FOR sheer emotion-wringing excitement, play-offs can be pretty much unrivalled.

Witton Albion, promoted that way last season after bulldozing opponents unable to rise to the occasion, were on the receiving end as FC United of Manchester – beaten in the past two Northern Premier League finals – made it through once more.

Theirs did not feel like a victory validated by learning from previous shortcomings, but rather one born of absolute determination.

The Rebels won and Albion lost – the inevitable analysis of those with a red and white-striped persuasion – the contest in a frenzied first quarter hour.

In that time the hosts scored first, Matthew Wolfenden punishing goalkeeper Matt Cooper’s mistake with a finish that was as ruthless as it was accurate.

Conceding an early goal, in an already boisterous atmosphere, will have featured at the top of Albion’s ‘things to avoid’ list.

When the excellent Astley Mulholland steered in a second goal on 34 minutes, sprinting into a space to which Oliver Banks had swept a glorious pass, Gigg Lane got giddy.

Witton, unable most tellingly to stop a forward thrust of red shirts from the centre of the pitch, could have been forgiven for folding there and then.

But Brian Pritchard’s team is made of sterner stuff.

They had a glimpse of goal in the seconds after Wolfenden’s opener, Josh Hancock prompting a fine smothering stop from ex-Albion custodian Jon Worsnop after sneaking off Kyle Jacobs’ shoulder.

The visitors, desperate for half time, were roused after it.

There was a sense, even before they halved arrears through Josh Hancock’s penalty, that the momentum for the first time would not be with the hosts.

Oliver James’ clipped pass, again into a gap behind Jacobs, put Mathew Wood in a foot race with Worsnop to the ball.

The full back won, tumbling in the box after contact with the keeper.

Hancock, in front of a vast bank of FC United supporters, was resolute despite attempts to put him off.

For a short while, the home crowd were less certain that their favourites would succeed. Their lead suddenly felt fragile.

Witton’s players were recognisable again, Michael Powell and James for the first time imposing authority in midfield.

But Albion attacked more with will than coherence, with Worsnop called on almost exclusively to deal with set pieces delivered by Hancock’s new white boots.

And the goalkeeper did so with assuredness.

Karl Marginson’s men reminded Witton too that their threat remained intact; Banks blasting inches off target after Mulholland – less effective in the second half after a scintillating first – teed him up.

When they next forged forward, Michael Norton escaped the attention of Witton’s backline only to be tripped by Cooper’s flailing hand.

Dean Stott’s resulting penalty was emphatic and, ultimately, decisive.

Albion, who had exceeded all expectation to have been a participant in the play-offs, had nothing left to give.

Nor did they have anything to be ashamed of.

Witton Star Man: Josh Hancock. Kept his head when others around him lost theirs, not least when converting a penalty that Albion had hoped would be a catalyst for a comeback in the second half. His first thought in possession was always to be positive, which restricted FC United full back Kyle Jacobs’ ability to attack from a deep position.

FC United (4-2-3-1) Worsnop (GK), Jacobs, Lacy (Daniels 26), Stott, Neville, Birch, Banks, Wolfenden (Tierney 85), Wright, Mulholland (Cottrell 77), Norton. Subs not used Giggs, Greaves. Goals Wolfenden 8, Mulholland 34, Stott 74 (penalty). Booked Birch, Worsnop, Jacobs, Banks (all fouls), Stott (raised hand), Norton (ungentlemanly conduct)

Witton (4-4-2) Cooper (GK), Sheehan, Ben Harrison, Joseph, Woods, Andrews, James (Shaw 72), Powell, Hancock (Jamie Harrison 83), Tuck (Moseley 85), Foster. Subs not used Plant (GK), Glover. Goal Hancock 53 (penalty). Booked Wood, Cooper (both fouls), Tuck (simulation)

Referee David Richardson (West Riding)
Attendance 2,492 (including 341 from Witton)