4th January 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Mossley AFC : 2-1 Sponsored by The Fore Golfers
Runcorn Linnets came into their first home game of 2020 with the same side that had impressively beaten City of Liverpool 2-0 on New Year's Day, apart from Declan Gallagher replacing Peter Wylie in central defence.
For more than half of the game, though, they didn't look like the same team, losing the ball too often in possession, and playing long balls forward for which Mossley's more statuesque defenders were always favourite.
The 1-0 deficit which came about two minutes before half-time was the very least the visitors will have felt they had earned.
It could have been over as a contest by then if not for some important defensive blocks, a few wayward finishes, and the kind of assured performance by goalkeeper Michael Emery that won him the club's Player of the Month award for December, in his first month at the club.
The game was less than a minute old when Mossley's Ryan Brooke turned and shot, just high of the target, and he was involved in several probing attacks which failed to bear fruit before the first Runcorn offensive move, a cross in the sixth minute from Connor McCarthy which was headed just wide by Ryan Gibson.
The contest started fast, with quick tackles coming in from both sides, but Mossley were winning more of them. The Linnets fans were hoping to see more of the quick passing to feet that had ultimately taken control, and the points, three days earlier, but there was little or none of it in an uncertain and scrappy first half for the hosts.
Keogh, Fitzgerald and Brooke were building attacks more confidently for Mossley, while recent Linnet Jamie Rainford, now the Lilywhites' No9, was keen to get on the end of one and make his mark back at The Millbank. Long throw-ins by right-back Ben Richardson were also causing some tricky moments in the Runcorn third.
Sparse threats from the home side came from free-kicks, as McCarthy and Gibson were both fouled on the break. One promising dead-ball from specialist Louis Corrigan was curled towards the near post with insufficient power, 'keeper Theo Roberts gathering easily.
Another came to nothing after Gibson was needlessly tripped, as he advanced into the Mossley half with no team mates in support.
On 17 minutes, Ally Brown did well to control a long pass out to the right, but he lost out in the tackle, from which Rainford was set free into the Linnets area, but ruled offside.
Connor McCarthy found his way into the left side of the penalty area on 20 minutes, and beat two defenders to the goal line, but he was then dispossessed, tripping Richardson as he escaped with the ball.
A Corrigan cross for Gibson looked dangerous, but it flew just a couple of feet too long for him to get there before Roberts.
On the half-hour, Gibson and Owens got in each other's way going for the same through-ball on the right, but one or the other or both were flagged offside anyway.
Shortly afterwards McCarthy got a firm header on a good Corrigan cross, but it went straight to the 'keeper.
Mossley's best chance for a while came moments later, a Kayde Coppin ball into the area finding the head of Fitzgerald, but it lacked power and didn't test Emery.
Fitzgerald had another go with a shot after Emery had punched out from a corner, but the effort it was blocked.
Ally Brown saw yellow for a robust tackle on Richardson, who required lengthy attention. Fortunately it didn't prevent him from using the injured leg to lash the free-kick into the box from deep.
Keogh got in a powerful shot from inside the area, but Declan Gallagher got there fast to block at point-blank range.
As half-timed loomed, Linnets were looking a bit like a boxer well behind on points, holding out for the end of the round.
But they didn't make it. Another long throw by Richardson led to left-back Dieter Downey shooting with power from out wide, and when the ball came off the crossbar, Jamie Rainford followed up with a shot that was well blocked.
It was third time lucky for Mossley, though, as it fell to Brooke, who fired home from close range.
There was just time for the hosts to attempt an unlikely equaliser before the break. A free-kick from a trip on McCarthy on the left touchline was headed out by Evans for a corner, getting there just before Scott Lycett, and a carbon copy was headed out just before Caddick could get a head on it.
That one was cleared, finding Louis Hayes 22 yards out, but he miscued wide.
The feeling at half time was that Linnets would have to find a way to get more possession and play to feet, as they had against City of Liverpool, if Mossley were not going to put the game out of reach.
They would feel they should already have done so. The opening minutes of the second half did show signs that the men in yellow and green might create more openings with the ball on the floor, especially with Gibson and McCarthy threatening on the right flank.
The latter whipped in a fierce cross which Caddick got his head to, but under close pressure from Declan Evans, it flew wide.
Possession was still being lost to the visitors too often, though, and a stray pass set Fitzgerald free to advance and shoot, but again Gallagher got there to deflect it away from close quarters.
The Mossley No10 then received a yellow card for bringing down McCarthy on the halfway line without pretending any attempt at the ball.
Mossley were again getting the lion's share of the attacks. Emery got to a corner first but couldn't hold it, a header being deflected for another. There were loud appeals for handball after a consequent shot inside the area, but it appeared to have hit Ally Brown squarely in the back.
Eight minutes into the half, a floated cross allowed Rainford a free header, but it flew mercifully wide, and that was the last contribution by one former Linnet before he was replaced by another Ben Halfacre, whose substantial physical presence would be expected to get decisive results from his side's efforts in the Runcorn third.
The change was immediately followed by the turning point of the match, but not in the way the visitors had planned, or how the 341 paying customers might have expected.
Ryan Gibson advanced down the right and got in a cross that was blocked for a corner, which Louis Corrigan delivered across a crowded six-yard area.
The only contact was made by Tom Owens, who placed his header perfectly inside the far post to level the score.
Linnets' tails were up, and a minute later Caddick almost got to a firm cross from Ally Brown, but it was guided out for another corner.
Mossley's Kayde Copping screamed for his colleagues to mark up, but it was he who allowed Caddick to get away and rise to a header that was deflected away.
The Lilywhites weathered that storm and started building attacks again, involving Halfacre in most of their advances in a dominant spell of seven or eight minutes.
The Runcorn defence was working as hard as it had in limiting the City of Liverpool attack three days previously, but not quite as tightly, and chances were permitted.
Michael Emery made a number of punches, catches and low saves that put him firmly in the frame for man of the match.
The home fans were wondering whether Mossley would regain the lead they had worked hard for, or whether the outcome might mirror that of the last home game before Christmas, when another team in white shirts led and dominated, but went back to Trafford empty-handed.
One predictable development was Connor McCarthy being instrumental in Runcorn's next critical moment. He raced into the Mossley penalty area under pressure from three defenders, Gibson and Caddick advancing into the middle looking for the cross.
It didn't come, as Mossley sub Jes Unchegbulam, introduced for Fitzgerald five minutes earlier, challenged him side-on and brought him down.
Referee Mr Davies had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. It is rare indeed for a goalkeeper to prevent Louis Corrigan from testing the net from twelve yards, and this was no exception, as he slammed it home high and right.
There were 23 minutes of normal time remaining for Mossley to achieve what they would see as minimum justice, and they were back at the other end for most of the next ten.
Halfacre was throwing himself into opportunities that Brooke, Keogh, Coppin and Richardson's long throws tried to carve out for him.
But Emery continued to cope with most of the efforts that tireless defending couldn't completely frustrate.
With 15 minutes remaining, the majority of those present thought Linnets had taken an implausible 3-1 lead.
Gibson flicked a ball out to the left from the centre circle to McCarthy, and the tireless No9 advanced on the area exactly as he had done prior to the penalty.
He reached the goal line to flash a cross through the six-yard box, where Gibson had caught up to poke the ball into the net from six feet out.
Everyone to the right of the goal, who couldn't see the far post for their neighbours' heads, celebrated. Why wouldn't they?
It was impossible to miss the target from there. Except it wasn't.
Mossley returned to the offensive, and Emery pulled off another three fine saves to thwart Halfacre, one of which came from a free-kick which came with a yellow card for Tom Owens.
When Linnets attacked on the break, no more risks were being taken when Connor McCarthy was in possession, and he was fouled every time he got the ball.
With ten minutes to go, Evans made half a dozen attempts to bring him down before the referee lost patience. The free-kick flew slightly too long to allow Gibson to head it back across the area.
Zac Aley came on for Louis Hayes with seven minutes remaining, reinforcing defensive efforts which kept the door closed but conceded several further free-kicks.
Two from a promising distance were hit low, straight into the wall, and yet another Richardson long throw did enable Halfacre to head into the net, but the referee had already signalled a foul.
Four minutes of added time were reminiscent of Linnets' late ten-man shut-out at Prescot in the FA Trophy, allowing only one more aerial assault before the final whistle, and that was halted by an offside flag.
At half time you wouldn't have bet the housekeeping on Linnets' unbeaten league run being extended to eight games, let alone six of them being victories, but winning is a habit, just as losing can be.
The difference between the two is about confidence and self-belief as much as anything else, and there is no shortage of either in Ello and Crossy's squad.
Two things were noticeable as the teams left the field. One was the Mossley players' dejection, echoing that of Trafford and Prescot (twice) in recent weeks, struggling to believe they hadn't won.
The other was Scott Lycett. He had played less than two and-a-half games since joining from Marine, but twice already in 2020 he had departed as pumped up and elated as a man who has spent a lifetime in yellow and green. That's a Linnet.
The decade's 100 per cent record moves on to St Giles Road, home of Brighouse Town, on Saturday 11th January, kick-off 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Scott Lycett, Declan Gallagher, Ally Brown, Tom Owens, Louis Hayes (Zac Aley 81), Kyle Hamid, Connor McCarthy, Ryan Gibson, Liam Caddick. Subs not used: Jack Hinnigan, Lewis McKinney, Paul Shanley, Kurt Sherlock.
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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