Halstead Town manager Mark McLean left 'so proud' of his players after gritty display seals promotion back to Step 5 with play-off final victory at Buckhurst Hill
It was a play-off final that few if any would have given them much of a chance of winning ahead of kick-off. But Halstead Town boss Mark McLean was left beaming with pride as his steadfast faith in his players was rewarded at Buckhurst Hill on Saturday.
They started like a team possessed on delivering the impossible dream and managed to quickly respond to a freak deflected equaliser to Jack Schelvis' early opener as Calvin Poku coolly tucked away a Jordan Blackwell cross.
The 2-1 lead could have been added to before the interval while they also rode out some intense pressure from the hosts which included their crossbar being rattled by 40-goal Sulleyman Zudhu.
It soon became a backs-to-the-wall effort in the second half as they protected that slender advantage. But a Buckhurst Hill side who had finished some 27 points ahead of them in the Thurlow Nunn League First Division South table, scoring 144 goals over 38 games, were unable to find a way back in.
It was a steely resilience that McLean knew his side were going to need to show, having lost the two league games to The Stags 4-2 and 6-0, which he was delighted to see them harness to perfection.
"As I said in the week, we played a few cup finals in the lead up to this so the mindset was where we needed it to be," he said, having seen his side go into the tie off the back of five straight victories, including their 2-1 extra-time play-off semi-final victory against hosting Benfleet.
"It is obviously easy talking about it, you need to come and action it. I thought from the first minute you could tell we were on it.
"We believed in what we were doing. We let them have the ball in areas that don't really hurt you and it's just about staying switched on because they've got some outstanding players. That's why they've had the season they've had but these games are different one-off games.
"I've always said to the boys we'll learn in defeat and we lost to them twice in the league but I tried things that we wouldn't do again. As long as we're learning from that and today we proved we did because as a unit we were so compact.
"Their goal came from a deflection from a clearance. They had a lot of ball around the edges of the box but it is just about my boys, I am honestly so proud; it has been some effort."
Put to him that they looked good value for their interval lead, he said: "Yes, we were and we could have got another one to be honest. Two-nil would have probably been a reflection at that point and then obviously we very nearly score in the very early parts of the second half with Jordy (Jordan Blackwell) trying to lob them in a wide area.
"Then we know as the game goes on – the big Callum Ibe comes on and he's just won the league with Walthamstow in the league above – the quality of player was definitely not going to lesson.
"When you've got something to defend we've learnt we're good at that over the last few weeks, whereas earlier in the season we would have got picked off at times. So it shows you how far the group's come.
"For the club it's just a long time happening and that's what I came here for, to give them that success so I'm a very proud guy."
Schelvis had come into his line-up to replace 13-goal midfielder Alfie Cleal, who had a prior wedding commitment, and soon delivered for McLean, steering home Blackwell's third-minute corner.
Despite it being seen to come off his knee from those behind the goal, the Humbugs manager said: "It was one of them that he definitely meant it so it was perfect timing. It just shows you that we were zoned in.
"We knew set pieces were somewhere where we could get at them and we proved that. We were dangerous and very compact in both boxes."
And he was not concerned about the equaliser rocking them.
"Again, last week, it happened in the 93rd, 94th minute at Benfleet when it never looked like happening and within two minutes we scored. And we pretty much did the same thing again today," he said.
There had been been concerns about what lied ahead if they did not win promotion though, he revealed.
"There was a couple of things worrying me if we didn't go up. There's been talk of potentially getting pushed into the north division and I've built a team that are more geographically set to come to London, so that was a concern if we didn't win today," he said.
"But it wasn't a factor in anything, we just needed to get there and I need to speak to Carl (Pearse, chairman) and the committee to see where we can go next year because I don't just want to go in there and be a number we want to be competitive.
"We're going to need to address a few things to do that but we're there and that's all you can ask for. It's absolute dream moment."
Along with winger Kane Gilbert, Chris Harris was a surprise name on the team-sheet with both answering the call to return to the club they had featured for earlier in the campaign and help finish the job they had started.
"I think one of the things that gets lost throughout a season from people that aren't in the know is that along the way we've lost some really good players to higher levels. And we've sustained our remit but we keep a relationship with these boys," said McLean.
Halstead fans are used to seeing Harris providing their goal threat as a lone striker but on Saturday the man who had eight in 12 appearances for them earlier in the campaign replaced the Covid-hit Gary Burdett to provide the calm head in the heart of defence.
McLean explained: "I go back years with Chris and I'm so proud of him with what he's done with Stortford.
"I was devastated for him and Steve Smith who I am very close with for not getting to the final on Monday. But it gave us an opportunity to ask him to come in and help us and of course he was going to do it because of the relationship we've got.
"You just see today what he brings to any team. We miss him and we've still sustained what we've done it without him which is a credit to the group.
"I said to him as a friend as much as a manager come and help us get over the line, and gosh did he do it. Then we lost Gary because of Covid which we were devastated about as he's worked so hard to get back to a level of fitness to play this season.
"But that's just the nature of the beast, one moment you're getting good news and the next you're getting bad, so it's just dealing with it."
He said of playing him as a centre-half: "It was a decision to make because we were so good last week and I probably realised how good Sulley is and the other lad who has scored loads of goals. Chris' reading of the game is exemplary, it's so natural to him. You need at least one for these moments and he showed today, he kept nicking things.
"Unfortunately his clearance led to the goal but Chris drove them through that as did the rest of them."