14th October 2017, Burscough v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1By Ste Bignall
It was a battle of the birds on Saturday afternoon as the Linnets of Burscough hosted the Linnets of Runcorn in the Hallmark Security League Premier Division.
It has been well over a decade since the Runcorn faithful made the journey to the outskirts of Ormskirk, and Burscough have had as much of a rollercoaster ride as we have in the time since we last met - from the dizzy heights of an FA Trophy Final appearance at Villa Park (during Wembley's reconstruction) to the low of sitting in bottom place of the NWCL Premier Division table with no league wins so far this season, following relegation from the Evo-Stik League Division One North last term.
From this point on, any mention of Linnets in this report will be the Linnets of Runcorn!!
On paper this was a game that looked like a routine three points for the Linnets, hot in form and looking to put Wednesday's controversial draw at Hanley behind them, while Burscough are struggling to get any sort of momentum going in the league. However, a recent 7-1 victory in the FA Vase shows that they do have it in the locker.
There was a great leveller on the day: the playing surface. It was certainly not one of the better ones that we have played on if you are looking to get it down on the deck and move the ball around quickly.
Freddie Potter made a long-awaited start after a lengthy collarbone injury, with youngster Adam Jones celebrating his 21st birthday with a start on the right of midfield.
The bench had an attacking feel to it with Mitch Bryant, Mark Houghton, Anthony Hickey and Zac Aley all ready if required.
The Linnets hit the ascendancy from the very start. Paul Shanley went close early on with a dipping free kick before a series of headed attempts from Potter and Stu Wellstead all found the arms of the grateful home goalkeeper.
A great chance went begging midway through the half when Shanley breezed past his marker and squared to Freddie Potter, who tried to guide the ball into the far corner, but could only guide it marginally the wrong side of the post.
Another great chance came soon after when another cross came in from the Linnets left and found Wellstead with possibly too much time to pick his spot with a header from 8 yards out. It came crashing back off the crossbar with the goalkeeper stranded.
In and amongst the Linnets chances, Burscough did have the odd flurry of their own but they were wasteful when finding good positions. None of their attempts left Matt Holmes needing to make a save.
Holmes himself almost turned provider for the opening goal as a long kick up field evaded everyone, including the Burscough goalkeeper, and set Wellstead in with an open goal. The usually lethal front man dwelled on the ball for a split second too long and when he got his shot away, he was denied by a stunning save from the home 'keeper, throwing himself upon the ball out of nowhere.
Danny O'Brien had to be withdrawn as the half wore on, an ankle injury sustained 20 minutes earlier becoming too much to bear. He was replaced by Mitch Bryant which forced a change in shape from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. Bryant and Potter led the attack as a pair with Adam Jones dropping to right back in place of O'Brien.
There's no question that this disrupted the Linnets stranglehold on the game and the chances that were being created with ease suddenly became hard to come by.
The second half proved to be a slightly disjointed showing from the Linnets, unable to regain a dominance of proceedings. Burscough played a much bigger role in the fixture as their belief grew that they could get something out of the game.
It was something of a relief when the Linnets finally broke the seal near the hour mark with a fine counter attacking goal.
Kyle Hamid picked out Freddie Potter on the left with a superb 40 yard crossfield ball that caught Burscough flat footed, and Potter produced a sublime cross into the penalty area that was begging to be finished.
Mitch Bryant made no mistake as he planted a firm header into the far corner of the net. The pass from Hamid, the cross from Potter and the header from Bryant were all out of the very top drawer.
The Linnets pushed hard for an immediate second but were thwarted by committed defending and goalkeeping by Burscough. Potter and Simpson both had rasping drives from outside the penalty area saved before an in-swinging corner caused chaos in the Burscough penalty area. The ball was eventually scooped off the goal line and hoofed clear.
Burscough rallied in the last 20 minutes, in particular using their pacey wingers to try and force an opening. Much credit should be given to Matt Holmes and his back four for soaking up the pressure and not allowing Burscough a single shot on goal despite them getting in plenty of promising positions.
Mark Houghton and Anthony Hickey were introduced in place of Jones and Potter as Michael Ellison looked to get a conclusive second goal.
Vice-captain Houghton came agonisingly close when he headed Simpson's corner goal wards only for a defender on the line to shin the ball around the foot of the post.
The officials did not notice the faint touch and no corner was given, but this was a solitary mistake in an otherwise excellent performance from the three match officials.
The Linnets wore the clock down by holding the ball by the corner flag and held out for a hard-fought victory against plucky opponents, whose performance belied their lowly league position.
This game was the 5th consecutive away league fixture for the Linnets, who have returned an impressive 13 points from those games.
Attention now turns to our first foray of the season in The Buildbase FA Vase, as we make the long journey to central Newcastle ipon Tyne next Saturday to take on Team Northumbria, who currently sit mid-table in the Northern League Division One, the same pyramid step as ourselves.
Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Matt Atherton, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Michael Simpson, Paul Shanley, Kyle Hamid, Stuart Wellstead, Freddie Potter, Adam Jones. Subs: Mitch Bryant, Mark Houghton, Antony Hickey. Not used: Zac Aley, Terry Smith (GK).
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.