WEST Auckland are on their way to Wembley again, thanks to supersubs Steve Richardson and Stuart Banks.
West reached the final for the second time in three seasons, but they did it the hard way, coming back from a goal down to score twice in the last 11 minutes to win 2-1 at St Andrews.
They will ensure that the Northern League has a representative in the final for the sixth successive season.
West will play Hampshire side Sholing, who beat Eastbourne United 6-4 on aggregate in the other semi-final, on May 10, but their talisman, Mattie Moffat, is a doubt for the big day having suffered a fractured cheekbone – the same injury that restricted him when they lost to Dunston UTS two seasons ago.
West proved once again that they cannot be written off – as some St Andrews fans were doing in the 1,415 crowd – after teenager Brady Hickey volleyed them into the lead on the hour. That goal finally sparked West into life.
Nicknamed “Speedy”, Richardson came for the injured Moffat midway through the first half and even though he was the smallest man on the field, he pulled West back into the game with a well placed header, and then claimed the last touch on the end of a Banks’ effort.
Manager Peter Dixon said; “It’s a great feeling to reach Wembley again. It’s a slightly different feeling because we’re not playing another Northern League team, we’re playing somebody that we don’t know.
“I thought we controlled the first half, without really looking as if we would score, a bit like the first leg.
“I thought Brian Close was a colossus in midfield, he got through so much work, either winning the ball and setting the attack away, or getting back behind the ball and making them work hard.
“I thought that fate was against us though. In the first half we had a penalty claim turned down, and we lost Mattie because of injury.
“And in the second half, we had another penalty claim turned away, John Campbell hit the bar, and they scored. I just thought it wasn’t going to be our day “But then the lads showed an attitude that is second to none, and fought back to win the game with goals by the two subs.”
At half time, the game looked as if it would end in a stalemate like last week’s game at the Seagrave Stadium, although in the first half West found more space in attack than they did last week.
However, when the openings did come along, their shooting was hurried and wayward.
Moffat and Dennis Knight both fired wide, and Knight had a low free kick pushed away by the keeper, although the ball looked as if it was going out.
West suffered a blow when Moffat went off injured when he took a blow on the cheek as he went for a left wing cross, an injury that could keep him out of the final.
West started the second half well, as they found space down their right hand side.
Shaun Vipond and Brian Close fired low crosses into the six yard box without anyone managing to get a touch, then they were denied a penalty when Robbie Briggs worked his way along the goalline and was fouled by Toby Warner. The ref, Steve Martin, gave a free kick despite their protests.
And a West breakthrough seemed inevitable when St Andrews keeper Luke Hall just managed to push away a free kick from John Campbell.
But instead the opening goal was at the other end, a cleverly executed volley by Brady Hickey from the edge of the area that beat keeper Jordan Nixon all ends up and good enough to win any cup tie. It also prompted two flares to be thrown on to the field.
And some of the locals decided that that it was their day and they would be going to Wembley when John Campbell’s sweet volley from 30 yards cannoned down off the underside of the bar.
West have proved several times this season that they have deep reserves of character – they came back from 3-1 down with ten men to draw 3-3 with Celtic Nation a fortnight ago – and once again, they came good with an inspired final 11 minutes.
They deservedly levelled on 79 minutes when Knight whipped in a free kick from the left, and there was Richardson, left completely unmarked, to head in from six yards. That was the cue for a delirious pitch invasion from the West fans.
There was another invasion with four minutes left. From their 11th corner, Knight put the ball into the box for sub Banks, on for skipper Andrew Green, to fire into the bottom corner through a crowd of players, with Richardson claiming the last touch before a defender, and Briggs completely missing it along the way.
It could have been 3-1, as St Andrews wilted, with Briggs firing into the side netting in stoppage time.
The final whistle saw a wild invasion by West fans, and players being carried shoulder high in the middle of the pitch.