Redditch United's Valley Stadium was pretty much bulging at the seams when I arrived. I managed to get the last spot on the adjacent field, which was being used as an overflow car park and made my way to the turnstile block. It's not often that you get stewards randomly searching people before a non-league game but, I suppose this was a big game and a local derby with a large away contingent expected.
Valley Stadium has everything that you would, or at least I would, want from a non-league football stadium. It has a slightly quirky, certainly unusual, main stand. It has two, quite old and quite substantial, covered standing areas and it has an open end behind one goal. It has atmosphere (especially with over a thousand people inside), character and a sense of history and tradition. You may have guessed that I really liked The Valley.
When the game kicked off it was Redditch who flew out of the blocks. Just three minutes into the game Leamington keeper Tony Breeden needed to be at his best to keep out a stinging Merson volley from the edge of the box. In fact, for the first ten minutes of the game, Redditch practically laid siege to the Leamington goal.
However, The Brakes withstood the onslaught and, slowly but surely, got themselves into the game. It became a little scrappy at this point but Leamington were just glad to have stemmed the red tide that came at them from kick-off. Redditch were still having the majority of possession but, apart from the threat of Merson's long throws, were not causing Breeden any serious problems.
So, at half-time it was 1-0 to Redditch and, on the balance of play, a deserved lead.
With Leamington kicking down the slope and chasing the equaliser I was expecting an onslaught, similar to Redditch's first ten minutes, when the second period began. However, it didn't transpire. Leamington were, no doubt, having more possession than in the first half, but were still not seriously threatening the home goal. In terms of goal-mouth action, at both ends, it was a fairly quiet second half which, I am sure, was just how the home side would have wanted it. However, as the second period progressed, and the victory line came into sight, Redditch started to drop deeper and deeper. Maybe it was nerves, maybe fatigue or perhaps Leamington had upped the tempo and were forcing the backwards. It was hard to tell but, what was noticeable, was that the Redditch backline was getting closer and closer to their own penalty area. A couple of attacking substitutions from Leamington may well have contributed to this as well. Still, the Reds were holding on and a play-off final place seemed to be in the bag.
As we went into the extra-time period, you had to wonder if the Redditch team could lift themselves after having the game snatched away so late on. They certainly gave it all they had, that's for sure. In the first period of extra-time there didn't seem to be any sign that the home heads had dropped. Neither team really came that close to scoring but there was no shortage of endeavour on both parts.
It was still all-square at half-time in extra-time and you had the feeling that the game was going to penalties. It was The Brakes who, during the final 15 minutes, started to get on top and, by the final few minutes, you really got the impression that Redditch were clinging on for dear life. Leamington had a series of attempts, the first of which produced a superb save from Jose Veiga in The Robins goal. A header was then put over the top when it looked easier to score and yet another shot was stopped on the line by Veiga. Momentum had certainly swung fully around to the away side by the time the referee called an end to proceedings.
It would be decided on penalties. A superb spectacle for the crowd, especially neutrals like myself, but a harsh way for a season to end for the losers.
Despite the late hour, not that many of the 1303 inside the Valley had left as Ben Mackey stepped up at the car park end to take the first penalty, which played out like this:
Mackey for Leamington. Saved by Veiga. 0-0
Sammons for Redditch. Saved by Breeden. 0-0
Austin for Leamington. Scored. 0-1
Shearer for Redditch. Saved again by Breeden. 0-1
Breeden turns striker and scores himself. 0-2
Merson for Redditch. Scored. 1-2
Taundry for Leamington. Scored. 1-3
Carline for Redditch. Struck over the bar. 1-3 and game over.
Meanwhile, Leamington's kit man needs a quick trip to the launderette, avoiding Batman if possible, in order to get ready for a trip to Hungerford Town, who came from 2-0 down at Hitchin to record a superb 3-2 victory in the other semi-final.
Best of luck to both teams and may the best side win in the final.
Redditch United - @redditchunited1
Leamington - @leamingtonfc