It was linesman Mark Powell who had the biggest influence on this game when his intervention saw Alty's Colin Little, previously unbooked in 39 games this season, sent off after Runcorn's Barry Jones had first feigned injury and then, after making a Lazarus-like recovery, put his head against the Alty striker's. With Little appearing to plead with match officials not to send off the Runcorn man, Mr Graham, on the linesman's advice, amazingly despatched the Alty man, for an early bath and did not even speak to Jones. At that stage, 58 minutes into the game, Alty led 3-2.
Runcorn had taken the lead when the defence allowed a ball over the top to set Young free and he finished well (22 mins). Little equalised three minutes later with a low drive from the right of goal. Runcorn went ahead again when another defensive lapse allowed Denney to beat Coburn (33 mins). Little levelled after 50 minutes when he sprang the offside trap and took the ball round keeper Thompson to score. After 54 minutes Thornley put Alty ahead when Hussin's header put him clear of the defence. Then, with Alty on top, came the Little dismissal and the ten men of Altrincham held on till three minutes from the end of normal time when Young volleyed in off the post. Little is now likely to be banned for 3 games, starting in a fortnight - and one of those is the Cheshire Senior Cup Final against his former club Crewe and another could be the sixth round of the Trophy, should we beat Grays.
REFEREE: Mr Paul Graham
The last league match at Moss Lane between these sides had been the crucial end-game to last season when victory by Altrincham clinched their place in Nationwide North and Runcorn had to rely on events elsewhere to reach the new division. This time, Alty were sitting in 7th place with games in hand and were unbeaten in 14 games in all comopetitions whereas Runcorn were 18th after a season marred by managerial changes and off the field financial problems.
The game was played on a very cold night but the pitch had dried out well after rain had caused the postponement of the last home fixture, ten days earlier.
Alty welcomed back Colin Potts and Steve Aspinall from their one-match suspensions so George Melling and Richard Norris, who is still regaining match fitness, dropped to the bench. Runcorn included new signing Phil Denney, the former Ashton striker, in their line-up but former Alty man Mike Garrity was on the bench. Other recent arrivals, Lee Mulvaney (on loan from Southport) and Tom Taylor, the former Burscough striker, were also substitutes.
ALTRINCHAM (Red & white striped shirts, black shorts, red socks) 1. Stuart COBURN, 2. Steve ASPINALL, 3. Chris ADAMS, 4. Mark MADDOX, 5. Gary TALBOT, 6. Eddie HUSSIN (capt), 7. Colin POTTS, 8. Val OWEN, 9. Colin LITTLE, 10. Rod THORNLEY, 11. Gary SCOTT. Subs: 12. Richard NORRIS, 14. Marcus HALLOWS, 15. George MELLING, 16.Kirk HILTON, 17. Kieran LUGSDEN.
RINCORN FC HALTON (Yellow shirts, green shorts and yellow socks.): 1. Neil THOMPSON, 2. Tom SPEARITT, 3. Steven CARRAGHER, 4. Robert MOORE, 5. John ROBERTSON (capt.), 6. Barry JONES, 7. Lee PARLE, 8. Scott WILLIS, 9. Phil DENNEY, 10. Nicky YOUNG, 11. Matty McGINN. Subs: 12. Mike GARRITY, 14. Phil McDIARMID, 15. Tom TAYLOR, 16. James LOCK, 17. Lee MULVANEY.
After a minute's silence for long-time Alty fan Tom Earley, who died recently, Runcorn kicked off towards the 20/20 End and soon got into their stride with some pacey forward movements. However, Alty had the first serious shot at goal when a ball forward from the right found Little, who made space well for a low, dipping drive which only just went wide of Thompson's right post (4 mins). However, Runcorn went even closer when Denney fed Young, as the Alty defence parted. From wide of goal, to the left, Young crashed a shot against Coburn's right upright but the ball rebounded to safety for Altrincham. This was to be an unheeded warning to Altrincham. But the end to end play continued as, immediately, Thornley got in a decent overhead shot from the edge of the box which Thompson saved comfortably (7 mins).
Sleet was now swirling across the pitch as Alty assistant manager Dalton Steele tried to gee up his team whom he described at this stage as "too sloppy". Both sides were using quite a lot of long balls but Alty then put together a good passing move involving Talbot, Aspinall and Thornley with the last-named's low cross setting up Gary Scott for a shot from just behind the penalty spot. This effort was half blocked and then cleared before it could reach the line (13 mins). With the Altrincham fans maintaining a constant "Come on Alty" chant, play stopped as referee Mr Graham had a word, for some reason, with Dalton Steele. For Alty, the whole team seemed a little jaded at this stage. It got worse for them as Runcorn scored the game's opening goal, which owed much to defensive hesitation as a ball over the top set Young free and he calmly chipped the ball past the exposed Coburn from left of goal (22 mins). Manager Graham Heathcote now came down from the stand to the touchline to animate his team with a volley of instructions. But Runcorn soon threatened again as Denney was judged narrowly offside as he got clear of the back line.
Salvation came for Alty, three minutes after falling behind, when a high, looping cross from the left by Adams came back from a team-mate beyond the far post to Potts whose short pass fed Little. Little's well placed and well-struck, low shot across goal went into the far corner of Thompson's net from about 15 yards out on the right edge of the box (25 mins). Alty soon won a freekick just outside the penalty 'D' when Hussin was fouled by Willis, the former Halifax man. Thompson did well to tip the freekick out for a corner as it arrowed towards the top left corner of his net. Play then stopped for treatment to Moore, whos injury seemed to stem from a collision with his own keeper. After treatment on the pitch, Moore eventually limped over the by-line for further attention but was unable to continue and Runcorn played on with ten men (30 mins). Next, Young fired a shot over the bar before Little was felled by Spearitt. From Aspinall's freekick, 40 yards out, the ball was aimed just too high for Talbot's head. As Moore hobbled back to the bench, Runcorn had still not made their substitution when they scored their second goal. Hesitation in the Alty defence saw Denney get clear, with only Coburn to beat from some 12 yards out in the Runcorn left hand part of the box. He beat Coburn cleanly to make it 2-1 (33 mins) - manager Graham Heathcote was not a happy man as his normally reliable defence had now conceded two sloppy goals. At this point, Runcorn brought on Garrity for Moore (33 mins).
Alty continued to give a stuttering performance, though they did enjoy more possession as half time approached. But both Hussin and Owen were more subdued than normal in central midfield, whilst Potts still struggled to find his form on the right. The home side won a corner after 44 minutes but Potts again hit this to the first defender at the near post. Half time arrived with Alty trailing 1-2.
|Half-Time: ALTRINCHAM 1 RUNCORN FC HALTON 2|
Alty made a change at the interval with Chris Adams, who has had recent hamstring trouble, giving way to Richard Norris. Scott moved to left-back from midfield and Norris occupied the vacant slot on the left of midfield. Alty got an early breakthrough when both Thornley and Little sprang the offside trap and with the Runcorn team appealing for a flag, which never came, Little took the ball neatly round the advancing Thompson just inside the box and then ferried the ball into the net as the Runcorn defence raced back in vain (50 mins). Soon after this, Little fed Thornley who went down under a challenge inside the box but despite strong appeals for a penalty nothing was given. Alty were now getting on top and after Aspinall had sent Thornley forward to the right of goal, Thornley's cross was cleared out to Norris who, under a challenge, shot narrowly wide of the keeper's right post from the edge of the box. Within seconds however, Alty had scored again when Eddie Hussin headed a Runcorn clearance back upfield and this set Thornley surprisngly free behind the Linnets' back line. He went onto to beat Thompson to record the game's fourth goal of the match to have taken advantage of a square back four (54 mins).
With Alty now 3-2 ahead, the home side were looking the likely winners having netted twice in four minutes. Soon after the re-start, Jones tripped Little off the ball but the referee missed the incident. Moments later Jones was prostrate not far from half-way on the Alty right as play continued back into the Alty half. Little hauled the Runcorn player to his feet and the suddenly revived Jones then deliberately placed his forehead in extremely close proximity to Little's. Jones went to ground again and Hussin rushed in to try and haul him up; a melee then followed involving several players. At this point the nearby linesman started to wave his flag animatedly and play was stopped, some 20 yards away, just inside the Alty half. The referee, who had missed the incident as he had been following play, went to have a long discussion with his assistant and, on the latter's advice, and to the amazement of the home crowd, sent off the Altrincham striker, whom they had seen as the injured party, with a straight red card. In his fortieth game of the season, Little had not even picked up a yellow card this season but now he would be likely to be banned for three games - including the Cheshire Senior Cup Final - in very dubious circumstances. Jones was admonished as play resumed with a Runcorn freekick 20 yards away where play had been halted. After the game it emerged that the linesman had judged Little to have committed a "simulated head-butt".
Play continued to choruses of "cheat" from the Altrincham supporters every time Jones touched the ball. A foul on Owen further kept the match at fever pitch as the ten men of Altrincham attempted to hold their lead. Coburn then made a good save from a deflected shot by McGinn (65 mins). Runcorn had Mulvaney ready to come on as a sub but for some reason waited several minutes before getting him on in place of Willis (68 mins). With Altrincham defending deeply, Runcorn maintained their pressure and won a corner. At this point Hallows replaced Thornley as Alty's lone striker (70 mins). With Alty finding it difficult to get out of defence, Coburn made a smart save from Parle's 20 yard shot. Alty now strengthened their back line when Melling came on at right -back to replace Potts (76 mins) and Aspinall moved to right midfield. From a freekick by Hussin a Runcorn defender appeared to scoop the ball clear with his arm but no offence was seen by the referee or linesman (80 mins).
Runcorn next brought on Tom Taylor for Denney up front (80 mins) and with Altrincham unable to link effectively with their lone front man, Runcorn pressed and won another corner. From this, Mulvaney shot wide (81 mins). Robertson then moved up front to give Runcorn a four-man front line but Alty’s ten men were unable to get forward to exploit the resulting gaps at the back for Runcorn. Altrincham continued to defend manfully until Young and Taylor exchanged passes just inside the Alty box and from Taylor's return pass, Young sent a well-hit left-foot volley past Coburn's left hand and into the corner of the net to level the scores (87 mins).
When Hallows was fouled by Robertson on the Alty right, just inside the Runcorn half, the Runcorn captain was booked (90 mins). Alty had one last push when Melling, Aspinall, and Norris fed Hallows whose cross prompted Robertson to head over his own bar for a corner. This was cleared (92 mins) and there was time for Runcorn to win a corner of their own which Melling cleared. The game ended 3-3 with Colin Little named as the home Man of the Match both for his two-goals and, no doubt, as an expression of support for the harshly red-carded striker.
Altrincham were not at their best in the first half of the game but had got their act together to take the lead early in the second half. Whilst the linesman no doubt acted in good faith in getting Little dismissed, he must have been one of a very small minority to detect an offence against the Alty man. With 26 goals to his name this season, Little will be missed by Altrincham but at least his suspension, which starts in a fortnight, coincides with the return of Jonathon Mitten to bolster Graham Heathcote's attacking options. The result underlined Altrincham's topsy-turvy results this season. In nine matches to date against teams in the top five, Alty have lost just once, whereas in six games against the bottom five, they have only emerged victorious on one occasion! This time, however, there were clear mitigating circumstances. However, it should not be forgotten that Altrincham have now gone 15 games without defeat and go into the Trophy against Grays on Saturday with confidence built on that record.
|Full-Time: ALTRINCHAM 3 RUNCORN FC HALTON 3|