Hartlepool have secured a return to the Football League by beating Torquay on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the National League play-off final.
Luke Armstrong’s first-half strike appeared to have sent Hartlepool up to League Two, but Torquay goalkeeper Lucas Covolan scored a dramatic equaliser in the fifth minute of added time to force extra-time at Ashton Gate.
His unexpected headed goal five minutes into time added-on in Bristol gave Torquay another chance to end their seven-year stay in non-league, yet plucky Hartlepool prevailed nevertheless after extra-time and penalties to end a four-year stint in non-league football.
Just eight minutes in, Torquay looked to have gone ahead through Kyle Cameron, but Pools keeper Brad James had been impeded.
Rhys Oates – with 18 goals in all competitions this season – sparked Pools into life by driving forward and troubling Covolan with a low shot that proved tricky to smother.
Armstrong almost notched when connecting with Gavan Holohan’s effort, but the Gulls cleared only for the Salford loanee to come close again with a header that Covolan palmed away.
In the 36th minute, Armstrong did break through for Pools, collecting Oates’ rebound effort and blasting home off the crossbar.
The Gulls were brighter in the second half and just before the hour mark, Cameron again had the ball in the net.
However, another foul on keeper James meant that goal was chalked off too; the quest for a leveller continued and few fans would have guessed from where or whom it would eventually come in the last minute of normal time.
Remarkably, Covolan – a former team-mate of Liverpool’s own keeper-turned-scorer Alisson Becker – followed a fine display in goal by delivering at the other end.
He raced into the Pools box for a Torquay corner, which was cleared, but when the ball was lumped back forward from deep on the right, Covolan rose to nod past James, stunning leggy Pools and forcing them to play 30 more minutes.
Shell-shocked, Hartlepool survived the first period without further damage, although Torquay did lose Jake Andrews to a nasty-looking injury, and while Pools pushed harder across the final 15, penalties could not be avoided.
Four straight misses got nerves jangling until six straight spot-kicks were converted and sudden death was required.
After Ryan Donaldson scored for Pools, Torquay’s Matt Buse saw his effort pushed onto the bar by James, confirming promotion for Dave Challinor’s men and banishing memories of Covolan’s sucker punch.