VIDEO: Long Melford manager Jamie Bradbury reacts to the club booking their first ever Challenge Cup final after a dramatic win over Benfleet
A Will Wingfield header four minutes into stoppage-time sparked jubilant scenes at Stoneylands last night as hosting Long Melford scored the seventh goal of a pulsating semi-final against Benfleet to reach the Thurlow Nunn League's Challenge Cup final for the first time.
Higher-league Melford had not found the going easy against the Essex side who groundshare with Canvey Island, not taking the lead until the hour mark via Pablo Chavez.
After a strong start from the Villagers which saw visiting 'keeper Flo Gislette tip over Ross Waugh's header and the referee rule out a goal from Nathan Rowe after he kicked it out of the Benfleet custodian's hands, they found themselves 1-0 down from Benfleet's first attack.
Poor defending allowed Mason Shave room in the penalty box to cut inside and curl into the far corner with 12 minutes on the clock.
But Melford were level pegged again six minutes later when Bury Town dual-registered forward Manny Machaya reacted quickest to a loose ball following another Chavez corner which had caused panic in the Benfleet box and seen the goalkeeper make a low save from Ross Waugh.
Up the other end Sam Dulieu clipped the top of the crossbar from range before the visitors regained the lead from the penalty spot after Scott Sloots tangled with Robert Lacey in the box from a deep cross. Full-back George Unwin ended up sending Michael Bett the wrong way.
Melford came out strong again at the start of the second half and were rewarded with an equaliser in the 52nd minute when Ross Waugh planted a shot low under the goalkeeper from a smart pass from Rowe.
The home crowd were celebrating a 3-2 lead within eight minutes as Chavez' angled drive from inside the left of the penalty box could not be kept out despite covering defenders trying in vain to hack it clear off the line.
Melford survived a few scares, notably when Lacey rounded Bett before only finding the side-netting, as they invited too much pressure on themselves.
And it came back to bite them as a scrappy goal was conceded from the edge of the box to George Unwin with 10 minutes to play.
With Melford missing a late chance, it seemed like the tie was destined to be settled on penalties. But four minutes into five added on by the referee, Wingfield, playing at left-back instead of his usual attacking role, stooped for a left-sided corner at the near post which found the back of the net to spark wild celebrations, including manager Jamie Bradbury racing on to the pitch.
Long Melford, still heavily threatened by relegation from the Thurlow Nunn League Premier Division, but without a game this weekend, will face divisional rivals Fakenham Town (who knocked out Newmarket Town on penalties) at Diss Town FC on Monday, May 6 (3pm) in the final.
More by this authorRussell Claydon