17th August 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Pontefract Collieries FC : 1-1 Sponsored by John & Brenda Jenkin in memory of Kath & Phil Tyler
The increasingly-torturous wait for the newly-formed BetVictor Northern Premier League North West Division to kick off finally came to an end on Saturday afternoon when Pontefract Collieries visited the Millbank Linnets Stadium.
The Yorkshire outfit are one of the clubs who have been "laterally moved" from what was the East Division last season, and they were wanting to avoid a repeat of their single previous visit to the MLS which ended in a 6-0 FA Cup defeat in 2015.
The Millbank has had a bit of a facelift over the summer months and looked in splendid shape against the backdrop of a sunny August afternoon, the newly-sponsored Webbs Builders Merchants and SoccerMillion stands framing the playing surface nicely.
Significant works have been carried out on the pitch itself throughout the off season and the hard work paid off with the playing surface looking in great condition.
Comings and goings over the summer guaranteed that this was going to be a much-changed Runcorn Linnets side from that which had closed last season. No fewer than five players made their competitive Linnets debuts.
Aside from the changes in personnel, manager Michael Ellison went for a very different set up for his starting eleven, a packed rearguard put in place to contain the visitors' direct and physical threat.
It took just over a minute for the Linnets to threaten the Pontefract goal. Acting captain Paul Shanley looked to have turned in Louis Corrigan's near-post corner but it was the outside of the net that was rippling, opposed to the inside.
The visitors started to let us know they were here with a few heavy tackles, one which drew an early booking, and also took a slight foothold in the game.
Runcorn newcomer Bayleigh Passant was called upon to make a solid save from a rasping left-footed strike on 16 minutes, the start of what would be an eye-catching performance from the 18-year-old Tranmere Rovers loanee 'keeper.
The shape of the team was doing an excellent job of containing the visitors threat, but didn't lend itself well to Runcorn's own attack.
Jamie Rainford led the line but was isolated for long spells, with attacks often breaking down when runs and passes went in opposite directions.
I want to take this opportunity to say how well the young referee managed this game. When faced with an irate Pontefract bench midway through the first half, he handled the situation calmly and with authority, an approach that he stuck to throughout the game when faced with situations from both sides.
It was refreshing to see and plaudits were deserved.
Pontefract ended the first half strongly and will have felt unlucky not to go in for their half-time oranges with an advantage in the game.
On 32 minutes, a corner led to a bit of pinball in the Runcorn penalty box with the ball falling kindly for the visitors who should have scored with a free hit at goal from six yards out. But excellent defending on the goal line kept the ball out.
Pontefract danger man Joe Lumsden was presented with a gilt-edged opportunity in the 39th minute when a fortunate ricochet sent him clean through on goal. But Passant was quickly off his line to make a fantastic save and divert the ball away from the danger area.
And just a minute later, Collieries went agonisingly close yet again. A free header from a corner looked certain to break the deadlock but another Linnets goal line clearance frustrated their opponents again.
Runcorn's luck was out just a minute into the second half as Pontefract took the lead which in fairness they deserved.
Nick Ryan made a good tackle as Lumsden started his run at goal, but the loose ball wasn't kind to the Linnets and a rebound once again set Lumsden in one on one with Passant, the forward making no mistake second time around. 0-1 Pontefract.
Other than Ally Brown's low shot at the near post, which was handled well by Pontefract's big goalkeeper Sebastian Malkowski, there was little action at the Linnets business end.
Debut-making defender Ryan was lucky not to see red on 56 minutes for an off-the-ball shove on a Pontefract player, the over- reaction from the victim might have saved the Linnets' defender.
A pair of last-ditch tackles by Ryan and Peter Wylie, who were both excellent throughout, along with more superb goalkeeping by Passant were needed to keep Collieries from doubling their lead and taking the game away from Runcorn.
And at this point, Ello felt it was time for a change. Jack Hinnigan and Paul Shanley made way for brothers Ronnie and Connor McCarthy (the latter returning to the club on Friday from Warrington) with 20 minutes left.
The changes along with a formation reshuffle brought about an immediate impact, Connor McCarthy's running giving a hitherto relatively untroubled Pontefract defence something different to think about.
In the 73rd minute, Runcorn got their equaliser - and Connor McCarthy played a key role. Getting in behind his marker, he found a yard of space on the right of the penalty area and picked out a low cross to Jamie Rainford, who was lurking near the penalty spot.
Rainford's scuffed volley back across goal deceived Malkowski all ends up, and despite always looking like it would fall the wrong side of the near post, the ball pitched and turned like a good old-fashioned "googlie" and sneaked in at the foot of the goal frame. 1-1.
Kurt Sherlock came on from the bench with five minutes remaining as the tide had turned in Runcorn's favour. Rainford, who had scored on his first competitive Linnets outing, picked out the run of Connor McCarthy with a magnificent crossfield pass. But McCarthy, driving at the visitors' goal, saw his far-post shot saved by Malkowski
The game was end to end in the final few minutes and the Linnets rearguard was called upon three times to protect the point, firstly from a rocket-like long throw and then from a pair of in-swinging corners.
The full-time whistle brought an end to an entertaining opening game, and while Pontefract might feel differently based on their chances in the first half, a point each was probably just about the right result.
Pontefract are a strong side in all areas and will back themselves to do well this season, after narrowly missing out on promotion in the 2018-19 East Division play-off final after finishing second in the table.
The start to the season isn't a gentle one and we head straight into another tough-looking fixture on Tuesday night when travelling to Mossley, kick off 7:45pm. See you all there!
Runcorn Linnets: 1 B Passant, 2 J Hinnigan, 3 L Coyne, 4 N Ryan, 5 A Brown, 6 L Corrigan, 7 P Wylie, 8 Z Aley, 9 J Rainford, 10 P Shanley, 11 H Cannon-Noren; Subs: 12 D McGivern (not used), 14 R McCarthy, 15 M Simpson (not used), 16 C McCarthy, 17 K Sherlock.
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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