Victory went to the conquering Cumbrians of Carlisle United, but the glory was lapped up by St Albans City, particularly Junior Morias, as the Saints bowed out of the FA Cup, 5-3, at a wet yet near euphoric Clarence Park on Sunday.
The dream of a giant-killing – City’s first in the competition for 92 years – looked to be on as Morias gave the Saints the lead in this 1st Round tie with a stunning thunderbolt on four minutes.
And midway through the second half when Carlisle looked set to pull away it was Morias, again, who got City back on level terms with another exquisite finish.
Louie Theophanous further rattled Keith Curle’s side in the closing minutes but by then the visitors had five goals of their own in the bank to see off a barnstorming finale by Ian Allinson’s side.
It was gripping stuff; it was the Magic of The Cup.
But in the end exuberance gave way to superiority and it is Carlisle whose name goes into the 2nd Round Draw on Monday.
In the build-up to the game plenty of media attention focused on City’s 21-year-old striker Sam Merson.
Part of the interest was aroused by his recent run of six goals in four games, including the final Qualifying Round winner at Egham. But much of the curiosity came from his genes with the national press wondering how much of his father’s – the England international Paul Merson – talent had been passed on.
Sadly, a head injury sustained the previous weekend put his place in the starting XI in doubt but Allinson still ranked the decision to name young Sam only amongst the substitutes as one of the hardest that he has made in 26 years of football management.
Morias took the sting out of that decision with his wonderful performance and just how long City can retain the services of the former Shrewsbury Town player is of some conjecture with several Football League clubs said to have rekindled their interest in him.
Carlisle came into the match on an unbeaten 20-match run - 19 this season - looked comfortable on the ball in the opening minutes, but all that changed when Morias joined the party on four minutes.
United had expressed concern at the potential danger from the long throw of City captain Lee Chappell and it was from that weapon that St Albans got the house rocking.
Chappell’s long throw from the right was headed away, as was David Noble’s follow up, with the ball returning to Chappell who this time touched it off to the industrious and highly effective Scott Thomas.
The midfielder quickly found Ben Herd who immediately pushed it out to the left to Morias in front of the old wooden main stand.
Mark Ellis and Luke Joyce appeared content to shepherd Morias inside onto his right foot as Herd went on the overlap.
Ignoring Herd’s run Morias, now about eight yards in from the touchline and 32 yards from goal, unleashed an astonishing shot that rose and dipped prodigiously before coming to rest inside Mark Gillespie’s near, right hand, upright.
One-up and just 86 minutes to go.
A couple of minutes later the Cumbrians had penalty appeals waved away as Mike Jones went down following a challenge by City ‘keeper James Russell and shortly after Ellis fired over.
City were not more than an inch away from going two ahead on 12 minutes when a Noble cross was headed away but only as far as Louie Theophanous.
The Saints leading marksman struck a wonderful half-volley from 28 yards that was set to dip just under the crossbar before Gillespie pulled off a potentially crucial fingertip save for a corner.
City maintained the momentum with Gillespie doing well to punch up into the air another Chappell throw as Ben Martin and Josh Hill added their weight to the home attack, and as the ball dropped Gillespie managed to smother it just before Tom Bender could pounce.
But gradually Carlisle hauled themselves off the ropes and Martin headed out for a corner from inside a crowded goalmouth and Russell punched clear as Jabo Ibehre closed in.
On 20 minutes though Carlisle did pull level when Michael Raynes headed on a Danny Grainger throw into the home goalmouth.
Martin went to clear but had his leg taken away, unintentionally, by Ibehre as the duo tussled for the ball that now bounced into the path of Charlie Wyke.
Wyke’s touch took the ball past the Russell who caught the striker as he attempted to hack the ball clear.
Referee Simon Hooper pointed to the spot, booked Russell and looked on as United skipper Grainger restored parity from 12 yards.
St Albans’ response was admirable and with a slick counter-attack they could have regained the upper hand but Theophanous snatched at the ball and dragged his effort well wide when, to his left, was the completely unattended Morias.
City were certainly holding their own at this time although Carlisle, playing down the slope, always appeared to have something in reserve.
On 37 minutes Carlisle did get the ball into the net for a second time when Russell made an excellent save from a Wyke header only for Ibehre to prod home the rebound but be called back for offside.
By this time United defender Raynes had already been booked for his second, and this time cynical, foul on Morias.
When Raynes brought his tormentor down for a third time the decision of referee Hooper not to despatch the Carlisle defender surprised many, including his own manager Keith Curle.
Sensing that Raynes was a disaster waiting to happen Carlisle wisely replaced him on 42 minutes with Reggie Lambe.
Towards the end of the half rain, driven by a cold wind, began to lash down on the 122-year-old stadium, not that the large crowd were bothered as the outcome hung in the balance.
Carlisle began the second half well and Russell made an exceptional save low to his right from Ibehre after Grainger’s cross from the left had squirmed through a cluster of players.
But the pressure was building and from a Nicky Adams corner on 57 minutes Jason Kennedy nipped in front of George Casey to send a glancing header inside Russell’s near, right hand, upright.
City’s number looked to be up and Russell had to be alert to grab a goal-bound header from Kennedy.
From Russell’s long kick Morias helped the ball onto Theophanous whose shot was charged down for a corner. City were fighting back and the miserable overhead conditions were quickly forgotten.
On 65 minutes Carlisle’s unbeaten record looked to be under threat once more.
Theophanous intercepted a cross-field pass by Joyce, the Carlisle midfielder then blocked Theophanous’ pass that rebounded to Noble.
As three red shirts circled around the experienced midfielder Noble nonchalantly pushed the ball into the path of Thomas who, with his second touch, slipped it into the penalty area to Morias.
With great composure Morias feigned to go right then left and, after sending a hopelessly confused Ellis tumbling to the ground, moved the ball onto his left and drove a scorching effort to the right of the static Gillespie for his fifth goal in three games.
Realising that they had just seen something rather special even some Carlisle supporters on the Hatfield Road terrace applauded the goal.
If fatigue was to play a part in City’s downfall, as it had done during the 8-1 humiliation against Mansfield Town three years earlier, then it was not blindingly obvious at this point.
That said, it did take Carlisle just a further six minutes to regain the lead.
A Carlisle move looked innocent enough until Joyce threaded a pass out to the right to Jones. Moving forward fully 30 yards without a single challenge, Jones chipped a cross to beyond the far post where Ibehre, in three yards of space, headed powerfully downwards and past the diving Russell.
With 15 minutes remaining City added to their firepower with the delayed arrival of Merson in place of the silky skills of Noble.
Following a prolonged spell of Carlisle possession City came once more with Martin getting to a long punt by Gillespie and knocking it forward to Theophanous who laid a pass out to the right to substitute Shaun Lucien.
Running at Grainger, Lucien drove the into the goalmouth. Gillespie dived full length to palm it away but straight to Morias who steadied himself before seeing his effort from seven yards blocked by the desperate lunge of Tom Miller.
The ball flew high into the air and Gillespie punched it clear as Merson closed in.
The dream was fading and on 81 minutes it was all but over when Grainger’s corner on the United right was headed home by Ibehre.
Thoughts of Mansfield were reignited two minutes later when Kennedy’s excellent through ball sent Ibehre off in search of his hat-trick.
Hill gave chase and Russell saved the initial shot but could do little to stop Lambe racing in to tuck away the fifth Carlisle goal.
At this point it would have tempting for those St Albans supporters that only turn out for the big games to head for home, anyone doing so would have missed a dramatic final few minutes.
On 86 minutes Hill launched a long ball in the general direction of Merson, with a now familiar leap of bewildering proportions, Merson got the better of Miller and headed the ball into the path of Theophanous.
After a second bounce the former Staines Town striker hammered a right-footed half volley to the right of the sprawling Gillespie for his 15th goal in 14 games.
City battled hard for a fourth goal but it was not to be and their six-match winning run was surpassed by Carlisle’s seventh straight success.
Even so St Albans can take great pride in being the first side this season, other than for Oldham Athletic in the Checkatrade Trophy, to put three goals past Keith Curle’s unbeaten Cumbrians.
St Albans City return to National League South duty on Tuesday, 8th November, with a trip to Kent to face Dartford at Princes Park. Kick-off is at 7.45pm.
St Albans City: J.Russell, G.Casey (S.Lucien 63), T.Bender, L.Chappell, B.Martin, J.Hill, B.Herd, Sc.Thomas (M.Ball 84), L.Theophanous, J.Morias, D.Noble (S.Merson 75), subs not used: D.Akinyemi, R.Hoenes, D.Locke, T.Coulton.
Carlisle United: M.Gillespie, D.Grainger, L.Joyce, M.Raynes (R.Lambe 42), M.Ellis, J.Kennedy, M.Jones, C.Wyke (S.Miller 70), N.Adams (T.Miller 74), J.Ibehre, S.Brisley, subs not used: D.Asamoah, M.Gillesphey, J.Devitt, M.Crocombe.
Booked: Raynes, S.Miller.
Goals: 4 1-0 Morias, 20 1-1 Grainger (p), 57 1-2 Kennedy, 65 2-2 Morias, 71 2-3 Ibehre, 81 2-4 Ibehre, 83 2-5 Lambe, 86 3-5 Theophanous.
Referee: Simon Hooper (Wilts).