It wasn’t spectacular and it wasn’t pretty, but Atherton Collieries have once again got the job done - claiming another higher-level scalp in the process.
The difference was one individual bit of quality from the ever-lively Ben Hardcastle, just minutes into the second half, as Colls finally broke down the resilient Runcorn defence for the right-midfielder to smash past Town’s stand-in keeper.
But it could have been a completely different story if it wasn’t for Danny Taberner between the sticks. The No.1 made three improbable stops within a minute of each other during the second half; the second two being arguably the greatest double save you will see all year.
It says something about Colls that they are coming into crunch matches, such as this Men United Cup semi-final, as the favourites against teams from higher divisions. Not one person has been surprised by the success in cup competitions of the famous black and white, as Colls have been considered as one of the most feared teams in every competition they entered. Just take Clitheroe’s relief in the Lancashire Trophy, as an example.
Mark Battersby was denied his landmark 50th goal of the season in the game’s first real chance on the 17 minute mark. The energetic front man was more determined that anyone else in the area to get to the front post and get his head on a corner, but Chris Lester was perfectly placed on the line to deny the goal.
Town’s only chance of the first half came when Jack Irlam burst down the right-hand side, but Rob Swanton expertly got his body in the way of the shot, as he provided the first of many crucial challenges throughout the afternoon, ensuring that Runcorn had little joy down that flank.
As the first half filtered out to a goalless finish, there was one more moment of brilliance from Colls. Battersby, Jordan Cover and Hardcastle all linked up in a move that would have been getting the plaudits in the following night’s El Clasico at Camp Nou. Hardcastle eventually fired the finish wide, but Colls’ confidence and belief in their own ability had once again shone through.
And it was Hardcastle who broke the headlock just four minutes into the second half. After ambling through parts of the first half, the Colls we have come to admire through this season showed as Hardcastle picked up the ball on the wing, cut inside and fired low into the near corner, leaving helpless stand-in keeper Danny Toone flat-footed.
The Crazy Gang celebrated and Colls were revitalised.
The affair in the industrial hotbed of Cheshire could perhaps be summed up in one word: bobbles.
Certain bobbles were undoubtedly the difference between one-nil and four-nil, as Colls twice found themselves through on goal to increase their lead in the second half, only to see the ball take a rude and unexpected bump into the air.
First it was Battersby who saw the ball bounce up in front of him, as he nearly took out photographer Rob Clarke with his effort. Mark Truffas also suffered a similar fate in the dying stages, while Cover and Hardcastle also saw efforts blocked and go wide of the mark in the second period.
The moment everyone at the game will remember, however, was the astonishing string of saves made by Taberner.
After being quiet for the majority of the match with little to do, he firstly pulled off a spectacular stop when he palmed substitute Sam Haughton’s effort over the bar. From the resulting corner, he bettered himself.
An unmarked free header seemed destined to give Town their equaliser, but he somehow palmed the ball into the air. Then, from off the floor, he miraculously leapt up and got a firm hand onto the rebound effort, which looked destined for the top corner.
So, it’s not a date at Wembley, but it is a date in Ashton-under-Lyne for Colls. The Men United Cup final at Curzon Ashton’s Tameside Stadium awaits, with Glossop North End or Bootle the opponents.
Atherton Collieries: Danny Taberner, Nathan Battersby (James Brooks), Rob Swanton, Josh Messer, Gareth Carson, Matthew Grimshaw, Ben Hardcastle, Brad Cooke, Mark Battersby, Jordan Cover (Matty Boland), Mark Truffas - Substitutes: Matty Boland, Mark Adams, James Brooks & Gareth Roberts
Runcorn Town: Danny Toone, Lee Roberts (Darren Kinsey), Christopher Lester, Christopher Dykes, Luke Gibson, Thomas Spearrit, Jack Irlam, Mark Keddie, Christopher Thomson, Scott Beckett (Simon Burton), Ross Davies (Samuel Haughton)- Substitutes: Samuel Haughton, Darren Kinsey, Daniel Salt, Simon Burton, Stephen Latham
Match report by Aaron Flanagan - @aaronflan