Ilkley Town AFC’s ambitions for promotion were thwarted at the death as they narrowly lost to an organised FC St Helens side in a penalty shootout. In a game of two halves – the hosts were on top initially, then Tom Smith and Alfie Dean’s goals helped Sam Dexter’s side to dominate the second 45 – the two teams ultimately proved inseparable after 90 minutes before St Helens agonisingly pipped Ilkley on penalties to advance to the playoff final, writes Matthew Lambe.
Both of the previous two meetings against St Helens also ended with the points shared after 90 minutes, meaning this is the third consecutive draw for Ilkley against the Merseyside outfit.
The Baht’atters had a disastrous start, as Charlie Bell’s misjudged clearance struck Brad Green and almost rolled into the keepers’ net. Only a minute later Ilkley failed to clear their lines from a set-piece, causing a goalmouth scramble, and the referee deemed St Helens to have bundled the ball over the line.
Despite retaining possession for most of the half Ilkley were unable to break down a well-organised St Helens’ defence, leaving their keeper with little work to do.
In the second half, a more cohesive Town played with increased intensity, which immediately caused problems for the visitors. Barely two minutes in they drew level, after Tom Smith latched onto an attempted shot from Ben Clarkson to take his tally for the season up to 17.
The tide had now turned in Ilkley’s favour, and Alfie Dean overturned the deficit with a magnificent goal. Outpacing several defenders, he burst down the left wing and cut inside of another before beating keeper Joe Mason at his near post.
Sam Dexter’s side were firmly in control, but their lead wouldn’t last long. Bell was unable to claim a long ball from St Helens, allowing Barker to finish into an empty net.
This created a nail-biting final quarter, with the Baht’atters striving for a winner but wary of the danger of St Helens on the counter attack. Despite several chances for each side the tie remained level at 2-2, meaning Ilkley and St Helens would have to be separated by a penalty shootout.
After two rounds of penalties, the shootout was evenly poised as Smith had scored with a sublime finish and Bell had saved one. However, St Helens converted their remaining attempts, and even Joe Edmonds’ well-taken penalty couldn’t prevent the visitors from progressing into the final.
FC St Helens will face Chadderton in the playoff final, but for Ilkley the season is over. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of positives to take, with this being Town’s highest finish ever and - with such a young squad - the future is looking bright.
(Photo Credit: South Liverpool)