The Northern Premier League

2nd October 2021, Runcorn Linnets FC v Gateshead : 2-3 Sponsored by 'Once a Linnet, Always a Linnet'

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

A third consecutive home draw presented Linnets with the opportunity to progress to the fourth qualifying round of the Emirates FA Cup for the first time since the club was established in 2006.

It would be easier said than done, with the visit of National League North side Gateshead FC.

They are one of only five full-time professional clubs involved in the competition up to this stage, and 'two leagues between the sides was not the full story.

Gateshead had been relegated from the National League in their last completed season in 2019, only due to their owners' financial issues, having contended for a play-off place all season.

And they came to the APEC from fifth place in the league table, with a single defeat to date.

Give a bookie the numbers to crunch, including the injury absences and youth of the Runcorn squad, and the smart money would be on a comfortable Gateshead victory, if not a rout.

By 3.05pm that looked a safe bet. Despite the first attempt on goal being a Rhain Hellawell shot for Runcorn that grazed the outside of a post, Gateshead were in front after five minutes.

Dan Ward cut inside from the left, being given sufficient space to find the net beyond the grasp of Runcorn 'keeper Joe Young.

Joe did make contact, and he would surely be disappointed that it wasn't firmer.

No side has been given a free reign in the Runcorn third of the pitch this season, and 'The Heed' would be no exception.

If the professionals thought they would have a clear physical advantage, they were prompted to think again when Linnets' new signing Evan Gumbs flattened the muscular Ward in winning a 50-50 aerial challenge.

Referee Liam Marshall signalled that Ward had been 'pushed'.

However. Mr Marshall was to emulate Tuesday's official in the 3-3 draw with City of Liverpool, with an unpredictable approach to judging foul play.

After ten minutes, he couldn't deny that the two defenders it took to bring down Iwan Murray had done so unfairly.

His free-kick from outside the left corner of the penalty area was cleared, but returned to the six-yard box by Joe Lynch, where Ryan Brooke and Gateshead 'keeper Jacob Chapman competed for the ball.

It ran loose for Jacques Welsh to plant a shot inside the left post.

Everybody from the south bank of the Tyne screamed for a foul on the 'keeper, and I'll admit I expected the referee to agree; not because there was a foul, but because any challenge on a goalkeeper has been deemed illegal for as long as I can remember.

Brownie points to Mr Marshall this time.

Gateshead went on the attack in response to the equaliser. A corner from the right was headed out by O'Mahony, a second effort likewise by Gumbs, and Joe Young's punch finally cleared the danger.

Another corner allowed Ward a header that seemed certain to find the net, but it was blocked brilliantly at point-blank range by the head of Gumbs.

A 22-yard free-kick by Greg Olley flew narrowly wide, but Young's dive had the goal covered.

I am indebted to Gateshead's Twitter commentary for identifying who did what for their team, as their shirt numbers bore no resemblance whatsoever to the 1 to 11 numbering on the team sheet.

The first quarter of the game made it clear that Linnets wouldn't enjoy long spells of possession.

The professional advantage could be seen in Gateshead pouncing on their opponents quickly when they had the ball, and in anticipating a second or two ahead to find space on the ball and occupy space off it.

But the dynamics of the game were transformed in the 26th minute. A Murray free-kick from the right was just missed by Brooke, the ball glanced away wide by the bandaged head of No14, whom research has identified as Louis Storey.

Alex Nicholson, if he was No3, although under no pressure with only a single teammate anywhere near him, hit a weak clearance into space outside the penalty area.

Ryan Brooke controlled it and, before anyone could close him down, placed a measured shot in between the 'keeper and the left post.

The referee was inundated with protests about offside, but it was impossible to see how, given that Nicholson passed 20 yards back from the goal line to set up Brooke.

Unless the Gateshead players thought their goalkeeper was a Runcorn man, but that's unlikely.

Chapman was wearing pink and was the only man on the pitch with his name on his shirt.

After Gateshead had taken their early lead, the talk around the bench had been that it was going to be an easy afternoon.

A rethink was required, and there was less patience now in their approach, with quick moves forward and longer balls into the Runcorn area. Several of those were dealt with confidently by Wylie, Gumbs, O'Mahony and Short.

A far more drastic change of tack was almost needed just after the half hour mark. Rhain Hellawell ghosted past Robbie Tinkler and crossed for Iwan Murray to lash an apparently unstoppable shot from six yards.

Chapman pulled off a brilliant reflex save, and was called upon again to prevent a 1-3 deficit from the resulting corner.

Ryan Brooke beat Ward in the air to head on target, forcing a fingertip deflection over the bar.

The double reprieve launched Gateshead on an urgent mission to get back on level terms.

Olley cut back for Ward, but he shot way over the bar.

After a 25-yard free-kick was headed away by O'Mahony, a cross came in from the right which Gumbs directed over the bar under pressure.

Then, three minutes before the break, a slip from James Short lost possession and the Linnets rearguard finally allowed enough space for a convincing attempt on goal - backing off from Langstaff's turn into the area to open a window for him to curl it inside the far post.

Linnets were not content to go in level at the break, however, and went back on the attack.

Iwan Murray was away up the left touchline when he was scythed down by either Adam Campbell or Owen Bailey.

He was wearing 11, which the teamsheet identified as Storey (he was 14), and Campbell and Bailey were the only players booked, the other man to see yellow wearing 20. Helpful.

A Murray-Brooke one-two from the free-kick was intercepted, and it was 2-2 at half-time.

Gateshead's player-manager, the ex-Newcastle United centre-back Mike Williamson, took to the pitch for the second half in place of Tinkler, and his team went straight on to the front foot.

A cross into the area from the right was headed high by Evan Gumbs and then cleared.

The next Gateshead attack wasn't, however. No19 was finally identified as Cedwyn Scott by getting himself on the scoresheet.

He was in plenty of space at the far post to bury Campbell's cross.

After the game, Linnets boss Calum McIntyre was to remark that there was an issue for him to address in terms of conceding goals either side of half-time, and it has certainly been a feature of recent matches. Good luck to him, because who knows why?

A constant feature, though, has been a stubborn refusal to give up or even coast, and the men in yellow and green threw everything at staying in the cup.

They were initially aided by a glitch in a fine performance by Jacob Chapman, as the visiting 'keeper suffered a bout of slicing clearances out for Runcorn throw-ins.

But Gateshead remained broadly in control of the second half, as of course they should.

Langstaff picked up a pass down the right and made a decent attempt across goal to double his personal tally, but Young got down well to save.

And three attempts followed from the left, Peter Wylie thwarting the first with a great saving tackle, and Runcorn heads blocking the others - that of Evan Gumbs guiding the last on to the roof of the net.

Linnets hit back, Iwan Murray inexplicably penalised after being tackled simultaneously by two randomly-numbered players in the Gateshead area. Lynch and Brooke exchanged a string of passes up the left: one too many in the event, as Heed intercepted and attacked again.

With 25 minutes remaining, Adam Campbell was finally identified for sure, when he was subbed by Paul Blackett, wearing the No9 shirt billed as Langstaff's. Keep up.

Blackett made his presence felt quickly, dispossessing James Short and eluding tackles while traversing the area from right to left, his shot then blocked at point blank range by Wylie.

On 69 minutes, Calum McIntyre introduced the pace of Dapo Olarewaju to trouble the Gateshead defence, a positive gambit as he sacrificed the deeper-lying Louis Hayes.

Dapo was immediately involved in a Ryan Brooke advance, which was halted by (perhaps) Greg Olley falling on him like a sumo.

Murray's 25-yard free-kick was repelled by the head of Storey, allowing a Joe Lynch shot that was hooked wide left.

Lynch had another stab a minute later, from an Olarewaju pull back after he beat his marker into the area, on target this time and stopped well by Chapman's right boot.

Gumbs' head missed a Murray corner when he appeared to have been pushed from behind, before dogged closing and tackling prevented a spell of Gateshead pressure from creating opportunities to put the tie to bed.

Runcorn efforts in possession never flagged, but they struggled to complete telling passes as their opponents stepped in smartly to frustrate them.

A familiar pattern unfolded for Linnets regulars as fouls became the preferred method of stopping Iwan Murray's forays into the Gateshead third.

Mr Marshall awarded free-kicks for some of them, and hopes were raised with ten minutes remaining when the Welsh wizard shaped up to take one from the same spot from which he had netted in style against City of Liverpool four days earlier. But this time it flew too high.

Linnets pressure continued, and into the last ten minutes a late and high two-footed lunge on James Short was deemed acceptable by the referee, before three Runcorn throw-ins from the right in quick succession led to a Dapo cross that was met powerfully by the head of O'Mahony. Chapman came to the rescue yet again, and held on.

A minute later, Dapo made his own way into the 18-yard area, where a hand on the back of the opponent tackling him was deemed more injurious than the recent knee-high wiping out of Short.

A family flavour was added to the last five minutes when Joe Lynch gave way to Eden Gumbs, Eden joining his newly-signed brother Evan for a last push for an equaliser.

The head of someone wearing 18 prevented Eden from connecting with an 88th-minute corner, and soon after, a free-kick from wide right, after the inevitable foul on Murray, was gathered high by Chapman.

Four minutes of added time saw a determined Runcorn defence halt Gateshead advances, and spark further last-ditch efforts to prompt a Tuesday night excursion to the south bank of the Tyne.

Rhain Hellawell cut across three defenders to find Ryan Brooke on the left. The tireless centre-forward beat two men and passed back to Jacques Welsh, who found Hellawell again on the right.

His cross was met by Brooke, who headed home to trigger jubilation among most of the magnificent 907 looking on.

But the bubble was burst by an offside flag, with no appeals from anyone in Gateshead colours on or off the pitch.

It can't have been Hellawell, because he beat the full-back before crossing, and it can't have been Brooke, because he headed past two markers.

There were only two yellow and green objects in offside positions, and they were corner flags.

There were no further chances either way, and Gateshead were in the hat on Monday.

It was a disappointing outcome for the Pitching In NPL West side, who were given little chance before kick-off and far less five minutes after it. But the standout word in Calum McIntyre's post-match interview was 'pride'. He used it numerous times, and justifiably so.

He was also full of praise for the quality of the opposition and the way they play football. It was a shame that it wasn't reciprocated.

Gateshead player-manager Williamson had not a single positive word to say about a young and depleted team from two tiers beneath, who had taken his full-time professionals all the way to the wire.

Incredibly, both he and Owen Bailey, who wore one number or another, cited the APEC pitch as a 'leveller'. Really.

One can only assume that the surface in the middle of Gateshead athletics stadium makes Wembley look like a poorly-managed asparagus farm.

It certainly must have come on in leaps and bounds since I used to triple jump alongside it in my youth.

Hearing excuses for having beaten Linnets by only the narrowest of possible margins was a letdown, after such an outstanding effort by our boys.

The silver lining is that it makes the gracious reactions of Bamber Bridge after a tremendous game in the previous round all the more gratifying. And they had lost. Cup football continues, with an FA Trophy trip to Tadcaster Albion this coming Saturday. This will be followed by a home league game against Newcastle Town on Tuesday October 12th.

Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Peter Wylie, James Short, Louis Hayes (Dapo Olarewaju, 69), Evan Gumbs, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch (Eden Gumbs 85), Jacques Welsh, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Rhain Hellawell. Subs (not used): Carl Spellman, Craig Lindfield, Stuart Crilly, Ollie Heywood, Jordan Monthe. Attendance: 907.

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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