A second-half comeback for the Ravens against AFC Darwen sets up a home First Division Cup Semi Final at the Bowl
Maintaining the philosophy from the previous cup round, manager Chris Bass opted again to field a mixture of youth and experience for this tie.
Dean Kearns retained the goalkeeping spot with a back four ahead of him consisting of Ash Higginbotham, Karl Clark, Jamie Corlett and Jacob Crook. In midfield, Ronan McDonnell partnered Sam Baines with Adam Cooil on the right and Charlie Higgins starting on the left flank. The number ten role belonged to Luca Moretta with captain Ste Whitley taking on striker responsibilities ahead of him.
As can be expected when two teams meet for the first time, the opening was cagey with AFC Darwen looking to set the tempo from the back playing patient probing football. This however seemed to lull the Ravens into playing at that pace, as the visitors struggled to get an early foothold in the game.
And it was the hosts who had the first shot on target inside ten minutes. The Salmoner’s captain Ryan Steele received the ball with his back to goal, turned brilliantly and fired a powerful shot towards Kearns’ top corner but the Ravens keeper got a strong hand to the ball to palm it away.
Moments later though FCIOM could have been ahead after Cooil picked the ball up on the right and strolled unchallenged into the box. His cross was pinged low and hard across goal and all it needed was someone to poke it home, but Moretta was caught off guard and his outstretched toe couldn’t direct the ball into the net.
After some early promise from both sides, and potentially hindered by a very dry playing surface, the game fell into a scrappy period where both sides could only manage a handful of half-chances.
Perhaps a pivotal moment arrived for AFC Darwen on 25 minutes, as the dangerous-looking and influential Steele was forced off through injury. This disruption allowed the Ravens to seize the impetus and they almost found the breakthrough moments later when Moretta raced onto a lose long ball to chip the onrushing goalkeeper, but the ball bounced agonisingly wide of the open net.
Instead, it would be the home side that bagged the opening goal on 34 minutes. Darwen’s Wilson-Heyes countered a Ravens press to fire in a wicked first-time low cross that Jamie Corlett could only direct into his own net as he tried to clear the danger.
This seemed to sap the energy of the Ravens somewhat who struggled to create much in the following period, instead having to focus on repelling the pacey Darwen left-winger. Seconds before half-time it could have been worse for FCIOM as Darwen broke the lines and were through one-on-one with Kearns but the big man was out quickly to save with his feet.
At the break, Nathan Cardy came on to replace Luca Moretta and was immediately into the action – harrying and pressuring the Darwen backline and he got his reward just five minutes later. Collecting an inch perfect through-ball, Cardy’s first touch brought him inside, flummoxing his man and providing the time he needed to calmly slot the ball past the keeper for the equaliser.
A familiar second-half Ravens revival was on the cards and it became even more likely just moments later, as Adam Cooil latched onto a Whitely cross to head the ball home from inside the box making it 2-1 within ten minutes of halftime.
At the restart Bass brought on Jack McVey to replace Sam Baines, a change which saw Ste Whitely move over to the left – a relatively unfamiliar position but one that certainly didn’t hinder the rest of his game.
Despite relinquishing the lead, Darwen’s confidence did not dampen as they constantly looked to cause issues down their left-flank. But for a fantastic reaction save from Kearns inside his six-yard box, the Salmoners would have had an almost-certain equaliser following a misplaced clearance from Clark.
As the game entered the final twenty minutes, with Higgins coming off for Sid Batty, the Ravens began to turn the screw on a tiring home side, as Whitley and McVey started to show their qualities.
Following a rapid counter attack on 71 minutes came the goal of the game. Cooil cut the ball back across the box towards McVey who, with the ball slightly behind him, somehow managed to pivot and nudge the ball perfectly into Whitley’s path to strike first-time at goal – the ball flying past the goalkeeper, cannoning of the top-left post and into the right-hand side netting.
The two-goal cushion provided the Ravens with confidence to pop the ball the around comfortably and despite valiant attacks from Darwen it seemed FC IOM had all the defensive answers to see the game out.
As the clock ticked into one added minute the visitors notched goal number four. McVey again picked the ball up in midfield, spotted the charging Whitley outside him and played a deft ball into his path. Collecting inside the box, Whitley took a touch to steady himself then unerringly finished under the goalkeeper to complete his brace.
The referee blew the final whistle moments later to confirm the result – a win which means the Ravens will face Holker Old Boys in the First Division Cup Semi-Final at home on Saturday 7th May.