For six months Kidderminster Harriers rode the crest of a footballing wave.
In the last week they have discovered just how cruelly the game can kick you in the guts, writes Steve Madeley.
A 3-1 defeat at Aggborough yesterday confirmed the end of a remarkable sporting story that looked set to carry Harriers back to the Football League.
And it left a stadium packed to the rafters overwhelmed by a mixture of pride and regret.
Wrexham claimed a 5-2 aggregate victory in their Blue Square Premier play-off and condemned Steve Burr’s side to another non-league season.
Eight days ago the odds looked stacked in their favour after a stunning surge up the table.
Little did Harriers and their fans know the momentum that took them so close to an automatic return to League Two against all the odds would abandon them when they needed it most.
Burr’s men ran out of steam at the crucial moment as goals from Brett Ormerod and Joe Clarke and a Neil Ashton penalty took Wrexham to Wembley for the second time this season.
That was despite Cheyenne Dunkley’s scrambled goal for the hosts briefly giving Burr and Co a fresh injection of hope.
Over 180 minutes at the Racecourse Ground and at Aggborough, it was hard to begrudge the Welsh side their place in the final.
And yet, having seen their side finish fully 15 points clear of the Red Dragons at the end of a remarkable season, few Harriers loyalists will be fans of the play-offs this morning.
The challenge for Burr is now to galvanise his troops for another tilt at promotion next season after their dreams were snatched away in such heartbreaking fashion.
Their fine end to the season suggests they have more than enough talent in their ranks.
Home fans were fearing the worst early yesterday as Wrexham settled quicker and had the first sniff of goal.
Player-manager Andy Morrell lifted a dangerous ball into the Harriers box for Jonathan Hunt to chase, but home keeper Danny Lewis reacted well to race from his line and gather.
Harriers then found their feet and twice went close to the opening goal.
On 12 minutes a clever free-kick allowed Lee Vaughan to hammer in a cross from the right and it struck the far post, possibly with the help of a slight touch off the head of Michael Gash.
And, seconds later, Danny Pilkington found space wide on the Harriers left and crossed for Dunkley, who found space for a free header but saw his effort claimed by goalkeeper Chris Maxwell.
Harriers had looked the more likely scorers but, on the half-hour, they found themselves behind and with a two-goal deficit to overhaul in the tie.
Veteran striker Ormerod, who had been a thorn in their side on Tuesday at the Racecourse Ground, burst clear of the home defence before beating advancing goalkeeper Lewis with a fabulous right-footed finish.
That goal pricked the bubble of expectation inside Aggborough with the home fans becoming subdued while the travelling Wrexham following worked their way through their complete repertoire of Welsh anthems.
Harriers created a couple of decent openings but Pilkington saw a disappointing corner cleared from the near post.
Full-back Vaughan then floated a cross from a dangerous position straight into the hands of confident goalkeeper Maxwell.
The home fans’ prayers were almost answered when the visitors misjudged a high ball on the edge of the area and it dropped for Devaney, whose effort was charged down superbly by Maxwell.
And, with 27 minutes remaining, they grabbed the lifeline they needed when they forced the ball home from a set-piece.
Kyle Storer delivered a free-kick into the danger area and Dunkley met it with a header before bundling the ball over the line.
But they were level for just six minutes before a scrappy goal restored Wrexham’s two-goal aggregate lead.
A free-kick from just outside the box was hammered in by Clarke and crept through a crowd of bodies into the net.
Harriers threw caution to the wind and they almost found a way back when Michael Gash weaved his way through the Red Dragons’ defence and let fly with a shot that was saved superbly by Maxwell.
Wrexham twisted the knife with four minutes to go when Josh Gowling conceded his second penalty of the tie as he tripped substitute Adrian Cieslewicz and Ashton finished emphatically from the spot.
Harriers (4-3-3): Lewis; L Vaughan, Dunkley, Gowling, Williams (Gittings 77); Pilkington (Johnson 62), Storer, Jackman; Devaney (Rowe 69), Gash, Malbon. Subs not used: Briggs, N Vaughan (GK).
Wrexham (4-3-3): Maxwell; Wright, Artell, Riley, Ashton; Harris, Keates (Little 86), Clarke; Morrell (Adebola 69), Ormerod (Cieslewicz 61), Hunt. Subs not used: Clowes, Coughlin (gk).
Referee: Seb Stockbridge (Tyne and Wear). Attendance: 6,202