|After extra time|
Hartlepool United win 5–4 on penalties
|Event||2020–21 National League|
|Date||20 June 2021|
|Venue||Ashton Gate Stadium, Bristol|
|Man of the Match|| Gary Liddle|
|Weather||Partially cloudy, 17 °C (63 °F)|
The 2021 National League play-off Final, known as the Vanarama National League Promotion Final for sponsorship reasons, was an association football match played on 20 June 2021 at the Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol between Torquay United and Hartlepool United. It determined the second and final team to gain promotion from the National League, English football's fifth tier, to EFL League Two. The team that finished first in the 2020–21 National League gained automatic promotion to League Two, while the teams placed from second to seventh participated in the play-offs. Sutton United gained the only automatic promotion spot to League Two. The winners of the semi-finals competed for the final promotion spot for the 2021–22 EFL League Two. The losing play-off quarter-finalists were Chesterfield and Bromley. In the following round, Notts County and Stockport County were eliminated in the semi-finals.
The game, which was refereed by Simon Mather, was played on a partially cloudy day in front of a reduced crowd of 6,606. Hartlepool took the lead in the thirty-fifth minute through Luke Armstrong. Hartlepool managed to hold on to their lead until the ninety-fifth minute when Torquay's goalkeeper Lucas Covolan headed in an equaliser. The match remained 1–1 after extra time, meaning that penalties would determine the outcome of the game. Hartlepool won 5–4 on penalties after a miss by Torquay's Matt Buse meaning that Hartlepool earned promotion to the 2021–22 EFL League Two. Gary Liddle, the veteran Hartlepool defender was named the man of the match. In contrast to recent years where the final was contested at Wembley Stadium, the venue of Ashton Gate was selected to avoid clashes with UEFA Euro 2020 matches. Furthermore, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the stadium's capacity for the match was reduced from 27,000 by approximately 75% to allow social distancing measures.
Route to the final
Torquay United finished the regular 2020–21 season in second place in the National League, the fifth tier of the English football league system, two places ahead of their opponents Hartlepool United. Both therefore missed out on the only automatic promotion spot to EFL League Two and instead took part in the play-offs to determine the second team to be promoted. Torquay United finished four points behind Sutton United, whereas Hartlepool finished eight points behind the leaders.
Due to the layout of the play-offs, teams who finished in 2nd and 3rd automatically qualify for the play-off semi-finals. Therefore, Torquay automatically qualified for the play-off semi-final where they met fifth-place Notts County on 12 June 2021 at Plainmoor, Torquay. The Gulls took an early lead after thirty five seconds via a header by Danny Wright. The Magpies equalised before half-time with a strong header by Rúben Rodrigues. Torquay retook the lead in the 48th minute with another goal via Danny Wright with a right-footed strike from 12 yards out. Notts County then equalised for a second time only three minutes later after a corner dropped to the defender Adam Chicksen who fired into the top-left corner. After 90 minutes, the match remained level at 2–2 meaning that the match would continue into extra time. In extra time, Torquay took the lead for the third time in the match by a header from Asa Hall via a corner kick. In added time in the first half of extra time, Torquay were awarded a controversial penalty. Dean Moxey stepped up to convert the penalty to guarantee Torquay's place in the play-off final by winning 4–2.
On the other hand, Hartlepool missed out on a top 3 spot on the final day of the season despite a 4–0 win against Weymouth meaning that they would have to play an additional match. Therefore, Hartlepool met seventh place Bromley at Victoria Park, Hartlepool on 6 June 2021. Pools took the lead in the 17th minute after a long-ball by captain Nicky Featherstone from his own half. Top-scorer Rhys Oates managed to get to the ball before the goalkeeper Mark Cousins to make it 1–0. Three minutes later, Luke Armstrong doubled Hartlepool's lead after a cross from Rhys Oates. In the 24th minute, Rhys Oates scored a left-footed shot from just outside of the penalty area to make it 3–0. The second half was more even and Bromley reduced the deficit with a header from a corner by James Alabi in the 48th minute. Bromley scored a second goal from a long throw-in in the 93rd minute by defender Byron Webster. However, the goal was only a consolation as Hartlepool closed out the game to guarantee their spot in the semi-final.
This win against Bromley set up a semi-final match away at Stockport County on 13 June 2021 at Edgeley Park, Stockport. Stockport entered the game as strong favourites to win the play-off competition. The match ended up being a tight affair with few chances for either team. Hartlepool managed to take the lead in the 76th minute with a left-footed strike from outside of the penalty area by Rhys Oates. The match stayed this way meaning that Hartlepool would end County's 18 match unbeaten run to progress to the play-off final in Bristol.
|5 June 2021||Notts County||3–2||Chesterfield||Meadow Lane, Nottingham|
|16:00||Wootton 30', 71'
|Attendance: 4,569 |
Referee: Tom Reeves
|6 June 2021||Hartlepool United||3–2||Bromley||Victoria Park, Hartlepool|
|14:30||Oates 17', 24'
|Referee: Lewis Smith|
|12 June 2021||Torquay United||4–2||Notts County||Plainmoor, Torquay|
|12:00||Wright 1', 48'
Moxey 109' (pen.)
|Attendance: 1,709 |
Referee: Andrew Kitchen
|13 June 2021||Stockport County||0–1||Hartlepool United||Edgeley Park, Stockport|
|12:00||Report||Oates 76'||Attendance: 2,758 |
Referee: David Richardson
The 2020–21 season was overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic which had forced the cancellation of the preceding 2019–20 in March 2020. The vast majority of fixtures were played behind closed doors to avoid transmission of COVID-19. As COVID-19 restrictions were relaxing, fans were allowed to return to stadiums at a reduced capacity. On 17 May 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that stadium capacities would be at 25% to allow social distancing for the return of supporters. The normal capacity of Ashton Gate is 27,000 meaning that both clubs were allocated approximately 3,100 tickets each.
Torquay, who were managed by Gary Johnson, were in 1st place for the majority of the season. The Gulls went to the top of the league in October 2020 before losing top spot in March 2021. They briefly regained top spot in April and May 2021 also. Before the play-off semi-final, the Gulls were on an unbeaten run of thirteen matches. Torquay had previously won one National League play-off final by 2–0 against Cambridge United in 2009. Torquay were looking to return to the Football League for the first time since their relegation in 2014. Since this relegation, Torquay mostly struggled in non-league and were relegated to the National League South in 2018. The Gulls returned to the fifth tier as champions at the first attempt and then finished in 14th place in 2019–20.
Hartlepool, who were managed by Dave Challinor, guaranteed their play-off spot with a 3–1 win at Aldershot Town on 15 May 2021. After an unbeaten run of 16 between February and May, Hartlepool had an erratic end to the season by losing three of their final five fixtures to finish in 4th place. Since the last time Hartlepool experienced promotion in 2007, they have been relegated twice and have only finished in the top half twice. Hartlepool are looking to return to the Football League which they joined in 1921 before being relegated from League Two in 2017. Prior to the match, Hartlepool had never been promoted via the play-offs in any division and had lost their only previous play-off final in 2005.
In the matches between the two clubs in the regular season, both teams won their away games. In October 2020, Torquay hammered Hartlepool 5–0 at Victoria Park, live on BT Sport. However, Hartlepool picked up three points by winning 1–0 at Plainmoor in March 2021. Hartlepool's top scorer going into the final was Rhys Oates with 14 goals in the regular season before he scored an additional three goals during the play-off campaign. Torquay's top scorer was midfielder Asa Hall with 12 league goals. Before the match, Hartlepool were regarded as marginal favourites to win the final by the bookmakers.
The match was broadcast live on BT Sport 1 with coverage starting at 13:00.
Just eight minutes in Torquay looked to have gone ahead through Cameron, but Pools keeper Brad James had been impeded. The decision to disallow the goal after a perceived foul on Hartlepool's goalkeeper was a controversial one and was strongly disputed by Torquay. This seemed to galvanise Hartlepool. Rhys Oates – with 17 goals in all competitions this season – sparked Pools into life by driving forward and troubling Covolan with a low shot that proved tricky to smother. Armstrong almost notched when connecting with Gavan Holohan’s effort, but the Gulls cleared only for the Salford loanee to come close again with a header that Covolan palmed away. In the 36th minute, Armstrong did break through for Pools, collecting Oates’ rebound effort and blasting home off the crossbar. In the 43rd minute, both sets of fans joined in a round of applause in memory of Hartlepool fan Danny Shurmer who had passed away in the previous week at the age of 43. The Gulls were then lucky not to be two goals down in the final seconds of the half as Oates found himself unmarked from a corner and saw a powerful header parried over the bar by Covolan.
Early in the second half, Kyle Cameron had another goal disallowed by the referee after another foul on Brad James. Late on, Hartlepool nearly scored two more goals via Mark Shelton and Gavan Holohan, however, both shots were blocked by Torquay defenders. In the final moments Torquay threw everything at their opponents and substitute Billy Waters missed a close-range effort in the 89th minute. In the fifth minute of injury time, Torquay's goalkeeper Covolan raced into the Pools box for a Torquay corner, which was cleared, but when the ball was lumped back forward from deep on the right, Covolan rose to nod past James, stunning Pools and forcing them to play 30 more minutes.
Waters had two efforts blocked as Torquay dominated the early stages of the first period of extra time. Jake Andrews of Torquay was stretchered off with an injury which allowed a previously deflated Hartlepool to regain some momentum. Pools had a penalty appeal turned down in the first half and pushed for a winner via Danny Elliott in the second half of extra time. However, both sides had to settle for a penalty shootout to decide the winner.
|20 June 2021
|Hartlepool United||Ashton Gate Stadium|
Referee: Simon Mather
|Covolan 90+5'||Report||Armstrong 35'|
Torquay's manager Gary Johnson said that: "Lucas (Covolan) could have been, and was our hero, saving two penalties and obviously scoring his goal. Unfortunately his team-mates missed three penalties and you're not going to win a final if you miss three penalties. It's disappointing because we thought we might have had two goals during the game which would have put us clear. I've asked the referee to come back to me and have a look at the video and let me know if he still thinks they're fouls for the goals, but I've been around a long time and a thousand times I've asked that over the seasons and never has a referee come back to me and said 'sorry about that'."
Hartlepool's manager Dave Challinor said: "It feels amazing, absolutely amazing. You come into these play-off scenarios knowing that it could be a bit of a lottery and I suppose that game was the ultimate lottery. When our best two penalty-takers miss and their best two penalty-takers miss you start questioning what's going on a little bit. But I'm massively delighted and made up for the players. This is a group of lads who back in June when we came back were trialists, were lads who'd been discarded from other clubs, and we spoke about giving them a platform to perform. The group now has a chance of staying together because our scenario as a football club is massively different between being a National League club and Football League club. There's been a lift of positivity around the football club, stuff off the field is looking good, and being in the Football League will only aid that process."
|National League play-offs|