RUNCORN Linnets bowed out of this season's FA Cup at the Preliminary Round stage on Saturday at Ashton Athletic despite a dominant second half performance, writes Ste Bignall.

The damage had well and truly been done with the visitors finding themselves 4-0 behind after 46 minutes.

Like all watching on from the terraces, manager Michael Ellison must surely be still scratching his head as to how his defence, usually so assured and difficult to break down, managed to concede four goals without Ashton having to break into a decent sweat to score them.

Midfield enforcer Kieran Nolan returned to the side, having finally served his latent suspension from last season, Tom Hardwick made his first start of the new season, Michael Simpson started for the first time since the previous round of the competition and Danny McKenna returned at left back. Ello reverted to a 4-3-3 formation for his changed yet more familiar side on the day.

The opening exchanges were uneventful for both sides, but what was evident was that Ashton were going to make the most of the strong tailwind in their favour.

They took the lead on 15 minutes when Joel Brownhill, excellent all game for Ashton, took advantage of a Runcorn pass too many at the back and raced through on goal unchallenged to slot low past the onrushing Terry Smith.

Brownhill played a pivotal role in Ashton's second, picking the ball up inside his own half and skipping up the right flank, drawing in the Linnets defenders, without put under any significant pressure, and his endeavours allowed Dale Korie-Butler space to pick up the pass to drill low into the bottom corner - giving Smith no chance.

The third goal followed only five minutes later and was the most disappointing, Brownhill, again with the ball on the right wing, was allowed to time to steady himself, turn back on his left foot and send in a pinpoint cross to Korie-Butler, who found space inside the penalty area to head freely into the net.

There was a stunned feeling among the Linnets ranks as half-time came, nobody able to fathom what had just been witnessed. However, there was also a feeling that with the wind now in Runcorn's favour, a quick goal would change the dynamic completely.

We hadn't banked, however, on that next goal being a fourth for Ashton Athletic, Tom Hardwick diverting a cross into his own goal within a minute of the second half starting.

Linnets sides rarely roll over and die, and even at this point the team went about trying to rescue the game and amazingly came very close to doing it.

Tom Hardwick started the comeback on 50 minutes, heading in from close range to give the Linnets a thread of hope.

Stu Wellstead was brought on by Ellison and this changed the dynamic all together. With the Linnets playing a pacey and direct style, Ashton struggled to cope with wave after wave of Linnets attacks.

It was Wellstead's excellent work on the right wing and perfect low cross that found a sliding Freddie Potter whose finish gave the Linnets real hope in the tie.

Everyone in Linnets corner then had to endure a torturous half an hour as chances came and went. Potter pulled a shot wide when clean through on goal; Kyle Hamid hooked a shot over from six yards out while Martin Pearson, in Athletic's goal, made a solid save from Wellstead's header before repeating the feat with an astonishing save from a pacey flick header, turning it on to the post at full stretch.

The quality of the final ball and finishing started to wane as desperation set in, and when Mich Bryant, on as a substitute, volleyed over at the far post you knew that the inevitable was upon us, sealed and stamped by the match official who only managed to find three minutes of injury time.

There's no getting away from it, this was a very disappointing afternoon for everyone associated with Runcorn Linnets. The FA Cup offers a chance at crucial revenue for the club, and a home draw against Bamber Bridge has deservedly gone to Ashton Athletic.

However it was great to see that even at 4-0 down, the side never stopped believing and fought hard to save the tie, only bad luck and great goalkeeping preventing at least a chance in a replay.

Linnets now focus attention on a tough pair of Bank Holiday weekend fixtures, starting with Winsford United visiting the MLS for a very rare Friday evening fixture (ko 7.45pm).