There is no getting away from it: the overriding emotion for Antoni Sarcevic this season has been frustration.
In the opening months, the 31-year-old was a mainstay of Stockport’s midfield in the club’s first season back in the EFL since 2010/11, then he missed the majority of January and all of February through injury.
From March 4 to the end of the regular season, he started just four games. For good reason, he thought his campaign was done and dusted.
But those trials and tribulations only served to make the events of Saturday’s play-off semi-final second leg against Salford all the sweeter.
Sunday 28th May 1:00pm
Kick off 1:30pm
In the County squad for the first time since April 10, Sarcevic was brought on for Callum Camps – who had earlier been booked – with an hour gone.
With five minutes of extra-time remaining, he leapt to hook the ball to the far post for Jack Stretton to head in and force penalties and, later, thumped the winning spot-kick in off the underside of the crossbar to send Dave Challinor’s men to Wembley.
“There’s no better feeling,” he says as he re-lives the moment in conversation with Sky Sports.
“My family and I have watched it back, probably over 100 times! It’s one of those moments that, as a footballer, you never forget.
“We were more than comfortable taking Salford back to Edgeley Park and turning that one-goal deficit around. I was just the lucky one to take the winning penalty to get this club to Wembley.
“It’s just been a bit of a stop-start season for me, for the first time in my career, really. I thought my season was done, but it’s gone from one low to a major high, coming back and scoring that penalty.
“I’m feeling brilliant now. I was pushing myself in rehab and recovery to get myself back for the play-off games. I want to keep myself ready now because there’s unfinished business. I want to make up for that lost time by playing out of my skin on Sunday.”
Should Stockport triumph in Sunday’s showpiece, they will complete back-to-back promotions, having won the National League in 2021/22. They have ambitions to get to the Championship and, as a result, were priced as title favourites by many bookmakers last summer.
But they stuttered to start with and were not even in the top half on a regular basis until the start of 2023.
Was that down to adjusting to the step up a division or simply not getting the rub of the green? Six of their first eight defeats were only decided by a one-goal margin, after all.
“I think it was a bit of both, really,” Sarcevic continues. “We were confident going into the season off the back of the promotion out of the National League, but with stepping up, new signings, things weren’t falling for us.
“Ever since the new year, our record speaks for itself. We’ve got a settled team, a settled squad and we’ve managed to do what we knew we could do. We knew that if we did what we needed to do, the fans would stick with us. They’ve been with us all season and play a massive part.”
A few eyebrows were raised when he swapped League One life with Bolton to drop into non-league with Stockport out of the blue in October 2021, but it probably goes without saying that he does not regret the perceived gamble.
“There was a lot of hearsay on social media at the time, but I had to block that out,” he says.
“I knew the club I was coming into and I’m a local lad anyway, so I know what the club’s about and I was made up with the move. I knew that, if things went according to plan, we’d have success.
“When I signed, the club laid out the plans of what they want to do and where they want to take the club and that’s only one way: up. We’re the fortunate ones in this group that can lead the club back up to League One.”
Stockport have not played at Wembley since they beat Rochdale 3-2 in the 2007/08 League Two play-off final, but fortunately, in Sarcevic they have a serial promotion winner among their ranks – aside from last year, he has done it with Chester, Fleetwood, Plymouth and Bolton.
On Sunday afternoon, it will be nine years and two days since his stunning free-kick from 35+ yards took Fleetwood out of League Two for the first time. To win there again “would mean the world,” he says.
“Some of the lads have been asking what it’s like to play at Wembley and I’ve been telling them to just cherish the moment, make sure you enjoy every second, because I was 21 at that time and thinking I could do that for the rest of my career, but it’s been nine years since I last played there.
“The gaffer has kept telling us that it’s the worst place to lose a football match, so all the lads are geared up to make sure it’s a happy day for everyone.
“At the start of the year, we all set out to get promotion and, if you could go one way, I’d always say the best way to do it is through the play-offs. It’s the toughest, but if you can get that win at Wembley, the memories live forever.”