By David 'Bill' Davies
Runcorn Linnets regrouped for another attempt to reach the second qualifying round of the FA Cup, after a late Charnock Richard penalty on Saturday, saved by Bayleigh Passant, had been put away from the rebound to secure a 2-2 draw.
There was an additional incentive for the NWCFL Premier side to overcome their NPL West hosts, resulting from Monday’s draw for the next round. That teed up the prospect for them of a massive local derby at home to Chorley, of the National League North.
Before extra-time commenced, and after the final whistle, several people were to joke with me that the first 89 minutes had given me little or nothing to write about. I felt that was an unfair assessment of two teams that had provided a keenly- contested cup-tie that was worth every penny of a £10 note.
There was no lack of early attacking enterprise from the higher-ranked side. Runcorn enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but failed to break down a very well-organised and tireless opposition.
They limited numerous shots, by Eden Gumbs, Joe Lynch, Will Saxon, Lewis Doyle and Max Woodcock, to mostly low, muted efforts, saved at ground level in an excellent performance by Charnock’s former Runcorn Town ’keeper Connor Eastham.
And the Greens, who were Light Blues for the evening, had given Linnets plenty to think about in defence. The back four was a little makeshift, with Harry Hagan partnering Peter Wylie in the middle, due to sidelining injuries to Sean O’Mahony and Antony Kay. But together with full-backs Barratt and Short, and sterling defensive midfield contributions from Welsh and Doyle in particular, Linnets ran a much tighter ship behind the ball than they had done in the closing stages of Saturday’s first half.
Charnock Richard would surely look back on 210 minutes of hard work thinking that they should have put it to bed in the closing stages of the first half at Mossie Park, when they had squandered opportunities presented too easily by their visitors.
As it had been on Saturday, early Runcorn possession was concentrated on composed control and passing inside their own half. The defence bided their time in looking for opportunities to find Saxon, Gumbs and Woodcock in the Charnock third of the pitch.
They found them repeatedly, but never in space. Will and Max progressed up either wing, but were deprived of the time and room to cut inside or to deliver telling crosses, and the Charnock defence kept Eden in check and forced him to operate mostly outside the 18-yard line.
Connor Eastham was involved over and over throughout the first half, but he was rarely required to get airborne. Shots from every Linnets outfield player apart from Hagan and Wylie (who concentrated on frustrating Charnock clearances and runs on the break) were limited to grass-cutters through the narrowest of momentary gaps.
Linnets efforts above ground came from corners and occasional free-kicks. Once again, a sky blue barrage reduced those to hopeful long shots, all flying high and/or wide.
But this was no siege by the NPL side. Charnock attacks came from swift advances on the break, or from long balls towards the clubhouse end. The aptly-named Luke Power, who had rifled them into a half-time lead in the first game, was a palpable threat, and as a team, Linnets had to be vigilant to prevent recent history from being repeated.
Through the middle of the first half, Charnock won a succession of corners, reflecting a well-organised defensive performance in yellow and green. Bayleigh Passant caught and punched them to safety, and twice had to tip over the bar to prevent inswingers from finding their target.
Inside the Charnock area, Will Saxon and Eden Gumbs both tried to control crosses to tee up a controlled shot on goal, but they were not given the time to do so. Volleys might have failed, but also might have provided a spectacular opening goal.
As in the draw at Mossie Park, the replay was fiercely contested but offered little in the way of dangerous challenges or bouts of wrestling. Again, it was allowed to flow by a referee, who didn’t consider every physical contact to be a foul.
Mr Hussain’s patience was tested by Lewis Doyle, however, when he collected the first yellow card of the night, just before half-time, for a late challenge which halted Jordan Darr’s sprint up the right wing.
Charnock players were to receive the other four cautions of the night, which seemed a little harsh as none of the post-match handshakes will have been reluctant.
Early in the second half, a couple of moments of concern for the home fans emerged, when Lewis Haydock and Rustam Stepans were afforded generous space to pursue openings. But Welsh and Doyle resumed their efforts to fill the gaps in the home half, and the battle of attrition tightened once again.
In the 53rd minute, a Max Woodcock shot would have tested Eastham, but the merest of deflections steered it wide. The corner resulted in shots by Hagan, Lynch and Doyle, all of which were blocked by Charnock defending that was more reminiscent of headless chickens than anything witnessed in the preceding two and-a-half hours of the tie.
Runcorn possession in the opposition half was building noticeably, and it put Charnock under pressure which led to yellow cards for Aaron Griffith and Charles Duke.
But Runcorn chances were still limited, by defending that made it seem there were more than ten sky blue shirts on the pitch. Gumbs and Lynch managed shots from just inside the area, but both ran low into the waiting arms of Eastham yet again.
Adam Moseley came off the bench to replace Max Woodcock, and Adam’s pace and growing confidence on the ball threatened to unlock dogged Charnock defending, as it had done to put Linnets 2-1 ahead in the first game.
He was ironically aided by a spell of consistent Charnock pressure, including three corners in quick succession. Adam is never more impressive than when he takes on defenders at speed, on the break.
With less than 20 minutes remaining, he almost replicated his goal at Mossie Park. He beat three men at speed to cover 20 yards, and shot from a similar position, but this time he found the wrong side of the left post.
With 15 normal minutes to go, Eden Gumbs took a well-earned rest, Ryan Brooke his replacement for the eventual 45 minutes that followed.
Brooky reminded Linnets fans what they had been missing during his recent absence due to a persistent thigh strain.
Without underestimating the contribution of anybody in yellow and green, his renewed presence turned the tide, and the tie.
His impact wasn’t immediate, as Charnock Richard made the running via two corners following Bibby’s attack up the right. When Linnets broke away from Peter Wylie’s headed clearance, Luke Power earned the final yellow card, for hauling down Joe Lynch.
Brooke headed the free-kick into the area ahead of Lewis Doyle, who was flagged offside.
Jordan Darr gave way to Oliver Molloy, and the big No.14 was to prove the visitors’ most potent weapon for the remainder of the night.
The first bit of lazy Charnock defending in close to three hours allowed Adam Moseley to collect a loose ball outside their area. He passed right for Joe Lynch, whose shot was parried by Eastham. Brooke’s follow-up effort was blocked by Gibson.
Charnock returned to the attack, and two corners were frustrated by Passant and Wylie, respectively.
A great 25 minutes by Adam Moseley threatened to be decisive, when he picked up Jacques Welsh’s through ball, feinted past his marker and shot from 20 yards. Eastham was beaten, but the shot glanced off the top of the bar.
Charnock had a last-gasp effort of their own, when a long throw-in from the right was headed inches wide of the near post by Nathan Nickeas, and extra-time looked inevitable.
But as five minutes of added time commenced, Linnets appeared to have their place in the next round assured, when Ryan Brooke flicked the ball over the defence ahead of Sam Barratt’s run into the area. The right back was sent sprawling by a tackle from behind that might well have warranted a ‘last man’ red card.
That quickly seemed irrelevant, when Lewis Doyle found the bottom left corner with a spot-kick that would surely deliver a home encounter with Chorley.
Not quite so surely. Straight from the restart, Charnock sub Oliver Molloy broke away into the Linnets area, and was sandwiched in a misunderstanding between captain James Short and ’keeper Bayleigh Passant. Mr Hussein discussed the incident with his assistant, and exchanged words with James Short that suggested the Linnets captain had fouled Molloy.
Nickeas’ penalty found the bottom left corner, although Bayleigh dived the right way and made contact.
A 0-0 draw had been turned into a 1-1 draw, in less than a minute.
Extra-time followed, and ten minutes of it were spent with subs Brooke and Adam Moseley striving to turn home pressure into a winner, when the former reminded Runcorn fans what they had been missing.
Nobody wanted a penalty shoot-out, and both teams pursued a conclusion during the added half-hour.
Ten minutes into it, Brooky played catch-up for his recent absence, registering an early contender for the goal of the season shortlist.
With his back to goal, just outside the area, and defenders behind him, he pivoted on the spot, and volleyed Sam Barratt’s cross into the top right corner, giving Connor Eastham no chance.
After a solid performance all night from the rejigged Runcorn defence, Linnets started the second period of extra-time a little slowly. A loose moment around the penalty arc allowed a neat cross to be buried low by powerful sub Molloy, after 108 minutes.
Runcorn pressure resumed for most of the remaining twelve minutes, but the Charnock defence held firm, and the home side had to be vigilant to combat counter-attacks.
With a penalty shoot-out looming, Runcorn sub Levi Chiduku, who had replaced Will Saxon straight after the equaliser, completed a blistering 30-yard run with a shot on target that was deflected inches wide.
Two hours of football had already yielded four penalty kicks, and few Linnets in my vicinity wanted to witness any more. Brooky obliged them, heading home Lewis Doyle’s corner from the left, just inside the far post.
The goal was registered at 120 minutes, but as Charnock kicked off again, the referee could be heard announcing that ‘one minute and ten seconds’ were still to be played. Somebody, who might have been me, screamed ‘Don’t do it again!’ Linnets didn’t, and Moseley, Short and Lynch saw out most of the 70 seconds in possession inside the left touchline,
Victory ensured Runcorn will have their day as FA Cup underdogs, with the visit of Chorley on Saturday, September 16th.
Both sides were deservedly applauded from the pitch, after a superbly-contested two hours which turned from intense stalemate to breathtaking finale, in a gripping final 31 minutes.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Sam Barratt, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Harry Hagan, Peter Wylie, Will Saxon, Joe Lynch, Eden Gumbs (Ryan Brooke, 75 mins), Lewis Doyle, Max Woodcock (Adam Moseley, 63 mins). Substitutes not used: Antony Kay, Josh Roberts, Che Trapasso, Josh Elverstone.