[ Written By Ian Brown ]
County secured themselves a Cheshire Senior Cup Semi Final spot with a 1-0 win last night against an excellent Runcorn Town team at Sandy Lane, in a cracking match in which both teams wanted to progress.
The win was deserved, but not without an amount of difficulty on the way, as, if County looked the more assured at times, there was no lack of application and energy from Town, who put a fairly strong County side under a fair amount of pressure from first to last minute.
The fact that County withstood this well, was testament to how well they applied themselves, and the County youngsters in their midst played really well. JG sent out an experienced front line, but filled the defence with a clutch of younger talents.
If Festus Arthur was the pick of these, Downing, Robinson and Whitty were not far behind, and I will again show my bias by giving lively forward Saag El Hassen a mention – he was only on for a couple of minutes at the death, but showed in those 120 seconds or so just what he has to offer – that is loads!
Elsewhere, Kirby was the stand out danger for County, whilst Nyal Bell, took some stick from the home defenders, but stayed focused enough to notch the winner for the white shirted Blues.
The performance must have pleased JG. It certainly sent a good sized County following home happy!
Anyone foolish enough to think that this was going to be a shoo in for County were soon disavowed of that nonsense, as straight from the off, Town piled into the business of unsettling County and notching an early goal.
The moves from the home side were neat and lively, but so were Arthur and Downing, for County, and this gave confidence.
Etches, called back from loan at 24 hours notice, got into the fray early getting in more than one tasty tangle with Rodgers deep in Town territory.
If Town had most of the early attacking possession, Kirby gave early notice of his intent seeing a shot saved neatly by keeper Read.
Five minutes in and our hosts won a free kick, and from this a half chance emerged only for it to vanish as quickly as it had appeared when Tuck dragged his shot wide.
The pressure increased from Town and both Downing and Turnbull were forced to concede free kicks in a fairly frenetic period. Neither kick came to anything – Byrnes hitting the wall with the first, and the second one from Thelwell went straight into Ormson’s arms.
If judged by volume of possession, Town were perhaps shading it at this point. County attacks looked to carry more weight, but that said Dimaio’s shot from a pass from Etches, could not get past Read, who was to be an real obstacle to the Hatters progress,in the home goal.
Meanwhile, between the sticks for County, Ormson was on his toes with a couple of neat clean up jobs as Runcorn buzzed and ferreted for scraps in the box.
But there was still evidence of County’s attacking intent also, and Turnbull would have been disappointed to see Read deny him 17 minutes in.
Another minute… another save from Read, this time from Bell snap shot on the turn. The young keeper was certainly earning his corn, and no mistake – he was not going to undermine the good work farther forward with sloppy work, and I was probably not the only one to be impressed.
A brief lull in excitement came next, ended by Dimaio whose run nicked his team a corner. The pressure was on as Read rose to punch clear, and again from the throw that followed, but Town`s defensive unit held firm and it stayed 0-0.
Back came County through Bell, who somehow made it to the by-line despite having James for company. Even better, he fired in a decent effort, only to see Read clutch the ball to his chest at his near post.
That was good from Bell, and more followed as Kirby, Dimaio and Osborne linked up to probe menacingly down the right. Nothing came of it, as again the Town defence stood firm – Kirby being particularly unlucky.
County were certainly mounting a determined response to the early angst initiated by our hosts, and Bell was the butt of a couple of iffy challenges around this point, but in neither case could the Hatters make the resultant free kick count.
Thirty two minutes in, and Runcorn worked themselves a chance to make County rue those spurned free kicks, as Exell made a determined break from deep. He had Tuck to his right and picked him out nicely with a pin point pass. Tuck was off and running and Ormson was second favourite as the forward lined up his shot… but Tuck snatched at it, sending his effort high and wide to the disappointment of the home specs.
With 10 minutes left of the half, I was noticing how well Whitty was getting forward down the right, and he was inches away from reaching Dimaio with a probing ball, one minute, and there again not long after to win a corner. This came to nought, as did a break by Bell due to an excellent tackle from James.
This was quality stuff now from both teams and something of a disappointment to see the half end, with Dimaio denied in the box from a high cross from Turnbull.
Both teams attacked upon the re-start neither managing to beat the opposing keeper despite some determined work. Etches went close early on, but Liam Turner did enough to ensure the shot went the wrong side of the woodwork. Kirby and Robinson joined forces next, the young full back getting forward well, but his final ball missed out with something on in front of goal.
That was encouraging, and ushered in more good vibes as Bell capitalised on some un-typical confusion from the home defence to draw Read and slam the ball home.
County attacked in numbers after this forcing Runcorn to concede free kicks when worse beckoned. None of the set pieces had end product however – Etches and Kirby unsuccessful with attempts on goal.
Then came 4 or 5 minutes of concerted attacking from Town, but no goal as County’s young defenders showed their metal.
Bell left to warm applause on 66 minutes, being replaced by the highly promising Will Holt, as with Robinson continuing to get forward well County set about getting a deciding second goal.
This proved elusive though – Dimaio wide with an effort on 68 minutes, and Kirby denied by Read, his shot saved bravely by the keeper as the County man surged clear.
On it went, Holt unlucky to see Read keep his shot out, and Kirby, who was definitely after that number eleven shirt, no less unfortunate suffering a similar fate as County piled it on, into the last quarter of an hour.
All this attacking from JG’s men, did not tempt me at all to write off Runcorn’s chances – they continued to excite the locals with some lively play. Just the finish was missing – hindered of course by County`s application to defensive detail, and Festus Arthur typified this with a magnificent block to thwart Lindfield.
Then Danny Byrnes took a hand for Paul Mc Manus’s side threading a neat ball into the path of Craig Lindfield. It was a real chance, and the shot duly followed taking a wicked deflection on the way. Ormson was already heading left and a terrific bit of agility from him saw an instant change of direction result in an improbable save of real quality!
Cue a response from County via Kirby, but again he was disappointed to see Read make the save as Etches took his pass and took a pot at goal.
Charlie Scott came on for Adam Etches with 10 minutes left, as Runcorn gave no sign of a let up in their desire for an equaliser.
In fact they were straining every sinew to get one and only a truly superb save from Ormson stopped Francious Antoine from getting one – it was a belter!
Manager Paul McManus brought himself on with 4 minutes left- a measure perhaps of the home sides determination to prevail, but County continued to pull out all the stops in response – Scott and Holt doing well to work the ball up the park.
Downing and Arthur meanwhile were in splendid nick in the centre of the County back line – doing excellent work as Runcorn pinged over long throws and corners.
Osborne did well relieving pressure by bringing the ball out of defence nicely, but we maybe needed an additional element of surprise up front, and JG provided it by bringing the excellent Saag El Hassen on in added time for Kirby.
He was involved straight away, combining neatly with Holt, using his nippy runs to unsettle a tiring Town defence.
Deep into added time El Hassen`s run saw him pick out Dimaio with a fine cross, only for Read to spoil it all with another solid stop.
Not long after, what had been an excellent game, was over, and County were in the Semi-Finals.
That was a fine showing (from both teams), and smiles abounded as spectators left for home afterwards.
Look out for the draw then, and do not be at all tempted to miss the Semi!
[ Do you want photos… course you do. Get ’em here! ]
Runcorn Town line up:-
Read, Turner, Byrnes, Thelwell Shepherd 65), James, Rodgers, Exell ( McManus 86), Weaver, Tuck ( Lindfield 60) , Antoine, Wainwright.
Subs not used : Cookson.
Stockport County line up:-
Ormson, Whitty, Arthur, Downing, Robinson, Turnbull, Etches ( Scott 81), Osborne, Bell ( Holt 66), Dimaio, Kirby ( El Hassen 90).
Subs not used : Smith, Gaskell.