Wingate & Finchley snuck into the play-off places despite a 3-0 loss to Dulwich Hamlet on the final day of the season, meaning they travelled to second-placed Bognor Regis for a one-legged semi-final.
Ollie Pearce’s early goal after half-time almost went without reply until Sean Cronin’s 86th minute equaliser from the penalty spot. But, with seconds left until extra time, Pearce smashed home a soul-destroying winner from close-range to end Wingate’s promotion challenge for another season.
The first half was one of near-chances. Sami El-Abd flashed an early header wide, before Walter Figueira did the same with his shot.
Harvey Whyte also put a header wide from almost under the bar while James Fraser was inches away from sliding home a low cross.
Wingate’s Luke Ifil floated a shot over the angle of Dan Lincoln’s goal from the edge of the box, but Alex Parsons scuffed shot kept the sides level at half-time.
The hosts were fastest out of the blocks after the restart and it took just five minutes for them to take the lead. Meeting a low cross at the back post, Pearce was in the right place to tap the ball under Shane Gore to open the scoring.
Five minutes later, Gore was able to palm Pearce’s near-post flick away from goal before Ahmet Rifat stung Lincoln’s palms at the other end.
Half the ground celebrated when Pearce hit the side netting with 30 minutes left, but no side came close again for another 25 minutes.
When centre-back Claudiu Vilcu – deployed as a ‘big-man-up-top’ striker – was swiped down in the box, Cronin kept a cool head to roll the penalty home and send the travelling support into raptures.
Wingate built up the pressure and Rifat saw his looping, 90th minute header palmed out of the top corner by Lincoln, but the game was about to flip on its head.
In the fifth of four added minutes, a quick breakaway saw Gore forced into a save that Pearce followed in, making it 2-1 to Bognor with the last kick of the game and setting up a playoff final against Dulwich Hamlet.
It seems strange that Wingate fans and players would be disappointed with a loss in the playoff semi-finals after a season in which many tipped them for relegation. But it serves to show the belief that flows through the club from top to bottom and that, regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game, every person involved can be proud of what the club has achieved in 2017. Onwards and upwards next season.
Gore, Williams, Abrahams, Vilcu, Cronin, Rifat, Ifil, Figueira, Laney (Obafemi 73), Beckles, Tejan-Sie. Subs: Young, Vanderhyde, Wales, Sharpe.