BUCKLAND Athletic were within moments of reaching the FA Vase quarter-finals before cruelly being knocked-out on penalties by Newport Pagnell Town on Saturday.
Owen Stockton had given the travelling side a 1-0 lead in Buckinghamshire just after the hour when he caught home keeper Martin Conway off his line to score from 40 yards.
Despite some resolute defending from Paul Froude’s side, Alfie Powell pounced on a loose ball in the fourth minute of added time to force spot kicks – which the Bucks lost 4-3.
The ever-lively Charlie Johansen had a couple of early sighters for the visitors – the most clear-cut of them coming when he fired wide from a nice move after seven minutes.
Stockton had a free-kick in a dangerous position which he could only send over the crossbar, before Ben Shepherd’s well-struck drive cleared the woodwork at the other end.
Ten minutes before the break the hosts fashioned the first gilt-edged chance of the game. Top scorer Danny Webb got away down the right-hand side and pulled the ball back to the penalty spot.
Jim Burnside took a complete air-shot, but Ben Ford’s connection was much cleaner and destined for the bottom corner had it not been for a timely deflection.
Conway in the home net had to be alert to claw a Rob Farkins header from under his crossbar, but it was the Swans who would have the final say in an evenly-matched first 45.
Shepherd delivered a delicious cross to the front post for Burnside, who could only apply the tamest of headers which was held by Andy Collings.
Newport Pagnell worked another decent opening 10 minutes after half-time when Webb cut back to Christian Smail, whose shot sailed harmlessly over.
Kieran Barnes produced a near carbon copy when he cleared the crossbar eight minutes later, shortly before Stockton gave the travelling Bucks something to really shout about.
Conway came off his line and scuffed his clearance straight to the young midfielder, who struck first time from a long way out.
Despite taking what felt like an age, the ball eventually bobbled its way over the line with the home stopper stranded in no man’s land.
With space starting to open up, Josh Webber got in behind the home defence but couldn’t sort his feet out sufficiently to prevent himself dragging the eventual shot wide.
Burnside, by now cutting a frustrated figure up top for the home team, saw another chance go begging with 17 minutes left.
Half of the 1,186 spectators inside Willen Road thought he’d scored when he beat the offside trap and pulled the trigger – but the centre-forward had only found the side netting.
Eight minutes from time Buckland had their best chance to seal the tie – and would’ve done so but for a sensational save from Conway.
Making up for his earlier error, the Swans’ keeper did fantastically well to keep Webber’s curling effort out of the top corner.
That would prove crucial in stoppage time after Kieran Barnes had his near post shot saved – one of the few times Collings was called into action all afternoon.
The ball became loose in the box from the resulting corner, with Powell reacting quickest to hammer it into the roof of the net.
There is no extra time in this season’s Vase, so penalties would determine who got themselves into the hat for the last eight.
Barnes and Rich Groves both succeeded with the first kicks but Collings kept out the attempt of James Sage. The Bucks’ advantage, however, was wiped out when Ben Carter fired his against the inside of the post.
The next two rounds of takers – including Conway himself – all found the net, but Collings got down well to his left to keep out Webb’s effort.
That gave Cieran Bridger a chance to send Buckland through, but Conway kept his penalty out with his legs.
Ford beat Collings to put the pressure on Buckland substitute Ryan Bush – who shootout hero Conway denied to send his side through 4-3 on penalties, setting up a quarter-final clash away at Whitchurch Alport.
Once the carnage of the resulting pitch invasion had subsided, Buckland manager Paul Froude was able to reflect on the harshest of endings to his side’s run.
‘We’re so proud of the boys,’ said Froude. ‘They did so well, defended magnificently and I thought we dominated the game in the second half.
‘We got a deserved lead but there was a bit of pinball in the box at the end and it’s ended up in the back of the net, which means all that hard work is undone. Then you go into the lottery of penalties.
‘It’s a sore one for the lads. There are tears in the changing room to be honest, but as a group we couldn’t be more proud of them.
‘The club couldn’t be more proud to have them representing us. I’m sure when the dust settles we can look back at this run with some fond memories and lessons to learn going forward. We’ll learn, we’ll move forward and we’ll take it on the chin.’
As for Stockton’s goal, Froude admitted that it was a great feeling to see it eventually find its way over the line.
‘It was like time stood still,’ Froude explained. ‘The keeper has come off his line quickly which he did all game. He was a very good keeper, to be fair.
‘Owen has rolled it onto an empty net from 40 yards but it’s barely crossed the line. It was obviously a fantastic feeling when it went in and I felt we deserved the lead at that point.
‘But I don’t think the game was a great spectacle, to be honest. I don’t think either team got it down and played how they both would have wanted to.
‘I think that when you get to this stage of a competition, that can be natural sometimes – as people become adverse to taking any risks.
‘Both teams gave 110 per cent. Small margins decide games and unfortunately today we were on the wrong end of it.’
The Bucks were due to entertain Saltash United on Tuesday night in the Les Phillips Cup, but that game was called off because of a waterlogged pitch at Homers Heath.
Attentions now turn instead back to the Western League on Saturday, when Ashton & Backwell United will be the visitors (3pm).