12th November 2019, Prescot Cables v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-2
Runcorn Linnets made the short journey to Hope Street for the second of four meetings with Prescot Cables this season, after a last-gasp draw at The Millbank Linnets Stadium on Saturday.
The 452 people who attended the replay were left with the abiding impression that their next encounter, back in Runcorn on Boxing Day, will be as tasty as the leftover pigs in blankets.
Linnets followers were under no illusion that the approach to this game would have to be very different from the first attempt three days earlier, when Zac Aley's close range header from a corner, to equalise with literally the last touch of four minutes' added time, was perhaps his team's only attempt on target all day.
Manager Michael Ellison rang the changes, not because of any loss of faith in his players, but because a few surprises needed to be sprung.
If Cables expected normal service to be resumed, against the same line-up, it probably would have been.
On Saturday Prescot had dominated possession after doing likewise in the tackle, advancing on the Runcorn goal with a regularity that they would feel had warranted a far greater advantage than the solitary goal they scored, with 20 minutes remaining.
Too much time and space on the ball, especially out wide, had left the home side back-peddling far too often.
There were only three changes to the Linnets' starting personnel, with Zac Aley, Warren Bellew and Jamie Rainford in for Louis Corrigan, Kurt Sherlock and Connor McCarthy, but the set-up and tactics were markedly different.
Playing through the middle had resulted in insufficient weekend possession and precious few scoring chances, the Cables defence soaking up most of what was offered.
The replay started with the ball out wide far more, on a remarkably firm and flat pitch after yet more heavy rain since the weekend.
Bellew and Gibson were on hand to utilise the wings and forge exchanges with Shanley to hopefully set up Rainford at centre-forward.
That didn't really materialise, with both sides playing the ball long out to the wings, Shanley for Runcorn and Edgar for Prescot getting on the end of most of them during the first quarter-hour.
None resulted in serious chances, defenders getting there first at both ends. The big difference in Linnets' early performance, though, was made by Bellew and Gibson operating deep and, combining with Aley and Brown, effectively playing with two pairs of overlapping full-backs.
It limited Prescot's wide attacks far more, providing a double line of defence, and when the ball was won, it enabled the 'spare' defender to get forward in possession.
It gave Runcorn far more of the ball than they had enjoyed three days before, and visibly drew a more hurried if not panicky response from the opposition.
Linnets' first solid chance came in the 13th minute, Rainford in possession left of the penalty area and pulling it across for Shanley 18 yards out.
He tried to slip it between two close markers for Gibson to run on to, but one of them intercepted.
A first-time shot might have borne more fruit.
The ball was propelled to the other end, Edgar taking it into space wide right, but his cross fell to no-one, with centre-forward Hassall inexplicably on the floor in the box.
Seconds later we were back at the top end, Shanley deftly foiling an attempt by right-back Fernandes to shield the ball out for a
goal-kick, only for McCulloch to smash it back into the Runcorn third.
It was turning into tennis, until Paul Shanley changed the complexion of the game after 19 minutes.
From a quick break into the Cables half, he slipped past one man and prodded the ball past another, outpacing him and launching a face-to-face race with 'keeper Ollie Taylor.
Shan got there a split second earlier, and poked it goalwards. For the Linnets fans behind the goal it seemed to take an age to get there, but it did, faster than McCulloch could manage. 1-0.
Now we had a game, and with the early stalemate over, newfound urgency steadily built the remaining 70 minutes into as bad-tempered an affair as a General Election campaign stoked by three years of Brexititis.
Eight yellow cards and one red didn't reward referee Mr McQuillan's efforts to retain control. His decisions to brandish them (or not) took on a decidedly random hue.
Scuffles and eventually brawls ensued with increasing frequency and ferocity, but the ref's policy appeared to be to stay as far away from them as possible.
After the goal, every tackle attracted anguished howls for free-kicks and cards, and Cables were particularly vehement in their demands for a penalty for handball on 23 minutes, after the ball was smashed point-blank into Peter Wylie.
Who knows what part of him it hit? Not the referee, and probably not Peter either.
For the remainder of the first half, the ball reached the Runcorn penalty area more than the hosts', but industrious defensive covering blunted most efforts, and those that reached the six-yard box were calmly plucked out of the air or punched away with authority by 'keeper Matty Holmes.
Fans' favourite Matty had returned to The Millbank before Saturday's tie, following injury to Tranmere loanee Bayleigh Passant and paternity leave for Richie Mottram.
Across both of these games, he was as determined and reliable as he had been in the North West Counties-winning side of two seasons ago.
On 35 minutes, Holmes pulled off a save inside the foot of the post. It was one that he had no reasonable expectation of making, confounding two unchallenged opponents.
Five minutes later, Jamie Rainford had the chance to put Linnets firmly in the driving seat. Set free by Shanley into the penalty area, he drew the 'keeper and with most of the goal at his mercy, managed to
poke it wide of the right post.
Within a minute, he had an opportunity to make amends, turning McCulloch 30 yards out.
The Cables captain, already booked for a foul on 23 minutes, hauled the Runcorn No9 back by the arm.
Not a foul, apparently, and Rainford was shown yellow for shrugging him off.
It was the penultimate memorable incident of the first half. Just before the break a heavily-populated duel outside the Runcorn box resulted in a member of the home side rolling and flapping around on the floor like a haddock on the deck of a trawler.
It's a miracle he didn't hurt himself. I wasn't close enough to identify the victim, or to know what had been done to him. There were no clues to either mystery after Tom Owens had been shown a red card, as nobody in yellow and black was showing any residual sign of injury, and none of the Cables fans who were in line with the incident had any idea what Owens had done.
At half-time, Ellison replaced Rainford with Harry Cannon-Noren, doubtless to provide some nippy support up the right wing to a more central role for Shanley, while allowing Gibson to continue his sterling pincer movement efforts with Ally Brown further back, Aley and Bellew likewise on the left.
Their efforts would be even more vital with 10 men, as Hinnigan, Wiley and Hamid defended the middle. And defend it they did.
A granite rearguard was allowing Shanley to still worry the Cables defence on the break. Eight minutes into the half, he was felled by a late tackle on halfway by Turner. No cards appeared, but stern words were exchanged between the ref and both benches.
Three minutes later, Shanley was tripped on the same spot, won the ball back rather too robustly, and the resulting Cables free-kick produced a firm header that drew a great full-length save by Holmes.
The visiting fans hoped but doubted that the slender lead could be preserved for half an hour.
Their nerves were calmed when Shanley controlled a clearance in the centre circle, and not being fouled, turned and set Ryan Gibson free on a 20-yard run that no defender could catch.
He coolly slotted it past the reach of Ollie Taylor and into the bottom right corner.
The 10 men had a two-goal lead.
A minute later, Runcorn breath was held as Shanley tackled Fernandes and got the man rather than the ball, but the card was yellow.
There were still 25 minutes of fouls, niggles, tussles and referee-berating to go when the latest of many heavily-defended forays into the Runcorn box saw a theatrical swallow-dive of the kind that is pilloried on SoccerAM every Saturday morning.
But that doesn't necessarily mean he wasn't tripped. Edgar sent Matty Holmes the wrong way from the spot to send the Prescot faithful into raptures.
After 68 minutes, McCulloch clattered Shanley again, but a second yellow card still eluded him.
Shanley required lengthy attention, and having left the pitch as that strange law demands, the Linnets No10 was allowed back on. Eventually.
And as much as Cables applied themselves to firing high and wide from distance - all the tireless massed defence would allow - they still had to muster two or three players at a time to controlling Shan's work on the break, with an increasingly offensive Gibson.
Louis Corrigan was introduced for Bellew for the last 20 frantic minutes, and he caused trouble going forwards as well as combatting the labours of Edgar and Fernandes on the right flank.
The most bizarre event was saved for last, as deep into four minutes of added time, a foul by Cables centre-half Cooper on the halfway line led to an escalating brawl, culminating in Cooper connecting with a punch.
A full minute of deliberations with both assistants left us wondering how many red cards, apart from the obvious one for Cooper, would be shown.
In the event, he was summoned the 30 yards from whence he had quietly retreated, to receive the last yellow of the night.
And that was it. All over apart from the final whistle and Ryan Gibson disappearing triumphantly into a scrum of fans behind the Cables' goal.
It's fairly safe to say that the FA Trophy won't reside in Runcorn in May, but every round garners much-needed prize money, and for so many reasons it was one of those nights that fans will talk about for years.
It made the job of management team Ellison and Matt Cross so much easier on Saturday.
"Just go out and do that again".
It also secured a prize not to be underestimated: welcoming Linnets legend Aaron Morris back to The Millbank Stadium when they face FC United of Manchester in the next round.
Runcorn Linnets: Matty Holmes, Zac Aley, Jack Hinnigan, Peter Wylie, Ally Brown, Tom Owens, Warren Bellew (Louis Corrigan 72), Kyle Hamid, Jamie Rainford (Harry Cannon-Noren 45), Paul Shanley, Ryan Gibson. Subs not used: Josh Dobie, Ryan Wade, Kurt Sherlock, Declan McGivern, Connor McCarthy.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.
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