7th November 2017, Congleton Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1By Dave Bettley
Stuart Wellstead struck in the nick of time to earn Runcorn Linnets their first Cheshire Senior Cup victory in five seasons.
An entertaining and closely-fought preliminary round tie was heading for extra-time when Stuart Wellstead struck with his 16th campaign goal.
Another 30 minutes would have been the last thing either side wanted but with both having put everything into the Booth Street contest, Wellstead produced another quality finish to continue his rapid rise up the scoring charts.
With central defender Jimmy Moore serving a one-match suspension, Antony Hickey starting his four-game ban and Freddie Potter unavailable, manager Michael Ellison rang the changes.
Veteran Chris Lawton made his first start since the FA Vase draw at Team Northumbria while, with Danny O'Brien nursing an injury after Saturday's 7-0 league defeat of West Didsbury & Chorlton, there was a first senior start at right back for the Linnets' County youth player Kasie Jones.
Fellow youngster Rio Gill was likewise handed a full debut - up front alongside the experienced Mitch Bryant.
Ellison had the luxury of a very strong bench in case his partly experimental line-up ran into trouble. But in the event, substitutions were made to win rather than save the game and the tactic worked a treat.
Congleton, with Steve Foster (who became a cult hero in his short spell at the Millbank) leading their line, had the majority of the efforts at goal but their finishing was wayward. In terms of shot stopping, Matt Holmes barely had to lay gloves on the ball after making a more than useful save in the first half.
Wellstead went closest for Linnets before the break, striking the framework of the goal.
Overall, the Linnets had marginally more of the play and as the game wore on, the familiar figure of former Maine Road and Winsford 'keeper Andrew Jones, with one pre-season appearance for Runcorn in his career history, was called into action with increasing regularity.
Gill and Mark Houghton, a premature substitute for the injured Adam Jones, were both denied by near-post saves from shots which were from difficult angles on the right and also somewhat hurried.
Into the last five minutes, it looked in one fully-fledged raid as if Runcorn just had to score. But Paul Shanley, who had been introduced around the same time as club captain Kyle Hamid, saw two snapshot attempts blocked before Wellstead swivelled to connect - only for the the Congleton custodian Jones to react well by turning the effort away from the centre of his goal.
However, the Linnets' in-form double act, scorers of weekend hat-tricks, were not to be denied. Paul Shanley, coming into the action on the right of Runcorn's front three instead of taking up his customary position on the left, was the creator.
He advanced in typical style to serve up a cross which was slightly behind Wellstead but the mercurial finisher was still able to get enough power and precision on his header. It beat 'keeper Jones to his right.
This sealed Runcorn's first Senior Cup success since their 3-2 away win against Alsager, at the same stage of the competition, on Wednesday, November 6th 2014.
Linnets had exited at the first time of asking in each of the last four campaigns.
The final word is reserved for 17-year-old Kasie Jones whose impressive and mature performance showed the fans why he is so highly regarded by the Linnets management team.
Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Matt Atherton, Chris Lawton, Aaron Morris, Kasie Jones, Kieran Nolan, Michael Simpson, Stuart Wellstead, Mitch Bryant, Rio Gill, Adam Jones. Subs: Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Kyle Hamid. Not used: Danny O'Brien, Michael Ellison.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.