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24th August 2019, Atherton Collieries v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-1

By David 'Bill' Davies

Runcorn came to the Skuna Stadium, looking for a first competitive win of the season, and perhaps feeling like the hosts were their bogey side, Colls having beaten Linnets three times last season on their way to the title and promotion. 

Two of those victories happened at Colls ground on consecutive Saturdays, in the league and the FA Trophy. 

Runcorn management and fans would have been reminiscing more readily about the 2016-17 campaign, when Linnets did the double over the eventual North West Counties League champions, including a 2-0 home win despite playing the last 35 minutes with nine men.

Extensive personnel changes for both sides since last they met would make this one interesting, and there was no forgetting that the FA Cup begins in summer, as the game was played in energy-sapping heat.

Early exchanges saw most of the attacking effort coming from the hosts, with a flurry of early corners and forays into the box not yielding a solid chance, thanks to a composed Linnets defence. Anything making it through was scooped up by Bayleigh Passant in the Runcorn goal with his already customary confidence.

It was the eighth minute before Runcorn fashioned their first real attack, a Paul Shanley cross from the right carrying too far, and then a neat flick-on by Connor McCarthy giving Jamie Rainford a run on goal, but advancing 'keeper Theo Roberts got there first. 

After more well-defended attacking possession by Colls, a promising long through ball by Peter Wylie found Connor McCarthy in space, but marginally offside.  A run by Shanley on 17 minutes won a first Linnets' corner, but it was punched clear powerfully by Roberts.

Towards the half-hour mark, Colls continued to have more of the ball and the attacks, and Passant was called upon more than once to maintain the deadlock. On 20 minutes, he pulled off a great diving save to keep out a blistering shot from 18 yards, after a mix-up between Shanley and Wylie gave Colls possession wide on the left. 

Passant also pulled off a couple of advancing one-on-one saves that are becoming a trademark much appreciated  by Runcorn fans.  It is hard to believe that Tranmere loanee Bayleigh is only 18 years old when you watch his confidence and bravery against far more experienced and usually much burlier opponents. 

With prodigal son Richie Mottram re-signing in midweek, the Runcorn goal looks to be in safe hands and feet for the time being.

The nearest thing to a first-half Runcorn scoring chance came just before a surely belated drinks break on 35 minutes. Another great diagonal through ball from Wylie allowed Jamie Rainford a deft looping shot over the 'keeper, but also just over the bar.

At the break, Colls would feel their lion's share of attacking possession had warranted a lead, but in truth a solid defensive showing by the away side kept serious chances to a minimum. That fact was reflected by two substitutions by Colls at half-time; Tom Bentham and Oli Roberts on for Jordan Cover and Dave Sherlock, and a third only 10 minutes later, when Ben Conway replaced Jack Egan.

Bentham's considerable physical presence did make a difference, which would ultimately prove decisive. A shot from an early, and apparently soft, free-kick was going just wide, but Passant made sure it did, and another flurry of Colls corners was defended well, as was a surge on goal by Bailey, forcing another great one-on-one save by the 'Corn 'keeper.

On the hour mark, increasingly match-fit Linnets club captain Kyle Hamid made his entrance, on for the enterprising Harry Cannon-Noren, and he made a real difference as the Runcorn threat increased in terms of positive possession. He was involved in a series of multiple passing moves with Brown and Shanley up the right flank that had Colls defenders working hard, and fired in a number of dangerous crosses from deep.  If Kyle had played another four minutes it might have changed the final outcome, and he should have done. 

He had tried to enter the fray four minutes earlier, but was wearing number 19. The 18 shirt he was billed with was in the dressing room, and Michael Simpson warmed up for his own impending appearance by sprinting off to get it. And what do you know, his own substitution for Ronnie McCarthy was delayed by having to change from 15 to 14

With the help of Hamid and Simpson, and penetrating work by Wylie and Brown, Runcorn started to have as much of the game as the hosts, and the visitors' best chance came when a 'Cruyff turn' by Ally Brown put Hamid free to cross powerfully for Connor McCarthy to fire an exocet at the top left corner from outside the box. Roberts' save was as impressive as Passant's almost identical one in the first half. 

Colls had two gilt-edged chances within minutes, the first as a rare mistake by Brown left Colls' Brad Lynch to fire just wide when he could easily have scored. Then the deadlock was finally broken on 68 minutes, as a crowded penalty area saw more black and white shirts in the middle than orange ones, and Ben Hardcastle found the space to smash the ball into the roof of the net.

Linnets' hard work looked like it had been in vain, but they then enjoyed their first spell of domination, repeatedly troubling the Colls defence, and when a foul brought a free kick from Louis Corrigan's favourite place 22 yards out, we expected Theo to have to get his gloves to the top corner again. 

But Louis crossed it, for Shanley to head into the danger area, but there were no orange shirts there. 

Yet another point-blank stop by Passant at the other end was quickly followed by a deep cross from Michael Simpson being headed just over the bar by Jamie Rainford - his last contribution before Ryan Wade (wearing the correct shirt) replaced him, hoping to get the better of the heat-ravaged hosts. 

Six minutes remained when in a sustained spell of Runcorn possession and pressure, Peter Wylie launched a rocketing cross from the left flank across the penalty area, where the soaring figure of Paul Shanley directed a perfect header into the right corner. 1-1.

Hamid, Simpson and Brown continued to cause trouble, without converting, and the Millbank on a balmy Tuesday night beckoned…until added time entered its third minute.

Colls sub Tom Bentham broke away into the Runcorn half and used his considerable size advantage to keep possession, to concerted but unrewarded howls of "foul" from the Linnets faithful. He played the ball out left to Gareth Peet who turned Paul Shanley before advancing into the box and firing past Passant into the far bottom corner. No VAR at this level yet, and Colls were ahead. 

A minute later, they should have had a third, when Bentham's low close-range effort was pushed around the post by Passant.

Close but no fixture congestion for Runcorn. If Colls hadn't gone through, they would certainly have felt they should have done, but there was much in tough conditions against a tough side to make Linnets believe the first competitive win of the season won't be long in coming. 

Many teams across two levels of the BetVictor NPL will have their work cut against both of these sides.

Runcorn Linnets :  Bailey Passant, Louis Corrigan, Peter Wylie, Nick Ryan, Ally Brown, Ronnie McCarthy (Michael Simpson 61 mins), Harry Cannon-Noren (Kyle Hamid 59 mins), Zac Aley, Jamie Rainford (Ryan Wade 82 mins), Connor McCarthy, Paul Shanley. Subs not used: Louis Coyle, Ryan Gibson, Declan McGivern.  

Attendance: 252.

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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