Chichester City wake from their FA Cup dream - now for a trip to Hastings
It was the most memorable of FA Cup journeys, but it had to come to an end some time.
And so it did on the Wirral as League One Tranmere Rovers made sure they avoided a major upset.
But as Chichester City played in the second round for the first time in their history, scoring in the ‘proper’ rounds for the first time too, they put in a performance to be proud of. Never mind the final scoreline: City exit the FA Cup with their heads held high.
The Isthmian south east side bravely held their own for an hour until the team more than 100 places above them in the league structure showed their quality, Rovers striker Morgan Ferrier hitting an 11-minute hat-trick to shatter any hopes of a Chi miracle.
At the death, Ryan Peake made history for Chichester as he scored the club’s first FA Cup goal in the non-qualifying rounds to cap what’s been an extraordinary adventure, one which fans, players and staff will remember forever.
Manager Miles Rutherford named an unchanged side from the XI that beat Phoenix Sports 3-2 a week earlier, and that meant it was a fairly attacking line-up with Josh Clack, Gicu Iordache and Kallem Haitham all involved to support Scott Jones up top.
Goalkeeper Ant Ender and midfielder Theo Bennetts were on the bench alongside Emmett Dunn, Matt Axell, Rory Biggs, Peake and Jimmy Wild for the tie.
Chi got things under way and began brightly as a good counter-attack from the underdogs ended with a Jones effort being blocked after a skilful lay-off from Clack.
The pair combined again and City were inches away from the unthinkable. Clack held off Rovers centre-half Manny Monthe and crossed to Jones, but the striker sent his header just inches wide of Scott Davies’ post. What a moment that could have been.
Tranmere started to build pressure with Jake Caprice’s low cross well held by Steve Mowthorpe and an outstanding recovery tackle from Corey Heath preventing Ferrier’s progress.
The hosts had a couple of chances come and go.
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy dragged a low shot into the side netting, then last round’s matchwinner for Rovers, Kieron Morris, had an effort deflected behind for a corner.
On the half-hour, Corey Blackett-Taylor, who Rovers signed from Premier League Aston Villa, squandered a great opening as he clipped the bar after good initial work from Ferrier.
A cross from Liam Ridehalgh out on the left found its way to Hepburn-Murphy, another Aston Villa loanee. But he was denied as Mowthorpe produced a stunning save to tip over his header and make sure City went in goalless at half-time.
The hosts made a change at half-time as they looked to get past a resilient Chichester defence when top scorer Connor Jennings replaced Hepburn-Murphy up-front, a sign perhaps that Tranmere realised they had taken City just a little too lightly in the first half.
Rovers started the second half quickly, and more heroic defending from Heath prevented Blackett-Taylor getting in on goal.
Tranmere pressure built as the hosts searched for the opener.
Blackett-Taylor was again denied by Mowthorpe, then at the other end, Iordache fired an awkward long-range effort at Davies – but the keeper was equal to it.
City’s Jamie Horncastle picked up the first yellow of the game after he was forced to bring down dangerman Ferrier in a dangerous area. Tranmere played a short free kick and Jake Caprice crossed only for skipper Connor Cody to head clear, but he injured himself in the process.
With Chi a man down as Cody received treatment on the sidelines, Tranmere finally got the breakthrough on 62 minutes through Blackett-Taylor, who was not to be stopped by Mowthorpe for a third time. A Caprice cross was met by Ferrier, his header struck the bar, but Blackett-Taylor was there to tuck home the rebound.
Just two minutes later the League one side doubled their lead through Ferrier.
A mix-up between Cody and Heath allowed the striker to get in on goal and produce a composed finish past a helpless Mowthorpe.
A lovely passing move from Rovers ended with Ferrier stinging the palms of Mowthorpe at his near post.
Ferrier got his second after another mistake between the Chi centre-halves, though he had plenty to do in lobbing Mowthorpe after hesitancy between Cody and Heath gave him a sniff.
And that was quickly followed by a stabbed effort home to complete an 11-minute hat trick and seal Rovers spot in the third-round draw.
City had to make their first change – Cody couldn’t solider on after his injury and Peake came on in his place.
Hat-trick hero Ferrier was replaced on 78 minutes to a standing ovation from the home fans.
The hosts got their fifth after another cross from Caprice was sent into the Chichester danger area.
Heath did well to get a head on it, but the ball dropped to Blackett-Taylor and his low volley nestled in the bottom corner to earn himself a double.
Mowthorpe almost gifted the home side another with a poor clearance but the Chi shot stopper made amends with a fine save at his near post to prevent Blackett-Taylor from getting his hat-trick.
In the closing stages great trickery from Iordache earned his side a corner.
Substitute Matt Axell produced a perfect ball for a flying Peake to get the deftest of touches and create history as City got the goal their valiant efforts deserved.
The goal sparked wild celebrations in the away end and even the Tranmere fans applauded the goal as City ended their FA Cup run on a high.
The post-match plaudits for the players from the 437 City fans in the away end were returned in kind as Rutherford’s men showed their appreciation for the backing they had received.
And now, it’s back down to earth. Tonight (Wednesday) Chichester face Lewes in the Sussex Senior Cup. In any other season it would have been one of City’s biggest matches of the campaign. This time it wasn’t even their biggest of the week. Saturday brings another stiff test in the form of a league visit to league leaders Hastings.
As much as the FA Cup has been great for City this season, it may soon seem like a distant memory as normality returns.