McAuley uses his head to give Lincoln final chance

Macclesfield Town 1 Lincoln City 1 Lincoln City win 2-1 on aggregate
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Lincoln City will travel to Cardiff for their second play-off final in three seasons hoping to banish the painful memory of their first visit. Keith Alexander's side were beaten 5-2 by Bournemouth at the Millennium Stadium in 2003, but have the opportunity to put matters right after holding Brian Horton's Macclesfield to a 1-1 draw at Moss Rose yesterday, which meant their single-goal lead from the first leg was enough to see them through.

Lincoln City will travel to Cardiff for their second play-off final in three seasons hoping to banish the painful memory of their first visit. Keith Alexander's side were beaten 5-2 by Bournemouth at the Millennium Stadium in 2003, but have the opportunity to put matters right after holding Brian Horton's Macclesfield to a 1-1 draw at Moss Rose yesterday, which meant their single-goal lead from the first leg was enough to see them through.

For the second time in eight days, the giant defender Gareth McAuley was their key man. It was his header from a free-kick that gave them the upper hand at Sincil Bank. This time, he struck from a 15th-minute corner, leaving Macclesfield needing to score twice even to force extra time.

It was a task that proved too much, even after a second half in which Macclesfield gave Lincoln's defensive capabilities the stiffest test they could muster. The home side's midfielder Paul Harsley gave them hope with a fine goal after 76 minutes, but there was to be no second to square the tie, although it took a superb save from Alan Marriott to deny substitute Danny Whitaker with five minutes remaining.

Lincoln will be popular winners in one respect should they clinch their place in League One on Saturday. The courteous and likeable Alexander has steered his side into the play-offs in each of his three seasons in charge, and has also battled back from serious illness.

Three months into last season, he collapsed with what turned out to be a double aneurysm, subsequently undergoing life-saving brain surgery, but was back at his desk within 12 weeks and still managed to achieve a top-seven finish.

Alexander has been criticised for his side's style of play, which tends to see the ball in the air rather more than on the ground, but he makes no apology for it, even though he finds the singling out of Lincoln under the label of long-ball team somewhat irksome.

"If you have some big 'uns in the team, as we do, it makes sense to use them," he said. "I see Macclesfield having a big lad up front in Jon Parkin, who they try to get the ball to whenever possible. But I don't hear them called a long-ball team."

Nonetheless, the height of the 6ft 3in McAuley proved to be their decisive weapon. The 23-year-old Ulsterman, a £10,000 signing from Coler-aine last summer, towered above everyone at the far post to meet Gary Taylor-Fletcher's corner. His header hit the opposite post, and though the ball was booted out from under the crossbar, the referee, Phil Crossley, spotted it had crossed the line.

Macclesfield were lucky the referee did not see Parkin aiming a kick at McAuley just before half-time, otherwise their comeback chances would have been weakened. In the event, they made a good fist of it, and when Harsley turned and beat Marriott from 15 yards with 14 minutes left, extra time seemed possible. But Marriott kept out the home side's best subsequent effort, tipping Whitaker's 30-yarder over the bar.

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