FC Halifax Town reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy for the first time in their history after a penalty shoot-out victory over Neil Aspin’s Gateshead in their quarter-final replay.
On a night of high drama, Matty Brown converted the decisive spot-kick after a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out which had seen Shaquille McDonald spurn a chance of sending them through earlier in the shoot-out.
Josh Gillies gave Gateshead a dream start with an early goal, but Kingsley James’ 11th goal of the season brought Town level.
Gillies then turned provider for Ryan Bowman to put the hosts back in front, a position they never looked like surrendering until substitute Connor Hughes popped up out of nowhere to force extra-time.
Town had been on the ropes for the previous 20 minutes, but somehow hauled themselves back into the contest in the dying moments; Gateshead’s chairman must have been Googling hotels near Nantwich such was their utter dominance.
Aspin’s side should have been out of sight long before full-time, but minutes after extra-time had begun, Shaquille McDonald put Halifax into a barely-believable lead.
The drama continued as Gillies scored his second and Gateshead’s third on the brink of half-time in extra-time before Town edged through on penalties.
Kevin Roberts and Jordan Burrow replaced Josh Macdonald and Billy Whitehouse, taking the number of Town players in the starting eleven brought to the club by Aspin to nine as Jim Harvey opted for a diamond in midfield and a flat back-four.
Town’s last away game saw them concede after 33 seconds at Braintree; they only kept Gateshead out for a further three minutes here.
CJ Hamilton raced clear on the left and Gillies, who nearly signed on loan for Aspin when he was at Halifax, sent his cross, via a half clearance by Scott McManus, back across goal and past Sam Johnson as Town conceded for the first time in the FA Trophy this season.
Town had sparkled with a diamond in midfield in the second-half at Braintree before Kevin Roberts’ dismissal, but didn’t look comfortable with the system after Gillies’ opener.
Hamilton got some joy one-on-one against James Bolton down the Gateshead left, while the formation seemed to concentrate a lot of Halifax attacks centrally, leaving a lack of width.
But The Shaymen did get the ball wide in the final third for the first time midway through the first-half, and from Richard Peniket’s cross, the unmarked James rifled the ball in from 12 yards as Gateshead conceded for the first time in over four hours.
By the time the heavens opened after half-an-hour, Gateshead were second-best after an impressive first 20 minutes.
Other than through the outstanding Hamilton, the hosts lacked invention, while Peniket and Burrow looked a threat for Town, but both saw the ball too rarely.
If any Nantwich scouts were in the crowd, they might have fancied their chances against either side.
Hamilton was again set free down the left behind the Town defence, but chose to cross rather than shoot from an albeit tight angle, with Rob Ramshaw scuffing a shot wide under pressure from McManus.
Just before the break, McManus’ cross was headed agonisingly against the post by Burrow from six yards; with 44 minutes gone, it would have been an opportune time to score.
Aspin said the tie was delicately poised after Saturday’s goalless draw, and halfway through the replay, that statement was equally true.
Another Hamilton charge was curtailed by Matty Brown’s foul, which earned him a booking, and after the free-kick was never properly cleared, Bowman was perfectly placed to tap in after Johnson parried Gillies’ cross into his path.
Just like the first-half, Town began the second in generous mood.
Halifax had switched to a 3-5-2 by now, but another Burrow header straight at Sam Russell was the only chance they’d created by the hour mark.
Bowman nearly extended Gateshead’s lead with a scuffed shot which Johnson gathered just in front of the line.
By the time Hughes and Josh Macdonald came on, it was pretty much a 4-2-4 for Halifax as Wembley gradually began to disappear over the horizon for another year; only a superb block by Bolton prevented Matty Pattison making it 3-1 with 15 minutes left.
Town were hanging on by their fingertips when, first ex-Shaymen striker Jon Shaw, then Hamilton, both spurned glorious chances to seal Gateshead’s place in the last four within 60 seconds by shooting wide from no more than 12 yards out.
Still the chances came for Gateshead as Ramshaw and Hamilton went close to that elusive third.
The hosts were cruising through to the semi-finals, only for Hughes to loop the ball over Russell from the most innocuous-looking long ball forward.
There have been some memorable late goals in FC Halifax’s history, but few will have been as unexpected as that.
There was barely time to catch your breath before McDonald produced a superb left-footed drive from the edge of the box after Burrow’s chest-down to complete a quite remarkable turnaround.
Inevitably, Gateshead mounted some pressure in response as their corner count rose rapidly, with Shaw heading wide from one of them.
The lead lasted until seconds before half-time in extra-time as Gillies was given too much space on the edge of the box and drove the ball brilliantly beyond Johnson into the far corner.
Goodness knows what that Nantwich scout was making of it.
Composure was at a premium now as both sides subconsciously seemed to sense the next goal could be decisive.
Shaw had two good chances to snatch a winner for Gateshead, while Nicky Wroe’s swirling shot was well saved by Russell as the game reached next-goal-wins territory.
With seconds remaining, one final twist before penalties saw McDonald played clean through, only for Russell to save his low shot and ensure it was spot-kicks all round.
Gateshead: Russell, Bennett, Curtis, Clark, Whitmore, Gillies, Mafuta (Ramshaw 14), McLaughlin, Pattison (Johnson 81), Hamilton, Bowman (Shaw 70). Subs not used: Chandler, Pearson.
Scorers: Gillies (3, 105), Bowman (50)
Shots on target: 7
Shots off target: 13
Halifax: Johnson, Bolton, Brown, Bencherif, Roberts (J Macdonald 67), Wroe, James, Hibbs (Hughes 67), McManus, J Burrow, Peniket (S McDonald 62). Subs not used: Porter, Walker.
Scorers: James (23), Hughes (90), McDonald (93)
Shots on target: 5
Shots off target: 7
Town man of the match: Sam Johnson