FC Isle of Man staged a second-half comeback against AFC Darwen on Monday to set up a First Division Cup semi-final clash at the Bowl this weekend.
Maintaining the philosophy from the previous cup round, manager Chris Bass Sr opted again to field a mixture of youth and experience for this tie.
The opening exchanges were cagey, with hosts Darwen looking to set the tempo from the back playing patient probing football. This seemed to lull the Ravens into playing at that pace, as the visitors struggled to get an early foothold in the game.
After some early promise from both sides and potentially hindered by a very dry 3G playing surface, the game fell into a scrappy period where the two teams could only manage a handful of half-chances.
Perhaps a pivotal moment arrived for Darwen on 25 minutes, as the dangerous-looking and influential captain Ryan Steele was forced off through injury.
This disruption allowed the Ravens to seize the impetus and they almost found the breakthrough moments later when Luca Moretta raced onto a loose long ball and chipped the onrushing goalkeeper, but the ball bounced agonisingly wide of the open net.
Instead, it was 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 went through one-on-one with Dean Kearns but the Ravens goalkeeper came out quickly to save with his feet.
At the break, Nathan Cardy came on to replace Moretta and was immediately into the action, harrying and pressuring the Darwen backline and he got his reward only 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 Stephen Whitley cross to head the ball home from inside the box, making it 2-1 within 10 minutes of the second half.
At the restart, Bass Sr brought on Jack McVey to replace Sam Baines, a change which saw Whitley move over to the left.
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 Karl Clark.
As the game entered the final 20 minutes, with Charlie 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 it 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 Manx side with confidence to pop the ball around comfortably and, despite valiant attacks from Darwen, it seemed FC Isle of Man 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 4-1 win which means the Ravens will face Holker Old Boys in the First Division Cup semi-final at home this Saturday, kicking off at 6.30pm.
Tickets are available to purchase at the following: www.fcisleofman.im/tickets
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