24th October 2017, Runcorn Linnets FC v Team Northumbria : 3-2
A combination of tough draws with near misses or more favourable draws that yielded poor results has meant that the Linnets have only ever progressed past the 1st round proper stage once in our 10 years of entering the competition.
That was way back in 2008 when we were dumped out of the 3rd round by the competition holders and NWCL champions elect AFC Fylde, a team far too strong for the Linnets on that day.
That disappointing run finally came to an end on Tuesday evening as another lingering hoodoo was finally broken, this being our inability to yield a victory over a team from the Northern League.
Often controversial for its lack of promoting clubs to Step 4, the Northern League is widely recognised as the strongest Step 5 league of the 14 across the country and they have a particularly striking record in the FA Vase. In the last 10 years, they have had at least one finalist on nine occasions, and have had the winning team in eight.
We fell victim to one of these clubs only last season, our conquerors South Shields going on to win the Vase and Northern League title.
Opponents in this 1st round proper replay, Team Northumbria, currently sit mid-table in the Northern League Division One, the same level of the pyramid as ourselves.
I found Team Northumbria a difficult club to research. Very little information is available about them online or on social media, other than the fact that they are a team linked to Northumbria University and play in Newcastle.
Michael Ellison had a stronger squad of players to pick from than he did in drawn match on Saturday.
Matt Holmes returned in goal, Aaron Morris and Kyle Hamid came straight back into the side following suspensions, Adam Jones started in place of Stu Wellstead and there was a welcome return to the side for Kris Holt.
The dual-registered Holt helped out the depleted Linnets with parent club Atherton Colls having no midweek fixture; a big thanks too to our friends at Colls for allowing Holt to feature.
Smith, Aley, Wellstead, Bryant and Kasie Jones were the substitutes.
The first-half performance from the hosts can only be described as outstanding. The Linnets started the game at a thunderous pace, giving TN no input in the game whatsoever.
Mark Houghton had a goal correctly ruled out early on, following a tight offside decision, and the Linnets continued to pile the pressure on with a series of attacks down the wings and a plethora of corner kicks.
It was from one of these corners that the Linnets took the lead on 25 minutes. The clever corner deceived the TN reargued, which had not anticipated a low cross into the near post, where Holt was in position to flick the ball past the goalkeeper and celebrate as if he had never been away.
More Linnets pressure followed and led to the second goal 13 minutes later. The ever-willing Mark Houghton was stronger in the tackle than his marker, and despite being forced away from goal by the imposing TN goalkeeper Stefan Holden, he managed to swivel on a sixpence to put the ball beyond Holden's outstretched arms and into the net.
Not a minute had passed when Paul Shanley, a constant torment to the TN full back, broke into the penalty area at pace and was scythed down by Ross McKeown for a clear and undisputed penalty.
It's no secret that penalties haven't been our strong suit in Ello's time as manager, and with now regular taker Stu Wellstead (who missed a penalty in the initial tie on Saturday) on the bench, all in the MLS were wondering who was going to step up to the oche.
Danny O'Brien stepped forward to sweep a cracking penalty into the bottom right corner, so precisely that it beat Holden - despite the big stopper going the right way with an early dive.
Nobody in the MLS could argue that the 3-0 half time lead wasn't deserved for a dominant, high- paced and ruthless first-half performance.
As it transpired, it was a good job that we managed such a strong 45 minutes!
Within 10 minutes of the restart, it was clear that fatigue was starting to set in for the normally super-fit Linnets.
On the hour mark, TN grabbed themselves a lifeline. Robbie Spence's free kick from the left wing was swung into the centre of the penalty area, evading everyone and appearing to go straight in without a decisive touch.
There was a shout from TN's captain to his team mates along the lines of the Linnets players running on empty and TN started moving in for the kill.
A very young side, they were not going to tire and heaped the pressure on for the remainder of the game.
There was yet another injury blow for Ellison to counter as Adam Jones was forced off after a strong 50/50 challenge, Bryant taking his place and forcing a slight reshuffle.
As the game wore on, and the Linnets began to tire, some of the decision making from the home side became poor. It was this that led to the tie being opened right up with a second goal.
Having soaked up 25 minutes of TN pressure with relative ease, the Linnets were given a free kick in the left full back area. With everyone out of position, the kick was taken quickly, instead of Runcorn slowing the game down. The ball was given straight back to our opponents, who charged at goal in numbers and won a free kick just outside the penalty area.
The strike beat the wall but was well saved by Holmes, who was quick on his feet to save the rebound effort but left somewhat exposed by his defence as a second rebound was turned in by Angelia Eleftheardis.
There was now 10 minutes plus stoppage time left to play and you just knew it was going to feel like an hour!
With TN pushing forward in numbers, the Linnets actually had a glorious opportunity to put the game to bed. Bryant, leading a counter attack, rounded the goalkeeper but dragged his shot well wide of the open goal.
Matt Holmes was the saviour as the game entered its final, thrilling stages. He dived at the feet of an attacker who was about to convert the equaliser from a low-right wing cross before taking a catch at full stretch from a right wing corner, under immense pressure.
Another corner was volleyed well over by TN before one last chance actually had the visiting bench up on their feet celebrating an equaliser. Thankfully for the Linnets, the ball had slammed into the far side netting, giving the illusion of a goal from the bench.
The whistle finally blew at close to 10pm to bring this enthralling double header to a conclusion, players and spectators alike sodden from a solid hour of rain to add to the cup-tie atmosphere.
The general feeling was that over the two games, the Linnets just about deserved to go through. This tie was undoubtedly won with a stunning first- half display, which gave the visitors just that bit too much to do.
Michael Ellison's side deserve heaps of praise for going through - from having to play 120 minutes up in Newcastle with 12 players (and Ello being forced to bring himself on as an emergency substitute) right through to grinding out the victory under pressure from a talented and fit side.
And all of this on the back of a ridiculous run of six consecutive away games, none of which ended in defeat.
I also feel the need to praise Team Northumbria. They played the game in the right way from the off. No dirty tackles, no unsporting behaviour, and no dropping of their heads even at 3-0 down.
Another set of star performers on the night were the three match officials with linesmen making strong decisions themselves, instead of looking to the referee to make it for them.
The referee got pretty much every decision correct with an explanation to the offending player if required. None of these were challenged.
A subjective view of course, but I felt that they were the best officials that we have had all season.
So, after all that, we progress to the 2nd round proper for only the second time, and quite remarkably, we have a very rare home draw!
We will host Northern League opposition again in the form of Sunderland RCA, currently 5th in their league table, on Saturday, November 11th at the Millbank Linnets Stadium.
Attention now returns to the bread and butter of league action as we host Barnoldswick Town at the MLS on Saturday afternoon, ko 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Mark Houghton, Matt Atherton, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Michael Simpson, Kris Holt, Kyle Hamid, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Adam Jones. Sub: Mitch Bryant. Not used: Stuart Wellstead, Kasie Jones, Zac Aley, Terry Smith.
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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