GATESHEAD came agonisingly close to a long-awaited return to the Football League on Sunday at Wembley.
But while it was Cambridge who celebrated long into the evening after their 2-1 victory, Gateshead boss Gary Mills insists it is only a matter of time before the Heed have their own party.
Liam Hughes and former Gateshead man Ryan Donaldson both struck in the second half to put the U’s seemingly home and dry but there was a late twist as Jack Lester bundled home.
But it was too little too late for the Heed, who came into the final on the back of a 14-game unbeaten run, and Mills admitted it was a bitter pill to swallow for a side that have not been in the Football League for 55 years.
“We had the chances. We got the goal back and we changed our game a little bit, and had two or three good chances but it obviously wasn’t quite to be,” he said.
“If we had got the equaliser we might have gone on to win it with them being down to ten men.
“I’m proud, but when you get so close you want to continue. It’s a tough one to take but I still want to help this football club to be successful. We’ve got ourselves to Wembley now and I want to go one better next season.
“There will be a lot of these players involved next season but there will also be fresh faces. That has to happen, I want to improve and make Gateshead better.
“We’ve got to keep smiling. We’ve brought Gateshead to Wembley for the first time in history and we want to keep kicking on and improve on that.”
Gateshead triumphed 2-0 when the sides met a month ago, but it was Cambridge who started the stronger side in a cagey first-half.
Donaldson's second minute half-volley from the edge of the area was palmed away well by Adam Bartlett in the Gateshead goal.
Cambridge went close again on nine minutes, Donaldson's corner finding Luke Berry unmarked, but he didn’t get enough on his diving header and the ball sailed wide.
Gateshead’s frustration showed, and John Oster was lucky to stay on the pitch after kicking out at Kevin Roberts in the 22nd minute.
The Heed settled into the game after that however and both Jamie Chandler and James Marwood squandered good chances before half-time.
Cambridge started the second-half brightly and substitute Harrison Dunk’s swerving 25-yard strike was saved superbly by Bartlett down to his right on 49 minutes.
They had the lead moments later from the resulting corner, as Hughes was on hand to nod home Donaldson's deep cross.
Gateshead rallied, but despite a good period of pressure found themselves two goals down.
Donaldson, who only joined the Us last summer, curled a stunning 70th minute free-kick around the wall and into the bottom-corner, and his sixth goal of the season looked to have sealed the victory for Cambridge.
But there was a late twist as Gateshead’s substitutes combined to give them hope.
Liam Hatch’s powerful header was parried by Adam Smith, but Lester flicked in the rebound to make it 2-1 with ten minutes remaining.
There was more late drama as Cambridge skipper Ian Miller was stretchered off, leaving Cambridge with ten men having already made all three substitutes.
The final frenzied minutes were dominated by The Heed, and Hatch perhaps should have done better with his far-post header deep into added time.
Despite the pressure Gateshead could not find a way through, and the 2-1 defeat ended their Football League dream for another season and midfielder Chandler struggled to contain his disappointment.
“I’m devastated. Obviously it’s hard to put into words how we’re feeling at the end there,” added the club’s vice captain.
“It’s sickening, seeing your team-mates and friends out there on the pitch crying. It’s heartbreaking.
“It’s an old cliche but seeing Cambridge go up the steps was the worst feeling in the world. It’s the lowest day of my career.
“The manager told us at the end that we are all winners, and that it will take winners to come back and do it all again next season.
“I think the squad the manager has assembled is too good not to take Gateshead into the Football League one day.
“Good teams come back, winners come back stronger and hopefully this will make us mentally tougher for next season.”