3rd October 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Marine : 1-1 [Pens:3-4]
Competitive football came to The Millbank for the second time in this strangest of seasons, again in the Emirates FA Cup, with hazard tape and social distancing footprints striving to stay in place against an incessant heavenly deluge that was never going to make quality football easy for Linnets or visitors Marine.
But both did their utmost to deliver in this Second Qualifying Round tie and drama was forthcoming, via a controversial goal (again), a last-gasp equaliser and a penalty shoot-out.
The opening exchanges saw Marine looking determined to take the game by the scruff, attacking quickly for Alex Doyle's deflected shot to demand an early save by Paddy Wharton.
Scott Lycett was called upon to clear three times with boot and head before three minutes had elapsed. Marine had the ball and passed and moved quickly, requiring some concentrated Linnets defending.
It was eight minutes in when the first Runcorn attack developed, Ryan Brooke's low cross from the left gathered by Bayleigh Passant, who last season earned much respect and affection playing between the sticks for Linnets while on loan from Tranmere Rovers.
The first of two yellow cards in the game came just afterwards, when Adam Hughes pulled back Iwan Murray outside the penalty area. Iwan was yet again to be the target of more fouls than anyone else on the pitch, but for once they were mostly the result of genuine attempts to rob him of the ball.
The free-kick was headed out for a Ryan Brooke shot to be deflected for a corner, which Passant caught and then lost, rescued by right-back Doyle.
Marine attacked on the break, James Barrigan's cross blocked at close quarters by Ally Brown.
On the quarter-hour, Jacques Welsh's distant shot was deflected for a corner, which was palmed out by Passant for Welsh to try again, the midfielder's return shot fizzing across goal and out for a goal-kick.
Attacking endeavour continued by both sides, defying the torrential rain, but it was the visitors who appeared more assured in possession, and the first serious chance came on 25 minutes, when Michael Howard and Mo Touray combined - a break, two-on-two with Lycett and Wylie, ending with Howard's shot slamming off the right post.
Two minutes later, a cross from the right after a Marine throw, found the head of centre-forward Niall Cummins, but it looped high and fell into the hands of Paddy Wharton.
Shortly after, Cummins was found again by Neil Kengni's cross from the left. His net-bound shot from 10 yards was foiled by agreat reflex save from Paddy's right foot.
The Linnets 'keeper punched the corner kick clear from a crowded six-yard box, and then saved a powerful shot from 20 yards. Three great saves in fewer minutes by the home 'keeper reflected a period of concerted pressure by Marine.
The first Runcorn attack in a while came to nothing when Ally Brown's high pass ahead of Murray was shepherded out for a goal-kick by Barrigan.
Then Linnets managed five passes in a row for the first time, among Murray, Turner, Wharton and Brooke, but close attention from the Marine defence prevented any serious threat.
Marine attacked again, a corner from the right clearing all in the six-yard box to reach Anthony Miley beyond the far post, but he miscued well wide.
Fortunately for the hosts, it was what Alan Shearer calls 'a centre-half's shot'.
Adam Barthram had made an impressive appearance from the bench at Mossley four days earlier, and was the only starting change in place of the injured Craig Lindfield.
He this time had precious few opportunities to do likewise, which was a measure of how little possession his team were having.
A last home chance of the half came when Murray was fouled 35 yards out.
The free-kick produced a game of head tennis in the area, the last of three Runcorn touches a cross by Welsh which flew too long.
The abiding impression at half-time was that if this had been a boxing match, all three judges would have had Marine ahead on points.
Another was that the new Millbank pitch looked a million dollars, but that even if the rain stopped, it would be a few days before the state-of-the-art automatic sprinklers would be needed.
Doubtless at manager Calum's bidding, the hosts attacked from the second-half whistle, Passant gathering a long-range Wharton effort, and the Linnets No9 narrowly beaten to a Brown cross from the right by Miley. An inevitable foul on Murray 35 yards out also resulted in Brooke's free-kick clearing the bar by a yard.
The Millbank's new wonder-pitch was facing its first real test. Tackles and clearances from the deck were throwing up arcs of spray, and the ball was beginning to aquaplane rather than bounce.
And the rain got heavier, and heavier still. Ball control was becoming increasingly difficult.
I suggested to my oppo Ian that this might come down to a mistake, or penalties. I could have looked like a genius if I'd said it would be both.
The clock read '54' when the game turned. A Linnets goal-kick hit the referee, and rebounded to Marine No7 Howard.
Conjecture surrounds what happened next, but a combination of confusion and cowardice leads me to Calum McIntyre's post-match interview on Linnets TV.
He said "There were six touches after I heard the whistle blow". The last of those touches was Marine centre-forward Cummins depositing the ball into the left corner.
My own observation had been that for the first time this season, the Linnets defence mysteriously hadn't defended.
Mr Storey certainly blew the whistle, as the law requires in that situation, but only one team thought the ball was dead.
Anyway, it was officially: Linnets 0 Marine 1.
Marine continued to attack, with a trio of corners repelled by the heads of Lycett and Welsh, and Murray threatened on the break, thwarted by Hughes and Miley.
Iwan combined with Turner, Short and Brooke to build attacks, but the Marine rearguard was equal to them. Fresh legs joined the fray when Joe Nolan replaced Alex Turner.
Just beyond the hour mark, Barthram won a chase for the ball with Hughes against the odds, made the touchline and crossed, but Hughes backtracked fast and got there just ahead of Murray.
It was Barthram's last contribution, Kurt Sherlock introduced to worry the Marine defence, and worry them he did.
After another double attack by Marine was repelled twice by the head of Scott Lycett but Kurt was combining with Murray, Brooke and Welsh in search of an opening.
Into the last quarter of the game, the pitch was holding surface water, and you had to wonder what state some others around the region might be in by now.
A low Sherlock cross destined for the advancing Murray didn't so much skid as surf, as did Bayleigh Passant in getting his fingertips to it before it could reach Iwan.
After Marine's Josh Hmami saw yellow for a trip on Jacques Welsh 30 yards out, Sherlock curled through the penalty area a free-kick which Cummins headed out for a corner.
Murray won another which was cleared long to set up Kengni on the right. He turned inside and under close attention from Short and Lycett, snapped a shot which skidded wide.
It was his last involvement before being subbed by Kenny Strickland.
A promising triangular move by Welsh, Wharton and Murray was intercepted, and then another Sherlock free-kick, after he had been fouled 25 yards out, found Nolan near the penalty spot. His glancing header slipped inches wide of the left post.
Calum McIntyre's last substitution was an attacking one, Stuart Crilly on for Lycett, and he joined a Linnets team effort that further enhanced a reputation for never giving up.
Most of the possession and attacks were coming from the home team, for the first time in truth, and more fouls were materialising in what had been a hard-fought but largely clean game.
Certainly cleaner than Tuesday's affair.
Increasingly difficult footing may well have been to blame for the escalation now. With five minutes remaining, yet another Sherlock ball into the box found Ally Brown, whose presence forced a corner.
It reached the head of Wylie, but under Cummings' aerial challenge, the centre-back couldn't get it on target.
A Welsh-Crilly exchange supplied Wharton 18 yards out. He turned and shot under pressure, and snatched it wide of the post.
Moving into added time, again Brown crossed from the right, and in a crowded area, Danny Shaw's attempted clearance bounced from foot to forearm, prompting Covid-mask-muffled howls of 'handball'.
It was no surprise that the referee said no, but while there was certainly no intent from Shaw, he undoubtedly gained control of the ball courtesy of his arm.
Does anybody know what the latest protocols are on handball?
By Monday night in Brighouse, it might be different again.
But it wasn't to be Runcorn's last chance of a penalty, and we would see eleven in all before we paddled home.
Iwan turned two defenders, as he does so well, and doubled back from the goal-line, only to be tripped from behind by Shaw. This time Mr Storey had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
It was fitting that it would be Kurt Sherlock, a constant irritation to Marine for the 25 minutes since he had come on, who would have the chance to preserve Linnets' place in the FA Cup, with almost the last kick of the game.
He placed it confidently right of centre as Passant dived the other way, and we would have at least ten more spot kicks.
Ben Wharton was first up, and he finished powerfully to the 'keeper's left. Hughes replied in kind for 1-1. Then Sherlock was back for more, burying a classic in the top right corner.
Michael Howard levelled again in the bottom right corner as Wharton guessed the wrong way, then former Linnet Passant turned the tide, with a great save inside the left post, when there was nothing much wrong with Joe Nolan's forceful attempt.
Barrigan put Marine 3-2 ahead, straight down the middle, and it was almost over when Ryan Brooke leaned back a little and fired over the top right corner.
Marine needed to convert just one of their last two penalties, but Paddy Wharton prolonged the agony with a fine save from Cummins that was a carbon copy of Passant's.
A clever stroke inside the right post by Jacques Welsh forced the visitors to take their fifth and final kick.
Final it was, as Hmami confidently found the right corner. He would doubtless feel that that was fitting, adamant as he had been that his trip on Murray in the dying moments had been somehow fair.
So the FA Cup was over for Linnets for another year, and as a devotee of the cup competitions, manager Calum will turn his attentions forward two weeks to the FA Trophy trip to Dronfield to play the world's oldest football club, Sheffield FC.
Before that, another league odyssey on the M62 to Brighouse on Monday, and The Millbank visit of Clitheroe on Saturday 10th October.
This first competitive reverse would hurt Calum and his men, not least given the controversial nature of Marine's goal. But to revisit the boxing analogy, over 90 minutes the judges would surely have given the Crosby side the verdict, citing the earlier rounds as the clincher.
But Linnets held back nothing all the way to the final bell. Marine are a good side, who can and do play football, and the two league encounters between these sides will be worth a watch.
Runcorn Linnets: Paddy Wharton, Ally Brown, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Peter Wylie, Scott Lycett (Stuart Crilly 82), Iwan Murray, Alex Turner (Joe Nolan 58), Ben Wharton, Ryan Brooke, Adam Barthram (Kurt Sherlock 64). Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Josh Brizell.
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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