Hastings win 5-4 on penalties: The FA Cup, that grand old lady of English football, has taken something of a battering in recent years.
Each season seems to see the world’s oldest knockout competition lose another part of its lustre, not least because a growing number of Premier League managers see it more akin to an inconvenience compared to the ‘glory’ of finishing in the top four – or even 17th.
Last night, however, saw the seaside host the kind of Cup tie that, while not quite being a classic, was still an occasion to gladden the hearts of football romantics everywhere.
A tight ground, sell-out partisan crowd, a national audience watching on television at home and two teams of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers going head-to-head for the prize of a first ever passage into the third round all conspired to make it a night few of the 4,028 fans who braved a cold Sussex night will forget in a hurry.
That Championship Middlesbrough lay in wait for the victors at Pilot Field added to the tension on a night that saw Hastings United eventually run out winners on penalties after the two sides could not be separated across a captivating two hours of Cup football.
Even then, the shoot-out went to sudden death before a victor emerged after Tom Platt had missed for Harrogate and Danny Ellis for the hosts to leave the score locked at 4-4.
Then, Town blinked first as Lee Elam fired over the crossbar to leave Hastings’s Dee Okojie to successfully convert the 12th penalty and break the hearts of the gutsy Yorkshire side.
On the balance of play across the 120 minutes, Harrogate could consider themselves unlucky to lose with Simon Weaver’s side being superior for long periods.
But an inability to convert the territorial advantage the visitors held, particularly in the first half, cost the visitors dear and left the locals reworking an old Cup favourite by singing ‘Que sera, sera, we’re going to Middlesbrough’.
Considering the huge prize on offer for the victors, it would perhaps have been understandable had both sides struggled to keep their nerves under control, particularly in the early exchanges.
However, while Hastings suffered an initial bout of stage fright and made a host of unforced errors, Weaver’s side settled quickly and were soon making inroads into the home side’s defence.
Danny Forrest created the opening half’s best opportunity with a clever spin away from Sean Ray to play Luke Dean through on goal only for goalkeeper Matt Armstrong-Ford to rescue the Ryman Premier outfit with a save low to his left.
From the resulting corner, Platt then went close with a powerful header after rising above Hastings’s defence.
Beesley was next to head wide for the visitors, who by half-time had also gone close through Chib Chilaka and Dean.
In contrast to the enterprising visitors, Hastings struggled to find any rhythm in the first half with their best effort coming when Craig MacGillvray was almost deceived by Lee Carey before back-pedalling frantically to claim underneath his own crossbar.
This lack of attacking spark on the part of the hosts meant that as the two teams retired to the dressing room at the interval, it was tempting to believe that when a goal did finally arrive it would do so in Hastings’s net.
The reality, however, was the opposite with it taking just two minutes of the second half for the Sussex side to go ahead.
A forceful run by Zac Attwood was the catalyst, his speed catching the Town defence unawares and a mistimed tackle by Matt Bloomer had the striker tumbling to the floor.
Referee Mick Russell had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Carey did the rest from 12 yards by sending MacGillvray the wrong way.
Buoyed by going ahead, Hastings poured forward in search of a second goal that would surely have put the tie beyond the visitors and Dixon brought a fine save from MacGillvray, who was then grateful to see Bradley Goldberg fire the rebound wide.
Okojie also had a great chance but could only shoot wide and within a couple of minutes Platt had equalised from close range, on 90 minutes, for Harrogate to send the tie into extra-time.
It was no more than the visitors deserved, especially considering Beesley had headed wide the best chance of the second half not long after Carey’s penalty.
In extra time, the two sides had chances to win it as Ellis brought two fine saves from MacGillvray, while for Harrogate both Samuels and Liam Hardy went within a whisker of finding the net.
First blood in the shoot-out then went to Hastings as Platt fired over only for parity to be restored with the 10th kick as Ellis’s wild effort also cleared the crossbar.
However, any hope that this would win Harrogate a reprieve was to be dashed in sudden death as Elam missed and Okojie beat a despairing dive from MacGillvray to condemn Weaver’s bold battlers to a long and miserable return trip north.