South Shields qualified for the final of the Buildbase FA Vase with a resounding 4-0 win over Coleshill Town at a packed Mariners Park.
Shields turned in an outstanding display on arguably the biggest day in the club’s recent history.
Julio Arca settled any nerves with an unstoppable 20 yard drive on the stroke of half-time, which put the Mariners 3-1 up on aggregate.
They then motored on in the second half, with Gavin Cogdon making the tie more comfortable before late goals from Carl Finnigan and David Foley added gloss to the scoreline.
The match was played in front of a Mariners Park record crowd of 3,464, and the Shields fans now have a Wembley trip to look forward to on May 21, when they will take on Cleethorpes Town.
Shields reached the final on a raucous afternoon at Mariners Park which is destined to go down in club folklore.
Billed by many ahead of the game as the biggest day in the Mariners’ history, this was high stakes indeed.
But Shields never looked likely to succumb to the pressure, and spurred on by an incredible support, they set about extending the 2-1 lead they brought back from the first leg.
Cogdon was a constant danger to the visiting defence, even if at times he may have felt he could have done better with opportunities in the first half.
Early on, Robert Briggs presented him with a decent chance in the area, but the striker was unable to divert the ball towards goal.
Andrew Stephenson – deployed behind the two strikers, with Michael Richardson unavailable due to illness – struck the woodwork in the 11th minute as he beat his man on the left of the box and cracked an effort which took a deflection before hitting the bar.
Stephenson had an even better chance soon after when a Briggs free-kick dropped at his feet, but an excellent block from Danny Tymon kept him off the scoresheet.
The first goal in the game was sure to be crucial, and only on rare occasions did the spirited Coleshill look likely to grab it.
One of those came when a ball over the top almost put Jordan Nadat through on goal, but Darren Lough covered excellently and got it clear.
At the other end, Cogdon missed his kick after a cut-back from Foley, while a low shot from Foley was well held by goalkeeper Paul Hathaway.
Shields were indebted to Liam Connell in the first leg after he made a number of fine stops to ensure they came back to South Tyneside with an advantage.
He made another vital stop eight minutes before half-time in the second leg.
Dean Rathbone struck a powerful effort 12 yards out, and Connell made a superb one-handed save to force the ball over the crossbar.
Later in the half, Craig Milligan sent another shot wide for the visitors as they enjoyed their best spell of the match.
Had the game been goalless at the break, despite Shields’ strong performance, nerves would have surely been jangling going into a 45-minute period in which all possibilities were well and truly open.
The Mariners needed a spark. A moment. A goal.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Cogdon got in down the right and when he pulled the ball back, it took a few bounces before hurtling towards the onrushing Arca. He met it with as sweet a connection as he could have hoped for, and it went sailing past Hathaway and into the net to send Mariners Park – and Arca – wild.
The breakthrough had arrived and Wembley was suddenly far more than just a dream. It was tantalisingly close.
Coleshill now required two goals to force extra-time, and so the whole context of the tie shifted slightly again.
It was Shields who started the second half on the front foot, and there they stayed, with Connell not called into any further serious action.
He was able to stand back and admire the football played in front of him as the Mariners showed their quality.
Stephenson went close with two efforts and Arca was denied by the foot of Hathaway after wriggling through on the inside-right of the area.
The goal to surely clinch Shields’ Wembley place came in the 62nd minute.
Briggs lifted the ball over the top to Cogdon, and as he raced through on goal, he waited for Hathaway to commit and then gloriously dinked it over him when he fell to the floor as he notched his 23rd goal of the season.
Shields continued to keep the ball for fun, all the while staying tight defensively and alert to any danger which came their way.
There were few more clear-cut chances until the closing stages, with first Jon Shaw denied when his header from deep was claimed by Hathaway.
Hathaway also made a good stop from substitute Finnigan with two minutes left after Briggs had beaten the defence with an excellent pass.
Finnigan was not kept off the scoresheet for long, though. After an excellent passing move which involved most members of the team, Alex Nicholson drove through the middle and then clipped a low ball into the box which Finnigan forced home, via a touch from Hathaway.
Within moments of the restart, Foley was sprinting through on the left, and he unleashed a fantastic left-footed shot across Hathaway and into the bottom corner to add another cherry on the top of an increasingly tasty cake for the Mariners.
The final whistle went and scenes of pure joy could be seen throughout Mariners Park, apart from those connected with Coleshill, who had done themselves proud over the two legs.
Young Shields supporters spilled onto the pitch to celebrate with their heroes, many of whom were visibly emotional.
One of those was Arca, the former Premier League star who is now well and truly an adopted Mariner.
He left the pitch to a rapturous reception and with tears streaming down his face. Just like the rest of the Shields squad, he had realised a dream.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Lough, Shaw, Morse, Arca (c), Briggs, Phillips (Smith 77), Cogdon (Finnigan 63), Stephenson (Nicholson 73), Foley. Subs not used: Parkin, Storey.
Goals: Arca (45), Cogdon (62), Finnigan (90), Foley (90+1).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.