Altrincham 1, Runcorn 0: DELIGHTED to have qualified for Conference North - and relieved not to have been forced into a play-off - Chris Lightfoot couldn't have been happier.

The Linnets had just lost for a third time this season to the old enemy. But it didn't matter as three wins earlier in the week and Ashton United's home defeat by Harrogate Town left the Runcorn player-boss to savour a successful end to a traumatic season.

Few would have relished the task Lightfoot and assistant Eddie Bishop took on when they succeeded Liam Watson and Neil Whalley in October.

And after all they have faced - not least the transfers of three key players and long-term injury to vice-captain Steve Carragher - the duo are probably ready for anything.

Next season will present another battle - Runcorn needing to strengthen their squad and bring in more finance to compete.

Whatever the future, this was another memorable chapter in an eventful recent past for Runcorn. But who could ever have predicted the scenes at the end of this game?

Fans of two clubs, who were in turn the top team in national non-league football in the late 1970s and early 80s, cast aside their arch rivalry to congratulate each other on winning last-gasp places in the new division.

For Altrincham, joy came at the final whistle - Saturday's winners were always guaranteed a spot. But Runcorn had a short but agonising wait while news filtered through from feloow contenders Ashton's Hurst Cross.

When it did, Linnets' players emerged from the dressing room to celebrate with supporters.

Some of those fans had suffered the disappointment of missing out on the inception of the Alliance Premier League in 1979.

And all knew only too well failure to gain promotion this time would have raised serious questions about the viability of an already-struggling club which at last has something positive to hold onto.

Lightfoot admitted he couldn't have asked for anything more of his players.

'There's not many teams who could have played as many games as us in the last three weeks and won so many. All credit to every one of them. They have been absolutely brilliant,' he said.

'We didn't want the play-offs, especially with our small squad. The 14 lads out there today were all we had, and Lee Kissock wasn't 100% fit and only came on for the last 20 minutes.

'Now I have pulled a hamstring so it's a good job we have gone up.'

After all their effort in taking their fight to this final game, Runcorn must have wondered whether fate would go against them when Tony McMillan made a hash of a 35-yard free-kick from left-back Barry Shuttleworth.

The keeper turned it onto his own bar and when it dropped, the referee ruled it had crossed the line - although even Altrincham fans behind the goal were doubtful.

With England non-league international Ian Craney a threat, Runcorn were grateful to concede just the once.

But after the break, they gave it everything with Chris Lightfoot heading against a post and, on his departure, defensive stalwart Ged Nolan (permanently) and keeper McMillan (for a corner) joined the onslaught.

A big clue as to Runcorn's position came five minutes from time with a cheer from Altrincham supporters on the sidelines which could only signify Harrogate were ahead at Ashton. But at that stage, it was only 3-2 to Harrogate and there still two more goals to come at Hurst Cross - an Ashton equaliser and Harrogate winner.

Phew, what a finish!

RUNCORN: McMillan, Garrity, McGinn, Nolan, Spearritt, Ness, Lally, Morley, Lightfoot (Kissock 81), Courtney, Rendell. Subs: Aldridge, Parkinson. Attendance: 874.

Runcorn had shrugged off tired legs and twice falling behind in the first half to beat bottom-placed Wakefield & Emley 5-3 at Halton Stadium on Thursday.

Goals from skipper Dominic Morley (52), Lightfoot (60) and Ged Courtney (62) gave the Linnets a three-goal advantage.

Joe Washington's goal 12 minutes from time added to earlier Emley strikes from Steve Kenworthy and Robert Tonks which had each been cancelled out by Carl Rendell.