12th January 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Atherton Collieries : 0-3
The biggest Step 4 crowd in the country flocked to the Millbank Linnets Stadium on Saturday to take in the eagerly-anticipated 3rd v 2nd place EVO-STIK League West Division clash between the Linnets and Atherton Collieries.
There was an opportunity to return to top spot at stake for the winner of this game with leaders Radcliffe Borough holding a slender points advantage over both.
The mid-afternoon change in weather conditions didn't dampen the anticipation among the almost 500 strong MLS crowd, though it did play a significant part in the match itself.
Ryan Gibson retained his place in the starting eleven after a Man of the Match performance in midweek against Stalybridge, in the Cheshire Senior Cup victory, and there were places on the bench for Kris Holt, new signing Luke Noble and the Mitch Bryant on his return from Glossop North End.
The game started at a frantic pace, both sides attacking with vigour. Runcorn had the significant wind behind their backs in the first half which made it difficult for Colls to clear from their own half, the ball rising up into the air and seeming to bounce off an invisible wall near the halfway line whenever a clearance was attempted.
The Linnets started very well, Ronnie McCarthy testing Colls goalkeeper Greg Hartley in the first minute. This was followed by a couple of clear sights at goal for Freddie Potter, but both efforts cleared the crossbar from outside the penalty area.
Runcorn were building attacks and using the width of the pitch well, Gibson and Shanley both giving the Colls defence something to think about. Unfortunately, the final pass was lacking on several occasions.
As the half hour mark approached, Atherton started to get a bit of a foothold in the game. A lighting break that began following a Linnets corner drew a smart save from Dylan Forth, and was a clear warning shot fired about the threat the visitors posed when able to counter attack at pace.
On 40 minutes, former Linnets player Gaz Peet was played in at pace up the left wing and made light work of beating Matty Russell and Peter Wylie as he approached the penalty area, only to be brought down via a cynical challenge by Russell on the very edge of the penalty area.
With most of the MLS crowd relieved that the referee, who was excellent all day in this high-profile encounter, correctly pointed outside the penalty area despite Peet landing well within it, it ultimately made little difference as Atherton took the lead from the free kick. Vinny Bailey curled a terrific set piece into the far top corner of the Linnets net from the right edge of the 18-yard box.
Runcorn set about getting themselves back into the game straight away and had a couple of good chances to draw level before half time.
Paul Shanley set up Kurt Sherlock whose shot at goal was deflected wide. On the stroke of half time, Shrelock threatened again with a powerful run from midfield which ended in a shot from outside the box that just cleared the crossbar.
Just like in the first half, Runcorn started the second half the stronger of the two sides. But despite controlling the play for 20 minutes, the Linnets couldn't find a way through a resolute Colls defence.
The game-defining moments arrived in the 73rd minute.
The ball was bouncing around like a pinball in the Atherton penalty area and when it fell to Josh Dobie, introduced earlier as a substitute in place of Ronnie McCarthy, Dobie's low strike found a way through a crowd of bodies, beat Hartley in the Colls goal but was cleared off the line at the far post by Peet. And within a minute Colls had doubled their lead.
Dylan Forth had the ball at his feet and played a misplaced pass out wide that put Aaron Morris under pressure to recover the stray ball.
Aaron did well to keep the ball in play and find a pass into the Linnets midfield, but possession was lost and with Runcorn out of position, Ben Conway went charging into the Linnets penalty area and converted low past Forth from a tight angle.
Ello brought on Noble and Bryant in an effort to rescue something from the game, but the visitors' grip on the match was now firm and it was Atherton who looked the more likely to add to the scoring. They did just that in the 86th minute, arguably adding an unjust coat of gloss to what had been a tighter affair than the 0-3 scoreline suggests.
A corner was only half cleared and when the ball was played back into the penalty area, Ian Rowlands was allowed to turn and fire a shot in through a static Runcorn defence to rub salt into an already stinging wound.
Runcorn were found well short on the day. Possession statistics would probably show this as quite an even game, but Atherton were clinical and ruthless when opportunities presented themselves while the Linnets struggled to break down the impressive Colls rearguard.
We now look ahead to another huge game at the Millbank Linnets Stadium next Saturday when another top-six side Prescot Cables make the short trip to Runcorn.
Ello's men will be desperate to avenge the defeat suffered in the controversial game at Prescot earlier in the season, when the Linnets fell to a 2-1 defeat and had to play with 9 men for much of the match. Kick off on Saturday is at 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Dylan Forth, Louis Corrigan, Peter Wylie, Aaron Morris, Matt Russell, Ronnie McCarthy, Kurt Sherlock, Kyle Hamid, Freddie Potter, Paul Shanley, Ryan Gibson. Subs: Josh Dobie, Luke Noble, Mitch Bryant. Not used: Kris Holt, Bobby Evans.
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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