7th December 2019, Kendal Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1
Runcorn Linnets made one of the longer journeys of the season, albeit a straightforward one, up the M6 to Lakelands in search of a third straight league victory, and a first league double, having beaten Kendal Town 4-0 at home in September.
England's wet weather was supposedly over for the day, but predictably, crossing the border into Cumbria an hour before kick-off involved driving into horizontal rain of the fine kind, that Peter Kay will tell you "gets you soaked". It made an already soft, wet pitch all the trickier, and it lasted throughout a first half which saw the visitors entirely dominate the game. Less so after it stopped at half-time.
The official attendance of 115 left your correspondent wondering if it was safe to drive home, as he must have been suffering from double vision.
After mass changes for the midweek Integro Cup tie with Leek Town, Michael Ellison's selection looked much more like the lineup for the league victories over Brighouse and Widnes. But Tom Owens was back in the centre of midfield in place of Louis Hayes, and Connor McCarthy started in place of suspended Ryan Gibson.
The visitors showed their intent in the first minute. Immediate pressure on the defence out right by McCarthy forced a throw-in, followed by the inevitable trip on Paul Shanley, back in action after 90 minutes on the bench on Tuesday to rest his countless bruises from the win at Widnes.
Louis Corrigan's free-kick curled in just behind Liam Caddick, whose clever back-heel flick bounced off the top of the bar.
Barely a minute later, a neat one-two between Shanley and McCarthy saw the latter's shot caught confidently by Kendal 'keeper Morgan Bacon, and moments after that a 50/50 chase between Shanley and Bacon gave Caddick another chance, but he mis-cued his shot.
A pattern was already set for the first half, with quick passing moves between Shanley, Caddick, Lewis McKinney and Ally Brown giving the home defence repeated problems, and leaving the Runcorn half of the pitch, down the hill, largely untouched.
There were signs that Kendal left-back Seydou Bamba and winger Aaron Fleming had the capability to cause problems, but they were few, far between and on the break, with the Linnets defence coping with relative ease.
Kieran Maguire, Christian Sloan and Chris Wraighte were also involved in the first multiple passing move for Kendal, halted by a foul. Bamba's free-kick into the box was headed away by Jack Hinnigan.
On ten minutes, an attempt by Wraighte to shield the ball out for a goal-kick failed pleasingly when it didn't reach the line. Shanley flicked the ball off him for a corner, from which Shan himself attempted
a snap shot from a tight angle. The effort found the side netting.
The increasingly slick surface was cutting up fast, and Linnets' quick passing game to feet was not going to get easier, but the seemingly inevitable happened after 16 minutes.
From a lay-off by Shanley, Ally Brown picked up the ball on the right touchline, deftly passed three defenders to the corner flag and crossed sharply for Connor McCarthy to despatch a firm right-footed shot into the bottom right corner.
It was hard to believe that it would be the only goal for the men in away orange, but half a dozen contacts with the woodwork, as many just over the bar, and a string of solid saves by Bacon ultimately made it so.
By the 25 minute mark, McCarthy had cleared the bar with a 22-yard shot after a 20-yard solo run by Caddick, and the referee had been unmoved by appeals for a penalty when McCarthy was sent sprawling in the area. Kendal had managed one single move in the Runcorn half involving more than two players. The visitors looked as though they had at least two more men on the pitch.
After several weeks of cameo appearances due to a nagging injury, Connor McCarthy was showing signs of performing at his fast, forceful, dogged best, until he gave way to Alex O'Neill after the hour mark.
Almost half an hour was gone when the hosts had their first attempt on goal, the ball falling to Wraighte outside the penalty area, his powerful shot flying high and wide, but not by much.
A couple of more speculative efforts were easily gathered by Michael Emery in the Runcorn goal.
The ball was soon back at the top of the hill, where it stayed for most of the remainder of the wet first half. A deft cross by Corrigan was headed away by Alex Parr, a resulting throw-in giving Brown a chance in the right half of the penalty area, but his shot went wide.
A Brown/Corrigan one-two brought a corner on the right, headed out for another, and Corrigan's follow up evaded everyone in the box before bouncing off the top of the crossbar on the far side.
One hopeful slap along the deck, easily picked up by Emery, was Kendal's only other attempt before the break.
The keeper's long clearance enabled McCarthy to run through on goal, but the Kendal No1 blocked his shot well with his legs.
At half time, the Runcorn management team had to pleased with a dominant display based on fast forward moves and passes to feet, which were far from easy in squally rain on a tricky surface.
The 1-0 lead didn't reflect a half in which the three points could already have been well on their way back to Cheshire.
Memories were stirred of the corresponding fixture last season, where manager Ellison had entered the clubhouse afterwards shaking his head, wondering how a bad day at the office had resulted in a 2-1 win. Might karma reverse the outcome this season?
It didn't, but the second half was a very different affair. Kendal spent far more time in the visitors' half, and while chances were fairly evenly shared, Town's attacks tended to involve more players and more passes, with Linnets advancing chiefly on the break.
Lewis McKinney seemed up for the battle, as his gloves were literally off. Then again, the wind and rain had abated, and he is from Oldham, not Milan.
In the first five minutes of the second half, Kendal offered more attacking threat than they had in the whole of the first.
A defence-beating overlap put centre-forward Jasskaleinen through, but it ran long for a goal-kick, and a hopeful shot by Sloan went well wide.
At the bottom end, a four-man move on the break resulted in a McKinney shot from outside the area slamming against the bar, with the fingertips of Bacon helping it on its way.
Several minutes of home pressure followed, a three-man move across the outside of the box leading to a Sean Paterson shot, blocked by Peter Wylie, and another from Wraighte flying well wide.
The introduction of Alex O'Neill, for his first Linnets outing in the league, added an extra threatening dimension. His speed on fresh legs, and confidence on the ball, doubled the threat on the break provided by Shanley, who was fouled rather less than by most opponents of late.
O'Neill did quickly became the target for fouls after beating defenders to the ball. The first brought a Corrigan free-kick which again hit the bar. With 20 minutes to go O'Neill was brought down again, on the break from a cleared Kendal free-kick, resulting in Hinnigan powering an audible header straight at the home 'keeper.
After two more home attacks that petered out under close defensive pressure, a Shanley diagonal pass across a crowded box found the advancing Caddick in limited space. Leaning back, he blasted a shot a foot over the bar.
With 10 minutes left, Caddick was brought down on the halfway line. The kick was placed wide right, from where Shanley pulled it back for McKinney, who chested it down and shot, the deflection falling to Owens whose attempt was also blocked.
The second half was conducted almost entirely in the right half of the pitch, from the Runcorn perspective.
The pitch slopes that way, but not so much as to provide an explanation.
With six minutes remaining, Linnets did attack from the left, a beautifully-flighted ball from McKinney clearing the reach of Bacon, but just shading the far post.
The latter stages were punctuated by free-kick after free-kick, which had been notably scarce earlier in the game. And it seemed a strange decision by the Kendal bench to make the late substitution of Michael Hodgson for Chris Wraighte, while waiting to take a throw-in at 1-0 behind.
Town had a chance to level the score with a minute to go, a free-kick from outside the area on the right clearing two Kendal heads at the far post and going out for a goal-kick.
That put Shanley away into the opposite box, for possibly the best opportunity of the match. He advanced on the 'keeper one-on-one, and the Linnets behind the goal knew that one of two things would happen.
Shanley would slip the ball wide of Bacon and nip past him to score, or slip it wide of him and be brought down for a penalty. Life is full of surprises.
He heard a shout from McKinney, advancing from his left, and rolled it that way. It bobbled over the rutted turf for Bacon to get there before the advancing Runcorn No7.
The season of giving and goodwill might have been looming, but the away fans behind the goal would have preferred a more Scrooge-like approach by Shanners. We were in added time, the last two minutes of which were spent within a yard of the corner flag.
Louis Corrigan, supported by Caddick and McKinney, dared defenders Fagan, Allington and Maguireto dispossess him. Two Runcorn throw-ins resulted, but nothing else.
The 1-0 scoreline suggested a close game, and that would have been a fair reflection, if it had started at 4pm. But if this had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it before half-time.
But as Ello had acknowledged on the same ground last season, what matters isn't 'how?', but 'how many?'.
A third successive league win moved Runcorn Linnets to 11th place, and six points from the play-off zone.
Next stop will be a home fixture against second-placed Trafford on Saturday 14th December, kick-off 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Jack Hinnigan, Peter Wylie, Ally Brown, Tom Owens, Lewis McKinney, Kyle Hamid, Connor McCarthy (Alex O'Neill 64), Paul Shanley, Liam Caddick. Subs not used: Declan Gallagher, Reece Gaskell, Zac Aley, Declan McGivern.
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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