By David 'Bill' Davies
An early diversion from league action brought Stalybridge Celtic to the APEC Taxis Stadium, as Linnets took their first step on the long and potentially lucrative road to Wembley, in the Emirates FA Cup Preliminary Round.
A different competition, but the game provided an eerie echo of Tuesday night’s league encounter at City of Liverpool, with a tight stalemate to half-time, and Linnets getting the better of a five-goal second half. But it really shouldn’t have been as close as that at the death.
A three-goal Runcorn blitz between 50 and 55 minutes put them into the hat for the next round, but manager Billy Paynter was less than pleased with the way his side allowed the visitors back into the game with two ultra-late goals.
A new directive to referees, to add on every minute wasted, means it’s rarely over until it’s over, and teams with a lead in the closing minutes of games will have to work harder to make sure they get over the line.
In the early exchanges, Celtic were quicker to the ball, and achieved more possession, but the signs were that Linnets were responding to Billy’s demand, that they would have to be much sharper and better organised in defence than they had been against CoLFC.
Nine minutes had elapsed before the first attempt on goal, and it demanded a solid save by Bayleigh Passant from Max Harrop, who was looking like the main attacking threat from Stalybridge.
He also appeared to be prone to becoming prone whenever challenged, and that was a worry for Linnets fans, given that we also appeared to have a referee, who seemed no fan of physical contact.
It was the 15th minute when Linnets breached the Celtic area for the first time, via a one-two between Joe Lynch and Kenny Brown, but ’keeper Luke Hewitson cleaned up.
Both teams strove to get forward with the ball on the ground, but neither got very far, and chances remained sparse throughout the first half.
In the 21st minute, Linnets had their first of any consequence. A blocking challenge by Will Saxon allowed Lewis Doyle to take possession and slip a through-ball to Eden Gumbs.
Eden's inclusion was the only starting change from the win over City of Liverpool, replacing Levi Chiduku, as he had done when Levi limped off before half-time on Tuesday. It required an excellent point-blank save by Hewitson to maintain the stalemate.
From the resulting throw-in, Will Saxon troubled the ’keeper with a sweeping shot from the left, which curled wide on a wind that was thankfully much milder than had been forecast.
Chances at either end continued to be of the ‘half’ variety. Connor O’Grady intervened to bring a neat move between Saxon, Lynch and Gumbs to nothing. Bayleigh Passant held a shot from Aaron Dwyer’s solo run into the area. And Saxon and the defender marking him blocked the path of an on-target Kenny Brown header.
Seven minutes before the break, Celtic had their best attempt on goal so far, with a 25-yard free-kick from a shirt-pull on Dwyer, but Bayleigh caught it.
Joe Lynch skewed a shot on the break high and wide, and then collected the first of the game’s six yellow cards, apparently for dissent.
Eden Gumbs turned his marker Michael Brewster inside out after collecting a high ball from Sean O’Mahony, but the referee somehow identified a foul by the Runcorn No.9. Brewster falling over seemed to be enough to secure free-kicks from referee Mr Naisbett, so he fell over a lot.
The last minute of the first half saw both teams fire wide of a post. Celtic’s Jordan Burton evaded Jacques Welsh and Harry Hagan before shooting across the area and out.
Eden Gumbs battled his way through the Stalybridge defence, only to have his shot blocked at close range again, and Will Saxon curled the rebound past Hewitson, but a foot wide of the right post.
First-half excitement had been in short supply, but Linnets fans had to be satisfied with the fact they had not given Stalybridge the opportunity to squander chances as CoLFC had four days earlier.
They would also have hoped that their side would show more teeth going forward after the break, and those hopes were soon rewarded.
Linnets looked fired up as they began to attack the Clubhouse End, with Will Saxon the main instigator. He had the beating of Jake Kenny on a run inside from the left, but Mr Naisbett considered the slightest brush of one sock against another to be a foul.
In the 50th minute, Joe Lynch won the ball twice on the right flank before shrugging off a trip and setting up Harry Hagan to deliver a cross through the area. It glanced off a defensive head and fell perfectly for Saxon to poke the ball past Hewitson from inside the six-yard box for his first competitive Runcorn goal.
Will had established himself as a Linnets favourite almost as soon as he arrived from Kidsgrove in the summer, and he was handily placed to share the love with the fans behind the clubhouse goal.
Celtic had the chance of a quick riposte from an inevitable free-kick for a trip on Brewster, 35 yards from goal, but Sean O’Mahony cleared with a powerful header. Bayleigh held on to a follow-up cross into the Runcorn area.
Saxon laid off a clearance for James Short to play a great through ball to Eden Gumbs at the edge of the area. Eden employed his formidable physical presence to shrug off a shoulder charge by Connor O’Grady, leaving him one-on-one with Hewitson. He sidestepped the Celtic ’keeper, making his debut on loan from Liverpool, to turn deadlock into a 2-0 Linnets lead within three minutes.
It took only two minutes more for Linnets to leave Stalybridge FA Cup ambitions in tatters.
An overlapping move, again involving Hagan and Lynch, put the latter in possession at the right corner of the penalty area, and Joe unleashed a rocket which rattled the top left bin on its way into the net.
A frustrating stalemate had turned into a rout, in the space of just five minutes.
Celtic replaced Jordan Burton with Bruno Felipe, and Brandon Newell with Obua Mugalula, but you had to feel that the changes were a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.
That proved to be something other than the case, as Stalybridge ultimately rallied to great effect, but Linnets really should have put the tie beyond doubt long before the visitors reduced the deficit to 3-2 in added time.
Will Saxon was sent sprawling outside the Stalybridge area on the right, as he met Harry Hagan’s pass. James Short’s free-kick curled inches ahead of the runs into the area of Jacques Welsh and Antony Kay, and narrowly cleared the far post.
Greg Wilkinson received a yellow card which can only have been for dissent, as he was nowhere near the ball or anybody in yellow and green.
Joe Lynch gave way to Alex Perry after 64 minutes, having done enough to secure the man-of-the- match award, as the engine room of Linnets’ first-half battle, and scorer of a great goal to make it 3-0.
The game became gritty for a good 15 minutes. Jacques Welsh received attention for an elbow to the head that the referee clearly didn’t see, given that he restarted play with a drop-ball.
Will Saxon covered 40 yards in the time it took Jake Kenny to run 20, back towards his ’keeper, and Hewitson had to dive at Will’s feet to deflect a shot at the left post.
With 24 minutes remaining, a great shift by Eden Gumbs was ended when he gave way to Harvey Sample, who had impressed as a pre-season trialist and signed on dual registration from near neighbours Barnton.
Harvey might have scored with his first touch, if a great through ball from Alex Perry hadn’t passed a foot too far ahead of his charge into the area.
With 20 minutes remaining, Linnets had a great chance to put the tie to bed.
Kenny Brown won the ball wide on the right, and found Alex Perry in the middle of the Celtic half.
Alex placed a peach of a pass in front of James Short on the left, and he skinned Connor O’Grady to reach the goal line and cut inside. Kenny Brown opted for power in meeting Shorty’s cross, when a toe-poke would surely have found the net. Instead, his shot cleared the bar.
Never mind, thought the Murdishaw Massive. In the FA Cup, 3-0 will do as well as 4-0.
But there was to be no such comfort.
Adam Moseley replaced Lewis Doyle for the last 17 minutes, and he gave the left side of the Celtic defence much to think about. But to Billy Paynter’s displeasure, Linnets failed to control the remainder of the game.
The first Stalybridge attack of the second half came belatedly, after 74 minutes, when a corner on the left was headed out by James Short for another on the right. Antony Kay headed clear.
Much of the eventual eight added minutes resulted from the rapid distribution of yellow cards by Mr Naisbett.
Mugalula received one for a chop from behind on Jacques Welsh, who was cautioned himself for a late challenge on Harrop, just inside the Runcorn half.
Kenny Brown’s yellow card in the 81st minute was similar to that of Celtic’s Wilkinson. He can only have said something untoward.
Harvey Sample was an impressively physical presence in the Linnets front line, proving as difficult as Eden Gumbs to dispossess. But Runcorn didn’t do enough to capitalise, by winning and keeping possession.
Harvey was left wanting in the Celtic third of the pitch, as the visitors were allowed to take the ball too easily.
Celtic sub Felipe was next to be cautioned, for a clumsy lunge on Adam Moseley.
It was a day when Linnets should have taken satisfaction from not just a win, but also a well-earned clean sheet. But complacency was the cause of a first ray of hope for Stalybridge, in the final minute of normal time.
Runcorn ’keeper Passant pounded the turf in rage, after his defence fell asleep and allowed Mugalula, in acres of space in the middle of the penalty area, to convert from a long pass forward.
Linnets mounted two more attacks, during five minutes of added time that expanded to eight.
Harvey Sample needlessly collected the last of the game’s six yellow cards, by blocking a Celtic clearing free-kick from a yard away, rather than the statutory ten.
In the dying seconds of added time, a Linnets attack up the right was cleared, and the 3-1 lead was enough to convince the home side that there was no great urgency to regain possession in the middle third.
The resulting goal caused Bayleigh Passant to depart the arena in disgust after the final whistle, with a face like thunder.
But in all fairness, Stalybridge achieved the respectability of a 3-2 scoreline with a great finish.
Two passes from the halfway line to Aaron Dwyer, wide on the right, led to a on-two with Mugalula, and a control and shot into the top right corner by Dwyer which rivalled Joe Lynch’s as the goal of the game.
There wasn’t enough remaining time for Celtic to achieve a great escape, but Linnets had allowed the victory to be a much closer call than it should have been.
Billy Paynter’s post-match interview, with Linnets TV’s Sam Phillips, avoided the view that a win is a win, especially in the FA Cup, to make it clear that improvement was required, and demanded.
At the time of writing, I don’t know who Stalybridge Celtic voted as their man of the match, but my vote would go to their fans. They made all of the noise that could be heard during the first half, when their row was amplified by the Clubhouse End shed.
After the break, they were muted by the more open aspect of the Forest End cover, and a five-minute hiding.
But after the game, they never drew breath as they sang their hearts out for their team, regardless of the result, while investing in the Linnets bar.
In his post-match interview, Celtic boss James Kinsey insisted that his team put the outcome to one side, and show their appreciation for the fans on the way home. There’s a man who knows what’s important.
Linnets will await the excitement of Monday’s FA Cup draw, before assembling a day later for the home league encounter with Newcastle Town.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Harry Hagan, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Sean O’Mahony, Antony Kay, Will Saxon, Joe Lynch (Alex Perry, 64 mins), Eden Gumbs (Harvey Sample, 66 mins), Lewis Doyle (Adam Moseley, 73 mins), Kenny Brown. Substitutes not used: Peter Wylie, Josh Roberts (GK).