Ramsbottom United gained their second promotion in three seasons in a thriller at the newly christened Sir Tom Finney Stadium, in front of over 1200 fans.
Having disposed of former Football League side Darlington in a night of high controversy on Wednesday, the Rams played out another exciting encounter at Bamber Bridge, bringing the total of spectators watching the side in four days to well over 3000.
Saturday’s game was do-or-die for both sides, but it was the visitors who were victorious, although it took an extra thirty minutes to ensure a route to Evo-Stik Premier after a heart-breaking late penalty appeared to have derailed the opportunity.
The Rams started brightly, and took the lead after just six minutes. Lee Gaskell sprayed the ball out to Grant Spencer on the right wing, and he put in the perfect cross which Gaskell met with his head to plant the ball firmly into the back of the net.
Despite the early disadvantage, though, the home side came back into game and slowly began to hold the upper hand. Ally Waddecar was unlucky to see his shot take a deflection past the far post, before the hosts regained equality on 22 minutes.
The referee played the advantage, allowing the ball to be played out to Waddecar on the right. His low cross missed his team-mates in the centre, but if the Rams thought they had escaped, they were not so fortunate. The ball was played back into the area and Greg Johnstone found the space to direct his header just inside Martin Fearon’s left-hand post.
Paul Alexander saw his free-kick just clear the bar as Brig tried to turn their territorial advantage into a lead.
Having managed to hold out, it looked as though the Rams had grabbed the next goal, with Billy Priestley nodding home a right wing corner, but the referee deemed that Steve Howson had pushed a defender in the area, and promptly blew for a free-kick to the home side.
Jordan Hulme fired over from 15 yards for the Rams before Fearon was called on to produce a magnificent tip over the bar from a close-range Matt Lawlor header.
Whilst the first half was edged by Bridge, the second half belonged to the Rams. For lengthy periods play took place in the home half, as the Brig struggled to put any real attacks together.
A long ball in from Owen Roberts found Gaskell, but his header was tipped over from just underneath the bar by home keeper Lee Dovey.
Howson then headed a Spencer cross over when he could have done better, before Gaskell found acres of space on the left. He sent over a dangerous cross for Spencer, but some quick defending snuffed out the danger.
Gaskell’s next attempt was a backward header from another Spencer corner that went inches over the top, as the Rams were well in control.
The Rams should have regained the lead with ten minutes to go. Hulme squared the ball back for the on-rushing Phil Dean, but he somehow lost his balance and fired wildly over the top.
In an isolated attack from Brig, Howson threw his body in the way of a pile-driver from Curtis Thompson which could have given the hosts an unexpected late lead, but that late lead appeared at the other end, and it was no more than the Rams deserved.
An Owen Roberts corner fell invitingly for Howson on the edge of the box, and he drove it through a ruck of players and in by the post.
With three minutes of normal time left, it looked as though the Rams had booked their place in the Premier Division.
A flare thrown on to the pitch by the home supporters stopped the game for two minutes, and that proved fatal for the Rams. With three additional minutes shown, the game was into the fifth minute of added time when the ball, played around the away penalty area was adjudged by the referee to have been handled by Billy Priestley. Despite the vehement protests, the referee was adamant, and when the arguments had died down, Alexander struck the ball home from the spot to level the scores at 2-2, with the referee blowing the final whistle immediately.
The Rams needed to mentally refocus after what could have been a devastating blow, and fortunately they did so.
After Alex Taylor had screwed a free-kick wide of the post for Brig, Scott Burton fired wide from 25 yards, and substitute Jon Robinson was denied in front of goal by a defender heading over a dangerous cross from Gary Stopforth. From the resultant corner Hulme headed over.
A minute before the break saw the game’s conclusive moment.
Chris Marlow looked on helplessly as his perfect header from a corner appeared to be goal-bound only to see it headed off the Rammy line. Within fifteen seconds, the Rams re-took the lead. The ball was played up field, and Robinson thread it through on the right where the on-rushing Dominic Smalley chased it and just beat Dovey, who had rushed out of his nets. Smalley dinked it past the keeper and into the gaping net to give the Rams the advantage for the third time.
Seconds later Brig lost Lawlor to a second yellow card, and with 15 minutes to play, the Rams were determined to hold on to their slender lead.
Smalley could have made the game safe, but Dovey prevented him adding a fourth, whilst Brig threw everything at the Rams defence in the dying minutes. Fearon held a close-range header from Alexander before making the save of the match with just three minutes to go. Alex Taylor glanced a header from a left wing corner towards the far top corner, but Fearon, at full stretch, finger-tipped it over to deny the Brig with their last clear sight on goal.
The Rams played down the last couple of minutes to gleefully celebrate as the final whistle sounded, and the despair felt half-an-hour earlier was consigned to history.
Promotion had been assured with a performance that deserved the plaudits. Bamber Bridge justified their position in the play-off final, but overall the visitors did enough to justify the victory and with it promotion to non-league’s third tier, the highest position in the club’s history.
After a season which began with four league defeats, followed by a three-point deduction for fielding an ineligible player, to overcome such odds and gain promotion at the end of another memorable season at the Harry Williams Riverside Stadium has been nothing short of miraculous, and all credit must go to the squad and management team for rising to the challenge and turning the season round in such spectacular fashion.
RAMSBOTTOM UNITED: Fearon, Warrender, Roberts, Stopforth, Howson, Priestley, Spencer (Smalley 74mins), Burton, Gaskell (Robinson 90 mins), Hulme, Dean (Pugh 90mins). Subs not used: Toth, Krou