8th December 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Morpeth Town AFC : 2-2 [Pens:2-3] Sponsored by Once a Linnet, always a Linnet
Runcorn Linnets and Morpeth escaped the ongoing Covid-enforced suspension of The Pitching In Northern Premier League to contest a close FA Trophy tie in torrential rain that hadn't let up all day.
It was a game of two halves, the four shared goals all being scored at the clubhouse end. It ended in only the second competitive defeat of the season for Linnets, still unbeaten in normal time after a penalty shoot-out decided the outcome again.
The first had been in the FA Cup to Marine, who have since marched on in stunning style to earn an historic Third Round meeting with Jose Mourinho's Tottenham Hotspur.
From the start the one division gap between the sides was far from evident, the skilful passing game that is already the trademark of Calum McIntyre's Linnets forging opportunities, while the visitors from Northumberland favoured a faster, more direct approach.
Both generated chances, the Runcorn method more so over 90 minutes, and if both sides' finishing percentages had matched, a home win would surely have been the outcome.
Within the first ten minutes Short, Lindfield, Brooke, Crilly and Murray had combined in half a dozen multiple passing moves that failed to trouble Dan Lowson in the Morpeth goal, thanks to close range interventions from a tight-marking defence.
Lowson was on hand in the tenth minute to safely gather a great ball in from the left by James Short before Brooke or Crilly could get to it.
Meanwhile Morpeth's Stephen Forster and Jack Foalle had combined up the right to draw a defensive header from Scott Lycett, Andrew Johnson had cut in from the right and shot over, and a loose pass had freed centre-forward Liam Henderson to beat three men on the left before firing across Paddy Wharton's goal and wide.
After 11 minutes, the all-too familiar sight of Iwan Murray being tripped from behind resulted in a 25-yard McCready free-kick which cleared the crossbar. Murray proved as industrious on the attack as ever, and for long periods it seemed that, for a change, the opposition would seek to thwart him bythe fair means of close marking and tackles aimed at the ball.
It wasn't to last, however, and with Linnets on the ascendancy from two goals down in the second half, Iwan was the focus of most of the aggression that ultimately earned Morpeth four yellow cards.
Moments later, Wharton made a great close-quarters save from a Foalle break and shot, and straight back at the other end Lycett headed narrowly wide from a corner on the left.
The rain had taken a break so far, but it returned with a vengeance just after a brilliant zig-zagging run by Craig Lindfield who beat four men before a fifth blocked his shot from inside the area.
The rest of the game was played to a surprising level of quality, given the curtains of rain sweeping across the pitch. Identifying players by number from more than 40 yards away was a challenge.
Twice in quick succession Morpeth mounted attacks via Turner, Oliver and Henderson, but their modus operandi of getting forward fast meant the ball was skipping away from them off the increasingly slick surface.
On 25 minutes, a powerful shot from distance by Liam Noble was well saved by Wharton, but the resulting corner produced a game of pinball in the six-yard box that eventually broke the deadlock.
Centre-back Ryan Hutchinson's far post header was pushed on to the bar by Wharton, a second attempt was cleared off the line by Ally Brown, a third was parried by Wharton who tried and failed twice to hold on to the ball, and Henderson's fourth bounced off two Runcorn bodies before finding the net.
Linnets fans felt that on balance their team should have been ahead, but they would have to come from behind to prevail. It wouldn't be for the first time.
Morpeth almost scored the second goal of the game sooner than they did.
Under pressure from Crilly, right-back Forster's attempted clearance rebounded off the bar.
Linnets were keen to level quickly, and robust challenges came thick and fast to stop them.
Hayes and Downes were starting attacking moves from deep, and three fouls to stop them in fewer minutes earned Jack Foalle lectures but no more from referee Kieran Johnson.
On 35 minutes, a Crilly break and cross found Brooke, but the woodwork was struck again, and then Brooke was held back 25 yards out, the free-kick headed clear.
Five minutes from half time, Andrew Johnson was given too much space to invade the Runcorn area and shoot from ten yards out, but Alex Downes slid in swiftly to block.
That corner was cleared, but the next one wasn't, after Brooke headed away a free-kick following Downes' push on Henderson inside the left touchline.
There was no pinball this time, as Foalle met the corner kick outside the near post and deftly glanced a backheel into the roof of the net.
Before half time, two further attempts from close range by Lycett and Downes flew the wrong side of the post, and the two-goal deficit at the break seemed a very harsh reward for yellow-and-green efforts.
The difference was finishing, as it would be in a second half that redressed the balance.
Linnets came out on the attack, as ever involving multiple passing moves up either flank, and through Murray in the middle, and Brown and Short getting forward more to put in crosses.
But most were frustrated by tight man-to-man marking, and Lycett, Downes and Hayes had to remain alert to repel Morpeth ripostes on the break.
On 57 minutes, Murray was scythed down by Wayne Phillips ten yards inside the Morpeth half, and it was the first of many increasingly cynical attempts to prevent the Runcorn No10 from causing trouble.
Phillips worked hard for his eventual yellow card with ten minutes remaining.
Just before the hour, Oladapo Olarewaju was the first of two new signings to come off the home bench, quickly showing his ability to win and distribute the ball from centre midfield.
And his debut heralded Linnets levelling at 2-2 within five minutes. Linny's shot from the corner of the area wasparried by Lowson to the 18-yard line, where Murray was waiting to drill the ball through a crowd into the middle of the net.
Morpeth had looked confident in defending a 2-0 lead from behind the ball, but now they appeared flustered, and within three minutes Tom McCready ran the left touchline and fired in a cross for Ryan Brooke to replicate Foalle's goal, his right heel flicking the ball deftly inside the near post.
Linnets were on top, and the Morpeth response was to concede more and more free-kicks, with Reid, Phillips, Turner and Foalle racking up yellow cards for their trouble.
Left-back Reid collected his caution while receiving treatment for an injury sustained by wiping out Olaraweju on the right touchline.
Runcorn chances continued to rain in, as did the rain.
With 15 minutes to go, a looping back-header by Lindfield was on target for the top left corner, but Lowson backtracked in time to keep it out.
On the break, a Morpeth corner from another Downes block was cleared, and the Linnets No6 was on hand at the other end to head at the far post from a McCready free-kick, after the latest foul on Murray, but with insufficient power to beat Lowson.
Runcorn's second debutant of the night was Cain Noble, replacing Iwan Murray, who had taken enough of a battering for one evening.
It wasn't one-way traffic, Morpeth launching fast attacks on the break, but the Runcorn rearguard was proving equal to them, with any attempts on goal gathered comfortably by Paddy Wharton.
Into the last five minutes, Kurt Sherlock was introduced for Ryan Brooke, and he would have scored from his first touch if a defensive toe hadn't diverted his shot from a peach of a cross by Olarewaju.
Morpeth also had chances to seal a victory, Liam Noble shooting wide from outside the area, and another speculative low shot being smothered by Wharton.
Runcorn's own Noble put Sherlock through on the left, but Kurt was offside.
On 90 minutes, the last free-kick of the game came from a high boot on Lindfield 25 yards out.
It was repelled, sparking a five-man Morpeth move and a speculative shot, the wrong side of the left post.
The last chance came from a McCready advance into the visitors' area, his low shot held by Lowson at the second attempt.
The Morpeth 'keeper's final act of normal time was prophetic, as he was to become the decisive player in the penalty shoot-out.
Morpeth went first from 12 yards, Henderson converting off the underside of the bar. McCready levelled with confidence. Then Paddy Wharton saved low to his right from Morpeth sub Joe Walton, before Craig Lindfield kept honours even by firing over the bar.
Oliver's attempt was soft, Paddy saving low to his left, and it was advantage Linnets when Lowson's glove couldn't keep Short's drive out of the top left corner.
That advantage wasn't exploited, though. Liam Noble hit the top left corner, while his Linnets namesake Cain had his shot saved inside the post by Lowson.
Lowson took Morpeth's last spot kick, and found the bottom left corner beyond Paddy's fingertips, before smothering an unusually weak Kurt Sherlock effort to send Morpeth on the short journey to Blyth Spartans in the next round.
For some reason, the Morpeth 'keeper wasn't voted their man of the match. He won the game, and didn't foul Iwan Murray even once.
Linnets' much awaited and stylish new Kappa kit made its debut on the night. Everybody's fingers are crossed as we wonder when we will get to see it again in league action.
The Linnets have arranged a home friendly this Saturday against 1874 Northwich, ko 2pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Paddy Wharton, Ally Brown, James Short, Louis Hayes, Scott Lycett, Alex Downes, Stuart Crilly (Oladapo Olarewaju 59), Tom McCready, Ryan Brooke (Kurt Sherlock 86), Iwan Murray (Cain Noble 82), Craig Lindfield. Subs not used: Ben Wharton, Carl Spellman, Jacques Welsh, Adam Barthram.
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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