Just a couple of months ago, Russ Penn was living a nightmare as Kidderminster Harriers slid down the National League North table during a nine-match winless run and an increasingly agitated fanbase questioned whether he and assistant Jimmy O’Connor were the men to take the club forward.
Yesterday, at a little after 5.30pm, he stood proudly in front of 700 travelling supporters at Brackley Town, celebrating the most improbable of promotions. He could be forgiven for feeling a little dazed.
“Surreal” was how Penn described his emotions and he was probably not the only one among the travelling contingent using that adjective.
As recently as April 1, Harriers were in the bottom half of the table, seven points adrift of the play-offs. A playing budget for an eighth straight season in non-league’s second tier had already been agreed. Nine straight wins later, including three knockout victories on the road in the play-offs, and those plans will now have to be ripped up. Harriers are back in the National League Premier for the first time since 2016.
An example of how important momentum is in sport, this story is also a lesson in patience and staying true to your convictions. Harriers owner Richard Lane stood firm when the noise around Penn and O’Connor grew, keeping faith with the men who took the club to within a whisker of beating West Ham in last season’s FA Cup. Yesterday he reaped the rewards and some.
Those celebrations will eventually blend into serious conversations about how Harriers go about tackling their first season back in a division which has changed considerably since they last resided.
But for a few days, they can wait.
Penn was right when he remarked these are the moments to truly savour. This is a sport which gives you more than enough kickings, as the first eight months of the season for his team will attest.
Harriers still needed to beat Kettering on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the play-offs but once they did, they never looked back, edging a tight quarter-final at Alfreton before thumping a King’s Lynn team who had finished four places and 24 points ahead of them in the standings to set-up yesterday’s trip to Brackley.
Once Ashley Hemmings had pounced on a defensive mix-up to fire them into a 13th minute lead, there only looked one winner.
The former Walsall and Wolves forward confirmed those suspicions when he doubled the advantage on the hour mark. After a season of so much struggle, the finish has looked almost laughably easy.
That said, a play-off campaign played exclusively on the road was always likely to suit a Harriers team who often struggled on their own patch but excelled on their travels. Including the three post-season wins, this was their 15th away triumph of the campaign.
Brackley’s own history may also have been a factor. This was the fifth straight season the Northamptonshire club have qualified for the play-offs and the third time they have been beaten in the final without scoring.
From the moment Villa academy product Riccardo Calder smacked his clearance off team-mate Jordan Richards and Hemmings went racing clear to score, they had the look of a team resigned to their fate.
Hemmings was an appropriate hero of the hour.
Tipped for big things when he came through the ranks at Wolves, his career had been something of a nomadic, frustrating one before joining Harriers in 2019. At Aggborough, he has found a home and the consistency which previously eluded him.
While the opener might have owed much to being in the right place at the right time, his second was a strike of real quality, fired beyond former Harriers No.1 Danny Lewis and just inside the far post as home skipper Glenn Walker tried desperately to cut off the angle.
He came close to capping the day with a third but a curling effort, from the right of the box, was just a foot or so over the bar.
Harriers keeper Christian Dibble saved early from Shepherd Murombedzi but was otherwise well protected by a backline brilliantly marshalled by Kyle Morrison, who won almost every header there was to be won.
It was Morrison who effectively had the last word when, with the hosts unable to get anything going in attack, Dibble almost gifted them a route back with five minutes to
go when he misjudged a through ball.
The task for Cosmas Matwasa looked simple but just as his shot looked set to cross the line, so a diving Morrison appeared from the right, deflecting the ball behind and killing off any lingering hope of a comeback.
When the final whistle sounded, players from both teams fell to their knees, those wearing Brackley red in despair, Harriers blue in delight and perhaps just a little amazement.
Penn accepted the congratulations of his coaching staff and the home side before heading off to join in the celebrations.
“When we went to Farsley on April 1 we said: ‘One win and we will see where we go’. It has just gone on from that,” he said. “I don’t think if you wrote a book you could write a better end.”
You really couldn’t.