26th November 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Brighouse Town : 1-0
After Saturday's FA Trophy exit to FC United of Manchester, in front of nearly a thousand, it was back to midweek league action with the visit of Brighouse Town - Linnets needing to move up a gear with a sluggish 12 points from 13 games so far.
That wouldn't be easy, with 9th placed Brighouse coming off a rousing 4-0 win over Mossley at the weekend.
Changes for Linnets saw goalkeeper Michael Emery making his second appearance, after his recent debut at Ramsbottom, Louis Corrigan in for the injured Zac Aley at left back, Oldham loanee Lewis McKinney replacing Kurt Sherlock, and Warren Bellew giving way to brand new signing Liam Caddick.
Runcorn fans would be keen to see Liam finding the net sharpish, after his four goals against them for Droylsden last season, including a hat-trick at the Millbank.
The first offensive move of the game came from the visitors. After a foul on the industrious Alhassane Keita, a free-kick into the mixer was cleared by Peter Wylie.
The Runcorn No 4 got in the way of many of Town's attacking efforts, as he had done with those of FC United three days earlier.
During the first ten minutes new man Caddick was keen to get involved, winning and picking up the ball wide left, from where he fed McKinney, Hamid and Shanley across the pitch.
And he was on the end of Linnets' first decent chance: Louis Hayes playing forward through the middle, under the foot of Kyle Hamid and into the penalty area, where Liam almost beat 'keeper Jordan Porter to it, but not quite.
On ten minutes a McKinney cross was chested down and controlled by Shanley, who turned to shoot but was stopped in his tracks by referee Mr Croft agreeing with Brighouse shouts for a handball
At the end of the half, there would be a little less agreement between the man in black and the ones in orange.
Home pressure continued, with an Ally Brown cross being headed over by Shanley from just outside the six-yard box, and after a trip on Hamid on halfway, a free-kick flicking off the head of Brighouse No4 James Hartley to put Shanley through.
We can only presume it was the Linnets 9 who was deemed offside, as he was furthest forward, but he most certainly wasn't when the ball left Hartley's head.
In the first quarter of an hour, Brighouse attacks were few and provided little or nothing for Michael Emery to do.
But after a four-man move launched by Caddick ended with a turn and shot by Shanley, held comfortably by Porter after a slight deflection, the visitors entered a spell of more possession.
Keita was involved in most of their efforts, and with Haigh, Stewart and Cham he sought to create an opening. If they did get past Corrigan or Brown out wide, though, Hinnigan and Wylie were there to intercept and sweep up, or Emery collected without stress.
At the other end, balls through to Shanley from Hayes and Hamid, and crossed by Caddick and Gibson, were similarly dealt with by the Brighouse defence without panic.
After 23 minutes, a long clearance from Porter launched a Brighouse assault, but a precision tackle by Hamid foiled it, and after a brief bout of pinball it was the Linnets skipper who launched a long pass forward for Caddick, in space in the middle, but his 25-yard effort cleared the bar.
Town's most concerted spell of pressure brought their best chance. From the right, the inevitable Keita found Haigh in the box, his shot blocked by Hinnigan for a corner.
The set-piece allowed a point-blank shot by Rawson from eight yards, but Wylie blocked it for another corner, which Emery gathered safely.
Linnets' best opportunity so far followed after half an hour, a flashed pass forward from the centre circle by Hamid setting up Shanley to run one-on-one with the 'keeper.
He drew him out to his right and shot across the box, grazing the outside of the far post.
It was the hosts' turn to take the ascendency, and they kept it for ten minutes that would ultimately decide the final outcome.
On 32 minutes, Ryan Gibson beat two men wide right and pulled it back to McKinney, laying off to Shanley who moved goalwards but was fouled.
Corrigan curled the free-kick across the area, from where Shanley attempted a shot that was blocked and bounced off him for a goal-kick.
Moments later, McKinney and Caddick played a one-two outside the area both shaping to shoot - the latter firing wide.
Then came the decisive moment, although it didn't turn the rest of the game Runcorn's way as might have been expected.
Another central through ball from the home half set Paul Shanley free into the penalty area, where he prodded the ball to his right past the out-rushing Town 'keeper, who promptly brought him down as he followed it.
Shanley scrambled to his feet and reached the ball, but before he could shoot across the covering Josh Grant, the referee whistled, pointed to the penalty spot and promptly showed Porter a red card.
Mayhem ensued. At the end of the half Mr Croft added three minutes.
Quite apart from Kyle Hamid receiving two minutes of attention after being felled on the stroke of half-time, Brighouse players engaged the referee and his assistant in a good four minutes of lively debate.
Dismissed 'keeper and captain Porter spent three of them shirtless, gently suggesting that the officials might like to reconsider the verdict.
In line with every disputed decision in history, they didn't.
It appeared to be the red card rather than the penalty that was being questioned (confirmed by Town manager Vill Powell's post-match interview), and you have to admit that the recent changes made to 'double jeopardy' red cards and penalties for fouls in the box are as clear as a file of Stephen Hawking's workings out, translated into Mandarin, and encased in mud.
If only we had VAR, everything would be made…even less clear.
In the event, Porter reluctantly agreed to depart, and was replaced from the bench by defender Reece Kendall, for whom left-winger Ousman Cham was sacrificed.
His first job was to stop Louis Corrigan from lashing the penalty into the top right corner.
Reece isn't a goalkeeper, but if he'd been Peter Schmeichel in his prime he wouldn't have saved it.
The hosts naturally undertook to test the makeshift 'keeper as often as possible, but only a couple of low-powered attempts were permitted by the defence before the break.
The best chance should have been from an indirect free-kick from the right side of the penalty area, after Kendall stopped a back-pass, paused for a moment, then stooped to pick it up.
His confusion was mitigated by a team-mate (and not us behind his goal, honest) shouting "Pick it up!". Strange. A tapped pass between Corrigan and Shanley produced a shot that was deflected for a corner.
The home side had undoubtedly enjoyed more possession and more penetrative attacks during that first half, and when Brighouse got forward, Emery in the Runcorn goal was given very little to do.
It was surprising, then, and disappointing for the home fans, that their team dominated the game less against ten men than they had against eleven.
That isn't so unusual, though. Ten men will often raise their game, and chase and cover with greater urgency. The stupendous FA Trophy away win at Prescot, with a man short for the whole second half, was far from being Linnets' only triumphant display in recent years with a depleted line-up.
So it was for Brighouse. They replaced Luke Rawson with Tim Akinola at half time, and the surely exhausted Keita with Luke Cranswick after 67 minutes, but the ten on the pitch battled stoically to get something from the game.
There were 12 minutes to go when Mr Croft levelled up the sides with a red card for Ryan Gibson that Brighouse fans agreed was soft.
His tackle on Josh Grant was a bit late, but hardly cynical or dangerous, and credit to the Town left-back that he didn't milk it either.
It was doubly bad news for Linnets, as not only would they have to adapt quickly against a side that had already settled into battling with ten for 40 minutes, but also they would lose one of their form players for the next three games.
It was perhaps surprising that the home side finished the game with the same remaining ten that started.
McGivern, McCarthy, Bellew and new signing Gaskell stayed on the bench, rather than supplement the challenge to ten men who had run themselves ragged.
The early part of the second half had seen Linnets understandably play quickly through the middle to create chances to test Reece Kendall, but resolute defending allowed little space for Caddick, Shanley or McKinney (who tried and tried and tried) to place shots wide of the 'keeper, and after his early wobble picking up that back-pass, he did an excellent job.
He blocked or caught everything that came straight at him, including a fine quick-fire double block from close range shots by McKinney and Hamid, and several crosses from wide saw him palm, punch or parry the ball before Gibson, Shanley or Caddick could get a head on it.
Only once before the end of the game was the Brighouse No14, operating as No1, by-passed, when just before Gibson's dismissal, McKinney turned on 18 yards and let rip with a shot that slammed off the left post.
The next best chance came inside the last ten minutes, when a powerful if speculative shot from 25 yards by Peter Wylie deflected off Harrison Beeden. It was still well on target, and Kendall did very well to get to it and hold on.
More balls from out wide by Corrigan, Brown, Shanley and Caddick were either headed clear or ran too long for their target man, which spoke volumes for Brighouse resolve.
And they were by no means parking the bus. They closed down fast whenever Linnets had the ball, and frequently enough won it and pressed forward, limiting Runcorn possession and territory.
Several times after the hour mark, they built attacks across the Runcorn third, involving Haigh, Stewart, Rawson and substitute Cranswick.
They didn't greatly trouble Emery between the sticks, but kept the Runcorn defence and midfield chasing and blocking, and on a number of occasions the ten men had a spare man in space against the eleven.
The last notable event of the game brought a yellow card for Stewart, for diving, when it did appear that Louis Corrigan had brought him down on the right touch line.
It was a hard-fought game, but played with a level of fairness that was not reflected by the two red cards.
It wouldn't feel like it for Brighouse players, management and fans, but it could be argued that the dismissal of their captain Porter actually did them a favour, because during the 40 minutes that it was ten against eleven, the visitors had their best periods of the game.
Before that, Linnets were well on top and clear favourites to take charge.
And as much as anyone, emergency Town goalkeeper Kendall will
have felt justifiably disappointed to leave the field pointless.
For the Linnets faithful, it's off to sit on plastic, to watch football on plastic, at Widnes on Saturday 30th November, kick-off 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Jack Hinnigan, Peter Wylie, Ally Brown, Louis Hayes, Ryan Gibson, Kyle Hamid, Paul Shanley, Lewis McKinney, Liam Caddick. Subs: not used: Declan McGivern, Connor McCarthy, Warren Bellew, Reece Gaskell.
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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