27th January 2018, Runcorn Linnets FC v AFC Darwen : 5-1
Runcorn Linnets made it 10 Hallmark Security League Premier Division victories on the bounce on Saturday afternoon.
AFC Darwen were the latest side to succumb to the blistering Linnets attack, although the game itself was much tougher than the full-time scoreline might suggest.
Nothing less than a testing afternoon had been expected by all in the Linnets camp since it had taken a solitary Mitch Bryant goal and a terrific rearguard action to secure a 0-1 victory up in Lancashire earlier in the season in a game that most felt should have ended in a draw.
The flow of this return contest wasn't helped by the Millbank Linnets Stadium playing surface. That's not being critical of the pitch; it was magnificently presented once again following a Friday night and Saturday morning of persistent rain which led to another reduced fixture programme.
But it was inevitable that the pitch would cut up and turn heavy, which it did around the halfway line area.
There was just the one change from last week's Linnets starting eleven and it was one that you probably wouldn't have pre-empted with Matt Atherton replacing Jimmy Moore at the heart of the Linnets defence.
Another position to add to the list of our evergreen utility man, who has now passed the 300 appearances mark at the club.
It's no exaggeration to say that the Linnets could have been a couple of goals up within the first five minutes. Kris Holt and Freddie Potter both had goal-bound strikes brilliantly blocked by Darwen's defence, and then Potter hit a post. A terrific strike from 25 yards out had the goalkeeper beaten all ends up.
Despite the early dominance by the home side, it was actually AFC Darwen who took the lead with a very well-worked goal. Louis Corrigan was caught out of position, allowing a counter attack on Darwen's right wing. The low cross into the penalty area picked out Luke Cassidy, who finished well past Terry Smith.
This was followed immediately by AFC Darwen almost doubling their lead. A free-kick swung into the box wasn't dealt with by the defence and 'keeper Smith had to be on hand to tip a free header around the post at full stretch - a great save.
It would be unfair to say that this acted as a kick up the backside for the Linnets, who had been in control up to that point and continued to dominate, despite falling behind.
Danny O'Brien was booked for diving in the penalty area in what looked like a very harsh decision by the referee, and another moment of gallant defending by AFC Darwen denied Potter.
The AFC Darwen seal was finally broken after what seemed like a lifetime of trying, but in reality only 20 minutes! Kris Holt picked up the ball outside the penalty area and fired goal wards a shot that took a wicked deflection from an attempted block.
Despite the goalkeeper almost making an unbelievable recovery save, the ball just escaped his desperate grasp and trickled over the line.
Eleven minutes later, Ello's men took the lead. Great work on the right flank by Antony Hickey picked out Paul Shanley on the edge of the 18-yard box and he delightfully swept home the ball with the instep, finding the bottom corner and giving the goalkeeper no chance.
Shanley had another chance just before half time, a much easier one in truth, but he dwelt on the ball for a split second too long and allowed Darwen's 'keeper a chance to make what was still a top-class save from close range.
So 2-1 to the Linnets at half time after what had been a half of well-taken goals and good goalkeeping on both sides.
The second half was not to be as competitive, Linnets taking a firm grip as they set out to improve on an already impressive goal difference.
On 53 minutes, the pressure told as Potter moved into some space on the left and his low cross into the six-yard box was converted by Mike Simpson, who had made a well-timed run.
At 3-1, the flow of the game slowed down somewhat, Linnets quite content to move the ball around and let AFC Darwen chase after it.
The tactic worked well as the Lancashire outfit visibly tired, allowing the Linnets to add some gloss to the score line in the closing stages.
With 10 minutes remaining, Holt added his second goal of the game, finishing off after AFC Darwen's goalkeeper had saved but then spilled the initial shot from Shanley.
This was Runcorn's 100th goal in all competitions this season and within two minutes, 4-1 became 5-1.
Hickey had made way for substitute Stuart Wellstead, midway through the second half, and Wellstead completed the scoring. Holt found space on the left to pick out Wellstead, who drilled the ball home at the far post from six yards out. Another very well-taken goal from the Linnets, who had found much joy when attacking from the wings.
Terry Smith's work was not yet over as he made another strong save from a Darwen free kick, which the 'keeper had conceded himself when coming out of his penalty area to clear. Instead, he slipped on the wet surface, stopping the ball with his hand - clearly accidentally.
A week after Matt Atherton's 300th appearance, there was another player celebrating a milestone. Mark Houghton was brought on, in place of Freddie Potter, to rapturous applause as the public address announcement informed the MLS crowd that Houghto was making his 200th appearance for us.
Congratulations Houghto ! You really would struggle to find a more committed and selfless individual.
This was another crucial win for the Linnets, not least because Widnes in third and Runcorn Town in second had faced off the previous evening, with Widnes coming though 2-0 victors to leapfrog Town.
So our victory puts us 13 points clear of our nearest neighbours from Weston Point, and 10 ahead of our other neighbours from across the new bridge.
Attention now turns to a slightly rescheduled game this Friday night (ko 7.45pm) as the Linnets make the short trip just past the Tall Trees crossroads to take on bottom of the table Barnton, the fixture having been brought forward from Saturday afternoon.
Runcorn Linnets: Terry Smith, Louis Corrigan, Matthew Atherton, Aaron Morris, Danny O'Brien, Michael Simpson, Kristian Holt, Kieran Nolan, Freddie Potter, Paul Shanley, Antony Hickey. Subs: Mark Houghton, Stuart Wellstead, Mitch Bryant. Not used: Adam Jones, Jimmy Moore.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.
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