22nd October 2016, South Shields FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-1By Dave Bettley
LINNETS returned from a 12-hour return trip to the North East beaten - by a goal two minutes into stoppage time - but unbowed.
The bookies' favourites, South Shields were given a real run for their money in a gripping Buildbase FA Vase tie.
If the ambitious South Tynesiders go on toto win the competition, they will remember just how hard they were pushed by their first-round visitors.
Linnets richly deserved the post-match ovation given in a great show of appreciation and sportsmanship by a home-dominated 1,060 crowd after a cup classic.
Runcorn demonstrated skill and spirit throughout and, having fallen behind so late in the game, almost produced a dramatic equaliser.
But with a shot from Kyle Hamid from eight yards having a goal written all over it, home goalkeeer, Liam Connell pulled off an astonishing save to confirm his side's uneasy passage.
This was an unusual game for the Linnets. Not only was the first time they had played a competitive match before a four-figure crowd, but they were cast in a different role.
Runcorn have become used to largely dominating games and dictating play.
This time, they were mostly on the back foot, particularly in the second half, as South Shields set about retrieving, and ultimately overhauling, an interval deficit.
However, Linnets always looked dangerous on the break and arguably carved out the better chances.
Paul Shanley came close to restoring the Linnets' advantage as the ball entered its final phase.
Advancing to the edge of the box, left of centre, he weighed up and executed a measured shot which was turned away at full stretch by the Mariners' keeper, named man of the match by the Northern League title chasers.
Danger man Shanley, having been kept quiet in the early stages, also bounced a shot onto the top of the opposition bar, athough the angle was always too acute for him to have any chance of finding the net.
The stars of the show for the Linnets were their defenders, who soaked up everything that South Shields could throw at them before the interval.
Left back Danny McKenna had his hands full against an excellent winger but as ever coped extremely well.
When crosses did come in, or the ball came anywhere near their box, central defenders Aaron Morris and Chris Lawton formed an impregnable barrier.
Although having the majority of the possession, South Shields repeatedly found their pockets being picked through good pressing from the away side's midfield.
Giving the ball away once too often, they were stunned as Linnets took a 41st-minute lead thanks to an own goal.
It came from a celebrated source, former Premier League star Julio Arca, after Hamid had spread the ball wide right.
Trying to intercept the resulting cross from Antony Hickey, destined for two Runcorn attackers, the 35-year-old Argentinian and ex -Sunderland ace could only divert it on the stretch into the net.
Runcorn realised that there was still lot work to do against a slick and powerful home side.
Graham Fenton, who bossed arch rivals North Shields to Vase glory in 2014 before switching camps earlier this season, and his co-manger Lee Picton sent their charges out early for the second half.
Six minutes after the restart, Runcorn's resistance was broken, the ball falling kindly for scorer Gavin Cogden, off Linnets' right back Danny O'Brien - much to the relief of an expectant home audience.
The decisive goal, with extra-time beckoning, was another scrambled effort with Robert Briggs, an imposing figure in the Mariners' midfield, seizing on a rebound from a corner.
Having probably been held back, along with fellow sub Bev Burey, for extra-time, Steve Foster was sent on for what little time remained but Runcorn couldn't quite save the day.
The 100 or so Linnets fans, who had certainly made their presence felt, made the long journey home feeling disappointed yet uplifted by their team's efforts.
The Linnets could not have been handed a tougher task but acquitted themselves admirably,
They had only confirmed the suspicions of Fenton, a top-flight player with Aston Villa, Blackburn and Leicester, after a recent scouting mission that this would be a tricky tie. More than tricky as it transpired.
Runcorn resume Hallmark Security League action at home to Barnton this Tuesday (7.45pm) before welcoming Premier Division rivals Ashton Athletic in the league's Macron Cup on Saturday (3pm).
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.