21st October 2017, Team Northumbria v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-1By Dave Bettley
Michael Ellison came out of playing retirement for his first on-the-field appearance for 18 months to steer the Linnets' skeleton squad to a Buildbase FA Vase first round replay.
With suspensions, injuries and unavailability limiting the team to 12 players for selection, manager Ellison was forced to name himself, assistant Matt Cross and coach Danny Salt as substitutes.
Things weren't going to plan when the visitors promptly conceded to their hosts from the EBAC Northern League Division One – the league which has dominated this particular tournament in recent years.
A 10th-minute Scott Gunn goal followed by the loss midway through the first half of key striker Freddie Potter to a calf injury, left the Linnets up against it even more.
But after looking decidedly disjointed early on, largely due to the many enforced positional changes, Runcorn came out for the second half much more like themselves.
The Linnets soon saw strong penalty appeals for handball waved away but the referee then had no hesitation in pointing to the spot in the 65th minute.
Paul Shanley was sent sprawling by 'keeper Stefan Holden's challenge, after picking up Moore's expansive pass from defence to drive into the area.
However, Stuart Wellstead's initial attempt, not the worst penalty, was kept out by Holden – so too, equally agonisingly for the visitors, was Mitch Bryant's follow-up effort.
It continued to look as though it would be another case of so near, but yet so far in the North East – after Runcorn's 2-1 exit this time last year to the eventual winners, South Shields.
But in tough conditions, heavy rain adding to a very blustery wind, Linnets kept going - despite further near misses - to grab a thoroughly merited 76th-minute equaliser.
Sub Adam Jones' searching pass was picked up by Danny O'Brien, who wrongfooted a defender by turning inside the box to play a clever ball behind the North rearguard.
Wellstead fastened onto it and although his shot was blocked at the near post by the kind of last-ditch defending which was prevalent all afternoon, at both ends of the field, Mark Houghton was on hand to bundle the ball across the line.
Both sides looked tired – actually, more like out on their feet - in extra time, for which Ellison had introduced himself as Matt Atherton joined the casualty list after succumbing to a knock taken earlier.
But Paul Shanley, still fresh enough to produce a terrific burst of speed down the wing in the dying seconds, had come closest to snatching a winner in the second extra period.
A well-worked exchange of passes between Ellison and Bryant led to Shanley being set up to let fly from outside the box. But Holden leapt to spectacularly retain his side's interest in the competition, which has its final at Wembley.
As well as the Linnets played from the second half onwards, the standout feature of this performance was their sheer determination from the outset with backs to the wall.
Talk about putting their bodies on the line - Chris Lawton, newly re-signed from Northwich Vics, collided with a post when going for goal just before the interval in normal time.
His central defensive partner Jimmy Moore, likewise outstanding, was then hurt in making a match-saving block from a Harry Simpson header with virtually the last touch of the '90 minutes' (the game was by then deep into stoppage time).
Moore needed lengthy treatment while his team-mates prepared for the additional half hour in which Runcorn had a 'goal' disallowed.
Michael Simpson was, as the only recognised midfield player in their line-up, the driving force of Runcorn's recovery.
When Simmo's 115th-minute shot was saved, Wellstead turned away gleefully after tucking away the rebound but Runcorn's celebrations were cut short by a contentious offside flag against the 'scorer'.
With 'keeper Matt Holmes attending a wedding, Terry Smith had reclaimed the gloves but even his continued involvement looked in serious doubt early in the piece.
He damaged a hand in turning over a swerving first-half free-kick but physio Gemma Mooney's expert use of the proverbial 'magic sponge' meant the hometown player was eventually able to continue.
Smith went on to play his part in the earning of the replay with excellent saves at either end of he pitch - a full-length stop from a long-range strike, not long before Runcorn's leveller, and early in extra time a block with two North players bearing down on him.
After more than two hours of football in atrocious weather had failed to separate them, both sets of players were rightly applauded off the field by the sparse crowd (largely dominated by away followers) in the knowledge they will have another chance to progress this Tuesday, October 24th.
The replay, at The Millbank Linnets Stadium, kicks off at 7.45pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Terry Smith, Matt Atherton, Chris Lawton, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Michael Simpson, Paul Shanley, Stuart Wellstead, Freddie Potter, Mitch Bryant, Mark Houghton (capt). Subs: Adam Jones, Michael Ellison. Not used: Matt Cross, Danny Salt.
PS: Note to Left Side Ultras – when we said you had to take your shirts off to our lads for their efforts, we didn't mean literally!!
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.