It had to end sometime. It had started with a 3-0 win over Radcliffe Borough in early September but, six games and 88 days later, FC United’s incredible FA Cup run finally came to an end against League One leaders Brighton.
Goals from Fran Sandaza, Inigo Calderon, Elliott Bennett and Matt Sparrow eased Brighton’s passage into round three but their names will be forgotten long before memories of Carlos Roca’s winner against Barrow or Mike Norton’s last-gasp goal in the first-round win at Rochdale.
FC United fans were determined to enjoy the next stop on their remarkable journey regardless of the freezing temperatures, with Eric Cantona-themed renditions of the 12 days of Christmas and ‘Bring on United’ ringing out from underneath the scoreboard all night.
They were just as determined to get their point across in front of the ESPN cameras with banners reading ‘Pies not prawns’ – a nod to Roy Keane’s famous outburst – and ‘Making friends not millionaires’ draped over the stands.
The game might not have gone ahead had it not been for ESPN, who paid to cover the pitch with a hot air balloon to thaw the pitch, and referee Eddie Ilderton was still casting his eye over the conditions right up until kick-off.
The big freeze meant neither team had played since Sam Ashton’s stoppage-time penalty save in the first game ensured the two sides – separated by 112 places in the football pyramid – would have do it all over again at Gigg Lane. Brighton manager Gus Poyet had hinted before the game that he would again rest a number of his regulars for the replay but, after a free weekend, he opted to bring back Gordon Greer, Adam El-Abd, Sparrow, Calderon and Sandaza.
FC United boss Karl Marginson, meanwhile, was forced into his two changes with suspensions ruling out Scott McManus, sent off in the first game at the Withdean Stadium, and Jerome Wright.
Marginson had struggled to find his players anywhere to train in the run-up to the game, but the Rebels looked anything but rusty in the opening stages to more than merit Poyet’s decision to bring back his big guns. And it looked an even shrewder move midway through the first-half when Sandaza, used only as a substitute in the first game, poked Brighton ahead after
Bennett’s miscued shot squirmed its way to the big Spaniard.
But there was more than just the Rebels’ fans flares to illuminate the occasion with their part-time heroes more than playing their part. Roca saw his effort from the edge of the box skid just wide before Chris Ovington cut in from the left to flash a drive over the bar.
But any momentum was quickly brought to an abrupt halt in first-half stoppage time. Sandaza fed Bennett on the left and his cross was headed past Ashton by a diving Calderon to make Marginson’s half-time team talk all the more difficult.
But whatever he did say worked. Ben Deegan squared the ball for Nicky Platt to side-foot wide before Deegan was brought down in the area by Calderon’s clumsy challenge.
Mr Ilderton obliged the baying crowd behind the goal and pointed to the spot but Jake Cottrell fluffed his lines and sent his spot kick crashing against the outside of the post.
A goal was the least FC United deserved for their battling performance but they didn’t need to prove they had been more than a match for Brighton.
Bennett slid the third past Ashton after Sandaza had delivered a perfectly-weighted ball through the tiring United defence and Sparrow added a fourth late on but they only served to give the scoreline a more flattering look for the Seasiders.
As the clock wound down, United’s fans broke into a chorus of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’.
After this fantastic run, they have a lot to smile about.
FC United: Ashton 7, Jacobs 6 (Battersby 80), Quistin 6 (Carden 88), Munroe 7, Parker 7, Platt 7, Cottrell 7, Roca 8, Ovington 6 (Wolfenden 59), Norton 7, Deegan 8. Not used: Hibbert, Holden, Tierney, Ayres.