By David 'Bill' Davies
Linnets had needed a replay to get past Charnock Richard to make the Emirates FA Cup Second Qualifying Round, and they face another after bridging the two-division gap between themselves and National League North outfit Chorley with a superb performance.
Such a contrast in league status is invariably revealed in physicality and fitness. Sheer hard work was going to be required to keep Runcorn on equal terms with their visitors, not least with a squad dogged by numerous injuries, and a hectic playing schedule since the start of the season.
Heroic effort applied throughout the Linnets team was ultimately instrumental in achieving a second go in Lancashire on Tuesday night, and the 1-1 draw was built on a rousing end to the first half, culminating in a great 45th-minute goal by Will Saxon.
While they had chances after the break, going through at the first attempt would have depended on Linnets keeping the doors locked against consistent possession and attacking intent by the Magpies.
With the hosts producing a tremendous and tireless defensive performance, Jack Hazlehurst’s 72nd-minute equaliser came from one of very few clear-cut Chorley opportunities - despite their domination of the ball.
Chorley took charge of possession early in the game, as might have been expected. After two low drives from distance had been gathered by Bayleigh Passant in the Runcorn goal, he also punched a first corner across the area, despite being held down, and Sean O’Mahony cleared up with a sharp tackle on Carlton Ubaezuono.
Will Saxon twice broke away dynamically up the right. He was fouled twice, but referee Jack Hall saw nothing wrong with the second, and more obvious, chop from behind.
Will quickly found he would have to get used to that, and after 15 minutes he was warned for dissent, as his frustration rose at fouls being waved away.
Will appeared to have been identified by Chorley as a serious threat, and there would be many more unpunished fouls on him before Mr Hall cautioned the Runcorn wide man for his objections, just before he was subbed by Eden Gumbs, 20 minutes from time.
Saxon and Moseley provided most of Linnets' forays into the Chorley half during the first half-hour, which was taken up mostly with the visitors holding and passing the ball around the halfway line, as they probed for opportunities at the Clubhouse End.
Passant pulled off the first in a number of great saves, stopping Johnson’s shot inside the right post, when he met Ellis’s flick-on from a corner on the left.
Jacques Welsh took a moment out from sterling defensive work to sprint 35 yards on the ball, into the Chorley area. A shot five yards from the end of it might have brought a spectacular opening goal, but Jacques took several strides too far, and was finally dispossessed by a combination of Moore and Calveley.
Mark Ellis was warned after a hefty tackle on Ryan Brooke, resulting in a free-kick which was cleared, and then Chorley had two free-kicks of their own, one from either flank, which were cleared from the area by Antony Kay and Sean O’Mahony.
O’Mahony chased a Lewis Doyle free-kick into the area at the other end, and despite being manhandled by Scott Wilson to prevent him from reaching it, he was ruled offside.
Ryan Brooke also broke past Ellis to close in on goal, but he was adjudged to have pushed his marker in the back.
The next Chorley free-kick from inside the Runcorn third was driven painfully into the face of Will Saxon, who was half of a two-man wall.
Defences were getting the better of attacks at both ends of the pitch, but Linnets were showing real attacking promise during the last 15 minutes of the first half, and they looked nothing like a team punching above their weight from two divisions beneath.
Adam Moseley battled his way through three attempted tackles, and chipped the ball into the area, where Brooke and Lynch were outnumbered two to one.
Gaps for Runcorn attempts on goal were always going to be in short supply, and despite growing home possession, Magpies were just a fraction quicker into the challenge, and to loose balls, than Linnets.
Ryan Brooke fired powerfully but high, after a neat triangular move between Saxon, Lynch and Moseley. Then Saxon and Barratt swapped passes, before Sam nutmegged Justin Johnson and flashed a shot across goal which cleared the far post.
Chorley were feeling the pressure, illustrated by a growing readiness to hit the floor at every contest for the ball, no doubt encouraged by the referee awarding them free-kicks seemingly every time.
Passant thwarted the last Chorley attack of the first half, holding on to a header inside the right post, from a corner on the left.
From the clearance, Saxon closed in on the area, with Moore in front of him. He attempted a chip over the ’keeper, but it was just low enough for Urwin to hold on to it.
Linnets fans were preparing to accept that a goalless first half had been well earned, when a corner on the left, their side’s first of the day, led to the opening goal.
After contact by the head of Ryan Brooke, the ball was repelled to the edge of the area, from where Will Saxon placed a beautifully- measured shot across Urwin and his defence, and inside the foot of the left post.
It was a fitting end to a great first half from the Runcorn wide man, and just reward for a frustrating 45 minutes in which he had been kicked black and blue by the opposition, but his treatment had met with far less disapproval from the referee than had his complaints about it.
The early exchanges of the second half showed no signs of any Runcorn intention to sit back and protect their lead.
Jacques Welsh had spent most of a tireless central midfield display, which eventually secured him the man-of-the-match award, inside his own half.
But he and Lewis Doyle were now making more moves into opposition territory.
They set up attacks up on both wings, by Saxon and Barratt on the right and Moseley and Wylie on the left. A promising cross from the right was narrowly too high for the leaps of Brooke and Moseley.
Saxon played a through ball for Joe Lynch, who shot over the top left angle when a low strike might have emulated Saxon’s goal just before the break.
But Linnets were never likely to dominate the half, against a side, who were very confident on the ball and unlikely to be panicked by being a goal behind.
The Runcorn defence remained resolute, but their efforts were not aided by the painful collapse of Sean O’Mahony.
He suffered a relapse of his recent ankle injury when landing awkwardly at the right edge of his own penalty area.
Peter Wylie moved into the centre-back role he had filled impressively during Sean’s recent absence, while club captain James Short came on to take over at left-back.
Chorley continued to play out from the back in possession, as they had during the first half-hour, and everybody in yellow and green resumed their roles of closing down and challenging quickly.
It was a much more effective response to quality opposition, than backing off and trying to close gaps.
Stats quoted after the game credited Chorley with 16 shots on target, to Runcorn’s five. Statistics clearly can mislead, because Bayleigh Passant made half a dozen fine saves, but anything else ‘on target’ had any number of Linnets players in the way, resulting in hardly any ‘near things’.
Ellis headed wide, and Johnson shot high, but everything else, including three attempted shots within 30 seconds, never looked like calling Passant into action.
The standout exception came after 72 minutes. David Moyo, who had replaced Ollie Shenton five minutes earlier, headed down into the penalty area, where three Chorley players were, for once, unmarked.
It was Jack Hazlehurst, a diminutive but sharp thorn in Runcorn sides during several seasons at City of Liverpool, who had time to drill a low shot past Passant, to level the tie.
Johnson received the game’s second yellow card, for a late tackle on Lewis Doyle on the halfway line. The decision drew ironic cheers from the Murdishaw Massive, who had been led to believe that free-kicks were reserved for the men in black and white.
Normal service resumed when Eden Gumbs, who had replaced Will Saxon moments before the Chorley equaliser, broke through to the edge of the visitors’ area, only to be hauled back by both elbows. It was the Runcorn substitute, who was penalised.
Billy Paynter made another change, withdrawing Adam Moseley for Max Woodcock, with 15 minutes remaining. At the same time, Chorley replaced Ubaezuonu with Louis Britton.
Injury worries mounted for Linnets when Bayleigh Passant went down from a collision, as he dived for a cross that was cut out en route by the head of Peter Wylie. Peter had to aid Bayleigh further by taking goal kicks for the remainder of the game.
Bayleigh’s vulnerability raised concerns for Linnets, as Chorley set out to exploit it, and to capitalise on their domination of possession in the later stages.
But Runcorn defended as a team to great effect, and Bayleigh still came to the rescue three more times. He held on to Johnson’s shot from wide on the left, likewise Britton’s effort from a Whitehouse cross, and made a brilliant diving tip over the bar from an Ellis header.
Jacques Welsh managed a header of his own at the other end, racing in from the left to meet a free-kick, but it cleared the bar from a tight angle.
The closing minutes were taken up almost entirely with Chorley possession and pressure, but Runcorn held firm and refused to give an inch. They had to be exhausted from their endeavours, and we wondered whether they could maintain their resolve through six added minutes.
But they did while still forcing the Chorley defence to remain vigilant.
Eden Gumbs and Ryan Brooke both mounted solo raids in the Chorley third of the pitch, and Max Woodcock beat his marker to launch two crosses from the right.
Joe Lynch ran on to the second, and was sent sprawling by a tackle from behind, just outside the penalty area.
A free-kick from there might have promised a famous last-gasp Linnets winner, but the decision didn't come.
A tremendously gutsy and committed performance by the men from the NPL West had earned a Tuesday night trip up the M6 to Chorley.
Neither manager wanted yet another fixture, but neither wanted to step off the road to Wembley either.
Bayleigh Passant was limping after the game, which might present a key problem for Billy Paynter as he assesses the match fitness of the available squad for the replay.
A bonus was that Antony Kay reported no ill effects, after putting in a general’s performance at the back on his return from a calf strain.
The walking wounded, and the otherwise fatigued, will at least be able to focus on another Herculean effort in three days’ time, in the knowledge that they will have a Saturday off on the 23rd, after their exit from the Isuzu FA Trophy.
In the meantime, they have the excitement of being in the hat for Monday’s FA Cup draw.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Sam Barratt, Peter Wylie, Jacques Welsh, Sean O’Mahony (James Short 55), Antony Kay, Will Saxon (Eden Gumbs 70), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Lewis Doyle, Adam Moseley (Max Woodcock 76). Substitutes not used: Harry Hagan, Levi Chiduku, Kenny Brown.