14th December 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Trafford : 2-1 Sponsored by The Bignall Family in memory of Dave
In search of a fourth straight league victory, it was no surprise that Michael Ellison fielded the same team that had won away at Kendal a week earlier, albeit with a few swapped shirt numbers.
It's always a close game with Trafford, a good footballing side. This had made it all the more pleasing when Linnets won 3-0 two months ago in the FA Trophy, in an away performance as superb as Trafford's pitch.
The Millbank surface looked great, incredibly after a week of torrential rain, but having passed an inspection at 9.15am, it would inevitably cut up, and players losing their footing was to be a regular occurrence.
It was amazing that only one game in the NPL North West Division was postponed.
This turned out to be the kind of match where afterwards you have to pause and ask yourself if what you saw actually happened.
After 86 minutes I was scribbling that the scores of 0-0 at half-time and 0-1 at the end were frustrating, but just about right. Five minutes later, I was looking for one of those waste paper bins with a basketball hoop over it. Fresh paper and start again.
Ultimately, Trafford would have been slightly less happy than Linnets to walk away with a point.
Heading back to Manchester with nothing made it a bad day at the office.
The early exchanges were what we expect when these two sides meet. Close marking and swift challenges thwarted attempts by both to build possession and attacks, and when either side did get within reach of goal, defenders blocked and cleared, or 'keepers Emery and Cooper were there to collect with confidence.
The first couple of Runcorn threats saw a low cross by McKinney just evade Caddick, and a Corrigan free-kick from deep bounce through to Matt Cooper, just beyond the reach of Jack Hinnigan.
Shanley did well from another long Corrigan thread up the left to control, turn and cross, but nobody in yellow and green could get a clear shot.
At the other end, after a punched Emery clearance, Ross Davidson and Jake Kenny combined to put Darius Palma through, but he was offside.
Then centre-forward Lewis Walters was away when advantage was played after a flag for a foul. He found Davidson in the centre 20 yards out, but his shot cleared the bar by a distance.
On the quarter-hour, Cooper rescued his side twice within seconds. Shanley picked up the ball wide left, turned into the box leaving Kenny behind, and slammed a shot goal-bound from a tight angle.
Cooper made a great blocking save. Then a McCarthy shot from just inside the area took a deflection off a defensive leg, the shot looping over the 'keeper, and heading for the top left corner until the Trafford No1 somehow reached back and got enough of his fingertips on it to guide it just wide.
Both teams were attacking, and both defences doing their jobs thoroughly. Through most of the first half, the most noticeable difference was that Linnets were getting into the penalty area more, and Cooper was given far more to do than Emery was at the other end.
Trafford were being kept at arms
length by a back four, supplemented doggedly by Hamid and Owens. That limited the visitors to shots that flew high or wide from distance, or were caught confidently by Emery.
By the half-hour point, a less competent 'keeper than Cooper would surely have succumbed at least once. A neat switch out right between McKinney and Shanley (there appeared to be two of him on the pitch again) pulled it back across the middle, and resulted in a 30-yard cannonball by Louis Corrigan. It was right on target, but Cooper was right behind it again.
McKinney advanced fast, and was clearly pulled back by the last man, but no whistle was forthcoming, and Caddick got to a 50/50 aerial challenge first, but could only get enough contact for the ball to drift harmlessly wide.
Trafford responded by finding Thomas Schofield in space wide right, and he played it back into the middle for Walters, only a corner resulting. Left-back Joel Amado claimed to have been fouled by Connor McCarthy, but again only a corner was won, and that was flighted wastefully close to Michael Emery's gloves.
Chances worth their name were few in the last ten minutes of the half, with the game contested fiercely but fairly, and evenly, in the space between the two penalty arcs.
Next to me, Derek Greenwood commented that the first goal would prove very important. Little did we know how simultaneously right and yet completely wrong he could be!
Early in the second half, it was the visitors who were showing more signs of taking control of the game.
They were keeping the ball for longer periods than their hosts, and making the Linnets rearguard work hard. One sequence involving Palma, Walters, Davidson and late-first-half substitute Chris Palmer comprised more than a dozen uninterrupted passes. But it didn't prise open a scoring chance, and was powerfully terminated by Kyle Hamid.
On 52 minutes Caddick, McKinney and Shanley swapped passes in the Trafford third, searching for an opening, but it ran too long and Shanley was dispossessed.
He was back on the right straight afterwards, exchanging a short corner with Corrigan, whose consequent shot sailed tamely wide.
Louis was back in the more traditional area for a left-back moments later, to concede a corner in tackling a Walters advance from the right.
Defensive failings at corners had become a lot rarer of late, with consistency developing from Brown-Wylie-Hinnigan-Corrigan spending more time as a familiar unit, and with the cool head and experience of Emery behind them.
On this occasion, though, the tallest man on the pitch, Trafford centre-half and captain Sam Egerton, was unmarked in a crowded box, and his header was going nowhere but the back of the net.
Despite Trafford having had no less than fifty per cent of the game to that point, it was their first meaningful attempt on target. Our former chairman's observation about the first goal would now be tested.
The goal spurred Trafford on to be visibly quicker and sharper in their marking and tackling. The Runcorn midfield was seeing less of the ball, and when they had it, they were finding it harder still to find openings - passes going backward more than forward.
As they were forced to advance in greater numbers to gain and use possession, it also made quick Trafford breaks more potentially dangerous.
On the hour, Emery found himself the only line of defence as Walters advanced on goal, and the 'keeper won the 50/50 race with his feet. Had he not, it would have been game over.
The tight tackling in the middle third was resulting in more free-kicks, and the home fans were hoping that one or two might materialise in the 20 to 25 yard range that so often makes Louis Corrigan undefendable.
They were mostly closer to 35, though, and curling balls towards the penalty arc were rarely going to be won against the height advantage of Egerton, Taylor and Amado in the Trafford defence.
Hopes of success there became all the more forlorn with 13 minutes remaining, when Sam Grimshaw withdrew and was replaced by the Chewbacca proportioned Keil O'Brien.
Before that switch, two Linnets had gone into the referee's book, Ally Brown for a late challenge as Trafford attacked on the left, and Jack Hinnigan for pulling back Walters on the halfway line.
Both brought free-kicks flighted into the box, but Emery was the end recipient again.
On 75 minutes, a cross from the left found Palma in the area with space to work with. His shot went wide, with plenty of the goal to aim at.
It was perhaps surprising that no changes had been made to the Linnets lineup, Alex O'Neill in particular being someone who can open up resourceful defences, as he had done for the last half-hour at Kendal.
He did appear with nine minutes remaining, replacing Tom Owens, whose last involvement was being tripped 30 yards out. The free-kick went out for a goal-kick, off the shoulder of Liam Caddick in his attempt to beat Amado by the left post.
Ally Brown then cut in from the by-line on the right and was tackled on the edge of the box. The referee decided the challenge had conceded a corner rather than a free-kick, which fell loose in the box when Egerton miscued, but it was cleared.
There was no lack of effort or quality in Runcorn attempts to salvage something from the afternoon, but it was clear that with four minutes to go, it would come only from a defensive mistake or a flash of brilliance to exploit the tightest of gaps. It was the latter.
The penalty area was heavily populated by the big men in the classy white kit, but 17-year-old McKinney found the ball at his feet just inside it, turned and spied a narrow gap inside the left post, and slotted it sharply home.
There might have been the merest of deflections that kept it just beyond the full-length dive of Cooper, but it was a beautifully-taken chance when few had been allowed.
Trafford clearly felt that a game they had won still could be, and they rallied to the other end, where Emery took two grabs to foil an inviting chance for Walters. On the way back, Davidson collected a yellow card for a body-check on Connor McCarthy on the halfway line.
The free-kick was fired long out to the right, from where Shanley headed it back across the area to McCarthy.
A tackle by Amado won the ball, but took the man on the way with an audible crack. We have all too often used the word 'bottled' to describe referees' reactions to moments like that, but Mr Mustafa had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Trafford objections to the decision were voluble and protracted, and Louis Corrigan stood hands on hips for some time waiting to take the penalty while Amado continued to beseech the referee to make history by changing his mind.
The Linnets No2 targeted the bottom left corner, if a little less powerfully than usual, and Cooper got there to make another fine save. He could only parry it, though, and Corrigan got to the rebound first to bury it in the centre of the goal.
An eventual six minutes of added time had enough left for the hardworking Lewis Walters to see red for lingering dissent, before Mr Mustafa finally sent everyone else home.
I have rarely seen a team leave the field looking more crestfallen at the end, but Walters' slightly earlier departure was conducted with a surprisingly cheery smile.
Perhaps a more leisurely festive season than expected had something to do with it.
Runcorn Linnets' own Christmas would be unusually laid back, with no game on either of the next two Saturdays. Ello and his men would much rather play Prescot Cables and City of Liverpool then, in preference to Boxing Day and New Year's Day respectively.
But the next stop will be a cold turkey affair on 26th December, when round three of the season's four against Cables commences at 3pm.
Linnets are now up to 9th in the table, and four points off the play-off zone. Turning four straight wins into six would be a great Christmas present for the fans of a team in form.
It is debatable whether Trafford will be counting the days to their chance of revenge on 2nd February, or will just be sick of the sight of Runcorn's finest.
Anybody who has watched these two teams compete over a couple of seasons will be looking forward to another excellent game of football in the return league fixture.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Jack Hinnigan, Peter Wylie, Ally Brown, Tom Owens (Alex O'Neill 81), Liam Caddick, Kyle Hamid, Connor McCarthy, Lewis McKinney, Paul Shanley. Subs not used: Declan Gallagher, Louis Hayes, Zac Aley, 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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