26th December 2016, Runcorn Linnets FC v Runcorn Town : 1-1 Sponsored by The Club Presidentby Ste Bignall
RUNCORN Linnets came within six minutes of delivering a magical late Christmas present to the majority inside the Millbank Linnets Stadium on Boxing Day.
But the home side ultimately had to settle for a draw against their cross-Town neighbours, after playing for more than an hour with 10 men and centre half Chris Lawton in goal.
Lawton, one of just a few players to have represented both clubs in the Runcorn derby, had taken over the gloves after the dismissal of Tom Hunt for handling outside his area.
While there was disappointment at Michael Ellison's charges falling agonisingly short of a marvellous victory, on reflection this was an excellent point against the league leaders and showed once more the determination, fight and never-say-die attitude of this Linnets side.
For once, the MLS derby had been blessed with good weather, chilly but dry and sunny. In recent years, this fixture has been cursed with every trick the elements can throw, but the pleasant afternoon conditions would certainly have helped bump up the crowd to a magnificent 655 - a number beaten by only 10 fixtures in the three leagues above the two Runcorn sides.
It was proof once again that there is plenty of appetite for competitive non-league football in the town.
The returning Mike Simpson, newly re-signed from Prescot Cables, went straight into the starting eleven at right back, with Danny O'Brien making a long-awaited return to his natural position in the centre of midfield, adding some much-needed bite in the middle.
Town were also sporting additions to their side - the imposing figure of Isaac Kusaloka making his debut up front having signed in the week from Ashton Athletic, adding 26 goals this season to an already fearsome strike force at Pavilions.
It was Town who had the first sight of goal, winning a soft free-kick on the edge of the Linnets' penalty area that pinballed around the box before a shot from 18 yards flashed wide. Soon after, Mark Houghton had a half chance for the hosts, following a defensive lapse, but he just lacked a half yard of pace required to open up the angle with an empty net available to him.
However, with 15 minutes on the clock the home side did take the lead and in spectacular fashion! Anthony Hickey beat his marker on the right of the 18-yard box with a back heeled flick over his head.
With runners still arriving into the box, he decided a shot from the narrowest of angles was a better option, and tore a volley over Louie Mackin in Town's goal and almost bust the net of the far top corner!
A truly magnificent solo effort of which Linnets legend Kev Towey, watching on with the Left Side Ultras, even with his record of special goals in this fixture!
Linnets enjoyed a good spell for the next 10 minutes and came close to doubling their lead with Kyle Hamid's free kick that had Mackin beaten, but also unfortunately the crossbar.
Kusaloka hit the bar with a flicked effort from a free-kick and Hunt had to be on his toes to deny the league's leading goalscorer, Craig Cairns before a game-changing incident on the half-hour mark.
A simple long ball caught the Linnets back four flat footed and with Cairns racing through towards goal, Hunt got out quickly and made a fantastic blocking save. Unfortunately though, he found himself outside of his 18-yard box and everyone inside the MLS knew straight away that a red card was imminent. Linnets fans in line with Cairns' run had felt that the prolific striker had been three yards offside when the long through ball was played but the assistant's flag stayed down.
With no replacement goalkeeper on the bench, it was left to centre back Chris Lawton to deputise between the sticks, with O'Brien being replaced by Zac Aley, who filled in for Lawton at the back.
I'm willing to stick my head above the parapet here and say that not a single person inside the MLS will have predicted the effect that 'Lawty' was about to have on this game.
He overcame his first obstacle by getting out quickly to smother at Kusaloka's feet, and the half-time whistle blew with Linnets leading 1-0, but knowing that the 45 minutes to follow were probably going to be the toughest of the season so far.
Town, understandably, went on to dominate the second half from start to finish, the home side having to make do with a couple of corners and counter attacks. Lawton made a good save from a fiercely-struck free-kick, not only saving but keeping hold of the ball under pressure from onrushing attackers.
Two more saves followed as the big defender started to grow in confidence, but with the home side outnumbered in midfield and being pulled from one side of the pitch to the other, every minute seemed like 10 as Town piled on the pressure in search of the equaliser.
Brian Matthews replaced Mark Houghton, who had started the game not 100% fit but worked himself into the ground, chasing any loose ball within 40 yards of him.
Lawton made another save from Cairns, getting off his line quickly to smother and hold on to the loose ball, before the best of the bunch with 10 minutes to go. It actually came from a poor goal kick by the stand-in 'keeper, who found himself out of position as Town attacked down the left.
When the cross came in, it was volleyed towards the far bottom corner from eight yards, with Lawty somehow diving full length to tip it round the post. It's no exaggeration to say that it was a save that any goalkeeper at any level would have been pleased to make!
With 5 minutes of normal time to play, people were starting to believe that the most unlikely of wins was coming Linnets way, but when a poor free-kick was conceded near the corner flag, the Linnets' luck finally ran out.
Another well delivered free-kick was sent looping goalwards via a combination of Lawton's punch and the head of Town player Simon Thelwell - dropping in just under the crossbar, sparking wild celebrations among Town's players and supporters, who no doubt felt relieved at having got out of jail with the goal.
With both sides now tiring, the five minutes of stoppage time passed without incident and the game ended all square, leaving the visitors still without a league victory at The Millbank.
Both sides left the field to rapturous applause from the home crowd, a deserved send-off for their parts in an enthralling derby, played with blood and guts but never dirty - a game played in the right way by both sides.
But the biggest ovation was saved for Linnets' stand-in goalkeeper Lawton, who received a hero's welcome as he walked back down the tunnel to the dressing room. He most certainly earned his Man of the Match award, the easiest choice anyone will ever have to make.
I counted seven saves from 'Lawty', none of them straight forward, in an individual performance that will be talked about for many years to come.
Runcorn Linnets: Tom Hunt, Danny McKenna, Chris Lawton, Aaron Morris, Michael Simpson, Danny O'Brien, Kris Holt, Kyle Hamid, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Antony Hickey. Subs: Zac Aley, Brian Matthews, Ronnie McCarthy. Not used: Adam Wade, Stuart Wellstead.
Runcorn Town: Louis Mackin, Matthew Woodward, Joseph Heath, Marcus James, Liam Hollett, Joseph Kearns, Kevin Exell, Paul McManus, Isaac Kusaloka, Craig Cairns, Simon Thelwell. Sub: Jack Pickering. Not used: Daniel Jarrett, Oliver Nugent, Craig Jones, Joshua Maguire.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.