Miles Rutherford hailed his Chichester City players after their incredible FA Cup adventure came to an end at Tranmere Rovers.
For over an hour, the prospect of a giant-killing was on the cards as eighth-tier Chichester – the lowest ranked team still left in the competition – held their League One hosts to a goalless stalemate at Prenton Park.
But once the hosts broke the deadlock the floodgates opened and Chi saw the tie quickly move out of reach, although they did have the final say as substitute Ryan Peake headed home a stoppage-time corner for a much-deserved consolation in a 5-1 defeat.
Corey Blackett-Taylor got the ball rolling for Rovers with a 62nd-minute close-range strike with Chi down to ten with skipper Connor Cody off the pitch after treatment.
Morgan Ferrier got the first of his hat-trick two minutes later when a mix-up put him through.
Ferrier then superbly lobbed home Tranmere’s third eight minutes later before completing his hat-trick after 75 minutes.
Blackett-Heath finished well with five minutes to go but Peake’s late effort capped a memorable occasion for the Isthmian League part-timers.
Proud boss Rutherford said: “I thought in the first half we were fantastic the way we went about it. I asked them to give me everything they had got in the first half so they did.
“In the end, the full-time status and full-time training told.
“We didn’t ever think we would be sitting there at 0-0 at half-time – but I wouldn’t think Tranmere did either!
“Credit to the players, everyone at the club and the supporters who were brilliant, it was a fantastic day.”
Rovers’ Darren Potter had treatment after just four minutes following a crunching challenge with Scott Jones as Chi made a bright start.
And Chi almost stunned the hosts in the tenth minute when Josh Clack dug out a cross which Jones headed just wide with keeper Scott Davies flat-footed and beaten.
It was a warning to the hosts that City had not come to make up the numbers.
Clack showed he wouldn’t be bullied as he wrestled Sid Nelson off the ball in the corner to win another free-kick. This time Jones rose highest again but under pressure the ball dropped into Davies’ arms.
Chi had a let-off in the 32nd minute after Ferrier’s driving run and pass found Blackett-Taylor but his fierce strike beat Steven Mowthorpe only to clip the top of the crossbar.
Mowthorpe produced a superb reaction save to deny Rushian Hepburn-Murphy just before half-time.
Tranmere dominated after the break. There was a concern for Chi approaching the hour when skipper Cody had treatment after a heavy fall.
It proved a pivotal moment in the game as Chi were caught short-handed in the middle and Ferrier’s 62nd-minute header hit the bar from a cross before falling kindly to Blackett-Taylor to tap home.
Two minutes later, Ferrier was gifted a clear run on goal to finish past Mowthorpe after Cody and Heath both went for the same ball and made a mess of it.
Ferrier punished more indecision in the 72nd minute as neither Chi centre-half dealt with a long punt upfield and he produced a superb lob.
Ferrier steered in a low centre in the 75th minute and Taylor-Blackett fired home the fifth as the gaps opened.
Chi got the consolation they deserved when Peake got to a stoppage-time corner in front of their travelling supporters.
Goal scorer Peake said: “I didn’t even know it went down as my goal until the end.
“It was a great delivery and I tried to get something on it.”
Tranmere: Davies, Caprice, Nelson, Monthe, Ridehalgh, Perkins, Potter (Danns 61), Morris, Hepburn-Murphy, (Jennings 45) Blackett-Taylor, Ferrier (Mullin 74). Unused subs: Pilling, Woods, Maddox, Payne.
Chichester: Mowthorpe, Davidson, Cody (Peake 77), Heath, Hutchings, Rowlatt, Horncastle, Haitham (Axell 67), Iordache, Jones (Biggs 83), Clack. Unused subs: Ender, Dunn, Bennetts, Wild.
Attendance: 4,370 (437 away fans).