A fifth cup game in a row took Linnets to Chorley, for an FA Cup Second Qualifying Round replay, earned by a great performance in the 1-1 draw three days earlier.
Chorley boss Andy Preece had been magnanimous in his praise for the quality displayed by Linnets at the APEC Taxis Stadium on Saturday, and there was no doubt he would demand an uncompromising performance from his players, to secure an away tie against fellow National League North side Curzon Ashton in the next round.
Billy Paynter made three changes to the starting line-up, one forced by the relapse in Sean O’Mahony’s ankle injury, and also shuffled some shirt numbers. Perhaps there was a plan to confuse Chorley’s ‘homework’, based on Saturday’s Linnets performance.
Harry Hagan joined Antony Kay and Peter Wylie in a three-man central defence, forming a back five which would hopefully equip Runcorn to absorb the kind of pressure they had faced on Saturday, and doubtless would again.
But it would also hopefully enable Sam Barratt and Eden Gumbs to get forward on either wing whenever possible.
It made sense, but Robert Burns told us what can happen to the best laid plans…
The change in formation might have added defensive numbers and steel in the middle, but it also allowed Chorley more possession in wide areas, and the time to send measured crosses into the Runcorn area. It yielded two goals from effectively free headers, eight minutes apart, and with barely half an hour played, it left Linnets with a steep uphill battle to remain in the competition.
A perplexing penalty decision, which confused Chorley’s players as much as anybody in yellow and green, ended the game as a contest before half-time.
After the break, Linnets demonstrated that attack really can be the most effective form of defence, and left us wondering what might have been if the ‘Vindaloo’ approach (we’re gonna score one more than you) had been adopted from the outset. A spanking, possibly, but it could have been fun.
A niggly start produced a couple of early free-kicks for both sides, but a cynic might suggest that for the second time in four days inconsistency in the adjudication of fouls affected the outcome.
After soaking up some consistent early Chorley pressure, with prolonged and determined defensive head tennis, Linnets made a promising assault up the left.
Kenny Brown, returning from a six-game absence with a hamstring injury, hared past Mark Ellis to meet a ball up the line by Eden Gumbs, who had also returned to the starting line-up. The offside flag that halted Kenny’s charge towards goal couldn't possibly have referred to him, so perhaps it was Ryan Brooke who had ventured beyond the Chorley back line.
Runcorn blocks and clearances, and swift tackles, kept Bayleigh Passant’s goal protected, as did his punches and catches of high balls in the area, from crosses and a number of corners. But it allowed few opportunities to secure Runcorn possession.
If blanket defending was going to be effective, it would have to be flawless. Any space left at the back would be punished, and it was after 24 minutes.
David Moyo is a powerful presence in the air, and his header shortly after coming on as a substitute at the APEC had set up Jack Hazlehurst’s equaliser. His aerial threat was present from the start of the replay, and he was allowed plenty of room to meet Billy Whitehouse’s cross from the right, and to loop a header over Passant and into the net.
But the attack had come directly from an unpunished foul on Will Saxon, just inside the Runcorn half. Will had been repeatedly fouled on Saturday, with little disapproval from the referee, and he was eventually cautioned for his objections to the fact. He had more of the same to endure in the replay.
There was a promising chance for Jacques Welsh, who regained possession after being tackled, following a ball-winning double act by Gumbs and Doyle. Jacques’ first shot was blocked at close quarters, and a second tested Chorley ’keeper Matt Urwin’s dive, having taken a deflection.
After 32 minutes, Linnets were two down, and it was another unmarked header that did the damage. A free-kick from wide on the right resulted from a foul by Kenny Brown, and Harvey Smith faced no meaningful opposition as he headed home Hazlehurst’s cross.
Linnets were facing a mountain climb, but it appeared all the steeper, as decisions from the referee had to make them wonder what they had done to upset him.
As Saxon sprinted after a clearance over the halfway line, he was upended from behind, a good five yards from the ball. Linnets fans’ debate about the appropriate colour of a surely inevitable card was similarly stopped in its tracks, when referee Harry Jones waved play on.
Then as Chorley advanced from their own third of the pitch, Kenny Brown regained possession with a perfect shoulder charge on Ellis. Mr Jones called it a foul.
It appeared inevitable that this would be Linnets’ last game in the 2023-24 FA Cup, when Mr Jones awarded Chorley a penalty. When he blew the whistle on a melee inside the Runcorn area, Chorley players immediately protested that they had committed no offence.
They were as surprised as anyone, therefore, when he pointed to the spot. Perhaps Ryan Brooke was enlightened as to why, when the referee showed him a yellow card.
Carlton Ubaezuonu drove the ball home, right of centre, as Bayleigh Passant dived the other way, and Chorley fans started to key the coordinates for Curzon Ashton into Google Maps.
The inevitability of that trip loomed even larger, when Eden Gumbs broke away up the left and fired in a cross that was stopped by a defensive arm. No penalty was forthcoming.
As the second half commenced, there was a consensus among Linnets fans behind Urwin’s goal that they wanted to see their team coming towards them far more.
In the first game, sitting back in numbers had worked, to the point that Runcorn had led from the 45th minute to the 72nd, forcing Chorley to chase the game.
If this one wasn’t over as a contest, it would have to be a rollercoaster ride of Runcorn attacking, and it would serve no purpose at all to simply keep the score down.
Billy Paynter and his players appeared to agree, as the first five minutes of the half witnessed more raids on home territory than had been seen in the whole of the first half.
Will Saxon skinned Jack Moore up the right and drilled a cross through the six-yard box. Ryan Brooke attempted a cheeky backheel to foil Urwin at close quarters, but it lacked the power to wrongfoot the ’keeper.
Kenny Brown charged in from the left, beating two defenders on the way, but Urwin held on to his shot, and he had to do the same to prevent Eden Gumbs from converting from outside the area. The Chorley No.1 and captain was becoming loudly agitated that his teammates were leaving him with so much to do.
The officiating took its most bizarre turn of all after 52 minutes. Sam Barratt cut in from the right wing into the area and shot powerfully. Moore threw himself into the path of the ball, deflecting it with a thud at a 90-degree angle.
I scribbled a note about the prospects for the resulting corner, only to look up and see Urwin preparing to take a goal-kick. The decision may not have been a game changer, but it will forever remain a mystery.
Linnets attacking continued, as never before in the tie, and while Chorley continued to come forward as well, they were having to do so more on the break, and with limited time on the ball.
A cross from their right was headed wide beyond the far post by Moyo. Verdict: corner. Linnets fans’ objections were subsiding from loud advice proffered to the officials, to resigned head shaking.
After 63 minutes, Ryan Brooke gave way to Adam Moseley, while three Magpies were also substituted.
Two more Chorley corners ensued, one defended efficiently, and the other producing a shot off target.
Will Saxon had been fouled repeatedly through both games without consequence for Chorley, and when he was ruled to have fouled in front of the dugouts, his frustration earned him a yellow card for dissent.
He was saved from further punishment by anyone in black and white stripes, or all black, when he was replaced for the last 18 minutes by Max Woodcock.
Attacks ebbed and flowed both ways, until Levi Chiduku was given a first chance to impress for some time, stepping in for Kenny Brown after 77 minutes.
Bayleigh Passant had been playing through an impact injury sustained late in the first game, and we feared worse, after he dived fearlessly at the feet of Ubaezuonu before he could shoot from inside the area.
But Bayleigh got to his feet and soldiered on.
He played his part in resisting five minutes of consistent Chorley pressure, with clearances enabling Linnets to chase forward, determined to get something from the game.
A Sam Barratt cross arrived inches too early for Adam Moseley to connect, and Jacques Welsh traversed the 18-yard line from the left, but shot well high.
The final groans of the night for Runcorn fans followed the dismissal of Lewis Doyle, in the 90th minute.
He went in late on Joe Nolan in the centre circle, and among recriminations involving several players on both sides, Lewis showed physical aggression which I thought had attracted a straight red.
Relief was gained from confirmation that he had actually been shown two yellows, which meant he would miss the next league game against Stalybridge, but not the next two after that.
Linnets would play out five added minutes with ten men, and in rain that swept across the pitch in the blustery wind.
Neither factor prevented them from scoring the last, and best, goal of the night.
Levi Chiduku did have enough time to make his mark, weaving in from the left across the edge of the area, and passed right for Max Woodcock.
Max turned back inside Moore, and curled a perfectly-placed shot into the top left corner, for the second goal of his spell on loan from Crewe Alexandra.
Linnets kept attacking to the final whistle, which wasn’t long in coming, having regained plenty of respectability during an enterprising second half.
In his post-match interview with Linnets TV’s Sam Phillips, Billy Paynter said he was as pleased with his side’s performance after the break as he had been disappointed with it beforehand. He didn’t feel that the change in defensive formation had had a material bearing on the contrast.
Not a manager to use criticism of officials as a crutch, Billy did refer to some of the strange decisions detailed above, and added: ‘For an FA Cup tie, I’d rather lose the game where the opposition are better than us, and work for their goals’.
Speaking of crutches, a vacant forthcoming Saturday, due to Linnets’ absence from the next round of the Isuzu FA Trophy, will provide much-needed recuperation time for the wounded and the overworked.
The process of catching up on league fixtures will commence with the visit to the APEC Taxis Stadium of Stalybridge Celtic, on Saturday, September 30th.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Sam Barratt, Peter Wylie, Jacques Welsh, Harry Hagan, Antony Kay, Kenny Brown (Levi Chiduku, 77 mins), Lewis Doyle, Ryan Brooke (Adam Moseley, 63 mins), Will Saxon (Max Woodcock, 72 mins), Eden Gumbs. Substitutes not used: James Short, Josh Roberts (GK), Joe Lynch, Sean O’Mahony.