By David 'Bill' Davies
Linnets headed up the M6 towards Preston to get reacquainted with old NWCFL adversaries Charnock Richard, in the Emirates FA Cup Preliminary Round.
Charnock earned the opportunity to return the compliment, for a Tuesday-night replay at the APEC Taxis Stadium, thanks to a rebound finish from Bayleigh Passant’s penalty save, with six normal minutes remaining.
It has to be said that if Linnets had progressed to the next round at the first attempt, it would have been fortunate.
They could have been three goals behind at half-time, rather than one, and their equalising penalty was from a far less convincing handball verdict than the one which ultimately took the tie to a replay.
We are all familiar with the concept of a ‘game of two halves’, but this one was more of a game of four quarters. The first and third were dominated by Runcorn possession and attacking efforts, and were well defended by an organised and committed home rearguard.
The second and fourth were taken up by far more attacking enterprise by the Greens, and the last 20 minutes of the first half provided them with a hatful of chances.
Linnets, mysteriously, not only allowed Charnock to keep the ball, but also observed a ten-yard exclusion zone around anyone in green.
An unchanged Linnets starting line-up from the impressive Bank Holiday Monday victory over Witton Albion, took the game to the hosts from the outset, and Will Saxon in particular proved almost impossible to subdue as he ran rings around the left side of the Greens defence.
In the second minute, his cross found Eden Gumbs six yards out, and if Eden had volleyed, he would surely have scored. But he controlled the ball first, and gave Luke Gibson just enough time to get in the way.
Joe Lynch managed only glancing contact on another Saxon cross, and Will had a free run on goal as he overlapped Marcus Haydock to chase Jacques Welsh’s long through-ball. The offside flag that followed defied belief.
In the ninth minute, Sam Barratt controlled Antony Kay’s long, airborne pass and turned Haydock before unleashing a great shot which glanced off the top of the bar.
It seemed only a matter of time before Linnets would establish a lead from their domination of possession, but Charnock defending was dogged and well regimented. Runcorn chances were not coming easily.
Clearances from the home team returned possession to the purple and pink, and the Runcorn back four took their time in retaining the ball in their own half, looking for more avenues to feed Saxon on the right and Woodcock on the left.
Antony Kay moved up to involve himself in tthe area, as crosses came in from a collection of corners and free-kicks from either wing. He and Eden Gumbs got their heads to each of them, but Luke Gibson and Aaron Griffith did enough to limit their efforts to a single close clearance of the bar.
With 25 minutes gone, Charnock’s attacking contribution had amounted to a single seventh-minute shot from Rustam Stepans, which had fallen harmlessly into the arms of Bayleigh Passant.
But the control exerted by Linnets, all built from a composed back four, inexplicably gave way to a prolonged period in which possession was surrendered almost continuously to the hosts, with every man in green given vast amounts of space to do with it as they wished.
It yielded an opening goal almost immediately. There was no questioning the quality of Luke Power’s shot into the top-right corner, but he was given so much time to wander in from the left and pick his spot, he might have sat down with a pen and paper and drawn a diagram.
Linnets fans must have hoped that the lapse would serve as a wake-up call, sparking a more clinical approach to their own efforts in the opposition half. But bizarrely, the remainder of the first half continued to feature Charnock Richard advancing with ease, and an invisible force field with a ten-yard radius around any man in green.
Within three minutes of the goal, Oliver Molloy sprinted away from Antony Kay amid a chorus of offside shouts, but the assistant in close attendance disagreed. His pass to Haydock laid on a shot which Passant saved, but it fell to Nathan Nickeas, who contrived to hit the bar when there was no defender anywhere near him, or in the way.
A free-kick from the right also gave Stepans a free run into the six-yard box, with only Passant’s presence persuading him to find the side netting rather than the target.
Nickeas was then allowed the front-left eighth of the pitch all to himself to attempt a shot beyond Bayleigh’s dive, but it cleared the far post, to the relief of the Runcorn fans.
Linnets did mount a couple of attacks in the closing minutes of the first half, including a corner from the left, from which Eden Gumbs’ header grazed the top of the bar.
Referee Tom Wall added precisely nothing to the end of the first half, despite Charnock ’keeper Connor Eastham and his full-backs taking an eternity to execute a succession of short goal-kicks. Perhaps he sensed that it was largely irrelevant, as Linnets had developed an apparent phobia for going anywhere near a Green in possession.
Linnets boss Billy Paynter would surely address this territorial generosity during half-time, and after the break, that appeared to be the case.
The second half started as the first had, with Runcorn in possession and pressing forward, but it was telling that the main consequence was corner after corner - a set piece that was so far alien to the home side.
That was because Linnets on the attack were marked and closed down quickly, leaving no route to goal. Whenever Charnock had invaded the opposition third, there had been nobody in the way.
It was as though there were tennis-style tramlines, ten yards wide on either side of the Runcorn half, into which no Linnets defender was allowed.
Profits from the succession of corners were limited to a Sam Barratt shot, high and wide, and a blocked Joe Lynch effort. Passes from Jacques Welsh and Lewis Doyle found Eden Gumbs, just inside the area, but Griffith, Duke and Gibson provided blanket cover that prevented Eden from testing Eastham in the Charnock goal.
But just before the hour mark, Linnets were given a route to salvation. From a corner on the left, Joe Lynch fired a shot into the crowd in the area. From behind the goal, I didn’t see a handball by right-back Spencer Bibby, but Mr Wall did, and Linnets had a penalty. Any Linnets fan would surely have been incandescent with rage if a similar decision had been made at the other end. But gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Lewis Doyle billowed the net from 12 yards, as former Runcorn Town ’keeper Eastham dived the other way.
The mood among the Linnets behind the goal, green smoke bombs notwithstanding, appeared to be ‘we’ll take it, now move on’.
And move on they did, with continuous Runcorn pressure which echoed the opening 20 minutes of the game. But still the most consistent outcome was corner kicks, as Charnock defended like Trojans.
Eden Gumbs chested a corner from the right on target, but Bibby blocked it inside the far post.
Charnock withdrew Molloy in favour of Jordan Darr.
Eden looked the man most likely to put Linnets ahead, and his next effort was a low driller which Eastham stopped on the line.
Charnock launched advances of their own into the Runcorn half, and I hesitated to tempt fate by writing it down, but the men in purple seemed to have learned the lesson that they needed to deprive the Greens of the oxygen of space.
Max Woodcock was limping from the effects of a 50-50 challenge on the left wing, and he took a seat to give Adam Moseley 20 minutes to assist a Linnets passage into the next round.
A Joe Lynch shot from 18 yards skidded a foot wide of the left post, and on the break, Haydock and Nickeas twice combined up the left ‘tramline’, with only Sam Barratt to thwart their efforts to deliver a threat in the Runcorn area.
Nickeas’ cross flew long and was headed out by James Short for a throw on the far side. The resulting four-man attack was ultimately cleared by the head of Peter Wylie.
There were 14 minutes remaining when Linnets took the lead, from a bit of Adam Moseley magic.
The Linnets sub worked his way in from the left, from James Short’s pass, and he slalomed between Bibby and Griffith before slotting the ball through the narrowest of gaps between Eastham and the near post, for his first competitive goal for the Runcorn first team.
Harry Hagan took over at right-back from Sam Barratt, and he too was a lone barrier to Haydock and Nickeas’ combined threat from the left. Inside the last ten minutes, a Nickeas cross traversed the six-yard box, and Passant somehow prevented the unmarked Jordan Darr from prodding the ball over the line, and conceded a corner on the right.
Passant was hurt as he dived at feet in the area, among loud Charnock appeals for a penalty.
Bayleigh’s heroics continued, with six minutes left on the clock, after a raised arm had blocked a corner. It was a far more obvious handball than the one that had led to the Runcorn equaliser.
The 'keeper saved Darr’s spot-kick, but the taker’s blushes were eased by his overhead kick, which netted the rebound.
Linnets spent most of the remaining normal minutes in survival mode, as the Greens kept up the pressure, but the defence chased and closed down far more effectively than they had done in the closing stages of the first half.
Will Saxon won a 50-50 challenge on the halfway line, and embarked on a solo run ending with a pass into the area for Eden Gumbs, who was blocked at close range by Gibson.
Mr Wall appeared to have saved up stoppage time from the whole game, adding seven minutes. They were taken up mostly by purple pressure, although there was something of a let-off for Linnets when Nickeas was again allowed to cross from the left but Charles Duke, with space to burn, fired a mile over the bar.
Saxon shot high from a Hagen chest down, just outside the area, and a carefully-placed Doyle shot was gathered by Eastham.
Enough time remained for another ridiculous offside decision. Antony Kay flighted the ball over Bibby, and Moseley sprinted from five yards behind the full-back to get to it first, only to be flagged offside. Speechless.
Eden Gumbs chased another ball over the top into the Charnock third, but was frustrated by an intervention from Bibby, who rolled it 30 yards back to the grateful gloves of Eastham. Perhaps the referee’s view had been obscured, but in the face of a chorus of appeals from behind the goal, he resisted the temptation to punish the handling of a clearly deliberate backpass.
The final whistle heralded an additional Tuesday night fixture at the APEC.
Charnock Richard had earned another go. Linnets hadn’t done enough to avoid it.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Sam Barratt (Harry Hagan, 78 mins), James Short, Jacques Welsh, Peter Wylie, Antony Kay, Will Saxon, Joe Lynch, Eden Gumbs, Lewis Doyle, Max Woodcock (Adam Moseley, 70 mins). Substitutes not used: Che Trapasso, Josh Elverstone, Josh Toal, Ryan Brooke.