Runcorn Town 2 – 2 Skelmersdale United (Runcorn Town win 5-4 on penalties)

By Martin Stewart

Despite a very poor run of results, a sizeable band of hopeful United supporters made the short trip down the motorway to Runcorn to witness what looked a very winnable cup tie in the bright, but a little bit chilly, sunshine.

The manager made a number of changes to the side beaten so comprehensively at Kendal just a week ago.   New signing Jay Howells came straight into central midfleld where he would partner Dana Amaral and returning playmaker Jesse Dowling in what looked like a subtle change of formation.   They would make up a midfield three with Luke Byron, Gabriel Ellis and Mark Bollongino pushing up as a front three.   Joe Blanchard was also back at the heart of the defence.

The pitch at Runcorn Town isn’t the best for flowing football, bobbly in places with longer that usual grass and both sides seemed to struggle with juggling the ball into control in the early stages.   Skem’s new midfield seemed to cope better and Amaral stole the ball in the 5th minute before running into the box and laying it off to Bollongino who’s shot was straight at the keeper.

Two minutes later and Byron was fouled outside the box, the resulting free kick was floated to the far post where Ellis stooped to place a header back across goal, but no-one was on hand to convert.

The home side seemed to be content with playing long balls up to their forwards and on 15 mins Joel Ankers latched onto one but fired way over the crossbar.  As if to make him feel better about the miss, just 4 mins later Howells found himself in a shooting position 25 yards out for Skem and blazed over by a similar margin.

Byron was causing all sorts of problems for the home side and only tugs, trips and fouls were stopping him from making any headway.   On 27 mins he tricked he way into the box and tried to feed Bollongino and Ellis who were waiting in support, but could only force the ball out for a corner.   At this point Skem were camped in the opposition half of the pitch with Howells in particular being busy and tidy in possession, whilst quickly retrieving the ball every time it was lost, he looks a very good signing indeed.

With a goal looking likely, it’s an ancient footballing law that states it will inevitably go to the side least looking like scoring it and so was the case here on 31 minutes.   Another of those long balls was played out to Kevin Ellison who powered his way into the box and shot at goal.  Ben Barnes saved well but the rebound found its way to Ankers who gratefully slotted the ball home.

Byron was still receiving unwanted attention from Runcorn defenders and little protection from the referee, so when his temper finally got the better of him on 35 minutes and he found himself the first name in the book, you could feel the seethe from the United bench a mile away.

Despite these setbacks, United kept on the front foot and kept on pinning back their opponents.  Deep into stoppage time Byron again went on a brilliant run into the box, his shot well saved at the near post by his namesake Dane Byron in the home goal   H-T 1-0

In the second half United looked to carry on piling on the pressure, Amaral had a good shout for a penalty turned down and then Ellis broke through two tackles on the edge of the area before firing over the bar.  Eventually the pressure would have to pay off and on 57 minutes it did.   A chip to the far post from Dowling found Bollongino who doesn’t often make a mistake when in a position like this.  He took one touch before drilling the equaliser into the far post.

Skem were really enjoying their football now, Amaral was fighting fires all over the pitch, Dowling was conducting operations for the three players ahead of him and behind them all was the busy, but calming influence of Howells to keep the engine ticking over.  This was by far the best spell of football we’ve seen from the team this season and it was rewarded on 64 mins with another goal.  This time Dowling took the ball into the box himself before exchanging quick passes with Ellis and Bollongino.  The latter then had time to turn inside the six yard area and put the ball in the net.

In total control of the game now all Skem had to do was see it out and their place in the next round would be assured.   A flurry of substitutions was made midway through the half with Howells, Dowling and Bollongino all being replaced by Lancaster, Preece and Wincer respectively.   Whether enforced or by choice, the substitutions weakened Skem significantly and the momentum of the match began to turn.

With Skem retreating more and more into their own half Runcorn Town were getting more and more possession around the box, and on 80 mins the equaliser came.  You have to say though it was a beauty.  Jamie Appleby, up from full back, spotted Barnes off his line and placed a curling dipping effort into the top left corner.

After a lot of added time the ref blew for the dreaded penalty shootout, no extra time or replays in this competition anymore.   The first four penalties from both sides were well struck and neither keeper came close to pulling off a save as Byron, Ellis, Amaral and Wincer all scored for Skem.   Louis Lancaster looked nervous stepping up to take the fifth penalty and placed it over the bar, leaving Runcorn Town man of the match Ellison to put home his side’s fifth and seal victory.

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