Harriers made the long trip up north to Premier League side Sunderland in the knowledge that they would come up against a weakened side after Gus Poyet's charges beat Manchester United in midweek to see them through to the Capital One Cup final. This 'weakened' side did still contain some international quality; the likes of former Juventus midfielder Emmanuel Giaccherini, Sweden's Seb Larsson and the USA's Jozy Altidore all started.
Poyet handed debut's to his new Argentinian duo of goalkeeper Oscar Ustari and centre back Santiago Vergini. The Harriers boss Andy Thorn made only one change to the side who were surprisingly beaten by Dartford on Tuesday, with Burton loanee Jack Dyer coming into the team at the expense of Lee Fowler after the midfield general was injured in training on Thursday. New front man Freddie Ladapo, 20, signed on Friday from Colchester United on a free transfer, found himself on the bench.
In the space of a couple of days the lads went from playing in front of 1500 fans to playing in front of 25000 at the fifth biggest ground in England so naturally nerves were to be expected. Backed by around 4000 fans, the 'Carpetmen' fell behind inside just five minutes to a disappointing goal from a defensive perspective. Young Greek Charis Mavrias, signed from Panathanikos in the summer, with two full international caps to his name, took advantage of a poor, rushed clearance from the usually reliable Josh Gowling and slammed the ball past Danny Lewis to give the big boys the best possible start.
Photograph © Nick Hatton
You could be forgiven for thinking that the floodgates were about to open following that early concession however it seemed to spark the Harriers into life; Michael Gash's effort from eight yards out going oh so close to trickling in after Ustari had failed to collect and the ball ran underneath him.
The first half saw Sunderland dominate possession as expected but Harriers managed to see off wave after wave of attacks from the Mackems. That is not to say, however, that it was all one way traffic and following Giaccherini's shot wide from a good position, the Harriers began to mount a bit of pressure on Ustari's goal as the hosts defended well to see off threats from Danny Jackman, Jack Byrne and Michael Gash.
As the half time whistle blew the Harriers boss Andy Thorn, his staff and the vocal Harriers support, were left to reflect on a first half where Sunderland were frustrated by Harriers, who looked threatening on occasion on the break.
The second half began much in the same vein as the first with the hosts again dominating possession, passing the ball about comfortably with Lee Cattermole giving a masterclass in the holding midfield role and keeping the play ticking over. There was a general feeling that if Harriers could keep defending as well as they had been then they would get their chance and maybe take it. It seemed like Gus Poyet was thinking the same thing as after sixty six minutes he withdrew El-Hadji Ba and Emmanuel Giaccherini, replacing them with Liverpool loanee Fabio Borini and the former Aston Villa midfielder Craig Gardner.
Just before those changes the Harriers skipper Kyle Storer can perhaps consider himself fortunate to have stayed on the pitch after lunging in late on Valentin Roberge, a tackle that led to some handbags and just a yellow card for the skipper.
With twenty minutes to go Borini wasted a decent chance for the home side, whilst Andy Thorn withdrew Marvin Johnson and Amari Morgan Smith, with Callum Gittings and new boy Freddie Ladapo taking their respective places. Was it written that the new boy, signed just twenty four hours previously, would get a priceless Harriers goal?
The Harriers laid siege to the Mackem goal for the final fifteen minutes of the game as they searched for an equaliser that would bring top-flight opposition to Aggborough. Sunderland on the other hand were content to simply run the clock down when in possession which is testament to the threat that Harriers posed them late on.
Photograph © Chris Davies
Harriers' final roll of the dice came with seven to go when our Argentine winger Santiago Aloi, a former Poyet target from his Brighton days, took the place of Jack Dyer. A couple of minutes later the Harriers thought they had had their last chance at grabbing a draw when the ball broke out to left back Danny Jackman about twenty yards out but the former Gillingham man could only fire wide.
The drama didn't end there though as a couple of minutes later Freddie Ladapo found himself on the edge of the box with a chance to make himself a Harriers hero, sadly his first touch took him away from goal slightly, but he recovered sufficiently to unleash an effort which fizzed past the far post with Ustari beaten.
From the goal kick Sunderland were intent on keeping the ball at all costs and were dangerous on the break and defensively, Lee Vaughan's last minute block to save a certain goal for Fabio Borini exemplified the effort, guts and determination shown by the underdogs. Fittingly, this came in front of the Harriers faithful who had been roaring their team on for the whole ninety minutes. As the referee, Roger East blew the final whistle, and sounded the final death toll on Harriers' great FA Cup run, the 25081 crowd, to a man, gave the Harriers side a standing ovation, and deserved it most definitely was.
Among the Sunderland faithful there was a general feeling that they 'got away with one' and, on another day, Harriers would have got something out of it but even in defeat it is hard to argue against Harriers being the winners here. The cup run has generated hundreds of thousands of pounds of income, sponsorship from a national newspaper and international interest, with the game being shown live in the USA.
To put in a performance at the Stadium of Light, as the players did, showed great character as it was easy to get overwhelmed and the fact that, aside from the first five minutes, they did not seem fazed by it is testament to the professionalism of the coaching staff and the playing staff. It may be the only time this group of players play at the Stadium of Light, or indeed any top flight stadium, and they can be justly be proud of their efforts.
Sunderland are ball number one in today's draw, so we could see what might have been. For Harriers, life goes on and Tuesday brings a big game for different reasons when they travel to Edgar Street for the rearranged game against Hereford United, who have staved off a winding up threat for now, but will be looking to extend their winning run to three games.
More photographs HERE