11th November 2017, Runcorn Linnets FC v Sunderland RCA FC : 1-1by Ste Bignall
Runcorn Linnets had waited a long time to host a big Saturday afternoon FA Vase match, so when the opportunity finally came along they made sure that it was a memorable spectacle!
Sunderland RCA (Ryhope Community Association) of the Vase-dominating Ebac Northern League Division One were the visitors for what ended up as two hours of enthralling cup-tie football. It was great to see a coach load of visiting supporters make the long trip from the North East to spend the afternoon with us.
Sporting rivalries were put to one side in the 10 minutes prior to kick off as both teams players, supporters and neutrals took part in a wonderfully-orchestrated Remembrance ceremony on Armistice Day.
Led on to the field by army veterans from the Cheshire Regiment Association, both team captains laid wreaths in the centre circle before the silence was broken by The Last Post. The commemoration was rounded off by a verse from the Remembrance Day poem "W – read over the PA system by Linnets' chairman, Mark Buckley.
Danny O'Brien had failed to recover from the injury picked up a week earlier against WD&C and his was the only Linnets absence from that eye catching 7-0 victory.
Chris Lawton took a place in central defence, Jimmy Moore moving out to right back.
The game could not have started any more eventfully. RCA set their stall out from the off, switching play across the park at a high pace, and using their standout left winger as the main outlet.
They had the ball in the Linnets net after only four minutes, following a well-crafted move. It was a surprise to all inside the MLS to see the linesman raise an offside flag.
Only a minute later came the next major talking point - a straight red card for Linnets skipper Kyle Hamid. This decision spilt opinion down the middle, with supporters on both sides feeling this it could have gone either way. The referee gave himself plenty of time to reach a conclusion.
There is no doubt it was a strong tackle and late due to the RCA player just getting to the ball ahead of Hamid. But it wasn't high; it wasn't malicious; there was no intent to hurt; it was on halfway, near the seated stand, and we had only played five minutes of a highly-charged cup tie.
The next 20 minutes saw a display as impressive as any seen from visitors to the MLS. It's rare the Linnets aren't on top in a home game, or at least playing an equal part, but RCA had us chasing shadows.
RCA hit the bar with a header from a corner, then won the first of countless very soft free-kicks over the 120 minutes. From 25 yards, Dylan Elliot fooled everyone in yellow and green by curling his free-kick low around the wall to find the bottom corner for a deserved 18th-minute lead.
Matt Holmes might be slightly disappointed to have conceded from a free kick on his side of the defensive wall, but it was an excellent set piece.
Two more guilt-edged chances followed for the visitors. With the game looking to be heading away from the doubtlessly shellshocked Linnets, they started to settle and impose themselves. Paul Shanley hit a rasping drive from the edge of the area and the goalkeeper did well to hold.
In the midst of good home pressure and at a perfect time, came the equaliser. In-form Stuart Wellstead - 20 yards from goal and with RCA expecting a pass - fired an effort into the very bottom left corner.
As the half neared an end, the number of players on each side also evened out. A challenge by Elliot on Chris Lawton, very similar in every way to Hamid's earlier, brought about a straight red for the midfielder and also led to Lawton being withdrawn injured.
He was replaced at half-time by the returning Warren Bellew, signed 24 hours earlier. Jimmy Moore reverted to the heart of defence, Michael Simpson slotting in at right back and Bellew into midfield.
As the second half developed, the game became cagey. In the final minutes, the Linnets almost lost out due to a bizarre series of refereeing decisions.
Shanley was flattened as he neared the RCA penalty area with no free-kick awarded, and the ball worked its way back through the Linnets midfield to the right back area to build another attack.
With Shanley back on his feet the official then decided to stop the game to check on Shanley with the Linnets in possession. But instead of the now customary move of allowing the opposition to hoof the ball back to the Linnets and let play resume, the referee opted for a contested dropped ball - something rarely seen these days - on the edge of the Linnets penalty area.
Another weak free-kick was awarded as an RCA player hit the deck, and the resulting it was clawed to safety at the second attempt by Matt Holmes.
There was only one chance for either side in the first period of extra time; a glorious chance for Linnets to take the lead. Wellstead connected with Bellew's fine, quick cross but the top scorer's six-yard header crashed against a post with the goalkeeper well beaten.
The second period was as action packed and nail biting as possible!
Freddie Potter, brought on for Mark Houghton, soon tried some heroics - almost catching the keeper out from distance. RCA were next to come close to breaking the deadlock when cutting in from the right but Holmes was quick to smother one on one.
Another questionable refereeing decision threatened to ruin the contest with 10 minutes remaining. A long ball forward beat the Linnets defence but Holmes was again quickly off his line to cover the danger. He beat the RCA attacker to the ball with a chested block before a full force head-on collision of the pair.
It was unclear at first who red card was for, until Holmes and Matty Atherton swapped shirts and a shocked-looking Holmes trudged back towards the dressing room.
RCA's goalkeeper, turning to the Linnets supporters at the clubhouse end, said "I think he's sent him for handball, but it hit him clearly on his chest". As the goalkeepers crossed paths Holmes confirmed he had been sent off for handball - a baffling decision for an 'offence' which only one man inside the MLS witnessed.
There was a sporting hug between the goalkeepers before Holmes left the field, both acknowledging the part their opposite number had played.
We've been here before with Athers, and this talented overall sportsman was never going to roll over in face of adversity. Immediately, he saved and held on to a dipping free-kick, awarded on the back of Holmes' red card.
RCA, now well in the ascendancy, put in huge penalty claims. Thankfully, the referee didn't spot another phantom handball.
With numbers committed forward, the Linnets almost nicked a very late win. Out of nowhere, a neat one-two between Simpson and Potter sent the makeshift full back on a run into the penalty area and his ferocious shot beat the keeper at his near post.
But it hit the inside of the upright and rolled along the goal line before spinning out agonisingly for a goal kick.
The match official then gave a booking to RCA's right back for the best tackle of the entire game, to prevent Shanley breaking into the penalty area. .
There was to be one final chance to the visitors. It seemed that every time a Linnets player went up to challenge for a header, the referee awarded the visitors a free kick.
In another such incident, a free-kick from the edge of the Linnets penalty area, beat the wall and was heading for the bottom corner until Athers got down like a second slip fielder to palm away, Aaron Morris hooking clear.
Rapturous applause rang out out after a fiercely-fought yet admirable display by two excellent sides.
Both teams felt like they had done enough to win the game, so a draw was probably the right result.
Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Matt Atherton, Chris Lawton, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Kieran Nolan, Michael Simpson, Kyle Hamid, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Stuart Wellstead.
Subs: Warren Bellew, Mitch Bryant, Freddie Potter. Not used: Kasie Jones, Zac Aley.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.