Harrogate boss Simon Weaver was delighted that his players prevented Cambridge from wrapping up promotion at Wetherby Road.
The Sulphurites won an extraordinary game 5-4 courtesy of an 84th-minute winner from Kevin Lokko, who was one of eight changes Weaver made to his starting line-up with Monday’s rescheduled 2020 FA Trophy final against Concord Rangers at Wembley in mind.
Harrogate had earlier led 4-2 at the break, with Brendan Kiernan – another one of Town’s fringe players – hitting a first-half hat-trick and joining Mark Beck on the home scoresheet.
Wes Hoolahan and Luke Hannant had replied for the visitors and Paul Mullin’s second-half brace took his season’s tally to 33 before Lokko settled matters.
A stunned Weaver said: “It was a complete roller-coaster and I was delighted with the players that came in. They’ve not had much football, but they showed tenacity and really good ability, especially attacking-wise.
“For Brendan Kiernan to do that to a team that are heading to League One is full credit to him. He always comes into the club with a smile on his face even when he’s not playing and he should be very pleased with his performance.
“People said it was a dead rubber for us, but we have got a lot of pride. We could hear some of their fans outside the ground and we didn’t want them celebrating at our stadium.
“I also wanted a feelgood factor to get on the bus for Wembley and we’ve got that now.”
Just as on Saturday, when they lost 1-0 to Stevenage, Cambridge failed to get the three points that would have seen them guarantee a return to third-tier football – a level they last played in 2002.
Unless Morecambe and Tranmere both fail to win this weekend, U’s boss Mark Bonner now knows his side must ensure they hold their nerve at home to already-relegated Grimsby on the season’s final day.
He said: “We’ve had two bites of the cherry and, if it comes down to a third, then we will need to do better and show the spirit and bravery needed to attack the challenge head on.
“It was a ridiculous game and I’m really surprised at that with the consequences riding on it. We got countered on too much in the first half but, even though we were 3-0 down after 20 minutes, we still had 21 attempts on goal and, when we got back to 4-4, I thought we would go on and win it.
“But we conceded another goal from a set play and you can’t expect to defend as badly as we did and win.
“We didn’t defend at all well against their big striker Beck or against Kiernan’s pace and, while we could have scored seven or eight goals, they could have done as well. It was a really strange evening and you rarely see games like that.”
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