Ramsbottom United overcame a hostile atmosphere and a team that finished second in the league, to clinch a Play-off Final spot at Bamber Bridge on Saturday, and hosts Darlington could have very few complaints about it.
Instead their main target appeared to be referee Mr Mulraine who was cast as the villain of the night, as the home side ended the game with nine men following a series of yellow cards.
From the first minute to the last, this was a game full of incident with talking-points aplenty.
However, based purely on the football played on the night, few would argue that the Rams were deserved winners, as they kept their composure in front of a partisan crowd of almost 2000.
The debate began in the first minute when the Rams’ Owen Roberts clattered into Darlington’s Leon Scott. After lengthy treatment, the player hobbled on for a few minutes before being replaced, and with the home fans baying for blood, the referee showed Roberts a yellow card when the home side were expecting a red.
More yellows followed throughout the night, with the home side being the chief recipients.
The game itself began fairly even, with plenty of effort from both teams, but the Rams stole the initiative on 25 minutes.
Gary Stopforth’s astute pass sent Jordan Hulme into the right hand side of the area. His testing cross was headed behind for a corner, from which Billy Priestley rose highest to despatch a firm header into the back of the net.
That lifted the Rams and Phil Dean almost added a second in the next attack.
Grant Spencer fired a superb effort from 25 yards which home keeper Mark Bell did well to flick over the bar, and it was no real surprise when the visitors extended their advantage on 34 minutes.
A neat flick from Dean sent Hulme scampering down the left wing. He cut inside the box and beat two defenders before planting the ball in by the far post.
At this stage, the Rams were good value for the lead, although the home side should have reduced the arrears before half-time.
The ball fell kindly for David Dowson, fifteen yards from goal, but he somehow screwed the ball wide.
Dowson then went close as he chased a lofted ball into the area, but Rams keeper Martin Fearon reacted quickest to scoop the ball off his toes.
The second half had barely begun before Darlington were reduced to ten men.
Stephen Thompson went down in the box, and with the whole crowd expecting a penalty, the referee deemed that he had dived, produced a second yellow and promptly dismissed him.
Needing to press forward, the dismissal left gaps at the back, and the Rams, having easily dealt with the expected early second half pressure, exploited those on a number of occasions.
The only surprise was that they did not add to their lead.
On 64 minutes, Lee Gaskell beat the offside trap, lofting the ball over Bell but alas also over the bar as it landed on top of the net.
The leading scorer also tried his luck from the edge of the box, but he was wide of the target.
Dean and substitute Dominic Smalley both had chances to finish the game off, but failed to do so, as the Rams comfortably held out, with the defence ably snuffing out whatever the home side had to throw at them. So much so, that keeper Fearon had a relatively quiet night.
The final minute saw the second red card as Darlington’s Jordan Robinson was dismissed after a rash challenge.
Had the Rams returned home with a four or five goal advantage, no-one could have complained, but as it was, the two goal cushion was more than enough to make them worthy winners on the night, and set up a final showdown at Bamber Bridge on Saturday.
The night ended with the referee needing police protection from the baying Darlington fans, a number of whom entered the pitch at the final whistle, whilst the Rams players joined the small band of Rammy supporters in the corner of the ground to celebrate a famous victory for the club.
RAMSBOTTOM UNITED: Fearon, Warrender, Roberts, Stopforth, Howson, Priestley, Spencer(Smalley 78mins), Burton, Gaskell(Robinson 78mins), Hulme, Dean(Pugh 90mins). Subs not used: Toth, Morley