The Northern Premier League

30th October 2021, Runcorn Linnets FC v FC United of Manchester : 0-2 Sponsored by Complete Security Systems

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

It was a big day for stats and precedents as FC United of Manchester returned to APEC Taxis Stadium for the second time.

The first was at the same third-qualifying round stage of the Buildbase FA Trophy in November 2019, when they achieved a comfortable 3-0 win, and brought with them a following that set an attendance record of 960 for a competitive fixture.

That was beaten today, with a new overall record of 1,078, and this time it was home fans who dominated and made a great noise in support of a superb team performance by the Linnets.

The bumper crowd prompted me to watch the game from the media eyrie above the stand, so that I could see what was going on, and as much as I love to watch my football from behind the goal, another precedent had been set.

Not only does it provide a great view, but I also had the benefit of our very own Motty, Sam Phillips, providing his superb commentary from a few feet away.

If I have mis-identified the protagonists in any of the action, it's his fault. I liked it up there. We'll talk again when it's below freezing and raining sideways.

The game started amid close marking and quick tackling from both sides, and it was clear that hard work would be required to create many chances.

Three minutes had elapsed before the first fell to FC United's Andrew Baker, but his shot from Sam Burns' pass was repelled by Sean O'Mahony.

A spell of Runcorn attacking endeavour followed an eighth minute break into the area by Rhain Hellawell. His pass left to Stuart Crilly set up a shot that forced a low save by Dan Lavercombe.

From wide on the left, a Ryan Brooke cross set up Hellawell for a shot that Dodd deflected for a corner. That was headed away from the near post by Baker.

The United defence was kept busy - particularly from the forays of Hellawell, backed up by Peter Wylie, and the visitors' first attack for a while came on 15 minutes, Burns leading the way and picking up a long through ball.

He was interrupted by O'Mahony, and Evan Gumbs cleared.

Ryan Brooke was poised to break away from halfway before a cynical trip by Jayden Major attracted the first of his side's four yellow cards.

Burns remained a lone figure up front for United, with long balls over the top their preferred method of attack.

On 20 minutes, there were widespread roars for handball from behind the clubhouse end goal, when Burns controlled the ball with an arm, but the referee didn't see it, and Joe Young was forced to save a shot from a narrow angle on the right.

Linnets advances were being conducted more at ground level, via the wings and through Iwan Murray in the middle.

A number of corners resulted from close defensive attention, not least from former Linnets player of the year Aaron Morris, which also limited much in the way of attempts on target.

Brooke, Hellawell and Crilly all managed threatening possession in the United area, without coming close to scoring.

After 26 minutes, the tables were turned on a good spell of Runcorn pressure, when a long clearance again reached Burns just outside the Linnets area.

A miscontrol by Joe Lynch allowed Burns to break away into the box, and he drilled it low past the unprotected Young to give the Northern Premier League Premier Division side the lead.

If it wasn't against the run of play, it certainly wasn't with it.

After a scrappy bout of head-tennis in front of the dugouts, Iwan Murray broke away into the away third, and Curtis Jones brought him down from behind to earn the second yellow card of the day.

Jones himself headed out Murray's 35-yard free-kick for a corner, which reached Brooke in the six-yard box near the far post, but the ball skimmed off his head and wide.

A scrappy spell saw the ball propelled not so much end to end, but third to third.

A United corner, after James Short had halted a Burns-Waddecar exchange, was blocked and cleared long, all the way through to Lavercombe at the other end.

His return clearance found Aaron Morris wide on the right, and he cut into the area for the first attempt on goal of his APEC return, but O'Mahony tackled well to avert the danger.

Runcorn closed the half striving to go in level, which was the minimum they deserved.

Hellawell and Wylie progressed up the right, but a cross for Crilly flew long and out for a throw-in.

Brooke joined Hellawell on the right for another try, but they were outnumbered, and a promising long diagonal ball bounced a little too high for Hellawell to manage a shot.

Murray appealed for a penalty just inside the goal line on the right when he was bundled over, but it was never cut and dried, and Mr Moreland shook his head.

Another Murray charge into the area was terminated by two defenders, and the whistle blew exactly 45 minutes after it was first heard.

Linnets boss Calum McIntyre would undoubtedly be assuring his players that the tie was a long way from being over, and continued efforts in the same vein would surely bear fruit if there was any justice. Sadly, there wasn't.

From the restart, FC United might have doubled their lead. Wylie headed out a 35-yard free-kick for a corner that was met in the six-yard box by Morris, but he headed over.

It appeared that the gist of their half-time pep talk had been to get a foot on the ball and keep more possession, and they were doing so patiently, employing a slower build-up to seek openings.

Half-time substitute Michael Donohue, on for Jayden Major, took the ball into the Runcorn area, where Sean O'Mahony ended his progress with a perfect old-school shoulder charge.

A lengthy delay followed while Short received attention for an apparent blow to the ribs from a 50-50 challenge with Morris, but he was able to carry on.

O'Mahony's through ball to Crilly was passed on to Brooke, who reached the penalty area but was judged to have fouled Baker, then a promising run by Hellawell, jinking past two defenders, was checked by Baker.

Stuart Crilly was the first Runcorn player to retreat to the bench, replaced by Dapo Olarewaju after 55 minutes. It was to be hoped that his pace would open doors on the right, as it had done on the left for sadly no reward against Mossley four days earlier.

Progress on the ground looked to be the best policy, as the wind had kicked up again since half-time.

High clearances from Joe Young were turning back towards the Forest End before coming to earth.

A second Runcorn substitution within five minutes introduced Lloyd Marsh-Hughes for Ryan Brooke.

Donohue saw a yellow card for a kick on Murray's ankle, and the free-kick gave Marsh-Hughes a first run on the United area. He flicked on to Olarewaju, whose cross reached Hellawell on the far side.

A protracted duel with Aaron Morris led to a loose ball which was picked up by James Short. He nutmegged Baker, but Morris got to it and cleared.

A Linnets free-kick into the area was repelled for a corner, which was cleared only as far as Joe Lynch 20 yards out.

He unleashed a great low shot which was heading inside the right post, until Lavercombe got down and saved well.

A long ball over the Linnets defence ran ahead of danger man Burns, but Young was out fast and got to it first.

On 66 minutes, a United corner from the right was met by Aaron Morris at the far post, and he was furious with himself for heading it the wrong side of the post.

Back upfield, a Murray pass found Marsh-Hughes in the area, and with the close attendance of three defenders he soldiered on and was eventually dispossessed.

There were suggestions around me that he might have been 'too honest' in staying on his feet, particularly as the referee was becoming increasingly keen on awarding free-kicks.

That tendency might have contributed to a growing air of panic among the FC United defence. A risky back-pass from the usually ice-cool Morris caused Lavercombe to slice an attempted clearance out for a throw-in, as Hellawell closed in.

From another Linnets corner, Mr Moreland was less keen to employ the whistle when the massed voices behind the goal again bellowed for a handball verdict.

Back on the attack from the clearance, a great through ball from Murray to Olarewaju enabled Dapo to outpace Adam Dodd and cut inside, but Griffiths intercepted his cross.

The yellow card was out again after Regan Linney wiped out Peter Wylie just outside the right corner of the penalty area.

The free-kick was blocked at short range.

Possession was almost entirely at Runcorn feet, with United responses long, high and central, and O'Mahony and Gumbs intervening.

Dapo was away on the right until Dodd tackled to concede a throw, and once more to deliver a cross for Hellawell, whose shot was blocked at point-blank range.

A promising period of Runcorn domination would struggle to continue through the last 17 minutes of the game, when the home side were reduced to ten men.

It was hard to get a clear view of exactly what happened, but Joe Lynch had turned away from goal and out of the penalty area when Potts tackled him.

Lynch evidently made illegal contact with the United No8 while he was on the ground, because the referee had no hesitation in showing his opposite number a straight red.

A final substitution was made shortly afterwards to help maintain Linnets efforts to salvage the tie while outnumbered.

Wylie departed, and it was fitting that it was a record crowd that was able to noisily welcome back Alex Downes for his first appearance since sustaining horrific head and facial injuries in the FA Cup on 4th September.

It came as no surprise to the fans or to Alex's manager that he showed not an ounce of hesitation or restraint in stepping up to prevent United attacks, which continued in the form of fast long balls ahead of their on-rushing forwards.

Two and three-man moves up both wings continued among the ten men. It could and possibly should have resulted in goals by now, so without a lead to protect, it made no sense to change tactics now.

They continued to attack, and recent recruit Lloyd Marsh-Hughes was taking on the United defence - determined to add a second goal to his Linnets account, having opened it in the win at Workington seven days previously.

He was in a tangle just left of the area with Aaron Morris, who was penalised for wrestling him to the ground. Aaron risked joining the catalogue of Mancunian yellow cards by remonstrating loudly with the referee.

The free-kick was deflected wide of the far post by a seemingly oblivious defender, in one of those 'could have gone anywhere' moments.

Yet more handball appeals greeted the resulting corner, and after it had been cleared, an O'Mahony flick on presented Alex Downes with the opportunity to make it a jubilant return to the pitch.

It looked increasingly like being one of those days, though, as he shot over the bar.

Downes was back at the other end to repel another FC United break straight afterwards, as the game entered its last eight minutes.

Back to the clubhouse end, and Iwan Murray was causing solo havoc around the penalty arc. There was a clear reluctance among the crowd blocking his path to launch a tackle, restraint probably encouraged by their haul of yellow cards.

FC United regained possession, and sought to keep it up the right-hand side, between Morris, Donohue and Ennis.

Then a good ball up the left set up Griffiths for a run into the area. He went down under the close attention of Downes, but the referee waved away his call for a penalty.

Personnel numbers were even again, but for only three minutes of normal time, when Donohue needlessly earned a second yellow card for smashing the ball out of the ground after being flagged offside.

It was O'Mahony's turn to be offside after a new ball had been supplied and launched towards him near the left post, from a free-kick just inside the United half.

Twice Olarewaju cut into the area from the left, but his crossing attempts were blocked, and a long clearance found Burns wide on the left.

Louis Hayes tracked his progress into the area, and was loudly applauded for a perfectly-timed tackle that conceded a corner.

Except it didn't, because Mr Moreland was less impressed with the challenge and pointed to the spot.

Ennis dispatched the penalty kick into the roof of the net, and the game was over, except for Donohue adding to the yellow card count by punting the ball out of the ground.

When Sean O'Mahony told him he didn't think that was terribly clever, Potts tried to headbutt the Linnets centre-half. But he couldn't reach.

Murray and Marsh-Hughes both tried to carve something out of the last two minutes of added time, but a place in the first round proper just wasn't meant to be.

Linnets had now completed three hours of FA Trophy football against FC United without a goal, and today especially, that was harsh.

The very least Linnets' display deserved was to treat their fans to a penalty shoot-out, but the record shows a 2-0 triumph for FC United. Best of luck to them in the next round.

Knockout football returns promptly to the APEC on Tuesday, with the visit of Cheadle Town in the Cheshire Senior Cup, followed on 6th November by another top-end league game at home to Trafford.

That game will be followed by a firework display. The quiz night scheduled for the same evening has now been postponed until a later date.

Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Rhain Hellawell, James Short, Peter Wylie (Alex Downes 77), Evan Gumbs, Sean O'Mahony, Stuart Crilly (Dapo Olarewaju 55), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke (Lloyd Marsh-Hughes 59), Iwan Murray, Louis Hayes. Subs not used: Ally Brown, Craig Lindfield.

Attendance: 1,078.

Men of the match: Runcorn Linnets.

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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