GATESHEAD’S hopes of a return to the Football League were dashed as they slipped to a 2-1 defeat to Cambridge United in the Conference Play-Off Final at Wembley.

Having fallen behind to goals from Liam Hughes and Ryan Donaldson in the early stages of the second half, the Heed threatened to stage a dramatic fightback when Jack Lester scored in the 80th minute.

However, some sustained late pressure failed to produce an equaliser, and Gary Mills’ side will remain in the Conference while Cambridge return to League Two after an eight-year absence.

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Gateshead almost fell behind in the opening two minutes, but Adam Bartlett flung himself to the ground to keep out an 18-yard strike from Donaldson, who previously played for the Heed after graduating from Newcastle United’s academy.

With Cambridge dominating the early stages, Luke Berry failed to find the target with a header from Donaldson’s corner.

James Marwood fired Gateshead’s first shot wide in the 14th minute, and was off target again moments later as he tried his luck from distance.

There was little to choose between the sides for the remainder of the first half, but Gateshead were fortunate not to be reduced to ten or even nine men before the interval.

Former Sunderland midfielder John Oster was lucky not to see red after he petulantly kicked out at Kevin Roberts following a foul, while Marcus Maddison, who had already been booked for a dive, was fortunate to escape a second caution for a reckless tackle. Referee Peter Bankes spoke to him at length, but opted to keep his red card in his pocket.

Gateshead boss Mills will have been relieved at the official’s leniency, but he saw his side fall behind in the early stages of the second half.

Having struggled to deal with Cambridge’s aerial threat all afternoon, Gateshead’s defenders switched off to allow Hughes to head home at the back post after Donaldson’s cross caused chaos in the area.

Midway through the second half, and Cambridge doubled their lead when Donaldson curled home a magnificent finish from a direct free-kick.

Gateshead desperately needed a way back into the game, and it arrived with ten minutes left as veteran striker Lester netted after Liam Hatch’s header had been saved.

Marwood and Hatch both went close to grabbing an equaliser in the closing stages, but while Cambridge finished with ten men after former Darlington skipper Ian Miller was stretchered off in the closing stages, there was to be no repeat of Arsenal’s two-goal fightback in Saturday’s FA Cup final.