By David 'Bill' Davies
Witton Albion made the short journey to the APEC Taxis Stadium for the second time in twelve days, for the first qualifying round of the Isuzu FA Trophy.
They would be determined to improve upon a 2-4 defeat on August Bank Holiday Monday, when they succumbed to Linnets’ most impressive performance of the season so far.
In the meantime, Runcorn enthusiasm for cup football had been boosted by advancing in the FA Cup with a 120th-minute replay winner over Charnock Richard, while Witton had stepped off that particular road to Wembley with a 1-2 reverse at Lancaster City.
Ryan Brooke had been Linnets’ talisman in midweek, returning from injury as a second-half substitute, with a brace of goals in extra-time.
With his journey back to full fitness not yet complete, Brooky started the afternoon on the bench again.
The only change from Tuesday’s starting line-up was the inclusion of Adam Moseley, the 18-year-old home grown frontrunner celebrating becoming the youngest ever Linnets contract player.
Will Saxon took to the bench to make way for him.
The cup-tie was to offer far less excitement than that recent league encounter. Dour rather than dire, blistering entertainment was perhaps limited by 27-degree heat, with little or no breeze to ease the energy-sapping conditions.
The biggest difference in the two games was a far better defensive performance from Witton this time around.
FA Trophy ties go straight to penalties if scores are level at full-time.
Witton took their place in the next round with four coversions from their five spot-kicks, while Eden Gumbs and James Short failed to find the net for Linnets.
The game resembled a sweaty pre-season affair, with regular drinks breaks required.
Rehydration was never a problem during this year’s actual pre-season, with most of Linnets’ six friendlies being played in torrential rain.
The game started with a new signing for Witton making his mark on the left. Jack Sherratt, latterly of Nantwich Town, kept Sam Barratt and Harry Hagan busy from the off, working with Connor Hughes and Lee Jackson to find a way through, but none was permitted.
The first shot in anger came from James Short, after Jacques Welsh’s crossfield pass, on seven minutes. From 30 yards out, it curled through the area, and wide of the far post.
Connor Hughes had the first chance to put Witton ahead, but Welsh, Hagan and Barratt all tracked back fast enough to prevent him from testing Bayleigh Passant.
Both sides were probing forward, via passing moves through the middle third, but Witton were closing down their opponents more effectively than on their earlier visit, and it resulted in their securing more possession.
None of the 663 spectators present would have fancied tearing around in the sapping heat, and it was hardly surprising that the first half unfolded at a somewhat turgid pace.
Passant was called into service for the first time in the 17th minute, to collect the ball at the foot of a post, when Joe Duckworth had been allowed the space for a free header, but it lacked power.
The weather wasn’t yet capable of blunting Adam Moseley’s pace, and he turned on his heels at the left touchline to leave Mike Koral in his wake. Adam covered 30 yards quickly to reach the penalty area, but was outnumbered when he got there.
Another Connor Hughes run into the Linnets half was terminated by a tackle from behind, which earned Sam Barratt one of the day’s two yellow cards.
Referee Barry Lamb saw a foul in a high 50-50 challenge between James Short and Kingsley Williams, on the edge of the penalty arc. It was fortunate for Linnets that Mr Lamb intervened with a very prompt whistle, because Witton surged forward and found the net. Had advantage been played for a couple of seconds, Albion would surely have been 1-0 up.
The free-kick was fired over the top left angle, comfortably enough that Bayleigh Passant stood his ground and watched it fly over.
Witton had been applying the bulk of the pressure, when a first drinks break was called. Play recommenced with a one-two up the left wing between Sherratt and Jackson, which produced a cross from which Duckworth headed over the bar.
James Short responded at the other end, with a fine through ball for Adam Moseley. He ran on to send in a cross through the six-yard box, but Albion ’keeper Harry Wright dropped on it before Max Woodcock could connect.
Passant came to the rescue when Peter Wylie deflected a ball back through the area, getting a vital glove on the ball to divert it for a corner, with Duckworth running through unmarked.
Short was on the break into the Albion half, but the referee brought the ball back because of ‘afters’ between Lewis Doyle and James Lawrie, whose 50-50 clash had put Shorty in the clear.
Linnets were again a little fortunate, when Koral shot high, having been given more than enough time and space to get a shot on target.
Jacques Welsh was next to shoot well high, from a pass resulting from neat work by Barratt and Woodcock on the right.
Sam Barratt was tripped by Jackson after beating him to the ball to break into the Albion half.
The Witton player probably expected a yellow card, but Mr Lamb waved play on, as Max Woodcock kept possession.
His cross was held by Wright, and the referee didn’t see fit to punish Jackson retrospectively.
As the first half drew to a close, Adam Moseley steadied himself to shoot well from wide on the left, drawing a first proper save from Wright, inside the far post, with Woodcock poised to pounce.
During the briefest of added time, Sherratt was favourite in a chase with Sam Barratt for a through ball into the Runcorn area.
Linnets fans were glad of Mr Lamb’s status as an ‘old school’ referee, when he deemed Barratt’s shoulder-to-shoulder challenge legal.
It certainly was, but like the obstruction law, most referees seem to have consigned it to history.
Linnets had enjoyed a good last five minutes before the break, in a poor half in which they would have to accept they had been second best.
The first ten minutes of the second half offered little that was new. Both sides pressed as best they could, Witton chiefly up the left hand side, and Linnets with balls from deep across the front of the penalty area. But defences continued to prevail.
A good James Short run delivered a ball that was flicked on by the head of Eden Gumbs, and then into the arms of Wright, by Max Woodcock. And Joe Lynch sliced a shot wide from Moseley’s run and pass into the middle.
Duckworth wasted an opportunity on the break, with a ball out to the left, when Lawrie was in acres of more promising space on the right.
After 56 minutes, Billy Paynter threw all three of the dice in his pocket. The Runcorn dugout resembled a busy bus stop, as Sean O’Mahony, Ryan Brooke and Will Saxon queued up to take part, and Hagan, Doyle and Woodcock took a seat.
Before any of the three subs had touched the ball, Witton passed up another solid opportunity. Mike Koral was again given too much time and space, but hooked a shot wide as though he had been under much more pressure.
Linnets hit back through Saxon, Welsh and Lynch, but were dispossessed outside the area. When Lawrie ran free from the clearance, Peter Wylie’s intervention was timely.
Will Saxon was bound to cause problems, on fresh legs, with Linnets on the break.
Jackson collected the second and last yellow card of the game, for an assassin’s approach to preventing Will’s sprint from the halfway line, with no Albion rearguard ahead of him.
With 25 minutes remaining, Linnets had their best chance of the afternoon, when Harry Wright came to his side’s rescue twice in as many seconds.
Shorty’s free-kick into the area found Eden Gumbs. His turn and shot drew a great diving save from Wright, and with the ’keeper prone, Will Saxon seemed sure to bury the rebound. But Wright got a touch on it again, and the ball diverted on to the right post.
Linnets’ luck was out, as the ball spun away outside the post rather than inside it.
It seemed that the spirits were not aligned in Runcorn’s favour, when two minutes later, Linnets attacked five against four from halfway. Adam Moseley looked favourite to collect a pass from Jacques Welsh into ample space on the left, but Jacques decided that with defenders preoccupied with his passing options, a solo effort was his best bet. His shot from 18 yards was easy enough for Wright to keep out.
Linnets were to see very few chances thereafter.
Witton attacked consistently for the best part of ten minutes, winning three corners which were cleared and blocked by O’Mahony and Wylie and deflected away, off the back of Joe Lynch.
A second drinks break since half-time also allowed breath to be taken, and the last 15 minutes of the game saw a visible slowing of the pace, with all but the three Runcorn substitutes looking understandably fatigued.
It was no coincidence that remaining attempts by both sides flew high, with heat-induced tiredness making it harder to keep heads in front of feet.
Witton boss Jon Macken might have been keeping his own substitutions at bay with a late smash-and-grab in mind. He replaced Lee Jackson with Oli Roberts after 75 minutes, but waited until five minutes from time to bring on Harry Cain and Elliot Rokka, for Connor Hughes and new man Jack Sherratt.
If there was a tactical masterstroke, it lay in making Rokka available to take the final penalty of the eventual shoot-out.
James Lawrie succeeded in convincing the referee he had been fouled by Adam Moseley, when Adam was in possession in the area, and Lawrie tripped over his heels.
Peter Wylie did well to charge down Sherratt’s shot, when he was allowed space to take aim from outside the area, and Linnets had a free-kick when Jacques Welsh’s heels were clipped on the run. Ryan Brooke’s kick cannoned off the defensive wall for a corner.
Another free-kick resulted from Harrison’s arm to the back of Brooke’s head, as he rose to meet Wylie’s clearance. Brooky headed back Short’s free-kick, and Moseley looped a shot over the bar.
Elliot Rokka was next to shoot high, when he had a free run at goal, but he was flagged offside anyway.
Brooke and Koral took mutual exception to a 50-50 challenge as they met O’Mahony’s clearance. The even nature of the punch-up probably saved both of them from at least a yellow card, but Brooky was probably more fortunate to escape punishment, given his frank exchange of views with the referee.
Mr Lamb added only two minutes, despite the fact that drinks breaks and substitutions had totalled at least six.
Two visibly exhausted teams gave everything they had left, to a final whistle that registered a possibly inevitable 0-0 draw. If it had been a league game, you would have to say that a point apiece was a fair result. But this wasn’t a league game.
Penalties are loved and hated in equal measure. Like a fair-to-middling poker hand, they are great when you win, and a pig when you lose.
The shoot-out started ‘advantage Witton’ as they won the toss and chose the Forest End. Ryan Brooke got Linnets off the mark with only Albion fans behind the goal, but they failed to discourage him, and he fired down the middle as Wright dived to his left.
Joe Duckworth levelled, high to his left, as Passant dived the right way, but couldn’t get to it.
There were many more Linnets fans behind the goal by the time Sean O’Mahony finished like a striker, with a confident drive into the right corner.
Kingsley Williams converted an almost identical penalty to Duckworth’s.
Eden Gumbs was next for Runcorn, and he opted for power over placement. Wright saved with a boot, as he dived left.
Ben Harrison put Albion ahead with an excellent strike into the top right corner.
Wright got close to Peter Wylie’s kick, but the Linnets centre-half placed it out of reach, just inside the left post.
Stalemate was restored when Bayleigh Passant made a great diving save from a perfectly decent effort by Cameron Fogerty.
But parity didn’t last long. James Short shot low, and wide of the right post.
Witton sub Elliot Rokka put his side through to the next round with a stylish roll into the bottom right corner, having spied Bayleigh’s departure the other way. And Albion were in the hat for the next round.
A return to NPL West action will have to wait for Linnets, as a big FA Cup occasion beckons with the visit next Saturday to the APEC of National League North’s Chorley, in the Second Qualifying Round. Fingers are crossed for more key returns from injury.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Sam Barratt, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Harry Hagan (Sean O’Mahony, 56 mins), Peter Wylie, Adam Moseley, Joe Lynch, Eden Gumbs, Lewis Doyle (Ryan Brooke, 56 mins), Max Woodcock (Will Saxon, 56 mins). Substitute (not used): Levi Chiduku.
Will Saxon crosses into the middle for Linnets. (Picture: Neil Thornton).