REDDITCH United manager Liam McDonald said his side ‘had nothing left to give’ as their Southern League Premier Division promotion hopes were ended in the cruellest of fashions with a penalty shoot-out defeat to Leamington at the Valley Stadium on Wednesday.
The Reds were within a minute of booking a home play-off final against Hungerford Town on Monday thanks to Ash Sammons’ sublime 35th-minute strike, but a 94th-minute goal from former United striker Courtney Baker-Richardson took the game match into extra time following a 1-1 draw and, after no further goals, it was the Brakes who prevailed 3-1 on spot kicks.
Sammons, Luke Shearer and George Carline – all magnificent for the Reds this season – were the unfortunate men who failed to beat Tony Breeden from 12 yards and McDonald said he felt nothing but sympathy for his players, as well as the utmost pride for his side’s efforts this season.
An emotional McDonald said: “I had some devastated lads in that dressing room. They had nothing left to give after a long and gruelling season. The boys are gutted and I’m sharing their pain because this is a new experience for all of us.
“I cannot fault the lads at all. We were really good value for our half time lead and the plan was for us to emerge in the second half and try and blitz Leamington for another 15 or 20 minutes, but it didn’t happen.
“The lads were left defending what they had really because there were some tired legs out there and, to be fair to them, they all put their bodies on the line and came within 30 seconds of seeing it out.
“Even in extra time, we were dead on our feet really but, with the help of the crowd, we hung in there and then once it goes to penalties anything can happen as we all know.”
In front of a crowd of around 1,303, Sammons deservedly put the hosts ahead with a brilliant 20-yard drive into the roof of the net.
However, Leamington worked their way back into the match and by the time substitute Baker-Richardson bundled home his last-gasp leveller the visitors were worthy of the extra period.
McDonald added: “We’ve had a wonderful season and had no right to finish second and above some of the sides we did, most notably Leamington.
“I’m feeling pretty low now and will need a few weeks to come to terms with it all. I’ll go away and have a break from football for a bit and I’ve told the lads to do the same and go on holiday because they deserve it.
“They have given absolutely everything for this club and, even though they might not think it now, they will be stronger for this experience.
“It will improve their character and development for sure. It’s strange really, as normally you can see your season coming to an end over a few games wherever you are in the table, but now it’s just ended in a flash.
“I still see myself as a player what with the training, etc, with the team and after the penalties I was thinking I just want to get into my car and go now, but then I realised I had 20-odd lads to look after.
“It’s going to hurt for a while, there’s no doubt about that, but when I look at how far we have come in the three years I’ve been in charge I am immensely proud of that.
“We want to compete at the top and I will come back and have a chat with Chris (Swan, chairman) in a month or so and see what the plans are for next season.”