Notts County took a huge step towards an instant return to the Football League with a 2-0 win over Barnet at a wet and wild Meadow Lane.
A Kristian Dennis header was compounded by an individual moment of brilliance from Callum Roberts to earn the Magpies the right to take on Harrogate Town at Wembley next Sunday in the National League Play-off final.
It will be Notts’ first trip to the new Wembley as they bid to return to the Football League after dropping out of it for the first time in their 157-year history last year.
Neal Ardley’s side, who had finished third in the league, controlled the majority of the game and ensured there was no way back into the tie for their opponents.
Visitors Barnet had already had to see off Yeovil Town 2-0 last weekend in order to reach this stage of the play-offs.
However, despite having not played since the regular season was cancelled, it was County who started the livelier of the two sides, getting into some good positions in the opening few minutes.
Barnet did grow into the tie but they relied mostly on counter-attacks and struggled to pose a serious threat in the first 45 minutes.
County’s Callum Roberts created the first real chance of the afternoon when he forced Nottingham-born Barnet keeper Scott Loach into a strong save.
Loach had to get down low to push away Robert’s curling free-kick from just outside the box.
As if the pressure and challenge of playing in a play-off semi-final eliminator wasn’t enough, an almighty rainstorm made conditions quite tricky.
At points, the rain pounding down on the roofs of Meadow Lane’s stands made it seem like there was a full crowd in attendance.
In normal times, the Kop stand would’ve been packed full of supporters cheering on their beloved Magpies.
Yet despite the lack of any home backing and the wild Nottinghamshire conditions, the home side broke the deadlock with eight minutes to play until halftime.
Jim O’Brien’s burst of pace and subsequent body feints gave him the yard of space he needed to whip in a pinpoint cross.
The Irishman told Platform before the game about the, “relaxed atmosphere” that boss Neil Ardley had created amongst the team and he helped to settle any nerves when he provided an inch-perfect delivery for forward Kristian Dennis.
County’s number nine was the most alert player in the box and met the cross at the back post, falling to the ground as he diverted the ball into the far corner. Barnet’s defence was flat-footed and too slow to react.
The home side could’ve doubled their advantage before the break had Callum Roberts made the most of his chance when through on goal but he could only send his shot wide of the post.
Barnet, unsurprisingly, came out after half-time looking to take the game to the hosts. Ephron Mason-Clarke made Sam Slocombe work after only a few minutes of the second half; a curling strike from the edge of the box was destined for the top corner before the County stopper got his glove in the way.
For all of the North London side’s early pressing, they were made to pay when County’s Roberts showed some individual class.
Moments before County doubled their lead, Dennis fired not once but twice straight down the sights of Scott Roach – many would’ve looked back at that moment as a big chance missed had Roberts not unleashed some trickery and skill that left two Bees defenders on the turf as he wheeled away in celebration just 60 seconds later.
The 23-year-old danced through Barnet’s defence with some brilliant close control before effortlessly slotting home a side-footed finish from six-yards out.
If there was ever a goal worthy of sealing a trip to Wembley for a place in the EFL, then Roberts had just scored it.
A two-goal cushion could’ve meant County sat back and held onto their lead but they did quite the opposite. Continuing to press their opponents and not letting themselves become boxed in.
They controlled the final minutes expertly, something that may have to be repeated on the turf of Wembley in just over a week if they want to make an immediate return to League Two.
By Pete Trifunovic