GRIMSBY Town’s promotion hopes are over after Newport County completed a deserved play-off semi-final victory by winning the second leg at Rodney Parade.
After going a goal down after the first leg at Blundell Park, it was always going to be a tough task for the Mariners to overturn the deficit.
And although they started brightly in front of a packed and noisy Welsh crowd, the visitors failed to get the early goal that could have transformed the tie.
The home side responded and doubled their aggregate lead through striker Christian Jolley on the half-hour, giving Town even more to do if they were to secure a place in next week’s Wembley final.
But try as they might, Grimsby could not find a way of seriously troubling home keeper Lenny Pidgeley as their challenge faded.
That meant Newport set up an all-Welsh play-off final against Wrexham and condemned the Mariners to another season in the Conference.
Town made three changes to the side that lost the first leg on Wednesday, with Joe Colbeck, AndI Thanoj and Marcus Marshall all coming into the XI as Cleveland Taylor, Jamie Devitt and Andy Cook dropped out.
James McKeown started in goal, with Sam Hatton, Shaun Pearson, Ian Miller and Aswad Thomas forming the defence.
Colbeck started on the right of a five-man midfield that also included Craig Disley, Tom Naylor, Thanoj and Marshall, leaving Liam Hearn as the lone striker.
The Town subs were Frankie Artus, Cook, Bradley Wood, Dayle Southwell and Ross Hannah.
Newport were unchanged to start with after grabbing their narrow advantage at Blundell Park, meaning Jolley and Danny Crow were again likely to be major threats for the Welsh side.
Further firepower could come from the bench, where top scorer Aaron O’Connor replaced Conor Washington in manager Justin Edinburgh’s only alteration to his match day squad.
Town kicked off and won an early free kick when Marshall was brought down on the left. Colbeck’s delivery was met by Pearson but the assistant referee’s flag went up as the ball went through to keeper Pidgeley.
Crow then sent a header over the bar at the other end after a throw from Michael Flynn was returned to the taker.
Naylor had a good chance to put Town ahead on the day when a Hatton free kick from halfway was headed into his path but the midfielder volleyed over the bar from 12 yards.
Disley then failed to get a header on target from a right-wing Colbeck cross on eight minutes as the Mariners continued to look for the early goal that would put them back in the tie.
Jolley won a free kick for the hosts after Town failed to clear their lines on 12 minutes and the home crowd came to life as the delivery was punched away for a corner by McKeown. Pearson headed Andy Sandell’s kick clear.
A foul on Thomas gave Grimsby a free kick inside the Newport half on the quarter-hour and Hatton’s driven ball was hit towards goal by Naylor, only for Pidgeley to push it away for a corner.
Another free kick came for a foul on Disley, which saw Alex Gilbey pick up the game’s first yellow card. This time, Hatton’s ball to the penalty spot was claimed by Pidgeley.
Miller conceded a corner on 23 minutes but Sandell’s delivery from the right was headed away by Hatton.
A cross from Sandell on the opposite flank was headed over the bar by captain David Pipe on 28 minutes, before Grimsby’s task was made doubly difficult when the home side opened the scoring on the half-hour.
A ball was played through to JOLLEY and he made no mistake from the edge of the penalty area, firing a low shot past McKeown and into the bottom corner of the net.
The Mariners now needed to find three goals to win the tie, or two to take the match to extra time.
Town responded well to going behind and they won a corner almost immediately, although it resulted in Disley heading over the bar.
Naylor was booked for a foul on Flynn ten minutes before the break but the resulting free kick did not lead to a chance in front of goal.
A Town attack then saw Marshall get the ball on the left and give it to Thomas but his cross was poor, although the ball came back to Marshall and he crossed but Hearn could not profit in the centre.
The home side had a chance when Crow dispossessed Pearson near the right touchline and cut the ball back for Gilbey but his 20-yard effort was held by McKeown.
Disley fired a shot wide at the other end on 43 minutes as Town searched for a lifeline before the interval.
Good work by Pipe saw him win a throw-in against Marshall and Thomas down the Newport right but the home side could not build on the opportunity.
Two added minutes were signalled at the end of the half and Town were given a free kick for a push on Pearson near the halfway line and after Hatton playes it to Marshall on the left, his cross was volleyed wide by Disley.
That proved to be the last chance of a half that had been even in terms of possession but with the home side firmly in control in terms of chances and where it mattered - on the scoreboard.
Newport had one foot in the final after taking a 2-0 aggregate lead, giving the Mariners 45 minutes to save their season and keep their promotion hopes alive.
Cook replaced Pearson before the restart, with Naylor reverting to a centre-back position as the Town formation changed to 4-4-2.
The first Grimsby attack of the second half saw Thanoj attempt to thread a ball through for Thomas but it proved just too strong for the left-back, who had advanced into the box.
A push on Hatton gave the Mariners a free kick inside the Newport half but Cook was caught offside when the ball was played into the penalty area.
The hosts threatened to put the game beyond the Mariners when Jolley linked up with Gilbey down the right on 53 minutes but Lee Minshull cold not connect with Gilbey’s cross.
Another chance came soon afterwards with another low cross from the right but Flynn’s weak shot bobbled wide of the far post.
At the other end, Cook’s header from a Marshall cross took a deflection and went out for a corner, which came to nothing.
The home side had the ball in the net when Crow beat McKeown after latching onto a through-ball from Jolley but the offside flag against the former Luton striker meant the goal did not count.
Newport were looking much the stronger of the two sides at the hour, pinning Town back inside their own half as they looked for the second goal which would kill off the tie once and for all.
Hannah replaced Hearn up front for Grimsby with 25 minutes of the game left and the Mariners won a corner soon afterwards, although it was comfortably dealt with by the hosts.
A defensive mix-up gave Newport a corner on 67 minutes and somehow, Hatton managed to clear off the line after the ball had gone through to Minshull at the far post from the flag.
Marshall’s cross from the left a minute later was blocked, before Hannah was caught offside when Disley lobbed a ball into the area.
Southwell replaced Hatton as the Mariners played one last tactical card in a bid to force their way back into the contest, switching to three at the back and pushing an extra striker forward.
O’Connor replaced Crow for the home side on 73 minutes and his first action was to pick up a free kick for a foul by Disley.
Newport should have wrapped up the victory four minutes later, when Jolley danced his way into the Town box and his blocked shot fell into the path of Gilbey, although he shot wide.
Hannah was booked for a handball as Town’s challenge appeared to be fading, with the Wembley chants now in full swing around the home areas of the stadium.
And they did not have long to wait before the celebrations could begin, with Town and their 600-plus travelling supporters left to reflect on what might have been.