After four years in non league football, Hartlepool United are back in the big time.

They won the National League play-off final on penalties after a 1-1 draw in extra time against Torquay United in a match filled with high drama, controversy and entertainment.

This game was every reason why it’s so easy to fall in love with football.

The day started with the Pools players receiving a warm welcome from a handful of Pools fans who had already taken their seats in the directors box. The squad took their first steps onto the Ashton Gate pitch and suddenly the stadium erupted with cheers from the fans.

Dave Challinor went with an unchanged matchday squad from the win over Stockport County last weekend. Lewis Cass was back in contention for the game after a hamstring injury but the Pools boss elected to stay with Timi Odusina in the back three who produced his best performance in a Pools shirt at Edgeley Park. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Both sides shared tender moments before kick off applauding their travelling support. The roof nearly blew off at a drizzly Ashton Gate.

The two teams re-entered the field of play to a noise from the crowd that was befitting of a cup final. The national anthem was sung, the ball was in the centre circle and both teams were ready to do battle for a place in the Football League.

Two minutes into the game, the Gulls were awarded a controversial corner and the resulting ball was headed up into the air. The ball dropped and a goalmouth scramble nearly saw the ball diverted goalwards but the ball squirmed wide of the right hand post.

Both sides had the ball in the back of the net in the first ten minutes.

Gary Liddle rose up for a header from a corner challenging goalkeeper Lucas Colovan in the process. He prodded the ball home but he was adjudged to have pushed the shotstopper to the floor.

Minutes later, Kyle Cameron nodded home from a free-kick which sent the Gulls fans into raptures but celebrations were quickly silenced as the referee blew has whistle for a foul. The PA system was still booming Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond for around 10 seconds after the decision was made which caused confusion.

Luke Armstrong had two chances in the next five minutes within his range. Gavan Holohan’s shot squirmed it’s way to Armstrong in the box who’s diverted effort was deflected over the bar. He showed his danger shortly afterwards with Covolan being forced to palm his header wide from a David Ferguson cross. It was a frantic opening to the game to say the least.

Torquay returned the favour with chances of their own. Danny Wright’s first time effort was blocked crucially by Gary Liddle, an effort that seemed destined to fly into the back of the net. Adam Randell tested the finger tips of Brad James with a firm strike from the edge of the box  which he tipped over the bar.

As Pools pressed further up the pitch, the breakthrough came on 36 minutes. Rhys Oates bided his time and unleashed a shot which fell the way of Armstrong. He turned his defender on a sixpence and does what he does best by rifling the ball off the underside of the bar and into the net. Ashton Gate erupted in a see of blue and white.

Oates was always seen as the danger man heading into this game and he showed his prowess once again right on the stroke of half time. A corner from the right was met with a firm header from Oates but Covolan was equal to the task as he palmed the ball over the bar. That was the very last action of the first half.

The Gulls came out the stronger in the second half and had the ball in the back of the net once again in a mirror image to the first disallowed Torquay goal.

Kyle Cameron challenged Brad James in the box and nodded home only for the goal to be ruled out again for a foul. Torquay will feel aggrieved to have two goals chalked off in controversial style.

Gary Johnson’s side were piling the pressure on Pools.

Lemonheigh-Evans went down under the challenge of Timi Odusina in the box just after the hour mark. For a split second, everyone in the press box though he pointed to the penalty spot but he was actually pointing for a goal kick.

The Pools players were tiring and shortly after Oates went off with cramp, he left the field of play for Danny Elliott.

Pools had further chances as Shelton and Holohan tested the keeper with further efforts but Covolan was equal to it.

The Gulls had the momentum and Billy Waters should have equalised two minutes from time when he diverted Danny Wright’s header over the bar from four yards out.

What was to come in stoppage time was nothing short of outrageous.

Lucas Covolan, the goalkeeper bombed forward in the dying embers for a cross and glanced a header into the empty net. Pandemonium ensued in the Torquay end and Pools like down and out as we went to extra time.

Waters was in the thick of the action early doors and found space inside the box after some neat build up play only to be denied by a sliding tackle from Gary Liddle.

Two Pools subs combined minutes later as Zaine Francis-Angol’s low cross was met by Ryan Donaldson but his effort was blocked as well. Both sides were putting their bodies on the line.

The second half of extra time went through the motions as both teams tired and there were some heavy legs. Danny Elliott thought he pinched the win in the last minute when his effort was blocked from close range. It looked like it was flying in.

After 120 minutes, we went to penalties.

Both sides missed their opening two penalties. Nicky Featherstone and Luke Armstrong’s efforts were saved. Billy Waters slipped on the spot and skewed his ball wide for the Gull while Danny Wright’s effort was saved.

We went to sudden death after Mark Shelton, Jamie Sterry and Luke Molyneux all converted.

Further converted spot kicks in sudden death from Danny Elliott and Ryan Donaldson meant Matt Buse had to score to keep them in the game.

Matt Buse stepped up, lashed the ball towards goal and James tipped the ball onto the crossbar which secured their place back in the Football League.

The players, coaches and fans celebrated wildly while the crowd invaded the pitch on a day that well and truly ignored the pandemic. The football club brought an end to four years in the non league wilderness.