GRIMSBY Town suffered penalty heartache as Bristol Rovers won a dramatic Vanarama Conference Promotion Final at Wembley Stadium.
After 120 minutes could not separate the two teams, one miss from the spot was all it took for the Mariners to be left facing another season in non-league football after substitute Jon-Paul Pittman sent his kick over the bar.
In front of a Conference record crowd of 47,029, Grimsby made the perfect start to the game as Lenell John-Lewis grabbed his 20th goal of the season with less than two minutes on the clock, sending the travelling masses from North East Lincolnshire into dreamland.
And they could have had more in a superb opening half-hour, while Rovers keeper Will Puddy was perhaps lucky to stay on the field after a handball outside his area.
But the Town lead was not to last, as Ellis Harrison scored an equaliser on 29 minutes after Town failed to clear a corner.
Neither side could force a winner in a scrappy second half of few genuine chances and the extra time also passed without any further score, meaning the promotion place came down to kicks from 12 yards.
And despite a superb season and a committed performance on the day, the Mariners could not force their way over the line as Lee Mansell struck the winning penalty to send Rovers into the Football League.
One change was made to the Town side after the semi-final victory over Eastleigh, with Gregor Robertson making a surprise return at left-back in place of Josh Gowling.
That meant Carl Magnay switched to right-back, with Toto Nsiala moving inside to partner Shaun Pearson in the centre of defence.
James McKeown started in goal, with Magnay, Nsiala, Pearson and Robertson forming the defence.
Jack Mackreth began on the right side of midfield, with Craig Disley and Scott Brown in the middle and Nathan Arnold on the left.
John-Lewis and Ollie Palmer were the strikers, with Ross Hannah, Craig Clay, Pittman, Daniel Parslow and Christian Jolley all named on the Grimsby bench.
Bristol came into the game as favourites, having finished five points ahead of the Mariners in the regular season and taken four points out of six in the meetings between the two.
Their main threats would include striker and top scorer Matty Taylor, while Ellis Harrison and Andy Monkhouse would also be ones to watch in Darrell Clarke’s side.
The Mariners had a dream start to the game as they took the lead within two minutes. Arnold ran through the middle and made his way into the box before squaring for JOHN-LEWIS and after his initial shot came back off keeper Will Puddy, the striker converted the rebound to open the scoring on his birthday.
Rovers’ response came with a long throw from the right that was cleared, before a mistimed header from Tom Parkes gave Town the first corner of the game on five minutes. Brown’s flag-kick was headed behind for another one, which went out of play for a goal kick.
McKeown was hurt in a challenge with Taylor after coming out to stop a header but both were passed fit to play on.
Ellis Harrison hit a weak shot wide from 25 yards as Bristol looked to get themselves back on level terms, before Taylor broke into the box but was thwarted by McKeown after taking the ball wide.
Another long throw from Tom Lockyer on the right was eventually dealt with by the Grimsby defence, before a foul on Brown gave them a free kick on halfway, which led to a throw-in level with the Rovers 18-yard line but no more, as the ball was cleared.
Another Town chance came when Brown found space down the right and pulled the ball across goal for John-Lewis, whose effort was blocked by Puddy for a corner. Brown’s delivery from the flag found Nsiala, who headed over the bar.
And the chances kept coming, as Palmer was involved in a moment of controversy on 18 minutes. The striker beat the onrushing Puddy to the ball and tried to lift it over him but the keeper got a glove to it, although he was a long way outside his penalty area. Palmer rushed to the assistant referee arguing the keeper should be sent off but referee Ross Joyce instead produced a yellow card.
Arnold fizzed a shot just wide from 20 yards as Town’s great start to the game continued, before Bristol were given a free kick in a promising area, although Pearson headed it clear.
Rovers won a corner on 24 minutes but it was headed away by Magnay and Town broke through Arnold, who was eventually stopped before he could get into a dangerous area.
Palmer then missed the target from 25 yards after Puddy, who had not settled after the early goal, gave away possession cheaply.
Mackreth cut in from the right soon afterwards but appeared to be caught in two minds as to whether to shoot or pass and he ended up doing neither as the ball went out for a goal kick.
At the other end, Nsiala had to clear the ball over his own bar for a corner and from it, Rovers had their leveller. Town failed to clear their lines from the flag and when the ball fell for HARRISON on the corner of the six-yard box, he made no mistake and found the net to make it 1-1.
Brown escaped a booking after a foul halfway inside his own half and the resulting free kick eventually led to midfielder Lee Mansell firing a shot well over the bar from 20 yard.
Town had been the better side over the opening half-hour but now found themselves having to start again, with the game back level.
A corner came on the right after good work by Mackreth and Magnay but Brown’s delivery was caught by Puddy.
At the other end, Robertson almost got himself into trouble by giving the ball to Taylor but the defender recovered to ensure his mistake was not punished.
The Bristol supporters thought they had a penalty after Pearson missed the ball to let Taylor in and he went down under a supposed challenge from McKeown. The referee had other ideas though and booked the striker for diving, with television replays showing his decision was spot-on.
A foul on John-Lewis gave Grimsby a free kick on the halfway line but they could not turn it into a goalscoring opportunity.
Magnay was shown the yellow card for a foul on Taylor with 41 minutes on the clock, although the resulting free kick was cleared.
A Bristol break came through the middle after Brown lost possession but they were unable to make it count, as Monkhouse was blocked after Chris Lines had touched the ball on.
Town then had a spell of pressure and an important interception was made to stop Magnay’s cross getting to John-Lewis.
Magnay committed another foul on the Bristol left soon afterwards bit he escaped a second booking after a lecture from the referee.
Three added minutes were signalled to be played at the end of the half, with Rovers on the attack as they looked to complete the turnaround.
The Mariners were given some respite when Disley was fouled inside his own half, giving them chance to get the ball down the other end of the field.
And with no further chances created by either side, it remained 1-1 at the interval. Town could have been out of sight early on but Bristol came back into the game and pulled themselves level, setting the game up nicely for the second half.
No changes were made before the restart and a foul on Pearson by Lines three minutes in gave Town their first chance to attack of the second half. Robertson’s ball into the box was knocked away for a corner on the left but Brown’s kick was cleared.
A Bristol chance then came when Jake Gosling’s shot was blocked by Nsiala and Taylor could not convert the rebound, firing over the bar as McKeown narrowed the angle.
Two good pieces of defending by Nsiala kept the threat of Harrison and Taylor at bay as the men from the West Country had the better of the opening period of the half.
But Town were also looking to attack whenever possible, with Arnold almost finding an opening on 55 minutes after getting into the Rovers box.
Disley hit a 20-yard shot over the bar after a Town throw near the corner flag just before the hour, while a Bristol free kick from the right two minutes after the hour came to nothing.
The game stopped briefly for Nsiala to receive treatment for what appeared to be cramp, with the defender then passed fit to carry on.
Disley won a corner on the Town right on 66 minutes and it soon turned into another as Pearson was beaten to the header by Mark McChrystal. Arnold’s delivery from the opposite flank was caught by Puddy.
The Mariners made the first substitution of the game on 70 minutes, with Pittman coming on in place of Palmer.
Robertson went down injured soon afterwards and had to be replaced, with Parslow coming on at right-back as Magnay swapped flanks to slot in on the left.
A Rovers free kick was headed away by Pearson on 74 minutes, although the referee had spotted an infringement and blew for a Grimsby free kick.
Angelo Balanta replaced Gosling for Bristol soon afterwards, which signalled the start of a spell of blue and white pressure that eventually ended with Magnay chesting the ball back to McKeown.
Nathan Blissett replaced goalscorer Harrison with 11 minutes to go and the game still completely in the balance.
Taylor saw a shot blocked by Magnay for a corner on 85 minutes but the ball from it was headed behind by Tom Parkes for a goal kick.
Pittman went through the middle soon afterwards but could not work a shooting opportunity and Bristol broke, although Pearson did well to prevent a corner.
Brown was booked for a foul as the clock ticked down, with both teams making mistakes and neither keeper troubled.
A cross from Parslow on the Town right beat everybody, before Pittman dummied for John-Lewis but he was unable to pick out a man in black and white from the edge of the box.
Extra time was beginning to loom, with any goal now almost certain to be decisive. Mansell had a chance to shoot from 20 yards but sent his effort high over the bar.
Four minutes of added time were signalled and a brilliantly-timed challenge from Nsiala was needed to stop Blissett advancing into the Grimsby box.
Bristol were finishing the stronger of the two sides and they had another long throw opportunity, which Arnold cleared inside his own box.
Pittman advanced into the Bristol box after a chip forward from Magnay but the striker’s pull-back was stopped by keeper Puddy.
No further chances were created, meaning the 90 minutes finished level and extra time was required in a bid to separate the teams before the lottery of a penalty shoot-out would come into the equation.
An early shot by Balanta was comfortably saved by McKeown, before Town won a corner on the right two minutes in. Brown’s kick was headed back across goal by Nsiala but Puddy gathered it.
The pace of the game seemed to have dropped as tiredness had no doubt crept in, although the Mariners had a good spell of keeping possession until a cross from Brown was caught by Puddy.
Taylor and Monkhouse worked an opening through the middle on 98 minutes but after Monkhouse went down inside the Town box, the referee waved play on.
Clay replaced Brown in the last of Town’s three substitutions a minute later, with chances still at a premium as both teams looked to avoid making a mistake that could lose them the match.
Taylor bobbled a shot wide from 20 yards for Bristol after a cross from Parslow at the other end had been deflected through to Puddy.
One added minute was played at the end of the first period of extra time, before the teams turned around for one last go at settling the issue before the requirement for penalties.
A chane for the Mariners almost came when Clay ran through the middle and looked for John-Lewis but after the ball was headed past Puddy, Parkes was there to clear.
At the other end, a handball by Pearson gave Bristol a free kick but Lines could not make it count as he put his header over the bar at the far post.
A long free kick from Puddy then found its way through to Monkhouse but he could not control it and the chance was gone.
Blissett was caught offside to bring a Rovers break to a halt with seven minutes left on the clock.
Town could have won the game when a run from Clay led to him finding Pittman inside the box. He took the ball on but when he looked for John-Lewis, it was cut out for a corner.
Bristol’s turn to try and cause problems then came with the long throw of Lockyer, which was headed out for a corner by Magnay.
With penalties looming, Rovers boss Clarke opted to swap his goalkeeper, sending former Town stopper Steve Mildenhall on for Puddy, no doubt with a view to the spot kicks.
And with nobody able to break the deadlock in the final few seconds of the game, both teams’ seasons came down to kicks from the penalty spot.
In the end, one miss proved costly, as Pittman’s kick went over the bar and Bristol’s five penalty-takers all hit the net to secure a 5-3 victory on penalties and claim their place back in the League.
Lines: SCORED (bottom-right)
Disley: SCORED (bottom-left)
Taylor: SCORED (bottom-right)
John-Lewis: SCORED (middle)
Monkhouse: SCORED (middle)
Pittman: MISSED (over the bar)
Balanta: SCORED (bottom-left)
Clay: SCORED (top-left)
Mansell: SCORED (top-left)