by Robert Lee · 22/02/2018
Wednesday 21st February 2018, NWCFL Premier Division
Runcorn Town 3 (McManus pen 34, pen 43, Carberry 90+1, James sent off 43)
West 2 (Middleton 10, 15, Middleton sent off 31)
West were floored in stoppage time as Runcorn Town snatched all three points on a scarcely credible night of drama at Pavilions.
Michael Carberry’s 91st-minute winner, direct from a corner, was an excruciatingly cruel final word in a breathless encounter which included five goals, two red cards and countless moments of controversy. West, who raced into a two-goal lead inside the first quarter of an hour through an unlikely Chris Middleton double, were excellent and would have felt short-changed by a draw, but paid for missed chances in the second period.
The opening moments of the game gave little indication of what was to come as both sides loathed to complete a pass. Town’s nerves, frayed by four consecutive defeats, were evident and it was West who gradually took control of proceedings. Jack Sergeant was the first to threaten as he shook the crossbar from the edge of the area, before Ben Steer burst into the box and forced a save from Town keeper Adam Reid. The resulting corner yielded the first goal of the game – Steer’s delivery from the left nodded past Reid by the stooping Middleton.
West continued to dominate, and a second goal soon arrived in similar fashion. Joe Shaw won a corner when he latched onto Tom Bailey’s knockdown on the edge of the area, and after the ball was kept alive following the resulting set-piece, Middleton showed poacher’s instincts to turn home a cross from the right. Going two goals behind appeared to wake Town from their stupor, and the returning Aaron Ashley was called upon for the first time when he pawed Kieran Evans’ low shot to safety.
Town’s leading scorer Craig Cairns did have the ball in the net just before the half-hour, but the flag was up long before the net rippled. The home side did claw their way back into the game moments later, however, as the spotlight fell on the referee for the first time. Middleton shrugged off Kevin Exell inside the West area, then was seemingly ruled to have treaded on the prone Town midfielder on his way to the ball. The West defender was dismissed along with his complaints and Paul McManus sent Ashley the wrong way from the resulting penalty.
The home side’s tails were now up, and West found themselves clinging onto a lead which had appeared comfortable. Mark Reed hit a post from close range before another moment of contention. Joseph Holt tumbled in the area following a challenge by Josh Tinker, and the officials’ creative interpretation of the laws continued when Town’s Marcus James saw red despite seemingly having little to do with the ensuing fracas. McManus kept a cool head to beat Ashley from the spot again, and the sides were now level on goals and players. There was still time for Ashley to save a close-range effort at his near post as Town looked to enter the break ahead, but half time arrived without further drama.
West used their 15 minutes to recompose themselves and began the second half in the ascendancy. Ash Woods drew a spectacular save from Reid with an angled drive, before the irrepressible Sergeant drove through the middle of the Town defence, seeing his shot cleared to safety by a defender. Sergeant crafted another excellent opportunity when he made his way to the byline but his low ball flashed across the face of the goal, its invitation for a decisive touch declined.
The chances continued to mount up, but when Bailey rounded Reid before being denied twice by Town defenders, suspicions that a higher power was working against West began to grow. Town took heart from their series of escapes and made a series of raids on Ashley’s goal – Reed saw his low shot gathered at the second attempt before Holt forced another excellent save on the counter. The referee, meanwhile, continued to make himself unpopular on both sides as the match threatened to boil over – Sergeant and Steven Affleck both came in for heavy treatment without censure, with Affleck entering the notebook for his own retaliation.
The visitors conceded an unnecessary corner as the clock ticked past 90 minutes, and it proved costly when Carberry’s inswinging delivery beat Ashley at the near post. West had contrived to lose a game in which they did enough to win, but the standard of performance should stand Steve Settle’s side in good stead ahead of a pivotal trio of games against teams in the relegation zone, starting at home to Abbey Hey on Saturday.
West: Ashley, Affleck (Reader 86), Tinker, Olapede, Middleton, Sergeant, Steer (McKenzie 82), Slaven, Bailey, Woods (Whyment 83), Shaw.