My first visit to the Neuven stadium as a neutral didn’t disappoint, with Radcliffe’s passionate fan base out in good voice in their Evo-Stick West Play-Off Final against Leek Town yesterday.
It was Boro’s first chance at promotion in 16 years, not since the 02/03 season have they been in contention for promotion to a higher level.
The game started at a fairly low tempo, with Radcliffe having most of the ball and creating all the chances. But it was Leek Town who made the breakthrough with an excellent ball into the box by former Liverpool academy man Dan Trickett-Smith, who found Rob Stevenson unmarked in the box and duly poked the ball home past Radcliffe keeper Ollie Martin to give Leek a 1-0 lead in the 36th minute.
This was the high spot of a fairly tame first half. Radcliffe made one change in the break, Matty Crothers coming on for Lee Neville. The team clearly responded positively to Boro manager Jon Mackens half time pep talk, as they stepped up their gear and played with a greater sense of urgency than in the first half.
As Leek struggled to match their opponents, Radcliffe started to find joy down the left-hand side of the pitch. Getting almost instant second-half success when top scorer Tunde Owolabi tapped into the back of the Leek net from a couple of yards out, after a well-squared pass from the recently introduced Matty Crothers in the 46th minute.
The vocal support from the Radcliffe faithful grew as they could sense a real chance of promotion unfolding on the pitch in front of them. Boro continued to turn the screw and apply pressure with an Owolabi effort firing just wide, and a goalmouth scramble in the Leek town box seeing many efforts blocked.
The pressure ultimately told. In the 62nd minute, Kyle Harrison did well to jink his way into the box from the left wing once again, where Leek left-back Lewis Short lunged in and brought Harrison down. Ben Wharton stepped up and fired home the resulting penalty to complete the second half turnaround.
Leek Town was to have a late penalty shout of their own turned down in the 75th minute when Rob Stevenson went down to a sliding Boro challenge in the box. The referee immediately waved it away to the relief of the home supporters, who were becoming more jubilant as the final whistle approached.
Five tense minutes of added time ticked away and as the full-time whistle was blown. Joyful scenes ensued. Large sections of the fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate with their heroes in what was not only a huge win for the club but, a huge win for the town of Radcliffe. Such passion for teams representing their community is often lost at higher levels of the game.
Radcliffe were very gracious hosts and look to be operating in the right way and hopefully, have more success coming their way in the future. Today’s promotion was for their loyal fan base and for their former club photographer Pete Lee, who sadly passed away in a road traffic accident earlier this season.
Today’s performance and result would have made him very proud.