7th January 2017, Runcorn Linnets FC v Hanley Town : 2-5 Sponsored by Simon CharlesworthBy Ste Bignall
Runcorn Linnets were left ruing a host of missed chances in the first half, as Hanley made them pay dearly with five second-half goals to deservedly condemn the Linnets to their first home league defeat since August.
After a solid, dominating and comfortable first half that yielded everything but a goal for Runcorn and little threat in return from the visitors, you felt that like the previous game at Irlam, a Linnets goal would burst open the floodgates and set us on their way to three points. But it didn't quite work out like that.
Hanley had shown glimpses of being a very decent side in the first half, but it was the home team that took the game by the scruff of the neck and maintained the high standards set at Irlam a week earlier.
Kris Holt had one good and another excellent sight of goal early on, and really should have opened the scoring after being picked out by Stu Wellstead to find himself unmarked six yards from goal, But two heavy touches allowed Hanley's 'keeper a chance to get off his line and smother the loose ball.
Paul Shanley and Mark Houghton both had half chances but couldn't convert, before Mark Houghton had three chances in quick succession that the visiting' keeper somehow kept out.
Houghton let out a show of frustration after his turn and shot from the penalty spot had the 'keeper beaten until it deflected straight into his midriff, and with that chance, the half drew to a close with that uncomfortable feeling that you get when you know you have had enough chances to close a game out, yet find yourself goalless.
The breakthrough finally came for Michael Ellison's men straight after the interval. Another superb save by Hanley's 'keeper from a rasping Kyle Hamid strike drew a corner for the Linnets and, with the in-swinging ball bouncing around inside the area, Mark Houghton finally managed to convert at the near post.
Full credit to the linesman on the dugout side for flagging to confirm that the ball had just crossed the goal line despite a good attempted clearance.
Ellison had decided to withdraw central defender Chris Lawton at half-time and replace him with Zac Aley, and this move seemed to have an extremely unsettling effect on the Linnets' usually solid back four.
Within a minute of Linnets opening the scoring, Hanley were level. Sean Mountford still had lots to do as he picked up the ball on the left of the Linnets penalty area, and with three defenders surrounding him wasted no time in curling a shot across Tom Hunt and into the far corner for a very well-taken equaliser.
Two minutes later, it was 1-2 to the visitors. With the Linnets defence struggling to clear a loose ball, Oliver Edwards smashed an unstoppable shot across goal to leave Hunt grounded to the spot.
There was a significant moment in the game as the Linnets set about finding an equaliser. Kyle Hamid fed a through ball into the run of Mark Houghton who got himself in front of the covering defender and was brought down from behind as he tried to shoot.
It was identical to the incident late in last year's home game against 1874 Northwich when Freddie Potter did win a penalty, but the referee must have seen something to convince him that the ball was won and he waved play on, unsupported by his assistant who had a much better view.
Hanley had little sympathy for Linnets' sense of injustice and scored a third goal with a lighting counter attack down the right flank. Hunt might be disappointed to be beaten at his near post from 10 yards out but it was another fiercely-struck shot from Angelo Errico that had whistled past the Linnets stopper before he could even set himself.
You still felt that the Linnets could get back into the game with a quick goal, but when Hunt hastily rolled the ball out to an out-of-position Danny McKenna, all the young full back could do was foul Hanley star man Theo Stair out on the right wing.
The free kick was swung into the danger area where, disappointingly, Jonathan Higham found himself completely unmarked six yards out and was able to simply nod the ball into the top corner with the Linnets defence static. This ended the game as a contest.
The visitors wasted two glorious opportunities to really rub salt into the wounds of a shattered Linnets defence, but it was the home side who scored next. Paul Shanley sent a low cross into the penalty box for Zac Aley to acrobatically finish with an overhead kick that looped in over the excellent Hanley 'keeper to add some respectability to the scoreline at 2-4.
However, Hanley still weren't done and when another counter attack ended with a foul in the Linnets penalty area, the referee correctly awarded a penalty that was converted with aplomb.
There was still time for Danny O'Brien to rattle a post from 20 yards and for Hanley to blaze over the bar from just a few yards out, before the final whistle blew on a breathless 45 minutes of football that had produced seven goals but zero points for the Linnets.
This was a frustrating afternoon for the majority inside the MLS. They knew that this game should have been won before half-time. But despite that, you also felt that after eventually taking the lead, Runcorn should have gone on to see the game out. Yet the withdrawal of Chris Lawton had a huge impact on a defensive unit that seemed almost lost at sea in the second half, and had no answer to Hanley's attacking threat.
This is taking nothing away from Hanley. One of the biggest separating factors between sides in this division is the ability to finish your chances, and Hanley turned in the most ruthless conversion of opportunities that we have witnessed this season. This, coupled with an excellent performance between the sticks by their keeper, meant they fully deserved their win.
The result and second-half performance will certainly leave Michael Ellison with much to ponder as he maps out his battle plans for 2017.
Runcorn Linnets: Tom Hunt, Danny McKenna, Chris Lawton, Aaron Morris, Michael Simpson, Danny O'Brien, Kris Holt, Kyle Hamid, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Stuart Wellstead. Subs: Steve Foster, Zac Aley. Not used: Adam Wade, Ronnie McCarthy, Luke Griffiths.
Hanley Town: Joseph Hemmings, Charles Goldstraw, Benjamin Blowers, Joel Mills, Andrew Dodd, Martiin Stanyer, Theo Stair, Oliver Mellor, Sean Mountford, Oliver Edwards, Angelo Erico. Subs: Joshua Bristow, Jonathan Higham. Not used: Daniel Cope.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.