Hartlepool United returned to the English Football League as they beat Torquay United 5-4 on penalties, despite Gulls goalkeeper Lucas Covolan scoring a stoppage-time equaliser.
Covolan headed in a 95th-minute cross to send the game into extra time.
Torquay’s Matt Buse missed a sudden-death penalty to see Pools go up.
In a game that had everything it was fitting that it ended with a sudden-death shootout – all four opening penalties were missed with Covolan saving from Nicky Featherstone and Armstrong while Billy Waters and Danny Wright missed for the Gulls.
Each side then scored their next four spot-kicks before substitute Buse’s effort down the middle was parried on to the crossbar by Brad James.
It means Hartlepool will join National League champions Sutton United in League Two next season after four years in non-league.
Disallowed goals and goalkeeper heroics
Torquay were livid when they controversially had a seventh-minute goal ruled out for a push after Cameron had got his head on the end of Adam Randell’s floated free-kick, with replays not immediately picking up the infringement that referee Simon Mather spotted.
That seemed to galvanise Pools as Armstrong had two chances to put his side ahead soon after, first seeing his close-range effort deflected over by Joe Lewis before he had a header pushed wide by a diving Covolan.
It was Armstrong – who was a thorn in Torquay’s side for much of the first half – who provided the breakthrough as the forward excellently controlled Rhys Oates’ shot on the edge of the six-yard box and had the strength to turn Sam Sherring and blast in off the underside of the crossbar.
The Gulls were lucky not to be two goals down in the final seconds of the half as Oates found himself unmarked from a corner and saw a powerful header parried over the bar by Covolan.
Cameron had another goal chalked off after an hour, this time being adjudged to have fouled goalkeeper James as he went for the ball, and it seemed as though it would not be Torquay’s day as Hartlepool almost scored a second in the final five minutes as Mark Shelton and Gavan Holohan had shots blocked.
Torquay threw everything at their opponents in the final minutes and Billy Waters missed a close-range effort in the 89th minute before Covolan – a former youth player at Brazilian sides Vasco da Gama and Athletico Paranaense – came up in the fifth minute of stoppage time for Torquay’s final corner.
Although it was initially cleared, Covolan stayed upfield and when the ball was played back in he rose highest to head past James and send the game into an extra 30 minutes.
Waters had a couple of efforts blocked in the first period of extra time as his Torquay team-mate Jake Andrews was stretchered off with a serious-looking leg injury, but with both sides tiring chances were few and far between before Danny Elliott had a shot blocked for Pools in the final minute as the game went to penalties.
Hartlepool joy as four-year EFL exile ends
Hartlepool’s promotion ends a four-year stay in non-league football for a side who had spent 96 uninterrupted years in the Football League.
The club dropped out of the league after a high turnover of managers and some unstable ownership during the middle part of the last decade.
But Raj Singh’s takeover in April 2018 provided some stability to the Monkey Hangers, with this season under Dave Challinor being their first since relegation when they have broken into the top 10.
Their fourth-placed finish meant they played in the first round of play-offs, beating Bromley 3-2 before winning 1-0 at third-placed Stockport County last week.
Now they have been promoted, Pools fans will hope they can have a stable and long-lasting return to the EFL, where they feel their club rightly belongs.
Covolan emulates Alisson – his former opponent
Torquay’s goalscoring goalkeeper Covolan repeated a feat performed by fellow Brazilian shot-stopper Alisson for Liverpool earlier this season.
The £67m keeper headed in a late winner for the Reds at West Bromwich Albion that kept them in the hunt for the Champions League places in the third-from-last game of the season.
But the links do not end there – Covolan played against the 2019 Champions League winner as a youngster – and has now emulated his goalscoring feat.
“When I was at Athletico Paranaense I played against Alisson in a small tournament between the under-23 players,” he told BBC Sport in October 2019.
“When we played against Internacional he was one of their players and we won that tournament against them.
“A few years on from that, he’s winning the Champions League and first choice for Brazil – football is crazy.”
Final was ‘the ultimate lottery’ – reaction
Hartlepool United manager Dave Challinor:
“It feels amazing, absolutely amazing. You come into these play-off scenarios knowing that it could be a bit of a lottery and I suppose that game was the ultimate lottery.
“When our best two penalty-takers miss and their best two penalty-takers miss you start questioning what’s going on a little bit.
“But I’m massively delighted and made up for the players. This is a group of lads who back in June when we came back were trialists, were lads who’d been discarded from other clubs, and we spoke about giving them a platform to perform.
“The group now has a chance of staying together because our scenario as a football club is massively different between being a National League club and Football League club.
“There’s been a lift of positivity around the football club, stuff off the field is looking good, and being in the Football League will only aid that process.”
Torquay United manager Gary Johnson:
“Lucas could have been, and was our hero, saving two penalties and obviously scoring his goal.
“Unfortunately his team-mates missed three penalties and you’re not going to win a final if you miss three penalties.
“It’s disappointing because we thought we might have had two goals during the game which would have put us clear.
“I’ve asked the referee to come back to me and have a look at the video and let me know if he still thinks they’re fouls for the goals, but I’ve been around a long time and a thousand times I’ve asked that over the seasons and never has a referee come back to me and said ‘sorry about that’.”
- 3FergusonSubstituted forFrancis-Angolat 76′minutes
- 15JohnsonBooked at 7mins
- 5OdusinaSubstituted forMolyneuxat 120+1′minutes
- 14HolohanSubstituted forDonaldsonat 90+2′minutes
- 11OatesBooked at 56minsSubstituted forElliottat 72′minutes
- 29ArmstrongBooked at 80mins
- 33Covolan Cauagnari
- 21MoxeyBooked at 45minsSubstituted forAndrewsat 84′minutesSubstituted forBuseat 105′minutes
- 4CameronSubstituted forMbunga-Kimpiokaat 77′minutes
- 31LewisBooked at 56mins
- 10LittleBooked at 76mins
- 12RandellSubstituted forWatersat 89′minutes
- Simon Mather
Match ends, Hartlepool United 1(5), Torquay United 1(4).