29th October 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Pontefract Collieries FC : 5-3 Sponsored by Runcorn Linnets Supporters Group
Two days of sunshine enabled this game to go ahead on an excellent pitch. It had benefited from almost a month of away fixtures, but like so many others on Saturday, when this tie was due to take place, it had been submerged after 48 hours of torrential rain.
Kick-off was preceded by a minute's applause in memory of Runcorn stalwart fan Len Fagan, who had sadly passed away since the last home game. I can hear the growls Len would have offered in response to his team's performance in the middle of the first half.
Runcorn started with a determination to beat Ponte at the third time of asking, but after taking an early lead from the most unusual of penalties, Linnets had far too little possession through the rest of the first half to be able to consolidate.
An all-too-customary failure to defend corners left the hosts perhaps fortunate to go in level at half-time.
The second half took on a very different complexion, as Linnets' boss Michael Ellison had apparently suggested his team get a grip on possession and make the most of a surface possibly rivalled only by that of Trafford's Shawe View, where in their last game seventeen days earlier they had produced their best performance of the season, to win 3-0 in the previous round.
Pontefract were forced to make last-minute line-up changes, and name only three substitutes, after some players were delayed by traffic problems on the M62 (a scenario familiar to Linnets fans from consecutive Tuesday night jaunts to Yorkshire in recent weeks).
Worse afflicted were Pickering Town. The winners of their rearranged game at Prescot Cables would visit the winners of this one, and after the final whistle at The Millbank, the game up the road in Knowsley had been so severely delayed, it was just entering the second half.
In the away league game on 5th October, kicked off two minutes early, Pontefract had been gifted a goal before the clock had reached 3pm. History almost repeated itself here, as in the first minute a Ponte break down the right allowed an unchallenged cross by James Baxendale to set up Joe Lumsden to fire over the bar.
Runcorn settled after that let-off, and Zac Aley's header from an early corner was blocked by the arm of defender Jack Greenhough. Whether it was due to the lack of VAR, or the memo about the changed handball law failing to arrive, no penalty ensued.
Referee Mr Hussain is not averse to awarding penalties to Linnets, though, having done so twice in as many late minutes in the freakish 4-4 draw at Clitheroe.
This game was only 12 minutes old when he obliged with another, in bizarre circumstances, as Spencer Clarke attempted to shield the ball out of play for a goal-kick. For those of us who dislike this ubiquitous 'skill', remembering the days when it was known as 'obstruction', it was a joy to see it go wrong for a change.
As the ball trickled interminably to the line, Paul Shanley attempted to reach it, and got a toe on it. Clarke felt this might be deemed a foul, and fell to the floor - handling the ball in the process.
Mr Hussein pointed to the spot, causing half a dozen Pontefract players to surround him with protracted protestations. He consulted his assistant, who was on the far side of the pitch from the incident, obscured by the goal and big Ponte 'keeper Seb Malkowski, with a far inferior view of proceedings to that of the referee. The man with the flag may or may not have said "I dunno, I was over here, obscured by the goal and a big 'keeper, with a far inferior view to yours".
In any event, Kurt Sherlock coolly dispatched the penalty into the bottom left corner, as he had done twice at Clitheroe.
So Linnets had an early lead this time, but it didn't last. Less than 20 minutes later it was 1-2, after barely defended corners from right and left.
The first was taken short and smashed in by Lumsden from a tight angle after 16 minutes, the other a free header at the far post by Spencer Clarke on 24, making amends for his 'shielding' blunder.
Pontefract were playing their customary hard and fast game, forceful of challenge and clearance, as Ello had said they would. He had watched them at Widnes the previous week, after the mysterious late postponement of his team's long trip to Workington, and said: "There weren't any surprises to suggest they will change in any way - nor should they. As the league table shows, it's working".
It was working again through most of the first half, and Runcorn allowed it to work. Long, high balls to wide men Baxendale and Rothery found them in acres of space, and they were repeatedly given time to cross into the box or pass across the Linnets final third to Lumsden and Redford.
Set pieces aside, damage was limited by the Runcorn defence doing a far better job of limiting the available space for shots, and blocking those that were attempted.
Everything that did find its way towards goal was comfortably scooped up by the gloves of Bayleigh Passant.
Between the two successful corners, Ellison had made an early tactical switch after only 21 minutes, bringing on Ryan Wade for his namesake Gibson, to hold and distribute the ball more centrally in the visitors' half.
A couple of promising attacking moves did result. On 25 minutes, quick passes under pressure on the right by Brown and Wade made an opening for Sherlock, but his dipping shot cleared the crossbar.
Two minutes later, a ball across the 18-yard line from the left by Aley was chased by Sherlock. Shouts for another penalty, as Connor Smythe manhandled the Runcorn No9, left the referee unmoved.
Just after the half-hour mark the first of eight yellow cards was brandished (seven of them for Pontefract, and three of those for occupants of the dugout), when Jack Greenhough felled Louis Corrigan from behind on the halfway line.
The crack echoed around the ground, followed by fruitless demands for a red.
In added time of the first half, another unorthodox goal levelled proceedings. Shanley, Sherlock, Wade and Brown all had bites at the ball wide right under pressure from massed ranks of blue andwhite, and when it came inside to Tom Owens, he took a dipping low shot from 18 yards.
It might have gone wide, or might have been covered by the 'keeper, but instead it bounced off the shoulder blades of Connor Smythe, lying prone eight yards out, and into the net.
The second half started with more possession on the ground by the men in yellow and green, and it made a big difference.
Two minutes in, a Shanley cross from the right was parried by Malkowski and ricocheted off the back of Ryan Wade six yards out. Peter Wylie nipped in to slip the ball inside the post, but he was offside.
Greater intent from the home side was rewarded after 55 minutes. Paul Shanley, a new threat to Ponte as he had been on the injured list for the recent league game, was fouled for the umpteenth time, on the left touchline.
Louis Corrigan looped the free kick across a crowded six-yard box, where Wylie evaded his marker and calmly poked Runcorn into a 3-2 lead.
Shortly afterwards, tit-for-tat niggles in front of the dugouts resulted in massed pushing and shoving, but no cards. On the hour mark Paul Shanley did collect a yellow for a late challenge in the same place, the Pontefract dugout outdoing him by picking up two, having ignored previous warnings about verbal abuse.
Ten minutes later, yet another foul on the Runcorn No10 brought a free-kick, and Spencer Clarke saw yellow, for kicking the ball away. Not just a pointless caution, but also an odd tactic when 3-2 down with 20 minutes to play.
Jamie Williams emulated him two minutes later, scything down Shanley with a challenge that could easily have attracted red.
Late in the game, Runcorn's attacking endeavours outnumbered those of the visitors. Rothery did break free of the home rearguard on the right, but blazed a shot/cross well wide of the far post.
Pontefract pressure repeatedly led to dangerous breaks sparked by a spirited Runcorn defence, and Shanley and Sherlock were both set off on offensive runs from just inside the Ponte half that were halted by offside flags.
With six minutes left, Sherlock was replaced by Declan McGivern, to bolster resistance and to add height against the expected aerial onslaught.
With three minutes of normal time remaining, another strange goal materialised. "Foul throw" is a cry frequently heard but rarely rewarded, but it was when Pontefract substitute Jameel Ible took one in his own third with a foot on the pitch.
Louis Corrigan threw legally to Ryan Wade, who turned and lashed a powerful ball across the penalty area, where Zac Aley beat his marker and powered a sublime header behind the rooted Malkowski into the far corner. If it wasn't his team's best goal of the season, it was certainly the best headed one.
The Runcorn faithful were still smiling about that when Paul Shanley almost topped off a superb performance by beating two defenders twice each to turn and unleash a shot which brought off a point-blank save from Malkowski.
Ryan Wade was less impressed, demanding to know why Shan hadn't crossed it to him, unmarked six yards from the far post.
The game was up, but it wasn't. Attacking rather than winding down the clock, Josh Dobie was fouled just outside the area. Ponte's Jamie Williams, already booked for dissent, saw fit to 'help' Dobie to his feet by his hair. Mr Hussein didn't see it, and decided not to act on any of the recriminations either.
There were consequences, however. After the defensive wall had eventually been marched back from six yards to the required ten, Louis Corrigan did what Louis Corrigan does, lashing the free-kick into the top right corner. Seb Malkowski still hasn't seen it.
Runcorn stopped defending in the dying moments, and everyone in blue appeared to be sharing the home penalty area with Bayleigh Passant when somebody or other reduced the deficit to 5-3, with the last kick of the game.
It was like Murder on the Orient Express. Your correspondent feels vindicated in not specifying the perpetrator, as the internet also identified the scorer as 'Unknown'. They were spoiled for choice.
Two special mentions are required. Firstly, the referee. Heaven forbid we would ever agree with all of his decisions, but he was set a real challenge in both of the Linnets games he has presided over, and Mr Hussein makes decisions and sticks to them. That's what we want from our officials.
Secondly, Paul Shanley was a colossus. He covered every blade of grass, and was a nightmare for the opposition throughout. The countless number of times he was fouled was a huge compliment.
The night's entertainment had complicated implications for 9th November. Depending on events at The Millbank and Volair Stadium, Linnets would play Prescot Cables or Pickering Town in the FA Trophy, Pickering Town in the league, or have another day off.
Prescot 0 Pickering 0 meant it will be one or the other in the Trophy, pending their replay.
Runcorn Linnets: Bailey Passant, Ally Brown, Peter Wylie, Jack Hinnigan, Louis Corrigan, Tom Owens, Josh Dobie, Ryan Gibson (Ryan Wade 21), Kurt Sherlock (Declan McGivern 84), Paul Shanley, Zac Aley. Subs not used: Jamie Rainford, Richie Mottram, Connor McCarthy, Warren Bellew, Kyle Hamid.
Report - David 'Bill' Davies
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.
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