31st October 2020, Pickering Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-4
A break from Linnets' unbeaten league campaign came with a Buildbase FA Trophy 3rd Qualifying Round tie away at fellow NPL NW side Pickering Town.
The only change to the selection that 'battered' Kendal 3-2 a week earlier was the return of Paddy Wharton in goal.
A substantial 4-1 victory would have been a representative outcome for Runcorn's domination in the Lakes, and the same was true today, with the travellers in orange taking rapid control of possession
and mounting wave after wave of attacks from the start.
Pickering didn't defend with the
admirable fortitude that Kendal had done.
But the comfortable final outcome doesn't really tell the story.
A 2-0 half-time lead, which could have
been at least doubled, against ten men looked like a job almost done.
But there were less than ten minutes
remaining when Iwan Murray cemented a phenomenal performance by restoring the two-goal margin, before he put the tin lid on his man-of-the- match status by scoring again with almost the last touch of the game.
Iwan's route one rampages into the home penalty area were like watching Groundhog Day on fast forward, and if three-quarters of them hadn't ended via the Pickering tactic of taking out the man and hoping to get enough of the ball to satisfy the referee, he would surely have scored six.
Linnets started as they had played for 90 minutes at Kendal, on the rapid offensive, and crosses from both flanks were gathered gratefully by Town 'keeper Charlie Andrew in the first minute.
In the third, Stuart Crilly beat his marker for the first of many occasions to pull back a great cross that was headed out for a corner before it reached Ryan Brooke.
Downes and Welsh got headed touches on it before Matty Turnbull cleared.
Then a James Short cross from the left found Murray outside the far post, which is where he skewed his attempt.
A wag behind the goal shouted "The net's over there, mate". I assured him that Iwan
knew where it was, and would soon prove it.
I didn't gloat after the final whistle, but only because I couldn't find him.
In the early stages, two or three long-ball Pickering assaults from frantic clearances were swallowed up with composure by O'Mahony, Downes and Hayes in the middle of the pitch, big centre-forward Harry Jessop the apparent linchpin of Town's game plan.
A Louis Hayes ball from deep was headed out to 20 yards, from where Craig Lindfield blasted a shot over the bar.
The goal-kick led via Jessop and O'Mahony to a first Pickering corner on ten minutes,
cleared by Downes.Ally Brown found Crilly wide right, his cross headed out for a corner from which Downes' header was deflected for another from the left.
Lindfield fed Downes, who pulled it back for a Jacques Welsh shot which curled wide.
On 16 minutes Crilly advanced into the area wide right, and with a cross awaited, he tried a surprise shot which Andrew did well to cover in time.
Runcorn possession was almost continuous, interrupted only by niggly fouls leading to more Linnets
attacks. One led to a Lindfield shot from distance, which was blocked, but Crilly picked up the loose ball inside the penalty area, took two steps and lashed a shot which Andrew got a glove to but
couldn't keep out.
Linnets were ahead from what I counted as their tenth attempt in the first 17 minutes, and we were still two minutes from Pickering's first.
That came when O'Mahony delayed Jessop's solo run long enough for Wharton to come off his line to block the No9's shot at close range.
It was the first of a flurry of half chances. A free-kick from the centre circle was squirted wide to the left, then a foul on Jessop 30 yards out gave a free-kick, which connected with a head in the Linnets defensive wall.
Pickering were being allowed a spell of possession at last, but it lacked a threatening touch.
Before the half-hour mark Soni Fergus won a tackle from Downes and a corner on the right.
Two resulting headers maintained an attack ended by Brown's tackle, and he played a ball through the middle for Murray which ran too fast for him.
Then Adam Barthram joined the fray, when James Short departed due to an earlier injury.
Linnets were on the move again, Hayes and Welsh repeatedly winning the ball in midfield to start attacking moves.
O'Mahony set up Crilly on the right and his cross found Lindfield at the far post. His
attempted header ended in a juggling contest with Andrew, who conceded a corner, and the Linnets danger man revealed that he had been heading blind, the sun directly in his eyes.
With ten minutes of the half remaining, a triangular passing move started by Lindfield on the left set Iwan Murray on a run into the area, nipping between two defenders and advancing on the 'keeper.
Right-back Jack Johnson tripped him from behind, and with no other line of defence to challenge Murray, Mr Hall delivered the double blow of a penalty and a red card for Johnson.
Lindfield made no mistake from the spot, and a passage to the first round proper was beginning to look like a formality.
The visitors looked confidently in control, and more goals seemed likely, the
Pickering response chiefly that of going to ground in two-footed tackles.
That pattern ultimately earned them six yellow cards to go with Johnson's red.
A more sound tackle by Matty Turnbull denied Murray as he homed in on goal again, before a cruncher felled Downes on halfway.
With half-time looming, Murray was in the area again, chipping the advancing Andrew only to see the ball come back off the bar. Iwan met it again, but scrambled his
A moment later, the bar was troubled again, rattled firmly by an O'Mahony header from Crilly's cross.The game should have been over as a contest, but less than a minute into the second period the lead
Linnets got bodies forward again from the off, leaving space for Jessop to gallop
goalwards, chasing a long clearance.
Downes thought better of tripping him and levelling up the numbers, and Paddy Wharton could do nothing to prevent the ball finding the left corner of the net.
Another minute later, the scores were almost levelled, after an identical chance. But Jessop miscontrolled and O'Mahony was able to intervene.
Pickering would continue to address their visitors' superiority on the ball by leaving Jessop upfront and launching howitzers up to him whenever they got hold of it.
For Linnets, it was business as usual,
getting forward in numbers via passing moves across the width of the pitch and out to the flanks, particularly involving Crilly on the right.
His balance and footwork necessitated two men on him at all times, and fouls continued to be Town's main response to the problem of Runcorn possession.
Lindfield and Murray were both fouled breaking forward from halfway, and when Iwan made yet another sortie into the area, a good save by Andrew's feet prevented him from restoring the two-goal margin.
Brown, Brooke and Crilly caused panic in the right side of the area, Brooke breaking away only to be bodychecked, in a way that the referee deemed fair.
Seconds later, he certainly didn't think it fair that Ged Dalton scythed down Jacques Welsh with a reckless lunge, but he brandished only a yellow.
The 'shielding the ball out of play' phenomenon reached a bizarre extreme when Soni Fergus backed
off Crilly for more than ten yards to gain a goal-kick, only for the ball to grind to a halt before the line on an increasingly stodgy pitch.
Fergus had no alternative but to concede the corner, until the on-the-spot linesman flagged for a goal-kick.
Benefit of unlikely doubt for the ten men hadn't been exhausted. With the hour mark nearing, Murray was on a straight line charge into the area yet again, and was sent sprawling from directly behind, in
my view a far more cut and dried foul than the one that earned red for Johnson.
The referee, who was twenty yards behind the incident, signalled that the ball had been won. Surely a legal impossibility, if
not a physical one.
Apart from one Pickering corner, headed clear by O'Mahony, the hosts had faced relentless Linnets pressure for more than ten minutes.
Crilly was set up in space 18 yards out, but pulled a shot wide, and he, Brooke and Barthram were all in the area to meet an Ally Brown cross, but it defied the law of
averages and evaded them all.
Fergus made a hospital backpass to his 'keeper who was beaten to it marginally by Crilly, but having won the ball he slipped, and a grateful Andrew dropped on it before it could be poked goalwards.
Brown and Barthram put in cross after cross, with Brooke, Lindfield, Welsh, Murray and O'Mahony all striving to connect. And Barthram opted for shots from outside the area as well, three wide but
close enough to elicit 'oohs'. It was a siege.
And yet it was still 2-1, with Town having been a man short for well over half an hour. Each time a Pickering defender launched a long one towards the distant Jessop, the small enclave of Linnets officials present - away supporters not being admitted by the home club due to Runcorn's Tier 3 Covid status - began to fear an unlikely penalty shoot-out, or even worse.
Within the space of three minutes, Turnbull and Warrilow picked up yellow cards for cynical interventions on the progress of Brooke and Murray, respectively when the perpetrators could easily also have 'walked'.
Into the last 20 minutes, Turnbull conceded a corner rather than take on Crilly at football.
It was taken short, Barthram attempting another shot from 18 yards that Andrew held at the second attempt.
Welsh gave way to Tom McCready, missing since he was injured in the win over Tadcaster, and he joined in the campaign to create a nerve-settling third goal from midfield.
McCready also joined the ranks of
the fouled, that remaining the favoured method for dispossessing men in orange.
There were 15 minutes to go when Pickering mounted their first concerted forward possession of the half, four passes resulting in as many shots, all blocked at close range by Runcorn heads and boots.
No clear chance emerged, but the tie definitely wasn't over.
Linnets attacked again, Barthram firing just over after another corner played short, and Murray crossed for Brooke to head, but with insufficient power to find the net.
Ryan departed soon after, Ben
Wharton given ten minutes to help put the game to bed.
Linnets were beginning to seek out the clincher with longer balls from deep, which seemed more likely to provide Pickering with long-ball escape routes, perhaps unwise when Runcorn had proved so
adept at keeping possession all afternoon?
Shows how much I know. One such ball up the right for Murray was picked up by Soni Fergus. He hadn't learned from the
earlier backpass, which had almost opened the door for Crilly, and rolled it back to his 'keeper once more.
It bobbled and slowed on the deteriorating pitch, unlike Iwan Murray. He got there first, rounded Andrew and slotted it home. It was 3-1 at last.
Ben Wharton looked as keen as mustard to add to the margin of comfort, chasing in from the right and shaping to shoot, with Turnbull and Clappison all over him. As Ben tried again, Fergus flattened
him inside the penalty arc to spark angry reactions from the Runcorn sub.
Another Pickering yellow card was the referee's response. Craig Lindfield's was to slam the free-kick into the left upright.
The ball was cleared briefly before Wharton had it back into the area again for Murray and Lindfield to shoot, both attempts blocked by bodies in blue.
Iwan was tripped again, three yards out, but again it wasn't a foul. Deep into added time, he closed in on goal for what seemed like the hundredth time, with Pickering sub Leon Osborne the latest to make contact from behind.
But Mr Hall didn't need to consider giving a long-overdue second penalty this time, as the Linnets' man of the match kept
his cool and slotted home his third goal in two games, and his team's fourth of the tie.
The stats would show an emphatic 4-1 Runcorn victory, and that was the very least their domination of the game warranted.
But for 35 second-half minutes, their place in the next round was far from assured.
Credit to Pickering for never giving up from 2-0 down with ten men, but given a stricter
referee, their modus operandi would surely have widened that numerical disadvantage further.
Damage to a floodlight meant that Linnets wouldn't ride the crest of a winning wave again on Tuesday, the home league game with fourth-placed Dunston postponed.
The next one, away at Colne,
remains at the mercy of the latest second wave Covid-19 lockdown regulations, whatever they might be.
Runcorn Linnets: Paddy Wharton, Ally Brown, James Short (Adam Barthram 30), Louis Hayes, Sean
O'Mahony, Alex Downes, Stuart Crilly, Jacques Welsh (Tom McCready 71), Ryan Brooke (Ben
Wharton 79), Iwan Murray, Craig Lindfield. Subs not used: Scott Lycett, Carl Spellman.
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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