Report by John Edwards
Picture by David Munro
Altrincham 2 Wrexham 2 (Alty win 4-3 on penalties)
Penalties haven't always been kind to Altrincham down the years, but there were no slip-ups at The J.Davidson Stadium this evening as Phil Parkinson's side kept their nerve to see off Wrexham in a shoot-out from 12 yards and book their place in the next round of the Isuzu FA Trophy.
Alty's Wembley aspirations looked to have been dashed when Wrexham recovered from a blistering start by the Robins with two goals in three minutes for a slender lead they were still protecting going into the 89th minute.
But summer signing Zak Goodson hauled his side level with a shot from the edge of the area, and when it came to a test of self-assurance and steady nerves moments later, the outcome was seldom in doubt.
Keeper Ollie Byrne set the tone with a sensational save to deny Wrexham's two-goal marksman Jacob Bickerstaff from the opening kick, and when Toby Mullarkey unerringly drilled the 10th into the top left corner of the net, as pictured, a jubilant Alty team were celebrating a 4-3 win.
Who would have thought it would come to such a tense, nerve-jangling finale after the way Alty started, on the front foot from the first whistle and pounding the Wrexham goal with some slick, purposeful play?
A clever back heel from Mullarkey created the first of several early opportunities in only the third minute, Jordan Hulme latching on to it but finding the angle against him as he fired a shot into the side netting.
Six minutes later, Alty were in front, as Wrexham's defence struggled to cope with an inswinging right-wing corner from Eddy Jones, as they tended to do for much of the first half.
As the ball fell in a congested six-yard box, Hulme prodded it back to Chris Conn-Clarke on the edge of the area, and when his curling effort hit the underside of the bar, Lewis Baines was on hand to steer a header over the line for his first goal in Alty colours.
Wrexham must have wondered what had hit them, and they could count themselves fortunate not to be three goals adrift inside a whirlwind first 20 minutes.
In the 12th minute, the curse of the offside tap-in struck Marcus Dinanga again after a left-wing cross from the energetic Conn-Clarke was flicked on by James Jones and forced over the line by Dinanga at the far post, only for a raised flag to cut short the celebrations.
The Alty striker was in the right place to apply the finishing touch and could consider himself unlucky to be on the wrong end of a marginal decision.
An electrifying burst of pace from Mullarkey took him between two defenders in the 18th minute, and when his low cross was turned behind for another corner, Eddy Jones' delivery caused more mayhem in the Wrexham area.
A flashing header by Hulme from the flag-kick was brilliantly palmed on to the bar by keeper Rob Lainton, and Mullarkey couldn't quite force the ball over the line in the scramble that ensued.
It had been one-way traffic in an enthralling, fast-paced first 20 minutes, but there was a sign that Alty perhaps wouldn't have things all to their own liking when Sam Dalby sent Byrne sprawling to his left to smother a low drive in the 21st minute.
Byrne had to be alert to block an angled shot from Bickerstaff in the 23rd minute but could do nothing about two Wrexham goals in quick succession soon after.
Bickerstaff equalised with an outstretched leg that diverted a low left-wing cross into the net in the 24th minute and put his side ahead in the 27th, when he outpaced James Jones before slotting a left-foot shot into the bottom corner.
It was a stunning double blow for the Robins, but they finished the half strongly, with Hulme firing into the side netting from a quickly-taken Conn-Clarke free-kick, and the irrepressible Conn-Clarke somehow wriggling past two challenges on the left bye-line before drilling the ball towards the near post.
Lainton could hang on to it, surprised perhaps by the on-loan Fleetwood attacker's sheer audacity, but Hulme couldn't quite take advantage as he hit the rebound into the keeper's midriff.
Dinanga was inches away - possibly only one, in fact - from reaching another left-wing cross from Conn-Clarke with an outstretched boot and putting Alty level in the first minute of the second half.
Wrexham had their moments, most notably James Jones testing Byrne twice and seeing the Alty keeper up to it each time, but their primary objective for much of the second half appeared to be safeguarding their slender advantage.
The lively Conn-Clarke slipped past a challenge and drove a dipping shot narrowly over, and Goodson had an effort deflected behind in the 76th minute as Alty kept hammering away in search of an equaliser.
It finally materialised when substitute Connor Jennings' low left-wing cross was half-cleared to the edge of the area, where Goodson's low shot bobbled past a defender and the keeper to find its way into the Gold Road End net.
Six added minutes passed without any addition to the score, and so it went to a shoot-out that could not have started any better from an Alty perspective as Bickerstaff saw his well-struck kick deflected on to the bar by an outstretched left fist as Byrne pulled off a save that sent a wave of optimism surging through the Alty ranks.
Up stepped Conn-Clarke for the Robins' opener, and if Alty fans have marvelled at his innate skill and touch, they can now add nerves of steel to his list of attributes as he stopped his run-up for a Bruno Fernandes-style hop before calmly rolling the ball to the right of Lainton, just as the keeper moved the other way.
A similar technique from Goodson maintained Alty's advantage, after Dalby scored for Wrexham, and when Reece Hall-Johnson blazed over, the Robins looked poised to go 3-1 in front.
Instead, it remained 2-1 as Josh Lundstram sidefooted over, but it scarcely mattered as two further successful Wrexham kicks were met in kind, as Jennings found the top left corner and then, after a collective intake of breath from home fans in a crowd of 2,526, Mullarkey despatched the deciding penalty in emphatic style to keep alive Alty's Wembley dream.