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17th October 2020, Sheffield FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-3

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets ticked off another entry on their groundhopper list with The Buildbase FA Trophy visit to the Coach & Horses Ground in Dronfield, the Derbyshire exile of the world's oldest football club, Sheffield FC.

This came two years after the FA Cup win over SFC's ancient rivals Hallam FC, who boast the world's oldest ground.

Today's opponents had four points from as many games in the South East Division of the NPL, parallel on the pyramid with Linnets' North West status.

A raft of rotations in the Linnets line-up included another new goalkeeper, Paddy Wharton's unavoidable absence this time covered by Nik Bulmer, who is dual registered with Runcorn Town.

Scrappy early exchanges had the Runcorn travellers looking a little sluggish, with Sheffield attacking more urgently.

Ryan Brooke required early attention for a bloody nose after a clash of heads with Ben Turner on the left touchline.

And we were still waiting for proceedings to settle into a pattern when a slightly pedestrian Linnets defence watched Jamie Yates play a ball left to Cody Prior, whose sweeping shot found the top right corner for a lead after six minutes.

Linnets aimed to make amends immediately, and a Ryan Brooke nod put Iwan Murray away for a run on goal. Referee Matthew Tyers did well from an obscured viewpoint to spot Iwan being pulled back by an arm 25 yards out.

Rather than cross, Tom McCready tried a sneaky shot, but hooked it wide of the left post.

On ten minutes, there were penalty shouts for another challenge that put Murray on the deck, but centre-half Josh Burns did appear to have his focus firmly on the ball as he headed clear.

Sheffield were attacking swiftly on the break, and the visiting defence continued to look worryingly tardy in covering, the heads of Lycett and O'Mahony and boots of Brown and Short getting in the way sufficiently to repel the danger.

Bulmer also had to get in the way of a threatening combination by Yates and Ashley Grayson.

Almost 20 minutes had passed when the hosts took the game's first corner, which was cleared for a promising move to develop among McCready, Lindfield and Crilly, only to run long for a throw-in.

So far there was little of the quality on show from both sides in Runcorn's 1-1 home draw with Clitheroe the previous Saturday.

Sheffield resumed attacking intent, and Ally Brown headed confidently over his own bar before the ball could reach centre-forward Marc Newsham, poised dangerously inside the 6-yard box.

An on-target header from the corner was cleared by Lycett.On the break, Brooke found Brown wide right, but the cross lacked his usual aplomb, and a follow-up attack earned a first Runcorn corner on 27 minutes.

It found the head of Brooke, but under pressure his effort cleared the bar.

Brooke was there again to put Murray through, but he was helped to the floor by an elbow. The free-kick hit the defensive wall, a second attempt chipped over it to Crilly, but he headed wide.

As the half-hour mark passed, Linnets were showing increasing attacking enterprise, and arms and elbows were playing a greater role in the hosts' 50/50 challenges.

Mr Tyers believed that verbal warnings would stem that tide, but I can't remember many occasions when they ever have.

After a Sheffield corner was headed away, Jamie Green had a decent sight of goal, but he sliced the effort wide, and Runcorn attacked again.

Burns got to a useful low cross from Brown before it could reach Brooke, then a high ball over the defence got to Murray, but he was offside.

Five minutes before the break, my notes reflected deja vu when Iwan Murray was clattered from behind, but again the referee felt 'a word' with Stuart Ludlum would persuade him to desist, and the same applied when Burns flattened Ryan Brooke on the right flank.

The free-kick was repelled, and when Lycett launched another attempt, it curled over the bar.

As half-time beckoned, a great cut inside and through ball by Short put Murray in on goal, but Yates felled him again, 22 yards out.

Craig Lindfield liked that distance, and Sheffield 'keeper Hedge was rooted to the spot as Linny's free-kicked cutled into the bottom right corner to level at 1-1.

In the absence of the yellow rectangle, perhaps that would convince Murray's tormentors that tactical fouling wasn't the ideal way to stop him.

An almost identical free-kick opportunity at the other end resulted in a shot over the bar, and it was half-time.

Linnets' performance was appearing to grow steadily from a heavy-footed start, and that process was to gather pace after the interval.

Perhaps the slow start had resulted from the rarified atmosphere on the journey over the Peaks.

Both sides were attempting to advance quickly when they gained possession, but the visitors were doing so with more passing moves on the floor, and involving more players.

Full-backs Brown and Short were getting forward more and interlocking with Murray, Lindfield, McCready and Brooke, creating longer spells of possession and pulling the Sheffield defence out of shape.

But two minutes after the break, Bulmer in the Runcorn goal was still called upon to make the first of a number of vital saves, and Sheffield were having their fair share of attacking pressure, using pace up the wings.

With Brown and Short getting upfield more, they were having to work hard to track back, and Louis Hayes was spending more time playing deep, to assist Lycett and O'Mahony in resisting home attacks.

On 53 minutes, after a Crilly-Murray combination ran too long, a Sheffield break drew another Bulmer save, the resulting corner being cleared and a second attempt from Nabay flying high.

From the goal-kick, Louis Hayes was felled on the halfway line, but the advantage granted by the referee almost bore fruit.

Another Crilly-Murray exchange in the area set up a booming shot by Brooke, and 'keeper Hedge did well with his blocking save.

A carbon copy of the move a minute later presented Brooke with an open window a yard outside the area, and he smashed it home through a populated box, to put the visitors ahead.

It had been coming. Linnets didn't rest on their laurels.

On the hour, a Brown cross found Lindfield, and his attempt contacted two defensive heads, going out for a corner when it could just as easily have ended up in the net.

The corner was knocked back by O'Mahony for Murray to shoot a fraction wide of the left post.

After an apparent climb on Short's shoulders set up a low Grayson cross that was caught by Bulmer, his clearance set up Lindfield to let rip from 25 yards, clearing the bar again with the 'keeper's feet planted on the floor.

A Runcorn corner was cleared for a Sheffield break, which ended with a trip beyond the right side of the Linnets area. It was taken short, Ally Brown blocking the cross at close quarters.

Sheffield boss Gavin Smith made the first change with 25 minutes remaining, Joel Purkiss on for Foday Nebay.

Five minutes later, Linnets worked their best move of the game, two passes each by Short, Murray, Lindfield and Brooke leaving the Sheffield defence chasing their tails, but Murray's shot was ultimately deflected for a corner.

Yates had already done more than enough to earn a yellow card in his marshalling of Murray, but it was his dangerous lunge on McCready that finally persuaded Mr Tyers to produce his flexible friend

It appeared to distract the visitors more than their hosts, though, as moments later the Runcorn defence allowed plenty of time and space for Grayson to find the top right corner in a virtual replica of Prior's opening goal.

Fifteen minutes remained for either side to avoid a tie-breaker from the penalty spot. Linnets fans hoped this wouldn't be a case of their team taking increasing control of the game and then letting it slip.

Two minutes after the equaliser, too much time and space was allowed again for Yates to let rip, but his shot flew wide and high.

The last contribution in a hard-working performance by Ryan Brooke was to beat two men in the centre circle, lose it then win it back again, and supply Lindfield on the left. His cross found Brown wide right, and it took three opponents to dispossess him.

A double substitution by Calum McIntyre saw Ben Wharton and Jacques Welsh introduced for Brooke and Hayes, giving them eight minutes to help their team advance to the next round without a penalty shoot-out.

Wharton was in the area quickly, a one-two with Murray prompting a clearance that ricocheted off Ben for a goal-kick. Then an overlapping move between McCready and Lindfield found Wharton near the penalty spot, but before he could shoot, Ally Brown ahead of him was flagged offside.

Iwan Murray's run on goal was halted by a perfectly-timed tackle on the 18-yard line by Stuart Ludlum.

Sheffield attacked on the break, and after a lengthy period of Runcorn domination, travelling fans feared the worst as Bulmer had to make another superb close-range save to concede a corner on the left.

Another from the right allowed a free header by Newsham that was a fraction too high, and the Runcorn faithful were crossing their fingers for the inevitable-looking 12-yard lottery.

But Sean O'Mahony had other ideas. We were into five minutes of added time when the game saw its second and final yellow card, Cody Prior the recipient for a blatant pull on Murray's arm as he broke towards the halfway line.

The Cork Colossus (I'll keep repeating it until it sticks), met the ball 15 yards out with a looping header with Hedge being caught a yard off his line. As it curved over him, the 'keeper backtracked to got a hand to the ball, pushing it on to the underside of the bar. It was already over the line when it hit the 'keeper again on its way down and into the net.

A pyramid of celebrating bodies in orange and black made O'Mahony its foundation.

Time was almost up, but the shoot-out could still have materialised. From the restart Sheffield attacked for the last time. Alex Wonham's effort, arguably the shot of the game, flashed past the top left corner.

The final whistle sounded, and Linnets were in the hat for the next round.

From a slow start, they had steadily gained the initiative and undoubtedly bossed possession and played the better football in the second half.

But the oldest club in the world had created enough chances to have won, given a bit more luck among plenty of attempts on goal.

Even the most cynical neutral couldn't pretend they hadn't witnessed a thoroughly- entertaining cup-tie.

Linnets had three days to get their breath back for a home league game against Tadcaster Albion on Tuesday.

Runcorn Linnets:Nik Bulmer, Ally Brown, James Short, Louis Hayes (Ben Wharton 82), Sean O'Mahoney, Scott Lycett, Stuart Crilly, Tom McCready, Ryan Brooke (Jacques Welsh 82), Iwan Murray (Tom Ruffer 90), Craig Lindfield. Subs not used: Adam Barthram, Alex Turner.

Attendance: 281.

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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