20th November 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Crewe Alexandra FC : 1-3
On a bitterly cold Wednesday night Crewe Alexandra came to the Millbank Stadium aiming to eliminate Linnets from the Cheshire Senior Cup for the second time in three seasons. And they did so in a great 'classic' red and white kit, highly reminiscent of England's 1966 World Cup triumph.
The game had been delayed by three weeks, due to the rearranged FA Trophy tie against Prescot Cables.
Essentially Crewe's Under-23 side, they faced a much changed Runcorn team, unsurprising with another big FA Trophy date coming in three days' time.
Only three of those who lined up for Saturday's 1-1 draw at Ramsbottom United did so again, in the shape of Jack Hinnigan, Warren Bellew and captain Kyle Hamid.
Ryan Gibson, Peter Wylie and Ally Brown would join from the bench later on.
Two new faces started for the home side, striker Sean Mullan who had signed since the weekend, and Lewis McKinney, just arrived on loan from Oldham Athletic, who started on the left of midfield.
As expected when albeit young sides of full-time players come to town, Crewe were quick to the ball and got forward swiftly with fast-passing moves, giving their opponents a lot of chasing and covering to do.
Intent was shown in the first minute, with Crewe's Daniel Powell turning Louis Corrigan on the right side of the penalty area and unleashing a shot which Jack Hinnigan blocked to concede a corner, which was cleared.
Several further forays by Powell, and Callum Ainley on the left, sought to set up chances for centre-forward Connor Heath, but Hinnigan, Corrigan, Cannon-Noren and Jimmy Moore, the latter appearing for the first time since 1st October at Ossett United, tackled and blocked to limit attempts to shots off target, or into the capable hands of Richie Mottram, back from nappy-changing and burping duties.
Runcorn's first spell of attacking endeavour started from the ten-minute mark, with new boys Mullan and McKinney threatening from right and left, combining notably with Kurt Sherlock and Ryan Wade, but the Crewe backline permitted no serious chances.
The visitors were back on the offensive with a series of corners around the quarter-hour mark, which were either deflected for another, or dealt with calmly by Mottram.
A speculative shot by Regan Griffiths on 18 minutes was skewed high and wide.
Four minutes later, The Alex were in front, and as they say, 'it was coming'.
Oliver Finney (great surname for a footballer) was given a little too much time and space to move left across the edge of the area, find a gap, and drill the ball into the bottom left corner.
The pattern of industrious defending and off-target shots continued, with occasional breaks from the home side running out of steam before Crewe 'keeper and skipper David Richards could be troubled.
On 26 minutes, Griffiths at the other end was set free into the area but shot over the bar.
A handy spell materialised for Runcorn from the half-hour mark. Hinnigan headed from the halfway line to Mullan, who controlled it well under pressure, and a series of multiple passes from the middle to the flanks and back again, involving Wade, McKinney and Cannon-Noren, gave their opponents urgent work to do.
In the 33rd minute, Kurt Sherlock found enough room to take on two defenders in the right side of the area, and reaching the byline, hooked a ball just outside the post.
With a bit more luck it could have sneaked inside, or found Mullan in the middle.
A minute later, a trip on Wade gave Corrigan his first stab at a trademark 22-yard free-kick. It beat Richards, but squeaked just wide of the right post.
The rest of the half returned to Crewe ballooning shots towards Aldi or the Queen of Hearts, or into Mottram's gloves.
Twice on the stroke of the break, Sherlock found dangerous positions in the box, centre-half Travis Johnson preventing him from connecting productively with head or boot.
Despite being a very different type of game with very different personnel, the first half bore similarities with the second half at Ramsbottom, with a lot of possession for the opposition ending with flawed marksmanship.
But credit was due again to the defence, with easy avenues to goal restricted, and a confident goalkeeper ready to collect anything that was on target.
On that basis, a final score of 3-1 to the visitors might have been predicted. Ironically, though, the game was to be turned conclusively in their favour in a five-minute spell, which followed almost half an hour of Linnets dominating possession and creating the better opportunities.
Manager Michael Ellison rang the changes at half-time, introducing Ryan Gibson and Peter Wylie for Mullan and Hamid.
The first proper chance of the half came when Sherlock passed inside for Bellew, who might have chanced a shot, but tried instead to put Wade clear to the right of the six-yard box, just a little too firmly and out for a goal-kick.
On 55 minutes, a neat one-two between McKinney and Sherlock would have set the former free down the left wing, but he was tripped. The free-kick led to a belated cross by McKinney, which found the head of Hinnigan six yards out, but his contact was too firm to be directed goalwards.
Harry Cannon-Noren gave way to Peter Wylie straight afterwards, just before a Corrigan corner from the right was headed out by left-back Offord for another.
Louis' second effort curled across the six-yard box, eluding the attentions of everybody gathered there, and found its way just inside the far post. Update on the Danny McKenna Scoring Direct From A Corner Challenge: Zac Aley 1, Louis Corrigan 1.
Linnets continued to have more of the ball, with neat and quick passing moves keeping the visitors busy, on a night where the last thing anybody wanted to do was stand still for too long.
The home fans were distracted from fears of frostbite by a growing feeling that a second-round showdown with Tranmere Rovers might be on the cards - with or without revisiting last season's immaculate penalty shoot-out form.
Just after, a long diagonal ball to Finney in the Linnets' area found him offside, at the other end Sherlock also attracted an offside flag, despite the fact that he had clearly overlapped a limping Travis Johnson well after the ball had been played forward for him.
That limp had resulted moments earlier from a 50/50 dispute, won by Sherlock, on the halfway line.
Referee Mr Buckley had disagreed with Johnson's contention that he had been fouled, but the Crewe No5 was not happy, and pursued a campaign of niggles on and off the ball with the Runcorn No6.
One resulted in a Corrigan free-kick near the left corner flag, deflected away by Finney. The siege continued, a Wylie shot headed out for another corner by Griffiths.
The hosts looked like the-team-more-likely-to at this point, but how often have all of us seen that situation turned on its head? The first Crewe chance for a while came with 20 minutes remaining, when Connor Heath spun and shot from 18 yards, high and wide.
A minute later, he was substituted by Joe Robbins, and a minute after that an Alex corner from the left found left-back Offord in space in the box, from where he dispatched it with ease.
A long spell of possession in the Crewe half had perhaps done little to keep the home defence on its toes. Runcorn heads didn't drop, though. Warren Bellew was fouled twice on halfway. The long free-kick was cleared loosely, only to Sherlock, but he snatched at his cross, finding the feet of right-back Abdul Djalo.
On 76 minutes, Louis Corrigan spied the opportunity to launch a 35-yard free-kick from the right audaciously on goal.
He was correct in thinking that Richards in the Crewe goal wouldn't expect it, but it narrowly cleared the bar.
A minute later, the game was effectively over. A point-blank effort by Griffiths was blocked on the line by Mottram, but with the third bite of the attack, substitute Robbins found the bottom right corner.
The last substitution saw Aaron Lomas replace Regan Griffiths with 10 minutes remaining, and that period saw further attacking endeavours by both sides.
With a one-goal margin it would have been an exciting finish, but Crewe's tireless young pros were not going to let a two-goal lead slip.
A game of pinball in the Linnets area featured half a dozen shots by the visitors, but all were repelled.
And from a frankly soft free-kick for a foul on Sherlock 25 yards out, Corrigan unusually opted to cross rather than shoot, but Wylie's solid volley was drilled just over, and was in any case ruled offside.
Neither team gave up attacking until the final whistle, and those attacks were all constructed with passes to feet, as they had been all night.
A great deal of high-quality football was played by both sides. When young pro teams compete with opposition from several levels down the pyramid, they expect to have to endure 90 minutes of physicality and long balls from the big men, up to the other big men.
If that assumption is correct, Crewe would have been surprised by the night's pass-and-move encounter, especially during a second half in which the home team were well on top.
What invariably makes the ultimate difference in ties like this isn't talent on the one hand, or age and experience on the other, but the fact that one of the teams are full-timers.
Perhaps that was the difference this time, but the final scoreline did anything but flatter the Linnets.
Yet more knockout football to come, with a bumper crowd expected on Saturday, November 23rd for the FA Trophy visit of FC United of Manchester, featuring a top-quality defender by the name of Aaron Morris.
Runcorn Linnets: Richie Mottram, Louis Corrigan, Jack Hinnigan, Jimmy Moore, Harry Cannon-Noren, Kurt Sherlock, Lewis McKinney, Kyle Hamid, Ryan Wade, Warren Bellew, Sean Mullan. Subs: Peter Wylie, Ryan Gibson, Ally Brown. Not used: Bayleigh Passant, Zac Aley.
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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