8th February 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Pickering Town : 2-1 Sponsored by Webb's Builders Merchants
Pickering Town came to The Millbank for the first time, as the division's bottom side with only one point to show for fourteen away games.
That one draw came only a couple of weeks previously, however, at high-flying Clitheroe, which suggested things were on the up following a management change early in the new year.
Several new signings promised to make Pickering a tougher proposition than the league table suggested, and so it proved.
Linnets fans hoped that the threatened arrival of Storm Ciara wouldn't get in the way of home debuts for recent signings.
Goalkeeper Craig Ellison and midfielder Craig Lindfield had started in the 1-2 defeat at Trafford a week earlier, Lindfield scoring the Runcorn equaliser, while striker Ben Wharton had come on from the bench and also impressed, plaguing the Trafford defence and laying on Lindfield's goal.
Fortunately, Ciara waited until later than forecast to do her worst, saving the torrential rain for Sunday, but by kick-off the gales that were causing havoc on the west coast were raising their ugly head, gusting and swirling, but mostly blowing forcefully from the stand side towards the dugouts: right to left for Linnets in the first half.
In their last home game, against Ossett United, Linnets had set their stall out early when Paul Shanley scored in the third minute. Today, the same man's stray pass in his own half enabled Pickering to do likewise.
Right-back Matty Bowman latched on to it and found Danny Earl in space; he advanced into the penalty area and gave Craig Ellison no chance as he finished high and left of centre.
Only two minutes later, Shanley appeared to have made rapid amends, knocking on in the 18-yard box for Lindfield to notch his second Linnets goal, but he was flagged offside.
The hosts were invading the Pickering third quickly on a mission to get level, but the more open end of the ground was allowing the wind to play havoc with the ball, and finding your man with it was proving tricky.
On six minutes, a Louis Corrigan free-kick into the box from deep was deflected for a corner, from which Ben Wharton attempted a low diving header, but centre-half Matt Turnbull pressured him enough to prevent the threat.
The Pickering No5 was to do similarly many more times, on the ground and in the air, in a fine performance. He would have had a strong shout as his team's man of the match, if that honour hadn't gone to goalkeeper Harrison Foulkes, a loanee pro from Hull who made a number of great saves that severely delayed the Linnets' customary comeback.
The best came on the 15-minute mark, from a classic Louis Corrigan free-kick after Turnbull's foul on Gibson 25 yards out. This was only a minute after the centre-half might have doubled the visitors' lead when he headed over the bar under too little pressure.
Quickfire chances from close range had also been missed by Earl and Perks, the first stopped by the lightning reaction of Ellison.
Louis' aforementioned kick cleared the wall and was hurtling into the top-left corner when somehow Foulkes got his
right glove to the ball and diverted it wide. It was a magnificent save.
The wind was growing stronger and yet more unpredictable as the half wore on, and any clearances from Ellison and the Linnets defence that were intended for a man on the left flank had to be aimed initially at the front row of the stand on the other side.
It did help Wharton in finding Lindfield out right on 20 minutes, holding up enough for him to take possession, but Alex Laird got in quickly to repel the danger.
As always in strong winds, defending was proving easier than finding teammates in attacking positions. The first yellow card of the game was earned by Iwan Heeley for almost removing Kyle Hamid's left sleeve to prevent him setting up an attack from halfway.
The free-kick into the area was met by a waist-high header by Shanley, but he was outnumbered and the threat was cleared again.
Earl was allowed another free run on goal before the half-hour, his shot coming off the bar, and at the other end Wharton won the ball in the middle and laid it off to Ally Brown who found Lindfield out on the right.
Without the wind, his cross would have caused concern in the six-yard box. With it, the ball was at the far corner flag faster than you could blink.
On 32 minutes, a Corrigan free-kick from the left floated nicely into the six-yard box, but this time its slow-motion flight into the gale provided Foulkes with plenty of time to claim it, and any challenge would have been called a foul.
Five minutes before the break, Town No9 Earl was allowed a third free run on goal after Scott Lycett had miscontrolled outside the 18-yard area, but his shot didn't trouble Ellison.
There were two more chances for a Runcorn equaliser before half-time. Running wide of the right post to the goal line, Shanley opted to shoot rather than cross, from what proved to be an impossible angle.
Then Foulkes pulled off another superb save. Good work by Wharton and Caddick to win and retain the ball led to a lay-back for Kyle Hamid, who was a dynamo all afternoon, to unleash an exocet from 25 yards.
He hit it so hard that the wind made little impression, but Foulkes got his fingertips to the ball to deflect it over by millimetres.
It might not have made it under the bar, but the 'keeper couldn't afford to make any such assumption.
At half-time we self-appointed experts felt that Linnets' passing game would find more joy at the sheltered clubhouse end, and that while Pickering were teed up for a first away win of the season, they had possibly passed up their opportunity to put the game to bed, having missed a number of generous
chances at the more manageable end of the pitch.
Early in the second half, Pickering managed several forays into the Linnets third, but the defence was closing them down more effectively.
Wylie and Lycett were pouncing on Town men in possession and winning more of the ball, to launch attacks by passing forwards to feet. Linnets started to look a handful in the Town third, with Wharton, Shanley, Caddick, Lindfield and especially Gibson finding it far easier to keep possession.
Meanwhile, Ally Brown was able to make more incisive runs up the right flank and get in crosses, with the ball easier to control out of the gale.
A Corrigan corner from the right evaded Foulkes in the six-yard box, but bounced off Lindfield's shoulder as he dived for the header.
Then, on 52 minutes, advantage was played after Wharton was pushed in the back, as Gibson raced towards the penalty area.
The two-man sandwich on the No10 appeared to be a foul inside the area, but referee Mr Abson rewound and gave a free-kick for the original push on Wharton.
Corrigan's free-kick was a bit too central, Foulkes catching comfortably.
A few more passing moves towards the Pickering area were repelled before Lindfield robbed the ball skilfully from left-back Soni Furgus inside it, and slipped a pass to Brown advancing up the right.
His low cross across the six-yard box evaded Laird, and then Shanley, before Liam Caddick arrived to stroke it home from four yards.
It was 1-1, but advantage Linnets, as they were making increasing inroads into controlling the game as they attacked the less turbulent end of the ground.
On the hour, a swerving Corrigan cross was controlled by Lindfield, but his high ball back into the goalmouth was caught well in the air by Foulkes.
Old habits resurfaced at the windy end as yet again a misplaced short pass reached space that Earl occupied to force a low save by Ellison. Another Pickering break was halted illegally on the halfway line by Caddick, earning him a yellow, just before the hard-working Corrigan gave way to Zac Aley.
Just afterwards, a close-range effort for Pickering following a free-kick was saved well by Ellison for a corner, and two minutes later Perks broke inside from the right to the 18-yard line, where a risky but perfectly-timed tackle by Wylie stopped his progress.
There were 20 minutes remaining when Ellison recycled a back-pass out to Scott Lycett, who appeared to control it with his left arm as it jigged about in the breeze, but there was no whistle, and no VAR.
He played it up the right wing to Ally Brown, who cloned his low cross for the first goal, across the six-yard line. That was where Ben Wharton met it, and weighing up which side of the 'keeper to place it, found the net by sticking it through his legs instead.
A third 2-1 win from behind in five home games was on the cards. Facebook also reminded me that on the corresponding Saturday last season, Linnets beat Kidsgrove 2-1, from 0-1 down after 87 minutes.
After another corner was hit too long from the left by Lindfield, won by Wharton's shot deflecting off the rear of Bowman, Pickering had a five-minute spell of fairly continuous but scrappy activity in the Runcorn third.
There weren't many scary moments, though, as the Linnets rearguard was closing down tight and preventing anything that truly challenged Ellison.
Several medium-range Pickering free-kicks ensued, but they persisted in trying to find men in the box from the air, and Storm Ciara was having none of it. Only goal-kicks resulted, as the ball fled on the wind.
In the wind-tunnel there appeared to be two potentially fruitful options: play it short and advance on the area; or have a dig. The latter choice might have required Ellison to pull off saves of the quality that Foulkes had in the first half.
With six minutes remaining, Ryan Gibson, a perpetual pain for Town all day and especially in the second period, won a 50-50 race with Foulkes to a long through-ball.
Inside the right edge of the penalty area, he elected to cross to Wharton rather than aim more selfishly on goal. The retreating 'keeper smothered it gratefully from short range.
The last ten minutes resembled a game of volleyball on an oversized court, as both sides attempted to get swiftly to the other end propelled by heads and boots on the way.
Jack Hinnigan was accordingly introduced for Ben Wharton to add aerial prowess in defence.
A Lycett free-kick for Adam Jones' foul on Caddick on halfway led to nothing more than possession, and Shanley and Aley operated a ball-retaining double act inside the left corner flag for a substantial part of the three minutes of added time.
It lasted six minutes. The final Pickering attempt to take something back across the Pennines came from a free-kick for handball by Hinnigan.
Matt Turnbull sent a diving header over the bar, but Mr Abson awarded a defensive free-kick anyway, for a push in the build-up.
Both teams had struggled to exert productive pressure while attacking the windswept bottom end of the pitch. The ultimate difference between them was Linnets' greater control and use of possession at the calmer clubhouse end.
But anybody who didn't know would have been unlikely to guess that Town were at the foot of the table.
The three points moved Runcorn back up to eighth place above Trafford, who were beaten 2-0 at home by Widnes, including a goal by recent Linnet Jamie Rainford, and level on points with next Saturday's visitors Clitheroe.
A repeat of the 4-4 draw in Lancashire back in September might be exciting, and anyone suffering from high blood pressure should get their prescriptions up to date, but higher-quality football would be preferable.
Four goals in the last ten minutes, seven of them added, left few spectators believing that either side would be in the top eight in February.
Much has changed since, with only six of the 16 on the Linnets team sheet that day still being with the club.
Recent home form suggests a 2-1 Linnets win, after going behind.
Runcorn Linnets: Craig Ellison, Louis Corrigan (Zac Aley 64), Peter Wylie, Scott Lycett, Ally Brown, Liam Caddick, Craig Lindfield, Kyle Hamid, Ben Wharton (Jack Hinnigan 86), Ryan Gibson, Paul Shanley. Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Yianni Nicolaou.
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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