THURLOW NUNN LEAGUE PREMIER DIVISION: Hadleigh United 2 Mildenhall Town 1
Paul Donnelly admitted his knees gave way on seeing teammate Duane Wright’s header seal a dramatic late twist in the title race.
The Hadleigh United skipper was overcome with emotion at the defining moment, which brought the club their first-ever league title at step five of the pyramid — but said there was no doubt they deserved it.
A remarkable last day, where three teams were gunning for top spot, encapsulated Hadleigh’s season as a whole, after they had squandered a 19-point lead in January before snatching it at the death.
In front of their biggest league crowd of the season of 379, they made a strong start, storming into an early lead through Shane Wardley’s precise finish before, when it looked like the day was going to be a procession, their foot came off the gas.
After their mid-table opponents had been reduced to 10 men halfway through the second period, Mildenhall looked to have played the ultimate party-poopers with Michael Harvey’s volley after 84 minutes.
With Brightlingsea Regent winning, it meant Hadleigh’s title was slipping away until Wright came up with a stooping header to ensure bedlam broke out at the Millfield just three minutes later.
“I don’t know if people saw me, but my old knees went a wee bit there and I was just so thankful and fair play to the boys,” said Scotsman Donnelly of the moment which clinching his first senior title.
“It was definitely the perfect start and it was great for one of the old heads, Shane Wardley, to get the goal.
“They came on to us, but there was certainly an element of us taking our foot off the pedal.
The 26-year-old added: “I had already said if anyone told me any of the other scores at half-time I was not going to be happy. I am just glad Duane popped up with the winner and fair play to him, he certainly put in a shift.
“After having that big a lead everyone knew how important today was, but Jesus we weren’t half kicking ourselves for getting in this position and having to rely on today.
“But I think overall we deserved it; we beat the teams who got closest to us.”
There was only one change made to the side who had helped take advantage of results elsewhere the previous weekend to put their title destiny back in their own hands with a goal difference 11 better than Brightlingsea.
Mark Maher came in for Mike Barwick, who dropped to the bench.
Hadleigh shot out of the blocks determined to put their result in no doubt early on and ensure they were not relying on what was unfolding in Brightlingsea’s and Felistowe and Walton United’s games.
After Josh Mayhew and James Blades went close, the script was all going to plan when Wardley put them ahead with just 11 minutes on the clock.
Mayhew danced in from the left-hand touchline, leaving two defenders in his wake, before pulling the ball back for veteran Wardley to guide it inside Josh Pope’s near post with his left foot.
With Wright pulling the strings from a deep-lying role, there looked nothing that could stop the cavalry charge as Mayhew stung Pope’s hands from range before he pulled off a fingertip save to keep Scott Chaplin’s effort from nestling in the top corner.
But the visitors gained belief when David Cooper’s free-kick just after the half-hour-mark whistled past Fred Howe’s left-hand post in their first attempt at goal.
At half-time, news filtered round the ground both Brightlingsea and Felixstowe were ahead, with a palpable sense of unease enveloping the Millfield and soon evidently transmitting through to the pitch.
Substitute Richard Logan wasted a good header with a weak contact before Chaplin raised hopes when his long-range effort had to be turned round the post by Pope.
But a serious collision between the goalkeeper and Ollie Canfer, leaving the Hadleigh midfielder with a facial injury and concussed for four minutes before being carried off, seemed to knock out any momentum the hosts had recovered.
Holder was soon dismissed for handling in the Hadleigh box, but they continued to test the hosts’ nerves as Fred Howe twice had to come to their rescue by turning over his bar.
The moment the home crowd dreaded arrived when, following a corner, the ball was laid across for Harvey to volley into the left-hand corner.
But home heads did not drop and their moment soon arrived when Wardley swung in from deep on the left and Wright threw himself through a crowded box to head home.
Mildenhall, who had put manager Christian Appleford on for a late cameo, even threw up their goalkeeper for a later corner, but Hadleigh rode out the seven tense minutes of injury-time to complete a day they will never forget.
* For player ratings and match stats, see Thursday’s Suffolk Free Press print edition.