WHITLEY Bay FC fought back from a half-time deficit to book an FA Vase quarter-final tie with fellow Northern League side Dunston UTS.
But for almost an hour, the Vase holders were in danger of being on the wrong end of a cup upset.
The Bedfordshire side had taken an interval lead, and it was not until Lee Kerr equalised on 57 minutes that the home side took a stranglehold on the game and found the net a further four times.
There was a great atmosphere in Hillheads as more than 1,000 fans packed into the ground, with the far terrace reopened and the impressive looking new stand well populated.
After heavy overnight rain the weather improved dramatically and Hillheads was bathed in bright sunshine as the teams took to the field.
Whitley made a lively start and perhaps unsurprisingly, the visitors, who had never previously reached this stage of the competition, looked tentative and a little overawed by the occasion and size of the crowd.
With eight minutes played, Paul Robinson tested Dunstable keeper Paul Taylor with a low shot after Craig McFarlane had raced clear down the right.
Shortly afterwards, a free kick from Gareth Williams failed to trouble Taylor, but four minutes later, Bay keeper Terry Burke needed to be at his best in diving full length to push away a powerful angled shot from Jonathan Cooper in what was Dunstable’s first real attack.
The chance seemed to encourage the visitors and they gradually settled while Whitley began to misplace passes and lose their cohesion.
The home side over elaborated at times when a more direct approach might have proved more effective.
Nevertheless they still posed a threat and after Brian Smith poked the ball wide from a free kick, Brian Rowe sent a shot over the bar.
The pace of Town’s Kerran Birch was posing a threat in midfield, but at the back, Callum Anderson, Rowe, Smith and Williams gave little away.
Four minutes before the break, a good build up by McFarlane and Robinson gave Damon Robson an opening and from around 15 yards his shot was pushed over by Taylor.
A minute later there was stunned silence around most of the ground when Dunstable snatched the lead.
The goal came when Taylor’s ball downfield found Cooper, whose pass reached Luke Abraham on the halfway line. He advanced a few steps before lobbing the ball perfectly over Burke, despite the keeper’s despairing leap.
The vast majority of the crowd watched in disbelief but the visitors made the most of the moment with exuberant celebrations.
In the remaining minutes of the half, Robinson responded with a shot that went just wide before Cooper drove a low shot wide for the visitors.
In added time Chris Fawcett cut in from the left and when his shot was blocked, McFarlane met the rebound but was off target.
A dramatic opening to the second half might have produced goals at both ends.
Within seconds of the restart, Anderson’s cross from the right was punched off the head of Paul Chow and away from goal by Taylor, but two minutes later came what arguably was the turning point of the game when a high ball was not cut out by Smith, leaving Dunstable striker Grant Carney with a clear run on goal.
But he blazed the ball high over the bar when a second goal might have changed the course of the game.
Shortly afterwards, Birch shot across the face of goal but well beyond the far post before Whitley took control.
Moments after Ian Chandler replaced Rowe with Gary Ormston, Robinson drove the ball over the bar from a Williams corner, then McFarlane’s shot from Kerr’s cross was held low down by Taylor.
Then Town defender Damen Pickering headed Chow’s effort behind for a corner as Whitley increased the pressure.
Then came the equaliser 12 minutes into the half.
Chow played the ball into the path of Kerr, who went past two defenders before drilling a low shot off the inside of the post and into the net.
The relief among players and fans was reflected in the celebrations that followed.
Whitley were now in full flow and within two minutes they were in front.
Persistent pressure paid off when Robson put Kerr through and his shot was pushed away by Taylor but only as far as Chow, who somehow managed to squeeze the ball through the legs of the keeper and into the net from the narrowest of angles.
Dunstable looked totally deflated, and urged on by the crowd Whitley poured forward.
Kerr teed up a chance for McFarlane whose shot was held low down by the keeper, but with 67 minutes played Taylor was left helpless when Chow’s effort was blocked but Robinson followed up to fire home his 50th goal for the club and effectively put the game beyond the Bedfordshire side.
Three goals in ten minutes had completely changed the atmosphere and the crowd were now roaring on the Vase holders as they continued to pour forward and lay siege to the Dunstable goal.
Another Robinson shot was blocked after a cross from Kerr cut through the visitors defence before the midfielder, later named the sponsor’s man of the match, left the field to rapturous applause after being substituted along with captain Damon Robson with just over ten minutes left.
In the last minute of normal time, McFarlane was tripped on the right corner of the Dunstable penalty area, leaving Kerr with the opportunity to overtake manager Ian Chandler and become the club’s third top goalscorer of all time.
He confidently slotted the penalty into the corner of the net for the 157th goal of his Bay career.
The applause following the announcement of this landmark had barely died down when, deep into stoppage time, Chow added the fifth, reacting quickly to head home from close range after his previous header crashed off the bar.
The final whistle probably came as something of a relief to a gallant Dunstable team after a blistering second half display by Whitley.
It also signalled another FA Vase record for Ian Chandler’s side, who have now gone an unprecedented 22 games unbeaten in the competition, their last defeat coming back in March 2008 in the semi-final first leg at Lowestoft.
By any standards this is a remarkable achievement, but especially so in a national competition.
With two of the favourites, Spennymoor and St Neots going out, Whitley’s chances of returning to Wembley look increasingly bright.
Whitley Bay: Burke, McFarlane, Anderson, Rowe (Ormston 50 mins), Smith, Williams, Fawcett, Robson (Pounder 79 mins), Kerr, Chow, Robinson (Timmons 79 mins). Subs not used: Hayes, Mason.