North Shields twice came from behind in their Brooks Mileson Memorial League Cup semi-final against Shildon, but ultimately crashed out 4-2 on penalties in a thrilling finale at the Daren Persson Stadium.
Shildon stopper Lewis Graham was the hero of the hour, saving one spot kick in regulation time before denying Gary Ormston in the shoot out.
The Robins named a strong starting 11 against the champions-elect, with Kevin Hughes, Curtis Coppen and Dean Holmes all fit to return ahead of the semi-final tie.
However, the hosts got off to the worst possible start, conceding within a minute of kick-off.
A loose pass from Ben Richardson was seized upon by Anthony Bell, who streaked past Jack Donnison and John Parker to finish low into the far post.
Having established an early advantage, Shildon controlled much of the first half thereafter, though chances remained scarce at both ends.
Coppen and visiting forward Ben Wood had respective headers comfortably saved, while Shildon’s Lewis Wing stung the palms of Chris Bannon with a fierce drive from 20 yards.
Tempers were beginning to fray towards the end of the half, and Railwaymen captain Daniel Moore was fortunate to escape censure after lashing out at Lee Mason, reacting to a late challenge from the Shields winger.
Players from both sides had to be separated from one another before the half-time whistle sounded, setting the stage for a riveting second period.
Robins manager Graham Fenton made two changes before the hour, introducing Dan Wilson and Jack Devlin for Gareth Bainbridge and Holmes respectively.
The substitutions breathed new life into the Robins attack, and though Bannon was called upon to parry a Billy Greulich-Smith effort, it was the hosts who looked the brighter side as the game wore on.
Jack Donnison was the first to worry Lewis Graham in the Shildon net, his shot parried by the on-rushing keeper after good work from Ormston.
The midfielder almost got on the scoresheet himself in the 65th minute, a powerful header cleared off the line by Matthew Robson, but Coppen was bundled to the floor when chasing the loose ball. Referee Lindsey Robinson pointed to the spot, and though Richardson’s penalty was firmly struck, Graham was equal to it, pushing the ball away to his right.
The midfielder made amends for the miss three minutes later, providing the killer pass for Devlin to restore parity. The forward was irrepressible all evening, and had too much pace for Marc Ellison, speeding past the full back and curling deftly into the far corner.
The former Queen of the South trainee was full of running down the left, causing no end of problems, and would have turned the game on its head were it not for a fine Graham parry at his near post.
Another attempt from Devlin drew a more comfortable save from the keeper.
Shildon were on the back foot but still dangerous as the game opened up.
Wing posed a threat from range, sweeping a free kick and a 20-yard effort narrowly over the crossbar, but the chance of the afternoon fell at the feet of Ormston. Wilson battled his way down the left before squaring towards the unmarked Ormston, who ballooned well over from 12 yards out.
The final whistle sounded immediately, taking the game into extra-time.
After their late let-off, the Railwaymen came out with attacking intent, forcing a succession of early corners.
The pressure paid off in the 95th minute as Wing’s deep delivery dropped kindly to substitute Mark Doninger, the ex-Newcastle United trainee slamming home from within the area.
Wilson came agonisingly close to levelling the scores once more within five minutes, his shot first parried upwards by Graham and then cleared off the line by Wing.
However, it was Shields’ final substitute who made the telling impact on the stroke of half-time.
Richardson rolled his free kick into the path of Ryan Carr, the fresh introduction smashing high into the net to the delight of the home faithful.
Both sides could have snatched the victory in a tense second half, Devlin curling a matter of inches wide when through on goal, while at the other end, John Parker almost diverted a Wing cross into the back of his own net.
Instead, progression would be decided via penalties.
Ormston was first to step up to the spot, but Graham produced a magnificent sprawling save to his left to give Shildon the upper hand, and though Wilson converted his penalty, the writing was on the wall for the hosts when Hughes’ low effort came back off the upright.
The visitors duly converted all of their penalties, Wood scoring their fourth and final spot kick to send his side through to the final.
Highlights from the game can be viewed on NSFCTV at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oR9pk3CR_iM
It was a tough result to take for the Robins, who grew stronger as the game progressed and were unfortunate not to seal the win during the 90 minutes.
Nevertheless, Fenton’s men will take heart from a gutsy performance, and hope that their luck belatedly comes in when they take on Blyth Spartans in the NFA Senior Cup final on Wednesday evening.
North Shields: Bannon, Donnison, Summerly, Coppen, Parker, Hughes, Mason (Carr), Ormston, Bainbridge (Wilson), Richardson, Holmes (Devlin).