You’ll struggle to find a more dramatic FA Trophy tie than this.
Chester are into round two after an action-packed night against Carl Macauley’s brave Witton Albion side, who finished this first round replay with nine men.
Witton had taken the lead in the second minute through Brad Bauress after a remarkable opening six seconds saw Blaine Hudson give away a penalty.
Chester knocked at the door but were set for an early exit from the Trophy, before Tom Shaw won an 86th minute penalty which James Alabi converted. It was then left to Elliott Durrell to net a dramatic injury time winner on an incredible night at Bumpers Lane.
Jon McCarthy rang the changes from Saturday’s draw, making five alterations from the side that were fortunate to stay in the competition at Wincham Park.
Luke George made his first start since serving a six-game suspension, replacing Shaw, while Wade Joyce, Matty Waters, Evan Horwood and Will Marsh all came in for Ryan Lloyd, Johnny Hunt, Durrell and Kane Richards, who served a one-match ban following his sending off at the weekend.
It didn’t take long for the game to spring into life, six seconds to be precise! From the kick-off, the usually dependable Hudson dwelt on the edge of his area, allowing Tolani Omotola to latch onto the loose ball.
Hudson dived in and brought Omotola down in the area and would have been sent off under the old laws, but survived with just a yellow card from referee Joseph Johnson.
Bauress stepped up but Lynch saved the penalty down to his right, yet parried the ball back into Bauress’ path and he slotted home.
Omotola sprang the offside trap on four minutes but found Lynch difficult to beat, smothering the shot before Horwood cleared.
It was Witton’s travelling contingent – roughly 120 making the short trip down the M56 – who were singing loudly as Chester looked to get a foothold in the game.
The Blues began to exert themselves on the visitors with Horwood looking the best attacking outlet down the left.
George’s cross-shot drifted wide of Danny Roberts’ post, before Horwood’s whipped delivery on 22 minutes was met by Marsh, but the youngsters header hit the crossbar and drifted out of play.
In the first meeting between the sides three days ago, Witton had been excellent and they picked up from where they left off here, with a tremendous first-half performance full of defensive discipline and pace going forward. As he had done at the weekend, Omotola continued to cause major problems for Hudson and Ryan Astles.
Joyce’s right wing cross was met by the head of Alabi on 33 minutes but his effort drifted across the face of goal and wide.
On 39 minutes Chapell found his way through on goal in the box but was denied by a superb last-ditch tackle by Michael Wilson.
On 41 minutes, Omotola turned Sam Hughes in the left-hand corner and looked to be advancing on goal but threw himself to the floor and was booked for diving by Johnson.
And just four minutes later, Omotola’s eventful half was ended prematurely as he was given his marching orders for dissent having given away a free-kick on halfway. It was the stroke of luck Chester needed as the referee blew for half-time.
McCarthy sensed a change was required and sent Durrell on at half-time for Marsh, who was a tad unfortunate to be hauled off. There had been far worse first-half performances in a blue and white shirt.
Durrell made an immediate impact, whipping in an inswining cross from the right wing which drifted wide of Roberts’ goal.
Horwood came close to a leveller on 52 minutes, but his left-footed drive from 25 yards fizzed wide following good work from George.
The Blues skipper was then cautioned for a poor tackle on Tom Owens 30 yards from goal, the resulting free-kick cleared but Durrell was then cautioned for a body check on Wilson.
It wasn’t happening for the Blues, so McCarthy and assistant Chris Iwelumo decided to roll the dice and send on midfield duo Lloyd and Shaw to replace George and the ineffective Waters.
Lloyd dragged a left-footed effort wide on 64 minutes before Chapell’s low shot flew wide.
The Blues weren’t pressing the panic button just yet, but McCarthy’s desire to stay in the competition was highlighted by throwing Hughes upfront for the final half hour.
Those who played at Wincham Park on Saturday were now starting to look leggy, although Shaw, Lloyd and Durrell’s fresh legs gave the Blues hope of a leveller to remain in the competition.
On 69 minutes, Lloyd’s cross found Shaw at the backpost and he pulled the ball back across goal, where Hughes slid in but couldn’t get contact.
On 74 minutes, Chapell was brought down in the right-hand corner by Anthony Gardner, Durrell lofting the resulting free-kick to the far post where Hughes climbed highest but could only find the waiting gloves of Roberts.
A minute later and it was 10 against 10, as Hudson crunched into a tackle on Owens and was shown a second yellow card following his first minute caution.
Owens then thought he’d put the tie to bed on 77 minutes as he turned the ball home from six yards, but referee Johnson bizzarely disallowed it, presumably for a foul.
Tempers were now reaching boiling point and it all got too much for Witton coach Paul Moore who was sent to the stands for directing a torrent of abuse at the fourth official.
There was further drama to come. Alabi poked the ball through for Shaw, who latched onto it and looked to have been pulled back by Matthew Devine, the full-back sent off for the foul and the penalty given.
Alabi stepped up and rifled the penalty past Roberts via the post and crossbar.
Now up against nine men, Chester came on strongly and nicked it right at the death, as Durrell rounded Roberts and sent the Blues’ faithful into raptures. The Wembley dream lives on.