ones clasping their hands around the Buildbase FA Trophy at Wembley on Sunday afternoon.
Backed by over 16,000 supporters, Bromley of the Vanarama National League took the initiative in the Trophy final through Omar Bugiel 19 minutes in. After great tenacity and purpose from Adam Mekki in setting him up, the on-loan Forest Green Rovers striker buried a left-footed finish to send the south east Londoners’ fans wild.
Neil Smith’s team had to withstand much pressure at times, as National League North outfit Brackley, beaten in their play-off final just a week ago against Harrogate Town, went close on several occasions. With five minutes of stoppage time, the clock was in its final added minute when Brackley’s pressure paid off.
Perhaps fittingly, it was defender and captain Gaz Dean, who had typically thrown himself at everything up the other end, who nudged the Saints level. Full-back Matt Lowe struck the post from the edge of the box and there was Dean to push it home – just about!
“I think my head was on the (score) board, so try and take that off me! I spoke to (Bromley’s) Roger Johnson and he said it was my goal, and it came off my foot, so at the end of the day, it’s my goal.
“My head was on the board in front of 31,000 people, so I don’t think you can take that goal off me.”
The battle continued into extra-time but it would be settled by penalties. Again, Brackley had to pull it out of the fire, after trailing when Shane Byrne’s opening spot kick was saved by David Gregory.
It swung gloriously in their favour, though, with the next five Brackley kicks converted, while Bromley’s Bugiel skied his attempt and captain Jack Holland hit the post. For Dean, who played for Brackley manager Kevin Wilkin at Nuneaton Town, there was added significance to the success, given the fact that Wilkin was beaten as Wrexham manager at Wembley in this competition three years ago.
The Welsh side were defeated by North Ferriby United on penalties that day and Wilkin was sacked soon after, but the tables were turned today.
“These boys never know when to stop and lay down and die,” Dean added. “We showed what we’re really about; true team spirit, grit and desire.
“Just absolutely delighted for the boys, the fans, the gaffer, because it’s his second time here and it means so much to me because he’s given me so much.”
The aforementioned Irishman Shane Byrne, who has enjoyed an outstanding season in midfield, had said last month that winning neither promotion nor the Trophy would mean that it had not been a good campaign for him. Victory at Wembley in such fashion left him feeling in buoyant spirit at a season that saw Brackley finish third as the top part-time team in their division.
“I think losing last week sort of drives you on to win here today; you don’t want to be going off what has been a great season for us with two losses in two finals. It would have been a cruel, cruel way to go out.
“We said to each other on Tuesday in training, after the Harrogate game, we’re glad we’ve got another chance to go and set that right. I thought today we were magnificent, I really did.
“It’s a cruel way to win a game of football, on penalties. Missed mine – only one in our squad to miss – but I said before the game I’ll take scoring three own goals if we win 4-3.”
For Bromley manager Neil Smith, it is also a year that has heralded a great deal to shout about, with another improvement in the league (9th), and a return to the national stadium after 69 years away. That was in the ex-Reading, Fulham and Gillingham midfielder’s thoughts amongst the pain of defeat in a Trophy final they were a matter of seconds away from clinching.
“I’m just upset for the players,” he said. “I thought up until the 94th minute they’d done everything right.”
“We let that goal in right at the death with ten seconds to go, I think it was. Then they showed character to stay in it for extra-time and then it seems like it was snatched away again going into penalties.
“But the players have been absolutely brilliant for me. Since we came in in pre-season to where we are today we’ve made massive strides this club, so I am proud of them.”
The day belonged to the team from the little Northamptonshire market town, though, and as substitute Andy Brown sunk the winning penalty that spelled delirium for the few thousand in red and white, manager Kevin Wilkin was able to cherish an incredible high for himself and his club.
He paid tribute to the Brackley faithful on a day the club will never forget:
“They were just fantastic. The moment when Gaz scores the equaliser, when we’re seconds away from being on the end of a defeat, just the noise and the sheer jubilation, it was just fantastic for everybody at the club.
“I’ve been very well supported throughout, with the board allowing me to get on with the job and mould the team. They’ve always supported me if I needed to go and change something.
“They’ve always been behind me, and when you get that level of support, hopefully days like this can happen on a regular basis.”