FA CUP FIRST ROUND Wealdstone 2 Rotherham United 3
THEY waited. Boy, how they waited. And how the wait was worth it.
The last time Wealdstone competed for a place in the second round of this famous old competition was at Swansea City's Vetch Field on November 24, 1986. They lost the replay 4-1 having held the Swans to a draw at Lower Mead nine days earlier.
More than two decades on, the club's current crop of lionhearts, albeit more fresh-faced, showed the same hunger and battling qualities that gave the 1,400 or so home fans plenty of optimism for the future.
Forget the result. Forget Sean Thomas's blunder which gifted Rotherham the lead. Forget what might have been had referee Andy Penn awarded Stones a penalty in the 22nd minute after Charlie Mpi was hacked down. Forget what might have been had inspired substitute Danny Spendlove converted a glorious chance to equalise when they trailed 2-1. Forget what might have been during the frenetic ending which saw Stones throw the kitchen sink at the desperate Millers.
Instead, remember Wealdstone's wonderful second-half performance - desire, heart, determination, belief and moments of sheer brilliance.
Remember also Ashe's delectable double. Remember Kieron Forbes's jinking runs. Remember Messrs Gray and O'Leary barking orders to their team-mates when things got hairy. Remember Spendlove coming of age. And remember the hordes of youngsters in the biggest Stones crowd since Swansea came to town - they are the club's lifeblood for generations to come.
Sunday's clash was so much more than Wealdstone's moment in the spotlight - this was a measure of how far they have come and a valiant effort by a proud club once in turmoil, but now almost fully rehabilitated.
This wasn't a case of so near, yet so far. 'They came, they saw, they almost conquered' is perhaps a more fitting description of Sunday's palpitating events.
The first thing Ronnie Moore and his Rotherham side clapped eyes on when setting foot off their coach was Wealdstone's version of the Shankly Gates.
The mean and moody stares of Darren Locke, James Gray, Chris O'Leary are plastered on a giant sign at the ground's entrance. 'Welcome to Wealdstone', it reads.
But, having seen what the likes of Bath City, Staines and Northwich Victoria had earlier done to Football League opposition, Rotherham probably never banked on Stones being so welcoming in a fairly mediocre first half.
First, the soon-to-be-shorn Thomas made a hash of a straight forward clearance after 33 minutes, his kick cannoning into the net off persistent Millers striker Adam LeFondre's back.
More dilly-dallying by the Stones defence on the edge of the 18 yard box allowed Kevin Ellison to pick his spot with a rasping drive to double the League Two side's advantage on half-time.
Manager Gordon Bartlett must have delivered a rousing half-time speech because his team awoke from their slumber in the second period to prevent it from becoming a Rotherham procession.
Ashe reduced the arrears with a sweetly-struck volley just past the hour mark, before substitute Spendlove spurned a great chance to make it 2-2 after muscling his way past two players.
Not even Drewe Broughton's headed goal from a free-kick could quell the Stones' never-say-die attitude.
An exquisite chipped goal from Ashe in the dying stages of normal time made for a barnstorming five minutes of added time.
The hosts laid siege to Andy Warrington's goal but, for all their individual moments of brilliance, they were unable to muster an ugly, scrambled goal when they craved one the most.
WEALDSTONE: Thomas, McCoy,Chappell, Gray, Massey,Ashe, Forbes, O'Leary, Mpi (Lafayette, 86), Ellerbeck (Spendlove, 60), E'Beyer.Subs not used: Beagle, Fitzgerald, During, Osborne. Booked: O'Leary (45 mins), Gray (67 mins).
Sent off: None.
ROTHERHAM UNITED: Warrington, Tonge, Harrison, Sharps, Fenton, Law, (Warne, 46), Ellison, Broughton, Nicholas (Brogan, 76), Mills, Le Fondre.
Subs not used: Annerson, J Taylor,Lynch, R Taylor.Booked: Nicholas (73), Brogan (90).
Sent off: None.
Referee: A M Penn
MATCH STATISTICS: Shots on target: Stones 7, Rotherham 8;
Shots off target: Stones 3, Rotherham 3;
Corners: Stones 9, Rotherham 10;
Fouls: Stones 11, Rotherham 11. Harrow Observer man-of-the-match: Ryan Ashe - his tireless effort resulted in two exquisite goals.
Magic moment: Ashe's second goal. His first was a peach but his second, under pressure, was a deft lob over Warrington, which gave his side hope.
Manager Gordon Bartlett's moan: "The first goal was a freak one and I felt we didn't react to it positively. Then to give the second one away was really difficult to take."