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08:20 5th June 2012
By  Andrew Barringer

Wembley has so often been the scene for great moments in the Hatters' history and after Andre Gray's goal inside 71 seconds gave them a 1-0 lead, it seemed as though their 30,000 supporters would be celebrating a return to League football.

Alas York City - Wembley winners themselves just eight days earlier in the FA Trophy - hit back, firstly through Ashley Chambers and then, controversially, through Matty Blair, to record a 2-1 victory and with it a place in the 92 club.

For the Town it means a fourth season in the Blue Square Bet Premier awaits, and a summer of reflection on what might have been.

Galling, frustrating and disappointing in the end but it started so well.

Paul Buckle kept the faith with the same starting XI that had done the business in both semi-final legs against Wrexham that set-up their second successive Play-Off final showdown.

And, unbelievably with barely two minutes on the clock, the Hatters had the lead to spark wild celebrations in the East end of Wembley.

George Pilkington strode forward and found Robbie Willmott down the left. Faced with two York defenders the winger slipped a perfect square pass inside to the unmarked Gray. Such is the 20-year-old's confidence, a first-time side-footed effort caught everyone by surprise and within a flash the ball bounced past Michael Ingham, the York goalkeeper, pinged off the post and nestled gloriously in the back of the net.

The perfect start. There's an age-old adage in football that in big games you can score too early but unfazed, the Town went in search of a second. Alex Lawless saw a 25-yard drive zip wide on seven minutes before fellow midfielder Adam Watkins had a left-foot shot deflect into the arms of Ingham a minute later.

It was all the Town, swept along in the euphoria of their early lead, but after Willmott blazed a shot high, wide and handsome on nine minutes, York began to get a foot-hold in proceedings.

Jason Walker, so close to winning the Hatters promotion last season with a header that rebounded off the post with a minute left at Manchester, wriggled past Janos Kovacs to tee-up Lanre Oyebanjo but the midfielder's near post effort was off target on 10 minutes.

It was almost one a piece on 13 minutes as York continued to probe. Lawless, who was hoping to avoid his third successive final defeat having been in the City team that lost in Oxford in the 2009 final, brilliantly denied Jon Challinor's goal-bound effort with a brave block on the six-yard box.

That was a close call, and three minutes later the Minstermen came even closer to levelling things up when the Hatters had Mark Tyler to thank for a fine save at full stretch to tip over Walker's header.

Back came the Town as possession of their own alleviated the York pressure but all they could must was a Stuart Fleetwood shot that was blazed over on 24 minutes after the pace and power of Gray had caused the York defence problems.

However, there was no doubting Gary Mills' side were on top, and there was inevitability in the air when York equalised on 26 minutes. Pilkington was harshly adjudged to have committed a foul down the York right. Swung in, the free-kick was only half-cleared by the Town, allowing City skipper Chris Smith to hook a square pass back into the box. Chambers was first to it, and the finish was of the top drawer, lashing home high into the roof of the net from 10 yards giving Tyler absolutely no chance.

The leveller woke the Town from their slumber. Jake Howells shot wide on 34 minutes before Gray and Watkins failed to make telling connections when the ball dropped their way twice in the box two minutes later.

Now the Town were back in the mood and livewire Gray almost restored their lead five minutes before the break. Faced by a wall of red shirts the goalscorer decided to go the long way around the York defence and succeeded in powering past one man before drilling a low shot that Ingham did well to get his fingers to prevent from finding the bottom corner. With Watkins sniffing for a tap-in, York were quick to boot the ball to safety.

By now, as half-time approached, the Hatters were in the ascendency - Watkins and Lawless combining that saw the latter warm Ingham's palms on 45 minutes, before Fleetwood rolled a shot into the goalkeeper's arms in final minute of first-half injury time.

After no changes at the interval, it was role reversed at the start of the second half as York took the lead within two minutes of the restart. A long throw down the right was flicked on at the near post by Walker into the path of Blair who made no mistake with an unerring finish past Tyler from five yards. Television replays showed the York goalscorer was at least a yard offside. But the goal stood, there's was nothing the Town could do - apart from going and getting an equaliser, of course.

Hurt, the Hatters lay siege on the York goal. Fleetwood was almost close to a low Willmott cross on 50 minutes before good skill by Willmott won a corner that York eventually cleared.

As the game swung from end-to-end, City almost stole a two-goal cushion on 58 minutes when James Meredith headed over with his back to goal when well-placed after the Town failed to clear a left-wing corner.

Howells found the fingertips of Ingham with a left-foot shot from distance before Buckle made his first two substitutes of the afternoon, introducing Craig McAllister and John Paul Kissock for Fleetwood and Watkins on 61 minutes.

As the Town pushed forward, the Minstermen were looking a real threat on the break. The pace of Chambers almost creating a chance on 67 minutes.

In truth, while the Hatters were seeing plenty of the ball, they weren't doing much with it, but with 20 minutes left, McAllister came agonisingly close to making it 2-2 only to be denied by Oyebanjo's last-ditch clearance at the back post. The centre-forward took a mighty whack in the face for his troubles and, despite wanting to continue, Buckle decided to withdraw him in favour of Aaron O'Connor. Later, it was revealed that McAllister needed seven stitches to seal a gaping wound above his left eye.

Still the Hatters pressed in search of an equaliser as time continued to tick down and on 72 minutes Gray somehow mis-kicked twice with the goal gaping as the ball bounced uncontrollably around the York six yard box.

Two minutes later O'Connor almost picked out Gray for what would have been a tap-in at the back post but the Town were becoming frustrated as each chance or half-chance when begging.

Howells swiped an ambitious effort wide on 79 minutes before more last-ditch defending from the Minstermen denied the Town a leveller two minutes later when Kissock failed to connect with a diving header at the back post after Ingham had flapped at Curtis Osano's right-wing cross.

It was getting desperate for the Hatters but time was against them as York began to slow the clock down with the Football League on the horizon. Half-sights of goal which resulted in Keith Keane, O'Connor and Willmott all firing wide came and went and, after four additional minutes, that was that.

Referee Simpson's final whistle signalled the end of the Town's chances of promotion for another year and was the cue for the players to sink to their knees in despair and dejection.

30,000 Town followers felt exactly the same. A long, frustrating season ended in anguish and with it the cold, harsh reality of a second successive final defeat. So near yet so far.

    Data provided by Press Association


    For the first 50 years of their existence, England played their home matches all around the country.