Altrincham 2, Guiseley 1 (aet)
Mark Bower can expect some sleepless nights when he becomes a dad again next month.
But it was a raging case of the ‘if onlys’ that caused the weekend insomnia for the Guiseley boss.
If only he had been allowed to play close confidante and midfield mainstay Danny Boshell.
If only ever-present winger Wayne Brooksby had not been hammered from pillar to post at North Ferriby the week before and forced out of contention with a broken jaw.
If only the injured bodies of Danny Forrest or Oli Johnson had been able to stand up to another half an hour or so.
If only Altrincham had never brought on Greg Wilkinson.
As Altrincham gallivanted with their trophy in the Manchester rain, Bower and Boshell stood in isolation – left on the outside looking in. Welcome to the unforgiving world of football management.
The former City defender has had the Midas touch since that difficult first month came to a head with a second-half capitulation on the same Moss Lane pitch.
There was never any danger of a repeat of that sorry showing on Saturday but the agony after the final whistle felt ten times worse.
The shiny cup for winning the Skrill North play-off is a decent addition to the trophy cabinet. But the real prize is that golden ticket to the Conference Premier – and Guiseley were that close.
They have been here before, of course, much too often. This was the fourth year in a row that they fell short in the knock-out stage.
But this was too painful. As Forrest said later, he would rather have been beaten in the lottery of penalties.
The match was in the first of three added minutes at the end of extra-time when the ball broke kindly for Wilkinson to pierce a dagger through the heart of the Lions.
The Altrincham substitute had been in the game a matter of seconds – it was his first touch – and Lee Sinnott had only brought him on to take one of the spot-kicks.
No wonder Bower, and no doubt all his players and the 794-strong Yorkshire contingent in a rammed 4,632 crowd, will have tossed and turned through the early hours.
Sinnott consoled his one-time Valley Parade team-mate afterwards with the message that Guiseley can put it right next season and win the league itself – anything to avoid going through the play-off agony once more. But that won’t ease these memories for a long while.
For the first 20 minutes, it seemed that past ghosts would haunt the visitors. Guiseley looked hesitant – “rabbits caught in the headlights” according to the manager – as Alty knocked the ball round confidently on a difficult surface.
There was an early let-off from former Farsley hitman Damian Reeves, who cleared the bar when clean through on goalkeeper Steve Drench.
Reeves and ex-Guiseley goal machine James Walshaw had been highlighted as the biggest threat. The fact that both were subbed shows how effectively they were marshalled, though the departure of Reeves in the last knockings of the afternoon was to have devastating consequences.
Guiseley settled and grew into the game. Alex Johnson leaned back and lifted a good chance into the packed away terrace but it was his namesake on the right wing who led the response.
Oli Johnson is usually employed as an impact sub because of his long-standing groin problems, which prevent him playing a full game.
With Brooksby sidelined, Bower handed Johnson a rare start to see how long he could get out of him.
Johnson managed until four minutes short of the 90 when the cramp became too much. Alty left back Adam Griffin must have been elated to see him go.
The winger should have fired Guiseley in front just before the break after shrugging off his marker once again. But keeper Stuart Coburn flung out a leg at his close-range shot and the deflection somehow carried over the woodwork.
There was another glorious opportunity three minutes into the second half. Adam Boyes flicked on Andy Holdsworth’s free-kick and it dropped to centre-half Danny Ellis ten yards out.
It was a case of right place, wrong man as the defender’s reticence with a side-foot volley allowed Coburn time to make the save.
That looked a costly miss as Altrincham struck from their next attack. Tricky winger Nicky Clee fed Walshaw in the corner of the box and he pulled it back for James Lawrie to steer just inside the post.
Bower brought on Forrest in response and Guiseley cleared their heads to plot a recovery – and it was the Bantams connection that delivered as Forrest got the decisive touch to divert Jake Lawlor’s thumping header beyond Coburn.
The contest became more open and Drench defied Altrincham sub Kyle Perry. Unfortunately Forrest had to call it quits after half an hour as his troublesome calf, which had made him a pre-match doubt, tightened up once more.
The enforced changes handed the momentum back to the home side for extra-time and Perry lamped a 30-yarder against the bar.
But Guiseley survived the odd scare as both teams girded themselves for the seemingly inevitable penalty shoot-out.
Then, after 121 minutes of combat, Altrincham launched another ball over the top of the tiring yellow ranks.
The fresher legs of the subs got there first as Perry committed Drench to racing from his goal. The keeper made the block but was taken out of the play by the burly striker, allowing Wilkinson to make his first contact with the ball the winning one by shooting into the unprotected net.
Finales have never been so cruel.
Altrincham: Coburn, Densmore, Havern, Leather, Griffin (Marshall 102), Lawrie, Moult, Richman, Clee, Walshaw (Perry 74), Reeves (Wilkinson 119). Subs (not used): Doughty, Saunders.
Guiseley: Drench, Holdsworth, Hall, Ellis, Parker, Lawlor, Potts, O Johnson (Holsgrove 86), Boyes, A Johnson (Forrest 56, Meynell 86), Rothery. Subs (not used): Harrison, Dickinson.