Ten-man South Shields suffered late heartbreak on Saturday as Stratford Town struck a 94th-minute winner to knock them out of the Buildbase FA Trophy.
All was going according to plan for the Mariners when they deservedly took a 1-0 lead into half-time thanks to a composed finish from Carl Finnigan.
Stratford responded well at the start of the second half before equalising from the penalty spot after Nathan Lowe had controversially been sent off for a handball on the line.
Shields looked the more likely team to score in the closing stages but conceded with one of the final kicks of the game as their challenge in the Trophy ended at the third qualifying round stage.
Lee Picton and Graham Fenton made just one change to the side which defeated Mickleover Sports seven days earlier, with David Foley replacing Lee Mason.
The Mariners were bright in the early stages and enjoyed a good deal of possession although the first chances fell the way of the hosts, with Lewis Wilson just off-target with a free-kick and Michael Taylor forcing Liam Connell into a smart save at his near post.
Shields looked the more potent threat, though, and they opened the scoring on 17 minutes when Lowe’s 20-yard strike was parried by goalkeeper Richard Walton to the feet of Finnigan, whose fine finish found the bottom corner.
The Mariners continued to execute their gameplan effectively, and had opportunities to extend their lead.
A Jon Shaw header from a Lowe corner was blocked in front of goal while a ball fizzed across the area by Lowe almost led to a tap-in for Dillon Morse, but a defender just got there first.
Shields took a one-goal advantage into the half-time break, but it was Stratford who emerged from the dressing rooms the stronger.
They went close to equalising when Kynan Isaac fired the ball across goal and it just evaded a vital touch.
The game-changing moment arrived in the 56th minute when an effort towards goal by the hosts was blocked on the goal-line by the hand of Lowe. After deliberation, the officials ruled the handball was deliberate and controversially gave Lowe a straight red card.
Stratford were also awarded a penalty and Wilson Carvalho made no mistake from 12 yards as he rattled the ball into the corner of the net.
Shields immediately made a double change, with Ben Harmison and Josh Gillies introduced from the bench.
Many onlookers may have expected an onslaught from the home side, who had been on top in the first 10 minutes of the second half when they did not have a one-man advantage.
However, they did not continue to dominate proceedings after the red card and in fact, the Mariners had a number of opportunities to score the game’s all-important third goal.
Blair Adams drilled an effort wide from 20 yards, Finnigan had a strong penalty appeal turned down and then later struck a shot not far over as Shields probed for a breakthrough.
Shields went closer again with six minutes left when a free-kick from Robert Briggs was pushed wide by Walton, while Harmison had a header well saved and Finnigan had a goal ruled out for offside two minutes into stoppage time.
Four minutes had been added on, and in the final one of those, Stratford struck the decisive blow.
A ball was delivered from the right flank and striker Michael Taylor used his strength to shrug off a challenge before hitting a bullet of an effort into the roof of the net.
It was a bitter blow for Shields, who had no time to respond and force a midweek replay at Mariners Park.
They will look to bounce back next Saturday when they host Matlock Town in the league.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Adams, Shaw (c), Morse, Turnbull, Cogdon (Harmison 59), Briggs, Finnigan, Lowe, Foley (Gillies 59). Subs not used: Brown, Lough, Mouanda.
Goal: Finnigan (17).
Red card: Lowe (56).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.
South Shields are bidding for a place in the first round of the Buildbase FA Trophy on Saturday when they take on Stratford Town.
Shields are making their longest trip of the season for the game, and will stay overnight in the West Midlands ahead of the third qualifying round tie.
They are looking for a seventh consecutive win in all competitions and to keep their dream of a return visit to Wembley alive.
The Mariners are unlikely to find it easy, though, against a Stratford side which recently enjoyed a 13-match unbeaten run.
Town are 15th in the Evo-Stik Southern Premier Central Division, but their recent form marks them as a dangerous opponent.
Shields joint manager Graham Fenton is expecting a difficult encounter.
He said: “It will be another test.
“I’m sure they’ll have done their homework like we have on them.
“Hopefully we can have a good game of football.
“We’ve said on numerous occasions this season that the FA Trophy is a competition we want to go deep into.
“We’ll go into the game with real enthusiasm, belief and confidence that we can win it, but it’ll be tough.”
Fenton is pleased with the momentum the Mariners take into the game.
He said: “We’ve got momentum now and have hopefully seen the back of the poor run we had.
“The lads are together and have shown some real spirit, particularly in the Whitby and Mickleover games recently.
“We’re delighted with the group.”
Shields are expected to have a close to full strength squad to select from, but remain without long-term absentees Anthony Callaghan and Barrie Smith.
Kick-off at the Arden Garages Stadium – which has a post code of CV37 7BZ – is at 3pm.
Admission prices are £10 for adults, £6 for concessions, £2 for under-18s and free for under-12s.
South Shields face a trip to the West Midlands in the third qualifying round of the Buildbase FA Trophy after being drawn against Stratford Town.
The tie will take place on Saturday, November 24 and is due to kick-off at 3pm.
Shields’ league match away at Lancaster City, which had been scheduled for that day, has been postponed as a result.
Stratford drew 1-1 with Mickleover Sports in the second qualifying round before winning the replay 1-0 with a late goal on Tuesday.
They play in the Evo-Stik Central Premier Division and currently sit ninth in the table, having picked up 19 points from their first 12 games.
They are in fine form and are unbeaten in their last 13 matches in all competitions, with nine of those games resulting in wins.