It was a game Stalybridge Celtic nearly lost, but also almost won in a dramatic finish as Buxton visited Bower Fold in Evo Stik League, premier division.

Celtic looked to be heading for defeat to an unlucky 52nd minute own goal from centre-half Michael Clarke.

But in a thrilling finish between the 88th and 94th minutes, Clarke struck the crossbar, Neil Kengni equalised and Chris Smalley almost won it for Celtic in the dying seconds.

And Celtic manager Simon Haworth praised his side’s “character” in battling to the end.

“It wasn’t our best football, but the character we showed was the biggest tick as the lads dug in to get something from the game,” he said.

Haworth added had the game gone on for another 10 minutes, he believes Celtic would have triumphed as Buxton had “run out of steam”.

In what at times was a feisty fixture, former Celtic joint managers Steve Halford and Paul Phillips returned with the Hillmen who had three ex-Celtic players in their line-up.

The deadlock in an eminently forgettable game was broken early in the second half when former Celtic player Oli Roberts’ shot deflected off Clarke and looped over keeper Paddy Wharton. It was scrambled away, but the assistant referee ruled after it had crossed the line.

It was a messy goal in keeping with what went before and, even when Buxton had Brad Roscoe sent off with half an hour left, they never looked like equalising.

Clarke, a striker in his youth, was pushed up front in the latter stages and provided the attacking bite that Celtic lacked.

From the 86th minute, Kengni and Clarke fired wide and struck the underside of the bar with another effort.

Then with the four minutes of added time being signalled, Celtic finally equalised.

A slide-rule pass from substitute Greg Wilkinson released Kengni who burst through on goal and rounded keeper Theo Roberts before slotting home.

Then in the fourth added minute, Smalley thought he had won it for Celtic with a power headed from Liam Tongue’s corner that forced a fabulous save from Roberts.

And the two teams do it all over again on Saturday at Bower Fold in the second qualifying round of The Buildbase FA Trophy.

Celtic: Wharton, Tongue, Wilson, Dent, Clarke, Smalley, Bakkor, Rule, Sharp (Wilkinson 67), Wolfenden, Kengni. Subs (not used): Marx, Brown, Hughes, Winterbottom.

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