South Shields’ historic run in the Emirates FA Cup came to an end as they were beaten by League Two side Cheltenham Town in a hard-fought encounter at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium.
The Mariners were playing in round one of the competition for the first time and were level at the break after Darius Osei cancelled out an opener from Alfie May.
Shields more than matched their higher-ranked opponents for long spells but two goals in 10 minutes early in the second half by the hosts swung the tie in their favour.
In the final game of the hugely successful joint managerial reign of Lee Picton and Graham Fenton, Shields continued to battle for a way back into the game until the final whistle but they could not find the second goal which would have set up a grandstand finish.
The Mariners now face a wait before they return to league action at the end of the lockdown period.
This was Shields’ first opportunity to test themselves against Football League opposition and they had to withstand a strong start from their League Two hosts, with Ellis Chapman shooting wide from distance before Myles Boney was forced into a smart near-post save from the perennially dangerous May.
Boney could do nothing to prevent May firing Cheltenham into the lead on 11 minutes, though, with the striker turning home from close range after a cross from Matty Blair.
Shields were determined to do themselves justice on a bigger stage and the early setback sparked them into action. Jason Gilchrist was almost played in on goal by Robert Briggs and although defender Ben Tozer got in his way, the striker did force him into an impressive block.
There was also a sight of goal for Briggs, but his half volley from 20 yards comfortably cleared the crossbar.
Although the Mariners were clearly growing into the game, they did enjoy a real let-off when May headed wide from close range after another cross from the right.
What was already turning into an entertaining match had its second goal on 17 minutes, and this time it was Shields celebrating.
Briggs teased a superb low delivery into the box from the left and although it just evaded Gilchrist, Osei steamed in at the back post to force the ball home before colliding with the post. The blow Osei suffered forced his withdrawal from proceedings in what was a major blow for the away side, although his replacement Will McCamley acquitted himself well in his time on the pitch.
May and strike partner Reuben Reid were constant threats to the Shields back-line, and Boney did well to hold an effort from the former after some impressive skill from the Cheltenham man on the edge of the box.
Shields were imposing their style on the game by this stage and they enjoyed their best spell in the remainder of the first half.
Their first decent opportunity to take the lead came when Briggs seized a loose ball in midfield and fed it through to Gilchrist, who worked it onto his right foot before firing over.
The Mariners’ golden chance came four minutes before half-time and again Briggs was the architect as his pass split the Cheltenham defence and was met by an equally impressive run from McCamley, who was agonsingly off-target with his effort as it trickled past the post.
McCamley continued to be lively and had another bright moment a minute into stoppage time as he beat his man on the right and picked out Callum Ross, whose header at the back post found the side netting.
There was an early sight of goal for Shields in the second half when Gilchrist headed wide from a Briggs corner, but Cheltenham then embarked on a decisive spell to seize control of the first round tie.
Liam Sercombe dragged a shot wide and Boney saw a clearance cannon against Reid and fly over the bar, only for Shields’ resistance to be broken on 52 minutes as a ball in from the left was headed across the area and finished well by May, who doubled his tally.
Boney made a fine reaction stop from Reid to prevent the hosts scoring a quickfire double, but just after the hour it was 3-1 as Sercombe received the ball with his back to goal, turned and picked out the bottom corner with a fine effort. Shields felt play should have been stopped in the build-up after the ball struck the referee, but their appeals were waved away.
To their credit, Shields’ heads did not drop and they battled for a route back into the game, although Cheltenham remained a threat at the other end. Ross and Briggs made brave blocks and Boney saved with his legs from May to keep the possibility of a late comeback alive.
Their best opportunities fell to Ross, who headed wide from a Josh Gillies corner, and Gillies himself as the substitute fired over from just inside the box.
Boney made another eye-catching save as he kept out a pinpoint header from Andy Williams which was destined for the bottom corner, but there was no way back for Shields as their historic run in the competition came to a brave end.
South Shields: Boney, Hunter, Kempster (Gillies 69), Baxter (Lowe 60), Morse, Adams, Turnbull, Ross, Gilchrist, Briggs (c), Osei (McCamley 21). Subs not used: Coombe, Verstraaten, Thompson, Hindle.
Goal: Osei (17).
Image: Kev Wilson.
South Shields will aim to extend their longest run in the Emirates FA Cup since the club reformed in 1974 when they take on Cheltenham Town on Saturday.
After overcoming Warrington Town, Ashton United, Southport and FC Halifax Town, the Mariners must now defeat Football League opposition to claim a place in round two for the first time.
Cheltenham qualified for the League Two play-offs last season and are currently sixth in the table, so Shields are set to face one of the toughest tests possible at this stage of the competition.
However, they go into the match full of confidence having won their last four matches and kept clean sheets in their last five games.
They have also twice tasted victory over higher division opponents in this season’s Emirates FA Cup, and although Cheltenham will be the highest-ranked side they have faced, joint manager Lee Picton insists the Mariners are not heading to the Jonny-Rocks Stadium simply to make the numbers up.
He said: “We go into Saturday’s game full of confidence because we’ve put a run of wins together and five clean sheets.
“We’ve got to go down there with a real level of belief.
“We haven’t been through this whole journey in the FA Cup so far just to turn up and take part.
“That’s so far from our mentality it’s untrue.
“We’ve prepared well this week and we fully intend to give a really good account of ourselves.”
Saturday’s game will be played behind closed doors, robbing Shields supporters of the opportunity to travel to a Football League ground in their numbers to cheer on the Mariners.
However, Picton knows the team will feel their support from home, with a live stream available by clicking here.
He added: “It’s so unfortunate that the fans can’t be rewarded with being there on what is a really special and unique day for the club.
“I’m sure there will be many watching at home, and they’ll be glued to their laptops and TVs.
“They’ll be willing us on all the way and I want to thank everyone who has continued to support the club wholeheartedly throughout this difficult period.
“They’ve done whatever they can to support the club and it really is appreciated.”
Shields have shown tremendous battling qualities in their road to the first round, with their run featuring penalty shootout victories over Warrington and Southport as well as a hugely impressive 2-0 win over National League outfit FC Halifax Town.
The odds will again be stacked against them this weekend, but Picton insists they must attack their latest challenge with no fear.
He said: “We deserve this opportunity to play at a league ground, albeit not in front of a crowd.
“We’re looking forward to pitting our wits against what will be a top side.
“Like I said before the game against Halifax, if we have a really good day and they have a not so good day, we’ll have a chance.”
Although midfielder Nathan Lowe is in line to return from a knee injury in Saturday’s game, Shields have doubts over captain Jon Shaw and defender Jamie Sterry.
Jason Gilchrist is another player back in contention, but Luke Daly remains out with a long-term knee injury.
Kick-off in Saturday’s game is at 3pm and a live stream is available to purchase for £10 from Cheltenham’s website here.
South Shields make their first appearance in round one of the Emirates FA Cup since reforming in 1974 when they travel to Cheltenham Town on Saturday.
Due to the latest coronavirus restrictions in England, no supporters will be present at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium as the Mariners look to achieve their first victory over a Football League side.
However, fans will be able to watch from the comfort of their own home.
A live stream of the game – which kicks off at 3pm – will be available on iFollow and a match pass is available to purchase now for £10. The profits from the stream will be shared equally between the two clubs and supporters are advised that the footage will be geo-blocked to be viewed in the United Kingdom only, as per FA rules.
It isn’t going to be the same without you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play your part in this historic occasion.
Please watch the stream from home if you can and cheer the lads on from your sofas.