What a fantastic feat as Alty finish fourth!

Words John Edwards | Pictures Jonathan Moore

Altrincham 1 Oxford City 0 

IT wasn't vintage Alty, far from it. In fact, on an afternoon that became nervier by the minute, it took a first-half penalty by Regan Linney to see off doomed but defiant Oxford City and ensure there were no unwanted last-day mishaps.

But let no-one take issue with that. Job done was all that mattered, and what a job it has been by Phil Parkinson, his players and everyone else involved in making the 2023-24 Vanarama National League campaign one of the most memorable any Alty fan can recall.

Of course, it could yet become THE most memorable if the Robins kick on from here and emerge triumphant from the play-offs, a six-team mini-tournament for the privilege of accompanying Chesterfield into the Football League.

Whatever the outcome, there can be no disputing that the strides made since Phil and Neil Sorvel walked through the door seven years ago have been nothing short of phenomenal.

This narrow but deserved win brought confirmation that we have finished fourth in the National League. Yes, fourth, with only Chesterfield, Barnet and Bromley above us. An air of expectation may have been growing in recent weeks that fourth would be our destiny, but let's not forget Alty were sinking like a stone after successive relegations when the club turned to Phil and Neil.

What a transformation in the Robins' fortunes, and we will go into the play-offs as one of the form teams, reputation firmly intact as a side who take some beating at The J.Davidson Stadium.

The consistently-outstanding Ethan Ross took one for the team to prevent Oxford from going ahead in the 11th minute after the ball fell somewhat fortuitously into the path of Reece Fleet on the bye-line to the left of the Alty goal. The Oxford midfielder cut in and drilled a low shot towards the near post, where Ross read the danger and managed to hold on after the ball thudded into his midriff.

The contact clearly winded the Alty keeper as he stayed down and needed a minute or so to get his breath back and signal he was ok to continue.

With all four sides of the ground well populated, in the absence of any segregation, and the sun beating down on a glorious April afternoon, there was a widely-anticipated party atmosphere around the stadium.

All but 72 of the 3,328 looking on were Alty fans, and the Robins almost gave them something to cheer in the 20th minute when Justin Amaluzor set up Chris Conn-Clarke for a shot that rippled the side netting.

Alty were beginning to exert some pressure after a tentative start and they went close again in the 26th minute when Regan Linney did well to hold off a challenge near the left corner flag and picked out Alex Newby for a shot-on-the-turn that sailed narrowly high and wide.

There was an almighty scare for the Robins in the 29th minute when, after an innocuous-looking challenge, Conn-Clarke went down and stayed down inside the Oxford area. The sight of Conn-Clarke beating the turf in frustration or pain or a mixture of both was the last thing Alty needed with the play-offs so close, but thankfully he was able to continue after treatment.

Oxford keeper Tom Watson was called into action on the half-hour when, teed up by Linney, Newby fired in a low shot that was saved comfortably enough.

The value of Conn-Clarke, and relief that there were no lasting effects of his earlier knock, was underlined in the 39th minute when a cross was half-cleared to him 25 yards out.

The way he executed his shot, with little backlift but still generating serious and sudden power, very nearly caught out Watson, who reacted in the nick of time to palm it over, just as it seemed as though the ball had flown past him.

There was nothing the Oxford keeper could do as Alty went in front from the penalty spot in the 42nd minute.

A step-over by Newby gave him a crucial advantage over his marker Giles Phillips, and when the defender stuck out a foot as Alty's winger cruised past him, the resulting trip left referee Andrew Miller with one of the easier of penalty awards.

Up stepped Linney to convert the most emphatic of spot-kicks, drilling the ball unerringly to one side as the keeper committed himself in the opposite direction.

So, Alty went in one goal to the good, but it was almost wiped out in the 48th minute when a couple of passes on the edge of the Robins area led to Josh Ashby dragging a shot only just the wrong side of the right-hand post.

Ross had to be at his best, which he tends to be most of the time, to safeguard Alty's lead in the 56th minute.

Harvey Greenslade found himself through on goal when the ball broke to him inside the area, and he struck his shot well enough, but Ross was equal to it with an outstanding save, diving low to his left.

Oxford were playing with commendable spirit for a side long since relegated, and they tested Ross again on the hour. Ashby's shot from outside the area appeared to take a deflection, but the ever-alert Ross responded in time, diving full-length to his right to touch it round the post.

Any lingering doubt about the outcome should have been dispelled a minute later when Linney ran almost the length of the pitch before unselfishly squaring the ball to Conn-Clarke, unmarked and in space at the far post.

The Robins' top marksman had to score, surely. A packed Golf Road End certainly thought so, as the noise levels rose sharply, but for once the normally-lethal Alty attacker erred as he shot wide of the left post.

A bright lime fluorescent strip wasn't the only thing that made visiting keeper Watson stand out. His goalkeeping skills were taking the eye as well, not least when he pulled off a stupendous save from a brilliant Conn-Clarke free-kick in the 72nd minute.

Struck with pace and accuracy from the edge of the area, it looked for all the world like another typically-spectacular Conn-Clarke goal, but the young loan signing from Wigan Athletic matched it with an exceptional flying full-length leap to turn it away from the top corner.

With no further alarms for Alty, fourth place was duly secured - bring on the play-offs!

Harvey Nichols Man Of The Match | Justin Amaluzor

Altrincham Ross; Banks, E.Jones, Baines (c), Osborne, Linney (Angus, 73'), Conn-Clarke (Kosylo, 73'), Amaluzor (Mooney, 65'), Cooper, Hancox, Newby. Subs not used: Roscoe, Haygarth.

Oxford Watson; Burley, Phillips, Ashby, Roddy, Coyle, Fleet (c) (Krasniqi, 70'), McEachran (Moore, 82'), Greenslade, Potter (Kirby, 58'), O'Connell. Subs not used: Birtwistle, Kabongolo. 

HT 1-0

Goals Linney 43' pen | None

Yellows None | O'Connell 53'

Reds None | None

Referee Andrew Miller

Assistants Oliver Nolan & Mark Ryder

Fourth official Darren Rogers

Attendance 3,328 (72 away fans)

Next Up

The Vanarama National League play-offs - full fixture and ticket details to be announced extremely soon.

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