GRIMSBY Town booked their place in the Vanarama Conference Promotion Final with a comfortable win over Eastleigh in the second leg of their play-off semi-final at Blundell Park.
The Mariners finished the job they started in the first leg on Thursday to set up a Wembley meeting with Bristol Rovers – with a place in the Football League at stake.
After Nathan Arnold’s double in Hampshire gave Town a 2-1 advantage, Eastleigh started the second leg on the front foot, looking to bring themselves level.
But goals before half-time from Ollie Palmer and Lenell John-Lewis ensured any home nerves were settled and ended any lingering hopes the travelling supporters may have had that their team could turn the tie around.
Palmer added a third after the break to put extra gloss on the scoreline and ensure the Mariners go to Wembley full of confidence.
Town boss Paul Hurst stuck with the same team that won the first leg at the Silverlake Stadium on Thursday.
That meant it was James McKeown in goal, with Toto Nsiala, Shaun Pearson, Josh Gowling and Carl Magnay forming the defence.
Jack Mackreth, Craig Disley, Scott Brown and Nathan Arnold were the midfielders, with Palmer partnering John-Lewis in attack.
The substitutes’ bench was also unchanged, with Ross Hannah, Craig Clay, Jon-Paul Pittman, Daniel Parslow and Jordan Chapell all ready to come on and make a difference if needed.
Eastleigh made two changes from the first leg, with former Grimsby loanee Hary Pell and experienced midfielder Brian Howard coming in for Jack Midson, who dropped to the bench and Craig Stanley, who missed out altogether.
The Mariners went into the game knowing a win or a draw would be enough to see them through to the final, while their opponents made the long journey up from Hampshire looking to overturn a one-goal deficit and keep their own promotion aspirations alive.
The game kicked off in bright sunshine, with a great atmosphere at a noisy Blundell Park as the big home crowd looked to get behind their team right from the start.
From the flag, the away pressure continued until Jamie Turley shot wide from the edge of the penalty area. The first shot of the game came from Eastleigh’s Howard and although it looked to be going wide, McKeown took no chances and sent it out for a corner.
A foul on Magnay on six minutes gave Town their first opportunity to attack but the full-back’s delivery from the halfway line beat everybody and went out for a goal kick.
A late challenge by Brown on 13 minutes earned him the first booking of the game after Disley had lost possession to Pell in midfield and the resulting free kick led to a second Eastleigh corner, which Magnay headed clear.
Ben Strevens escaped a yellow card for a foul on Disley two minutes later and McKeown’s free kick almost found its way through to John-Lewis but defender Will Evans got there first to clear.
A push by Turley on Palmer gave the hosts another opportunity to attack from midway inside the Eastleigh half and from the free kick, Brown found Palmer with a low ball but the Mansfield loanee could only flick it over the bar.
The centre-back was passed fit to play on. Magnay’s left-wing cross was cleared before the ball could reach Mackreth on 22 minutes, then a stoppage came soon afterwards for Gowling to receive treatment after going down injured.
Craig McAllister had a chance to shoot from 20 yards after good build-up play by the visitors on 27 minutes but a good challenge from Pearson put the striker off and ensured he dragged his effort wide for a goal kick.
Left-back Michael Green then fizzed a low shot well wide as Eastleigh continued to take the initiative, as could be expected from a side chasing the tie.
But despite the away side doing most of the attacking, McKeown had remained largely untroubled as the half-hour mark passed.
Howard was booked for a trip on Nsiala midway inside the away half but Brown’s free kick was wasted as his high delivery sailed out for a goal kick.
John-Lewis did well to hold the ball up inside the box and after initially going down, he managed to find PALMER, who found the top corner of the net with his shot from 15 yards. Next time the hosts attacked, they broke the deadlock on the day and extended their aggregate advantage.
Town attacks had been few and far between as Eastleigh looked to haul themselves back into the tie but when they did get a sight of Ross Flitney’s goal, they had made it count.
Palmer had another shot blocked after more good strength from John-Lewis inside the Eastleigh box, with the Mariners now on top having taken the lead.
John-Lewis was caught offside as he looked to get onto a chipped ball three minutes before the break as Town looked for a second goal on the day.
The striker made no mistake, running into the box before slipping the ball past Flitney for 2-0. And that goal came on 44 minutes, when a slip in the Eastleigh defence by Evans left JOHN-LEWIS with a clear run at goal.
Two added minutes were signalled at the end of the first half and with no further chances created by either side, the scoreline remained the same at the interval, with the Mariners in complete control of the game and the tie.
Eastleigh needed three second half goals to take the game to extra time and they made a triple substitution before the restart, with Deon Burton, Dan Walker and Yemi Odubade all sent on for Howard, Pell and James Constable.
An early Town corner was headed clear, before Gowling went down injured for the second time in the game but again, was passed fit to continue.
A cross from Mackreth on the right eluded the run of Palmer, before substitute Walker’s low shot at the other end proved comfortable for McKeown to dive to his left and stop.
Palmer won a corner on the right on 63 minutes and after Brown pulled it back for Mackreth, he crossed but John-Lewis could not connect with a volley.
Eastleigh, to their credit, were still looking to play and they had an opportunity when Odubade crossed from the left but McAllister headed over the bar.
John-Lewis took the ball into the box and gave it to PALMER, who took a touch and steered a low shot beyond Flitney into the far corner of his net. Clay replaced Brown in the Grimsby midfield with 68 minutes on the clock and three minutes later, the Mariners had a third goal.
Jai Reason chipped a ball into the box that went comfortably through to McKeown seven minutes later, before the hosts won a free kick at the other end for a foul on John-Lewis but Arnold’s ball was cleared.
Palmer was replaced by Pittman with 11 minutes left and he almost made an instant impact but could not turn a low cross from John-Lewis on the right into the net.
John-Lewis headed over the bar from the flag-kick. John-Lewis won a corner on 85 minutes and before it was taken, Hannah was sent on in place of Arnold.
As the clock began to tick down towards the 90-minute mark, the heavens opened and rain fell but it did not dampen the spirits of the Town fans, who began to pour over the advertising hoardings ready for a pitch invasion to celebrate their team reaching Wembley.
Three added minutes were played before those celebrations could begin, with thoughts now turning to the final showdown with Bristol Rovers on Sunday, May 17.