Everton Under-21s were eliminated from the Premier League Cup after a dramatic penalty shootout defeat against Brighton and Hove Albion at Southport.
The young Blues, who had defeated Newcastle United to reach this round of 16 contest, looked set to extend their eight-game unbeaten run and progress to the quarter-finals when Sam Byrne opened the scoring five minutes before the half-time interval.
The hosts continued to dominate in the second half, but were dealt a late, late blow as Dylan Barnett headed home from close range with virtually the last action of regulation time.
Brighton went on to take an unlikely lead minutes into extra-time, before captain Joe Williams restored parity with a penalty four minutes later.
Williams, however, could not repeat the feat in the penalty shootout, with his and Tom Davies' efforts saved as the Seagulls went through 4-2.
Already through to the final of the Lancashire Senior Cup and semi-finals of the Liverpool Senior Cup, the in-form hosts headed into the contest full of confidence and looked the most threatening throughout.
Indeed, David Unsworth’s side came close to a dream start when Leandro Rodriguez found Byrne with a low cross with the tie barely three minutes old. The Irishman’s powerful first-time effort, though, was well saved by Brighton goalkeeper Christian Walton.
Rodriguez was at the centre of things again minutes later, winning a free-kick on the right flank after evading his marker with neat footwork.
Kieran Dowell took the resulting free-kick - but Davies could only divert the inviting deep cross inches wide of the post.
The Toffees eventually got the opener as half-time loomed and, for all their dominance, it was a sweeping counter-attacking move that did the trick.
Felipe Mattioni, in his first Under-21s appearance since returning from a loan spell with Doncaster Rovers, started the move deep inside Everton territory. The full-back found Rodriguez, who drove at the Seagulls’ defence before finding Byrne.
This time the striker gave goalkeeper Walton no chance, coolly slotting home into the bottom corner with a low drive after carrying the ball across the edge of the penalty area.
Everton continued to control proceedings throughout the second half and Matthew Pennington, who received an ovation from the crowd for a couple of superbly-timed sliding tackles in the same passage of play, almost doubled the advantage, only to be denied by Walton, who scrambled to his left to keep out the goal-bound header.
Brighton’s Barnett then made the hosts pay for failing to convert half chances with arguably his side’s first genuine opportunity of the contest, which came deep into second half added time.
A free-kick was swung in and the Brighton full-back was on hand to nod home from close range - but the drama was far from over.
Simon Rusk’s men went ahead in the opening minutes of extra-time as substitute Jack Harper fired into the corner from 20 yards.
But it was a lead that proved to be short-lived as Davies was felled in the box from a corner and Williams confidently dispatched the spot-kick low into the bottom corner.
Albion captain Glen Rae was sent off in the dying minutes off the extra 30 for two poorly-timed tackles in quick succession.
A penalty shootout would eventually deny the Blues a quarter-final against either Leeds United or Liverpool, a cruel way to exit after an impressive performance.
The Under-21s return to league action next Monday with a home game against Southampton.