14th November 2017, Sunderland RCA FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-2By Dave Bettley
A SUPERB stoppage-time goal from Mark Houghton earned Runcorn Linnets a cup-tie victory which will count among their most memorable and best.
What was already an epic encounter was made all the more unforgettable when the Linnets struck four minutes beyond the 90 to secure their place in the Buildbase FA Vase third round.
Seeing really was believing as Michael Ellison's side drew on every resource possible after being left a man short from a relatively early stage.
Not for the first time in such situations, the Linnets only grew stronger and more threatening as the game wore on.
With a second extra-time period in the space of four days beckoning for the two well-matched teams, The Hallmark Security Leaguers pulled off something truly magical.
Seeking one golden chance to seal a comeback from 1-0 down, skipper Kyle Hamid picked out Kris Holt on the right edge of the box and the Linnets' Vase replay specialist delivered a perfectly timed, weighted and directed cross for Houghton to drill home instinctively.
After scoring as the Linnets knocked out Team Northumbria in round one, the dual-registered midfield man has certainly made his presence felt along the Runcorn road to Wembley in his two comeback appearances since re-signing for Atherton Colls, his now first-claim club.
Sunderland RCA were stunned and their visitors in dreamland, realising that in getting past the second round of the Vase for only the second time, they had again rewritten club history.
After maiden success over Northern League opposition in Team Northumbria also at the second attempt but in front of their own fans at The Millbank Linnets Stadium, Runcorn were now finally triumphant in the North East.
Arguments continue to rage as to whether they should have been expected to make a 330-mile round trip on a working day.
A 2am return to Runcorn – with additional travelling home time to follow for some - was the last thing the overjoyed players, officials and travelling fans were thinking about on Tuesday. But it is something they shouldn't ever need to consider.
Six-hour trips in midweek, be they for initial ties or a replay (Linnets have done both in the last three seasons) are simply unacceptable, especially when players unable to catch the team bus are forced to drive such a distance at night.
Travelling teams are hugely disadvantaged under these circumstances and the obvious solution is Saturday fixtures in all such Vase situations and not just in the later rounds.
Midfield dynano Michael Simpson had failed to recover from the knock taken in the closing minutes of Saturday's original two-hour struggle.
Top scorer Stuart Wellstead and recent signing Warren Bellew were unavailable and with youngsters Kasie Jones and Rio Gill likewise not making the journey, boss Ellison and first team coach Danny Salt were named as subs alongside the still injured Zac Aley.
Linnets were at least able to call on a strong-looking XI but all that changed in the 34th minute.
Mitch Bryant was sent off after needlessly getting embroiled in an off-the-ball altercation with an RCA defender.
Trying to wrestle free from the clutches of Craig Hodgson, Bryant was alleged to have used an elbow and summarily dismissed by referee Lynsey Robinson, largely it seemed on the say-so of one of her assistants.
Hodgson was taken off injured, although happily reports of him nursing a broken jaw now appear exaggerated. As for the seriousness of the offence itself, probably only Mitch will know the level of contact and intent.
At the end of an even first half that had produced few, if any, real chances in open play, Runcorn's literally uphill fight against the considerable slope in the second 45 minutes became all the steeper.
Into the last minute before the break, RCA went ahead as centre back Ross Preston directed a steepling header from James Armstrong's right-wing corner into the far side of goal.
Runcorn had to withstand further pressure after the restart. But 'keeper Matt Holmes was unflappable with central defenders Aaron Morris and Jimmy Moore similarly impregnable in open play.
Full backs O'Brien and Matt Atherton also played full parts in the rearguard action by repelling the inevitable threat from the flanks.
O'Brien hauled Linnets back into the contest after 52 minutes, sending 'keeper Keith Finch the wrong way after Houghton had been brought down by giant substitute Adam McGuinness, having got beyond the defender who was pretty well the last man.
No card was issued this time although there were two cautions for RCA and four for Linnets.
As the tie progressed, Runcorn defied the numerical inequality by getting runners forward.
Invariably either lacking a perfect option or unable to produce a final ball, they had to bide their time - waiting and hoping for a genuine opportunity.
What a time to find it - and finish off RCA's challlenge.
It has to be remembered that the Wearsiders had reached the last 16 in the last two seasons and their part in proceedings should not be forgotten either.
It was a great way to win but a cruel fashion to lose.
However, over two rollercoaster games, there is no question that Linnets deserved to go through.
They now await another Northern League side and the highest ranked yet in terms of league position.
Marske United, lying second in their table two points behind Morpeth Town with a game in hand, will visit the MLS on Saturday, December 2nd.
Relatively fresh and still raw for the Linnets are memories of their heavy away defeat by Markse, after a similarly controversial and much less rewarding Tuesday night trip in the second round of the Vase - in November 2015.
Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Matt Atherton, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Kieran Nolan, Kris Holt, Kyle Hamid, Mitch Bryant, Paul Shanley, Mark Houghton. Subs (not used): Freddie Potter, Chris Lawton, Zac Aley, Michael Ellison, Danny Salt.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.