Zac Jones produced a remarkable goalkeeping display as Haverfordwest County defeated Cardiff Metropolitan 4-3 on penalties at Cyncoed Campus to reach the JD Cymru Premier European play-off final.
The inspired New Zealand stopper saved Eliot Evans’ penalty in normal time and thwarted Sam Jones late in extra time before denying the Students twice more in the shoot-out to help the Bluebirds to a dramatic victory in the capital.
There was nothing to separate the teams in normal time, as they largely cancelled one another out. There were a couple of opportunities for both sides to take the initiative in normal time, but the game always seemed destined to be decided by penalties.
With the tense shoot-out tied at 3-3, substitute Elliott Dugan converted what was ultimately the decisive spot-kick to send the travelling supporters – who arrived in Cardiff in great numbers – into delirium, and giving them one more away day in what was been a rollercoaster season.
Following their maiden play-off victory, County will now face Newtown – who saw off Bala Town 4-2 on Friday night – for a place in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League. The game will take place at Latham Park on Saturday May 13 (Kick-off: 5.15pm), with entry free for all spectators.
Manager Tony Pennock made five changes to the team that ended the regular season with a 4-1 victory at Airbus UK Broughton, with Rhys Abbruzzese, Corey Shephard, Jamie Veale and Dan Hawkins coming into the side, while Dylan Rees returned to skipper the Town.
Although County had started the game well, the first opportunity fell to the hosts as Tom Price’s effort from 25 yards was palmed away by Jones, with Dylan Rees seeing his shot from the same distance also pushed to safety by Alex Lang four minutes later.
The Bluebirds came agonisingly close to taking the lead just a minute later when a pinpoint ball into the area from Jack Wilson picked out Jordan Davies, who saw his looping header go just over the crossbar with Lang stranded well off his line.
Pennock’s men were in control for large periods of the first half, and they came close to going ahead with half-time approaching when Davies’ attempted cross was blocked, before the ball returned to his path and he sent a curling effort agonisingly over the bar from the right side of the area.
Keen to continue where they left off as the second-half began, Veale had a free-kick from just outside the area saved by the diving Lang six minutes after the restart.
Christian Edwards’ side were certainly much-improved after the restart, as they began to get more of a foothold in the game, however the Bluebirds defence was standing tall against their physical threat from set-pieces.
With goalmouth action few and far between, the Archers were given the chance to go ahead with 20 minutes left on the clock when Henry Jones was penalised for a foul on Price inside the area, however Jones produced an outstanding save to deny Evans and keep the score at 0-0.
The remainder of normal time was rather cagey, with neither side wanting to make a costly error, and, Wilson’s first-time effort which crept through a wall of bodies before being gathered by Lang aside, there were no further opportunities as the match moved into extra time.
The hosts had the first chance of the additional 30 minutes when, in the 98th minute, Sam Jones headed just wide from a cross. Then, in the final minute of the first-half, Price’s effort from way out hit the bar and went over, much to the relief of the Town.
There was only one moment of note in the second half of extra time, and it proved to be a decisive one as Sam Jones was played through one-on-one with namesake Jones, but the Kiwi made another brilliant save to deny the striker’s effort from inside the area and ensure the game would be decided by penalty kicks.
The tension inside the ground was palpable, and the pressure was cranked up another notch as the shoot-out began. Kyle McCarthy was first up, but his spot-kick was saved by the legs of Jones to give Haverfordwest County the ideal start, before Dylan Rees made no mistake by firing into the left-hand corner to give the Bluebirds a 1-0 lead.
Things got even better when Lewis Rees was denied by the seemingly-unbeatable Jones, who dived low to his left to make the save. Jack Leahy, who had earlier come on as a substitute, sent his penalty in off the crossbar to make it 2-0 and strengthen the Town’s advantage.
CJ Craven got the Students off the mark at the third time of asking, but the margin of County’s lead was maintained when Davies slotted home from 12 yards.
Sam Jones found the left corner to keep the Archers’ hopes alive, and the drama continued as Henry Jones missed the chance to end the shoot-out when Lang denied the midfielder.
Jack Veale then found the net to send the shoot-out to a 10th spot-kick, and Dugan cooly sent Lang the wrong way to spark jubilant scenes from the ecstatic Haverfordwest County fans behind the goal and around the ground, as the Town celebrated reaching the play-off final for the first time in the club’s history.
Cardiff Metropolitan: Lang, Chubb (Veale 119′), McCarthy, Lewis, Price, Evans (Rees 73′), Baker (C), Corsby (Kabongo 89′), Owen, Craven, Jones
Substitutes not used: Manson, Davies, Roberts, Humphries
Yellow cards: Price 110′, Craven 118′
Haverfordwest County: Z. Jones, Wilson (Leahy 91′), Rees (C), Jenkins, Borg (Dugan 105′), Abbruzzese, Shephard (Watts 100′), Veale (Evans 91′), H. Jones, J. Davies, Hawkins (Humphreys 115′)
Substitutes not used: Idzi, H. John
Yellow card: Veale 52′
Kyle McCarthy misses (0-0); Dylan Rees scores (0-1); Lewis Rees misses (0-1); Jack Leahy scores (0-2); CJ Craven scores (1-2); Jordan Davies scores (1-3); Sam Jones scores (2-3); Henry Jones misses (2-3); Jack Veale scores (3-3); Elliott Dugan scores (3-4)