Ashton Athletic are the new holders of the Partners Foundation Lancashire FA Challenge Trophy after a memorable 2-1 win over Radcliffe Borough at Bolton Wanderers’ Macron Stadium.
After going a goal down just before the hour mark, Ashton drew level when Danny Smith finished off a well worked move from close range, and as the game moved into stoppage time substitute Lee Vaughan rifled home a cracking 20 yarder into the top corner of the net, to clinch the victory for the Yellows.
It was the first time that Athletic had reached the final in their 49 year history, and they will now go down in the record books as winners of the competition alongside illustrious names such as Bury, Blackpool, Wigan Athletic, Rochdale and Accrington Stanley.
Future reflections back on the game will probably deliver a verdict that the outcome was well deserved for Ashton after their second half display, but credit must also go to Radcliffe Borough for the part they played in an entertaining final, that was played in an excellent spirit and delivered 90 minutes of free flowing end-to-end football.
Athletic came into the game with legitimate optimism, having seen off Vanarama National League side Chorley in the semi final, and facing a team only 15 places above them in the National League system, albeit in a division above, but although they enjoyed an equal share of possession in the early stages, it was Radcliffe who always carried a greater threat in front of goal in the first half.
A shot on the turn from Jack Hindle and a speculative long range effort from Lewis Reilly were dealt with comfortably enough by Athletic keeper Martin Pearson early on, but the Yellows had a narrow escape on 13 minutes when Radcliffe’s Daniel Burns evaded his marker and just failed to connect from close range with a cross from Lassana Nalatche, as the Ashton defence were caught ball watching.
Ashton were largely restricted to long range efforts with captain Paul Watson and Daniel Regan both trying their luck from outside the box, and Radcliffe always looked the more threatening when they broke with pace on the counter attack.
Their two best efforts of the first half arrived in the space of a minute just after the half hour, when first a cracking shot from Elliot Rokka was tipped over by Pearson, and from the resulting corner, Rokka swung in a delightful near post cross that Nalatche met with a glancing header that narrowly missed the far post.
Ashton enjoyed a spell of decent territorial advantage as half time approached, but it was Radcliffe who finished on the front foot, with Rokka’s effort from a Burns cross missing the target seconds before the half time whistle blew.
A lively opening to the second half saw chance at both ends, with Elliot Rokka squandering a good chance for Radcliffe with a poor final ball after fine work had taken him into the box.
Ashton hit back, and after a well struck Danny Smith free kick was neatly gathered by Radcliffe keeper O’Loughlin down at his far post, a Sam Bailey corner kick was flicked on by Joel Brownhill, and Callum Wilsoin just failed to connect at full stretch at the back post.
But Radcliffe finally broke the deadlock just before the hour mark, when Pearson in the Ashton goal could only parry a well struck 25 yarder from Timmy Raheem, and Jack Hindle pounced on the loose ball to fire home from close range.
It was a bitter blow to Athletic, who had begun the half well, and they had a narrow escape two minutes later when Hindle won a chase for ball at the bye line and his cut back almost found the incoming Rokka in the six yard box.
But they hit back and a surging run down the right from Aaron Cringle set up a shooting chance for substitute Marcus Cusani, and when his effort was blocked it fell invitingly for Daniel Regan, but he blazed his shot over from the edge of the box.
Two minutes later, Regan had another chance when he got on the end of a Cusani cross but could only steer his header wide, but with 20 minutes remaining Ashton finally made the breakthrough and drew level with a delightfully worked goal.
Once again, Cusani’s pace down the left caused problems for the Radcliffe defence, and his ball into Joel Brownhill was teed up nicely for Danny Smith who tucked the ball home from inside the six yard box.
It was the move of the night and worthy of the goal that was celebrated with gusto by the Ashton players and supporters alike, and they began to push forward with increased confidence in search of a winner.
The prompting of Watson in midfield, the surging runs of Cusani down the left and the willingness of full backs Cringle and Howard to race forward down the flanks at every opportunity began to cause rising consternation in the Radcliffe defence, and the Ashton pressure paid off just as the fourth official signalled four added minutes of stoppage time.
A long clearance forward wasn’t dealt with by the Radcliffe defence, and the ball fell invitingly to Lee Vaughan, who smashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net for a memorable goal.
But Radcliffe weren’t finished and the remaining nerve-shredding minutes were spent almost entirely camped in the Ashton half, winning several corners before the last chance of the game arrived.
A cross was heaved deep into the box and as Ashton keeper Pearson advanced to collect it, he was beaten to the ball by Jacques Kpohomou, whose header crept inches past the far post.
But seconds later the final whistle blew, and the Ashton celebrations began on a night that club Chairman Jimmy Whyte described afterwards as “the greatest in the club’s history”.