Gateshead produced an impressive defensive display at Grimsby Town to earn a battling first-leg draw in front of a big crowd at Blundell Park.
Colin Larkin struck early for The Heed, who had to dig deep after Mariners captain Craig Disley equalised midway through the first half.
Gateshead dictated the early play with their trademark passing game and got off to a dream start when Larkin scored for the third consecutive game after a long lay-off.
Former Middlesbrough schemer Josh Walker, in for the ill Jamie Chandler, dinked a great ball into the box that saw Larkin control it with his chest.
The ex-Hartlepool man then shot across James McKeown and inside the far post.
Alex Rodman’s shot deflected wide as Town hit back, before the Mariners capitalised on poor marking to level the scores after 24 minutes.
Patient build-up saw Scott Kerr pick out captain Disley who stooped to head low into the bottom corner.
The rest of the half was hard work for The Heed, who were glad to reach half-time on level terms.
Grimsby built up a head of steam, Disley almost scoring again a minute later, while a James Curtis foul on John Lennell-Lewis saw top scorer Ross Hannah curl just wide.
Claims for a penalty when a Lennell-Lewis shot struck Ben Clark’s arm inside the box, fell on deaf ears, but only a fine reaction save from Adam Bartlett prevented Town from going in front in stoppage time.
Sam Hatton’s cross from the right saw Rodman’s header superbly tipped over by Bartlett, ever-present between the posts for Gateshead this season.
Town cranked up the pressure after the restart as Gateshead struggled to stem the tide.
Bartlett turned Lennell-Lewis’s flick past his near post, while only a timely sliding challenge from John Oster denied Rodman a clear-cut opening. A long back-pass from halfway from Carl Magnay put Bartlett under unnecessary pressure, but the reliable keeper raced out of his penalty area to clear just ahead of Lennell-Lewis.
Gateshead boss Gary Mills’ reaction was to bring the experienced Liam Hatch and Luton Town loanee JJ O’Donnell, who was denied a run on goal by Hatton’s crude challenge.
It was backs-to-the-wall for a resolute Gateshead, who held firm without offering much of a threat offensively. The ball kept coming back at an alarming rate, but for all their possession the home side couldn’t fashion a clear opening.
Grimsby eventually ran out of ideas, though Scott Neilson forced Bartlett to tip over two minutes from time after he got the ball out of his feet seven yards out.
For all their attacking intent the Mariners were unable to find a winner, so a big crowd is now guaranteed at the International Stadium for Sunday’s second, and deciding, leg.
A place at Wembley is at stake for the victors, Gateshead having never been to football headquarters, a return to the Football League the ultimate prize. Grimsby central defender Shaun Pearson will miss Sunday’s showdown due to suspension after he picked up his 15th booking of the campaign.<p/>
GRIMSBY: McKeown, Hatton, Thomas, Kerr, Pearson, Boyce, Neilson, Disley, Hannah, John-Lewis (Cook 86), Rodman
Not used: Thanoj, Southwell, McLaughlin, Fyfield
Goal: Disley (24)
GATESHEAD: Bartlett, Baxter, Magnay, Walker, Curtis, Clark, Maddison (Hatch 64), Turnbull, Marwood, Oster, Larkin (O’Donnell 59)
Not used: Cummins, Lester, Ramshaw
Goal: Larkin (7))
Referee: Chris Kavanagh