TONBRIDGE ANGELS won a pulsating ‘super play-off’ final at Imber Court, edging past Metropolitan Police to claim a place in National League South.
It’s the highest division in the league stucture the club has ever achieved – two tiers below League Two – having also been there in 2010-14.
This was a deserved win but they were made to battle every inch of the way by a young and talented Met side – the Angels’ experience may have made the differenece.
But it was a close run thing with just four minutes of normal time left on the clock when they equalised to force the tie into extra-time.
Fittingly D’Sean Theobalds’ goal – his first for the club – was a brilliant strike by any standards.
‘We’ve had to do some ducking and diving with players and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t’
Tonbridge made the better start and in the first 15 minutes chances fell to Tom Derry, Joe Turner twice, Adem Ramadan and Arthur Lee.
But with only their second attack of the game Metropolitan Police were in front. A penetrating move down the left flank in the 18th minute left two Angels players on the deck.
The ball was threaded through to the home side’s man of the match, Ethan Chislett, and the midfielder curled a shot into the top right-hand corner, giving keeper Jonny Henly no chance.
The Met took control and should have added to their tally five minutes later but Henly made a fine save.
In the 27th minute Craig Stone’s short cross found Chinedu McKenzie in a perfect position but the Angels striker was unable to take his chance.
The large and vocal contingent of 600 travelling supporters were thankful that their side were still in contention with the deficit only 1-0 at half-time.
Seven minutes into the second half, the visitors were awarded a free kick just outside the area for handball and Lee’s shot found the back of the net via the slightest of deflections.
The Angels threatened to turn the screw and only a superb double save by Met keeper Bertie Schotterl prevented them from taking the lead.
On 57 minutes the hosts were ahead again as Henley’s punched clearance hit Luke Robertson and the winger saw the rebound drop into the net.
The Angels piled on the pressure against a tiring but determined Police rearguard. With time running out, midfielder Theobalds took possession just inside the Met half and jinked and weaved his way past several players.
‘We knew we had to be patient but we were a bit nervous, it’s a final. But I was positive we’d come out on top’
He made the space to execute a shot that found the narrowest of gaps between Schotterl and the left-hand post to take the game into extra-time.
The Angels had chances to finish the tie in normal time but they had to wait until the seventh minute of the additional half-hour.
Substitute Jared Small was isolated on the right wing but managed to get the better of his marker and swung in an excellent cross.
Derry was lurking with intent at the back post and made no mistake in planting a firm header past Schotterl for the Angels to take the lead for the first time in the game.
The Met forced Henly into action before the end but Tonbridge saw the game out and their fans invaded the pitch to mob their heroes.
Having won the play-off final of the Bostik League Premier in front of more than 2,200 fans at Longmead on Bank Holiday Monday, it was a superb double feat inside a week.
‘It’s now or never – just go for it’
Angels manager Steve McKimm said after the match: “To get promotion is testament to the extraordinary effort of everyone at this club.
“That’s three tough games we’ve had [in the play-offs] and this is the toughest because we knew nothing about them. They had lots of energy and put us under pressure. But we were clever when we had the ball and we managed to find little spaces.”
Of D’Sean Theobalds’ wonder goal he said: “It was massive, he’s been outstanding for me since [I signed him at] Christmas – but all those players deserve a pat on the back.
“We’ve had to do some ducking and diving with players and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but this half a season it has worked.
Theobalds said: “The gaffer’s always telling me, ‘you need to shoot more’. The opportunity came to me and there wasn’t much time on the clock so I said to myself, ‘it’s now or never – just go for it’.
“I always thought, we’ve got this. We knew we had to be patient but we were a bit nervous, it’s a final. But I was positive we’d come out on top.
“Everyone gets on, we’ve got a great mix and it’s a friendly club. It’s about people believing in me and I’m glad I could repay them.”
‘Distant dream’ comes true
The club’s chairman, Dave Netherstreet, congratulated his players after their remarkable 75th anniversary season.
He said: “I would like to thank all our owners, sponsors, volunteers, staff and everyone associated with the club, both past and present, for helping the club to achieve promotion.
“It is through everyone’s hard work and endeavours over this and the previous seasons that we have been able to support the players and the management team this season and to provide a sound base for the future of TAFC.
“There have been so many challenges this year that sometimes made what happened yesterday a distant dream, and I am so proud of everyone who has helped make the impossible happen.
“The players and management team have suffered for the club and deserve all the plaudits that they will receive, but there are also the unsung heros such as Martin and Adam [Meads] the kit men and Melvyn [Slight] and Tina [Jenner] our physios, who did so much work outside of matchdays and have kept the team going through a very long and hard season.
“Enjoy the moment and let us all look forward with pride to the next episode in the Angels’ story.”