26th December 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Prescot Cables : 2-2 Sponsored by Maxwell & Charlie Proctor
Traditional Boxing Day football felt long awaited at a rain-drenched Millbank, the pre-Christmas Saturday having been left vacant by the away trip to Pontefract being brought forward to early October.
The yuletide derby opponents were now Prescot Cables, neighbours Widnes being dispatched to Clitheroe for reasons unknown.
It was the third meeting between the teams this season, but the first in the league. If the drama was to match that of the previous two, a festive treat was in store, and it distracted 424 souls from their leftover turkey.
In November in the FA Trophy, a last-kick equaliser by Zac Aley direct from a corner had rescued a lacklustre Linnets, leading to an unforgettable ten-man replay win.
Sterling volunteer work on the pitch, in preference to late Christmas shopping, had the surface looking good, but it was visibly yielding after 18 solid hours of rain.
The pitch held up well, but it was never going to be ideal for a silky quick-passing game, and it would prove more helpful to ball-winning tackles than to attempts to build skilful attacking manoeuvres.
The home side welcomed the return from a harsh suspension of Ryan Gibson, with Connor McCarthy retreating to the bench. The other change from the late turnaround win over Trafford was Declan Gallagher replacing Jack Hinningan in central defence.
The opening minutes showed how difficult structured attacking was going to prove, with both sides managing few consecutive touches before defensive interventions produced bouts of ping-pong.
The first meaningful home attack came in the seventh minute, an Ally Brown free-kick from halfway finding Paul Shanley in the left side of the penalty area.
He had two stabs to get the ball goalwards, both intercepted by stupendously-named Cables right-back Rodrigo Schmitdinger, the second out for a corner - except referee Mr Buckley decided Shanley had put the ball out on his own, despite the fact that it mysteriously diverted 90 degrees on the way, and gave a goal-kick.
Prescot's first real threat came on ten minutes, with James Edgar putting Martyn Jackson through, but the only target he found was Peter Wylie.
Jackson did better three minutes later, though, when it was threaded to him in the area in an unmarked position, and Cables took the lead. It wasn't to be the last time the hosts would have to come back from flawed defending.
The first chance to do so was when Kyle Hamid, from one of FIFA's mysterious new uncontested drop-balls, sparked a ten-touch move involving Shanley, Corrigan, Gibson and McKinney. The latter played a neat through-ball wide right to Ally Brown, whose cross was deflected for a corner, which was headed clear.
Cables had led for seven minutes when Gibson was fouled just outside the penalty area, a couple of strides from the goal line. Paul Shanley was insistent that the offence had taken place inside the area, but seconds later he had less cause for concern.
The six-yard box was policed as it would be a for a corner. But with Zac Aley on the bench, Cables saw no urgent need to guard the far post. They can't have been as familiar with Louis Corrigan, as he has extensive 'previous' for curling it into the far top corner, and that is exactly what he did.
Linnets fans hoped that starting again on level terms would lead to their team taking more control of the game, and for a short while it looked as though they might.
A couple of half-chances came quickly, Ally Brown muscled off the ball on the by-line, and Shanley called offside when a long through-ball by Gallagher would have unleashed him on 'keeper Ollie Taylor.
At the other end, a bout of head tennis in the Runcorn area resulted in a corner which Wylie headed clear, and a threatening one-two between Jackson and Matthew Hamilton found the latter offside.
For a while the game reverted to severely- limited periods of possession by either side, tackles proving easier than evading them on the soft, wet pitch.
On 36 minutes, Shanley beat the Cables offside trap neatly, but the ball was knocked off his toe by McCulloch. Three minutes later a fierce 25-yard shot by Hamilton demanded a full-length dive by Emery in the Runcorn goal, but it went narrowly wide.
Immediately afterwards, a ball into the Prescot area was greeted by a defender's fresh air swipe, allowing it to fall to Caddick, but Shanley was flagged offside before he could do anything with it.
Proceedings had gone end-to-end when a rare fumble by Michael Emery had him scrambling the ball out for a corner on the left, which was followed by another from the right, despite the head of Cables No9 Klein-Davies getting the last touch to it.
A defensive free-kick ensued after McCulloch flattened Emery.
The last threat of the first half came from Schmitdinger's run down the right flank, which ended with a well-timed tackle by Corrigan.
Neither side could complain about the 1-1 half-time score, as neither had achieved any period of domination running into minutes.
Sean Myler started the second half for Cables following an injury to Jackson at the conclusion of the first.
The visitors showed the greater intent early in the half, drawing a free-kick for a seemingly innocuous challenge by Gallagher, and Aaron Turner advancing with too much ease past three opponents to find Schmitdinger out right.
His ball into the box was deflected for a corner, which Wylie headed clear.
The first Runcorn assault on 50 minutes found Shanley on the break. He turned on the 18-yard line and slipped it to McKinney, but centre-back Gregory got to it first.
Then a robust tackle by Wylie drew a free-kick, but no card. It was fired into the six-yard box where Emery punched the ball clear.
Ten minutes into the half, Gregory found Schmitdinger in too much space on the right, and he crossed to Turner in the six-yard area. He had two goes at it - the second bringing a corner on the left.
Linnets' soft spot was exposed again.
Against Trafford last time out, the biggest man on the pitch had been left unmarked at a corner to put his team in front. The only thing that could have prevented the visitors scoring this time would have been the three unhindered opponents in the middle getting in each other's way.
It was impossible to tell which of them headed it home, to the extent that the NPL's official stats credited the goal to 'Unknown, 56'.
So we are indebted to Prescot Cables' Twitter for confirming that it was captain McCulloch who had unwrapped the Christmas present.
With Cables in possession, Linnets were allowing space and backing off. Four minutes later, it could well have been all over as Aaron Turner strolled 30 yards into the area unchallenged. But he passed
to Josh Klein-Taylor in an offside position, instead of going it alone with only Emery to beat.
Prescot No7 Cameron Moore also ran free to face Emery one-on-one. The 'keeper blocked his shot, and a second attempt hit the side netting.
Manager Michael Ellison performed line-up surgery after 62 minutes, with McKinney and Gallagher replaced by Connor McCarthy and new signing from Marine, centre-back Scott Lycett.
Runcorn chances did follow. Gibson advanced from halfway to the 18-yard line before being dispossessed, and from a long clearance Shanley won a 50-50 challenge with Schmitdinger, who then fouled him.
The free-kick into the box was pursued by McCarthy, who appeared to be pushed in the back, but Mr Buckley disagreed.
He did agree that Connor had been fouled 25 yards out with 18 minutes remaining. It was Louis Corrigan's ideal range, but the kick lacked his usual venom and Taylor caught it easily.
Five minutes of attrition ensued in the middle third, ball-winning again proving easier than ball-playing. Liam Caddick did well to get to a long Ally Brown ball ahead of his marker, and pulled it back across for McCarthy, but he shot wide.
On 77 minutes, a Runcorn corner on the right prompted pinball in the box, and appeals for a defensive handball, resulting in another corner from the left.
Two attempts in a crowded area were blocked before Caddick had a third, and smashed it into the roof of the net from six yards, for his first Linnets goal.
Prolific against his new club when playing for Droyslden, he and the fans will hope that he has unlocked the floodgates.
Into the last ten minutes, there were two more chances for the home side to complete another turnaround. A neat turn by Shanley might have executed a one-two with Corrigan, but he played it left to McCarthy, who was offside, and a Caddick run found McCarthy, who put a dangerous ball across the six-yard box but it ran to safety.
Prescot might have gone ahead for the third time, a lobbed shot apparently clearing Emery's dive, but he got a hand to it, and Corrigan cleared.
A 22-yard Cables free-kick was then slammed into the defensive wall.
Neither side was accepting a point as the game drew to a close, in probably the most mutually-enterprising period of the match, but again defenders on both sides were having most success.
With two minutes remaining, a powerful downward header by Cables sub Josh Woods looked goalbound, but Emery pulled off a great full-length diving save.
With the clock running down, a massed Runcorn advance gave Louis Corrigan options including Caddick to his left and McCarthy his right, but he went for glory from 25 yards, slicing it wide.
In added time, the visitors had the ball in the net, from a header, again involving three competing team mates, but Emery had clearly been impeded in the middle of them.
The final action was a Cables free-kick from wide left, after Shanley had received his side's only yellow card for a foul near the corner flag.
It was solidly defended and cleared, to the soundtrack of Mr Buckley's final whistle.
Linnets fans were happier with the point than their visitors from across the toll bridge.
Four wins on the bounce had been turned into an undefeated run of six league games, though, and remaining unbeaten after not playing particularly well is the mark of a side growing in confidence.
With another blank Saturday to come, this will be tested 15 hours into 2020, when attempting to complete a league double over City of Liverpool on the doorstep of Aintree Racecourse at Bootle FC, kick-off 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Declan Gallagher (Scott Lycett 62), Peter Wylie, Ally Brown, Tom Owens, Liam Caddick, Kyle Hamid, Paul Shanley, Lewis McKinney Connor McCarthy 62), Ryan Gibson. Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Zac Aley, Alex O'Neill.
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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