Grimsby Town’s history-making FA Cup run was brought to an end at the quarter-final stage as they were knocked out by Premier League Brighton and Hove Albion at the American Express Community Stadium.
After beating five teams from higher divisions on their way to the last eight of the competition for the first time in 84 years, the Mariners and their 4,600 travelling fans headed to the south coast dreaming of another upset which would have set up a Wembley semi-final.
But this time, it was not to be as a classy Seagulls side, who are chasing European football through the league, dominated throughout and scored five goals to book their place at the national stadium and cement their claims as potential cup winners.
Deniz Undav opened the scoring on six minutes but a disciplined defensive display by Town ensured they went in at half-time still in the game at just 1-0 down.
The hosts doubled their advantage through Evan Ferguson six minutes after the restart and he went on to grab his second goal of the afternoon, before a Solly March header and a late Kaoru Mitoma strike made it 5-0.
The Town fans had been determined to enjoy their day whatever the result though and they stayed behind to celebrate a superb cup run with the players, who were then warmly applauded from the pitch by the home supporters in the 29,415 crowd.
Town boss Paul Hurst made four changes to his starting line-up following the Sky Bet League Two victory at Sutton United in midweek, with Gavan Holohan, Anthony Glennon, Otis Khan and Danilo Orsi all coming into the XI as Bryn Morris, Danny Amos, Ryan Taylor and the cup-tied George Lloyd missed out.
Max Crocombe started in goal, with Andy Smith, Luke Waterfall and Niall Maher forming an unchanged back three. Michee Efete and Glennon were the wing-backs, with Harry Clifton and Kieran Green joining Holohan in midfield as Khan linked up with Orsi in attack.
Morris, Amos and Taylor were all included on a nine-man substitutes bench, along with Shaun Pearson, Josh Emmanuel, John McAtee, Ollie Battersby, Alex Hunt and Evan Khouri.
Brighton head coach Roberto De Zerbi named a very strong team, with Argentinian World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister starting alongside Moises Caicedo in midfield and Japan star Mitoma also aiming to cause big problems for the Mariners’ defence.
Striker Ferguson had Brighton’s first chance in the opening minute but Crocombe got down to make a comfortable stop from the low shot.
Town’s first attack of note came on four minutes and led to Efete sending a low cross over from the right, which was cleared.
The Mariners’ resistance lasted six minutes until the hosts opened the scoring after March got down the right and pulled the ball back to Caicedo. His 20-yard strike was parried by Crocombe but UNDAV reacted the quickest to put the loose ball into the net.
Town were almost given a bizarre route back to parity when Brighton captain Lewis Dunk played a high back-pass from halfway, not realising that keeper Robert Sanchez was a long way off his line. Luckily for the defender though, the stopper raced back and got to the ball before it reached the goal.
The visitors put together a spell of possession around the 16-minute mark which led to a throw-in for Maher to take near the right corner flag, although it did not turn into an opportunity in front of goal.
As could have been expected, Brighton were controlling possession as Town sat back, ready to absorb pressure from their top-division hosts.
Mitoma’s first involvement of note was on 22 minutes, when he cut inside from the left and delivered a teasing low cross which Glennon did well to get to first and slide behind for a corner. Pascal Gross’ ball from the flag was headed away by Maher.
A March cross from the home right was headed straight at Crocombe by Undav, before Ferguson was unable to control a through-ball which would have put him through on goal.
The video assistant referee was called into action for the first time on the half-hour, when Sanchez appeared to handle the ball outside his penalty area as he got to it ahead of Orsi. After a review though, no action was taken.
A let-off for Town came soon afterwards when a ball from the home right found Mitoma at the far post but the Japanese international could only volley wide and the away side’s deficit remained at one goal.
Efete did well to stop Mitoma as he cut in from the left on 36 minutes and ensure the only damage was a corner, which was tipped over the bar by Crocombe for another one. This time, it was played short and Gross cut in from the right before crossing for Mitoma, who volleyed over the bar.
Caicedo fired wide from the edge of the box moments later after Holohan had lost possession, then Mitoma found Gross from the left but the right-back sent his first-time shot harmlessly over the bar.
One added minute was played at the end of the first half and after another run from Mitoma was stopped, no further chances came before the half-time whistle and Brighton went in with a one-goal advantage. At 1-0 down though, the Mariners were in the game and still had everything to play for after the break.
Hunt and McAtee replaced Green and Orsi before the restart, with Town now playing towards their fans at the South Stand end of the ground. Levi Colwill replaced Pervis Estupinan for the hosts at the same time.
The Mariners had a bit of luck three minutes in when a cross from March took a deflection off Glennon and looped up before bouncing back off the far post. Undav hammered the rebound over the bar.
Caicedo blasted a 20-yard effort wide but thee next time they went forward, the home side doubled their lead. Mac Allister worked an opening on the edge of the box and threaded the ball through to FERGUSON, who controlled it well before taking a touch and slotting past Crocombe.
Mitoma just missed the far post with a low shot after beating Efete to get into the box from the left, then the hosts thought they had scored a third goal when March ran onto a through-ball and squared for Ferguson to tap into the net. The offside flag went up against March though and after a VAR check, the goal was ruled out.
McAtee had a chance at the other end seconds later after getting in behind defender Adam Webster but he could not get enough on the ball to seriously trouble Sanchez.
Town won a corner through McAtee on the hour but Glennon’s delivery from the flag was caught by Sanchez.
A penalty appeal came when Mitoma went down inside the box under a challenge from Efete but the referee instead pointed for a corner and the replays confirmed the correct decision had been made. From the flag-kick, the ball was headed back across goal for Ferguson, whose volley bounced back off the bar.
Brighton stretched their lead to three goals with 20 minutes remaining, as Undav held the ball up on the edge of the box before finding FERGUSON, who finished emphatically for his second of the game.
Taylor replaced Khan and Morris came on for Clifton for Town after the goal and the hosts also made a double-substitution at the same time, with Jeremy Sarmento and former England international Danny Welbeck replacing Undav and Ferguson.
Welbeck was denied by a brilliant challenge from Smith as the home side looked for a fourth goal, before Mac Allister and Dunk were replaced by Yasin Ayari and Jan Paul van Hecke in he latest changes on 77 minutes.
Crocombe made a good save as he pushed a low strike by Welbeck away for a corner, but Brighton were not finished yet and the pick of the goals was still to come. After a brilliant exhibition of possession football, a cross from the right was met by MARCH and he sent a diving header past Crocombe.
Khouri replaced Holohan with 83 minutes on the clock and Town had a chance to pull a goal back through McAtee soon afterwards but his shot was saved by Sanchez, who dived full-length to push the ball away for a corner. Glennon’s delivery from the flag was headed away by Welbeck.
As the clock ticked towards the 90th minute, Brighton made it 5-0 as MITOMA cut in from the left and hit a low shot which took a heavy deflection off the unfortunate Waterfall and nestled in the bottom corner of Crocombe’s net.
Mitoma almost had a second as the game moved into two minutes of added time but this time, his attempt went wide and with no further chances coming after that, the final whistle meant the hosts were able to celebrate their passage to the last four and a date at Wembley Stadium.
And despite being on the wrong end of a 5-0 scoreline, none of the Mariners fans appeared to have left the ground early to begin the long journey home and instead, they stayed behind to celebrate what has been an incredible FA Cup journey with their heroes.
Town will now return to league action with a trip to Mansfield Town on Wednesday.