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Runcorn Linnets FC - The Story So Far
10 years of rapid progress
2016 brings a significant landmark in the history of Runcorn Linnets with celebrations marking the club's 10th anniversary of formation.
The Linnets have certainly come a long way since being founded by supporters of former national non-league champions Runcorn AFC after a traumatic end for the old club, also three-times FA Trophy finalists at Wembley.
The initial aims of the new club were to bring the Linnets back to Runcorn and re-establish the club as one of which the community could be proud. Both these ambitions have been achieved with the club still in its infancy.
The Millbank Linnets Stadium in Murdishaw, Runcorn, opened in 2010 and there are moves to further enhance the ground with a new clubhouse as part of wider redevelopment of surrounding land with retail and leisure facilities.
If all goes to plan, this will be unveiled in the summer of 2017.
At the same time, junior dressing rooms will be refurbished and junior pitches fenced in as the club takes on a new lease, which will also incorporate most of the playing fields that surround the main stadium.
Other achievements in the club's 10 years have been plentiful:
• Promotion was gained at the first attempt to the top division of the North West Counties League
• Victory against Formby in the NWCL Challenge Cup final in 2012-13 brought the club its first winners' trophy
• Since returning to Runcorn, the first team has consistently attracted the highest attendances in what is now The Hallmark Security League
• The Linnets Ladies landed a Cheshire Women's League double of championship and Challenge Cup in 2015-16
• The junior section has grown beyond all recognition with more than 400 boys and girls now sporting its yellow and green colours
• The club's successful main sponsorship deal with specialist recruitment company The Millbank Group, is now in its sixth year with two more seasons to run on the current deal which includes shirt sponsorship and stadium naming rights.
So despite the anguish of narrowly missing out on promotion to the Evo-Stik League as NWCL Premier Division runners-up in the last three seasons, overall progress is undeniable.
Back to the beginning – the formation of Runcorn Linnets
Runcorn Linnets Football Club was born on 28 April 2006 after Runcorn AFC had intimated that they would not be in a position to field a team in the following season. Since leaving town in 2000, the club had suffered a troubled and nomadic existence.
Fans met at on their spiritual home of Canal Street – in the Quayside function rooms next door to the now Linnets Park housing estate on which Runcorn's ground had stood. Those supporters, determined not to let 88 years of football tradition die, voted to establish a new community club. An existing Supporters Trust was remodelled to run Runcorn Linnets, whose identity was derived from Runcorn AFC's nickname.
With only four months to the start of a new season, business and action plans were drawn up and negotiations opened with the FA, the Cheshire FA, the NWCL, Supporters Direct and Witton Albion FC in Wincham, Northwich, where Linnets ground shared for four seasons.
The club was accepted into the NWCL league by the member clubs on Saturday 17 June 2006 at the AGM in Buxton and former Runcorn player and boss Steve Carragher joined as manager.
Flying start to early years at Wincham Park
Visiting unfamiliar grounds and making new friends along the way, the 2006-07 season was both enjoyable and successful as promotion was won from Division Two (now Division One) to Division One (now Premier Division) at the first attempt - as runners-up on goal difference to Winsford United.
Striking a balance between paying the rent, funding the team and building reserves for the desired Runcorn homecoming proved challenging; it also took time to come to terms with the higher standard of football at the next level and the last three seasons at Witton brought modest mid-table positions.
In season 2007/08 the Linnets entered the FA Vase for the first time but after victory in a preliminary round, there was a first-round exit to Salford City. Averaging 180 crowds at Wincham Park and invariably taking up to 100 fans to away grounds, the desire to relocate back into Runcorn was always paramount as the R2R ("Return to Runcorn") campaign was launched.
Steve Wilkes, who had been manager at Padiham, succeeded Carragher at the beginning of 2008. Goalkeeper Robbie Holcroft provided continuity as the new manager's assistant. 2008-09 saw first-time FA Cup involvement but the campaign highlight was reaching the Vodkat (League Challenge) Cup final at Tameside Stadium in Ashton-under-Lyne although Linnets were beaten 2-0 by league runners-up New Mills.
Season 2009/10 saw The Linnets again finish midway while having little real success in the cup competitions. The main target throughout this time had been to get the club back into its home town.
Original proposals to develop facilities at Riverside College in the Dukesfield area proved too costly but in June 2009 plans for the new ground at Murdishaw – on the municipal Halton Sports complex - were passed by Halton Borough Council Executive Board. Just before Christmas, the club was grant-funded £93,000 plus by the Football Stadium Improvement Fund (FSIF).
Coming home to a first winners' trophy
Dreams became reality as The Millbank Linnets Stadium officially opened on July 17th 2010 when the visit of former landlords Witton Albion attracted a crowd of more than 1,000.
Season 2010/11, the first back in Runcorn, saw Steve Wilkes and his deputy Ian McGarry replaced towards the end of August. Former Linnet Paul McNally, having been assistant at Skelmersdale United, was appointment manager – his backroom team including assistant Dave Hughes, the ex-Atherton LR boss, and coach Chris Fitzsimmons. A rebuilding process ended in a strong finish for 12th spot and average attendances were 106% up on the previous season at Witton.
The club finished fifth in the NWCL Premier of 2011-12. Highlight of the cup runs was the 4-0 replay defeat of Evo-stik North One visitors Mossley.
The following season saw Paul McNally leave for personal reasons. Replacement Joey Dunn, a one-time Runcorn team-mate of McNally and assisted by Stuart Humphreys, led the club to its first major trophy. The Linnets defeated Formby in League Challenge Cup in front of more than 500 fans at Curzon Ashton FC.
A three-month undefeated run from the start of the New Year secured sixth spot in the league.
Three successive runners-up finishes but no promotion
Excellent early form in 2013/14 brought a run in the FA Cup that saw two Evo-Stik League teams defeated before a 2-0 third qualifying round defeat at North Ferriby United of Conference North. Despite an impressive 95-point return, second-placed Runcorn were beaten to the title by Norton United.
Season 2014-15 was similarly exciting but equally agonising. Although the final deficit on champions Glossop North End was 10 points, three quarters of the Linnets' league defeats came in the final month - once they had finally been overhauled by the relentless Derbyshire outfit, also League Challenge Cup winners and Wembley finalists in the FA Vase.
The Linnets had led the table for most of the campaign but were eventually overtaken by Glossop (a team they had beaten away from home in early season) who triumphed thanks to their higher win ratio with both clubs having lost only four of 40 league matches.
An individual landmark saw winger Matthew Atherton set a new club appearance record with his 203rd Linnets outing in September. This has since been significantly extended by the popular winger turned full-back who has become the first Linnets player to go past 250 games.
However, the climax to the 2015-16 season saw the end of an era as ever-popular club captain Michael Ellison, having appeared more than 200 times for the Runcorn club, announced his retirement from playing.
However, in July 2016 "Ello" dramatically returned to the scene when he was appointed manager in succession to Joey Dunn, who resigned as boss after deciding that he needed a break from the game.
Joey's right hand man Stu Humphreys continued as assistant manager but only very briefly. Inside a week, he had resigned with Ellison then appointing another former Linnets senior player, Matt Cross as his deputy.
Ellison the player (and ultimately Dunn the manager) had been unable to bow out in the way they would have preferred. Despite taking 98 points from 42 games, the luckless Linnets again missed out on the championship – this time to Colne.
The honours were only settled on the final day as Runcorn Linnets won 4-0 at Padiham only to see their Lancastrian title rivals snatch a late win by the only goal at 1874 Northwich to prevail by two points.
The Linnets had scored more wins than any other team with 32 victories while 35 goals conceded was the fewest in the league (helping to secure Dean Porter's the NWCL Premier Division Goalkeeper of the Year award). But, after the third consecutive second-placed finish, Runcorn again had nowhere to go. No promotion - not even a play-off.
Joey Dunn had been the most successful manager in the club's short history, helping Runcorn Linnets to lift their first major trophy while achieving and maintaining a high and unprecedented level of performance in the league. After an eventful summer, the Linnets are ready to carry on their good work with another major assault on league and cup honours.
Last updated July 2016
Click here for a History of Runcorn AFC