10th March 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Clitheroe : 0-1 Sponsored by George and Paul Coward in memory of Ros
After a creaky performance in Saturday's 1-1 draw with Colne, following four weeks of unplanned 'winter break', it was feared there would be a rapid return to inactivity, with 24 hours of solid rain forecast before the visit of Clitheroe.
Fortunately our corner of Cheshire was spared the worst of it, and the visit of Clitheroe that was washed out on February 15th was on.
The next question was whether we would see a repeat of the slapstick 4-4 draw in the away fixture back in September. It seemed unlikely, given wholesale changes in personnel since that bizarre late-show.
In the event, the bulk of the Runcorn performance was painfully akin to that of the first half at Shawbridge, which had attracted the phrase "as bad as it gets" from manager Michael Ellison.
Linnets started the game one place above their guests in the table, by the difference of a single goal, albeit with three games in hand on the Lancastrians, who sat 9th despite having failed to win any of their last nine games.
That sequence was to end in unspectacular style, the 0-1 home defeat also exacerbated by serious-looking injuries to three key players.
Two minutes before kick-off, Kris Holt received a presentation for his 100th Linnets appearance, when he returned to the club from the bench against Colne three days earlier.
Ten minutes later, his 101st appearance was over, badly injured by a crunching tackle in which referee Mr Young didn't see an offence. Our own video evidence is unfortunately too belated and unofficial to be of relevance.
The first 15 minutes saw sharper and more enterprising football from the hosts than they had shown against Colne, but it wasn't to last.
On two minutes a diagonal ball into the penalty area from Kyle Hamid was an inch too high for Ben Wharton to get a head on it, and soon after, a quick pass from Holt to Wharton was relayed to Ryan Gibson on the right, but it ran just too long for him
That was Holt's last contribution before he was felled just inside his own half, but the only free-kick awarded was against Liam Caddick for a foul seconds later, as Kris still writhed in agony.
He was replaced by Louis Hayes.
Eight minutes in, from a corner on the right after Ryan Gibson's cross had been blocked at point-blank range, Clitheroe 'keeper Chris Thompson punched unconvincingly to the 18-yard line. But barely three seconds later he was back on his line to make a great save, tipping a powerful Wharton shot over the bar.
Two more corners were headed clear before a third from the right on the quarter-hour found Peter Wylie at the far edge of the six-yard box. His bullet header was a foot below the bar, but was headed out by Craig Stanley.
The referee couldn't possibly have known whether or not it had crossed the line, but the assistant at the corner flag was adamant that it hadn't.
Neither Hawkeye nor Cyclops are among my nicknames (at least not to my face), but those of us who were within ten feet knew that thedefender was a good two feet behind the line. I've drawn several diagrams, and still fail to see how he
could have propelled it outwards off the underside of the crossbar if it hadn't been over the line.
Linnets' early incisiveness abated after that disappointment, and the next ten minutes or so saw a distinct lull in proceedings, which also included the departure of Runcorn's recent star performer Ally Brown.
He too needed assistance to leave the pitch, following a 50/50 challenge with no obvious blame to attach. Wylie moved to right-back, with Scott Lycett introduced to fill his centre-back berth alongside Jack Hinnigan, one of three changes from Saturday's draw, along with Zac Aley for Louis Corrigan and Holt, briefly, for Hayes.
There could be no doubt that the attacking threat from the right would be diminished with Brown out of the picture, but it waned badly across the whole pitch as Clitheroe had far more of the ball and the scoring chances for the rest of the half.
I have to apologise for failing to namecheck many of the visiting players' efforts, but the amber numbers on their burgundy away kit were largely illegible under the floodlights from more than 30 yards.
Their shirts were also virtually indistinguishable from goalkeeper Thompson's profoundly pink creation.
A range of opportunities for diminutive Clitheroe strikers Keeney and Dolan arose from generous space being allowed for forward passing moves and runs into the area.
On 20 minutes, it was definitely Tyrhys Dolan who looked threatening along the 18-yard line and, well marshalled by Hinnigan and Wylie, he pulled it back for a shot by Danny Wilkins that 'keeper Ellison held easily.
Moments later the Runcorn No1 followed up with a fine full-length save from a Dolan effort across the face of goal.
It was straight after that that Ally Brown's valued contribution ended.
A Clitheroe corner on the left was taken short (a tactic that suggested their boss hadn't been doing his homework on the Linnets this season), and when the cross came in, Markell Foulds unleashed a thunderbolt that is best described as a true 'centre-half's shot'. The result was a Runcorn throw-in.
For the second time in four days, the home fans were feeling grateful for finishing not being their visitors' current strong suit, with a number of further efforts from in and around the 18-yard area flying high and wide.
Credit is due to their accuracy being affected by close pressure from the Linnets back four, and Hamid and Hayes.
The Burgundys were not being allowed free attempts on goal. We save that for corners. But the Clitheroe attack were being allowed far too much of the ball, and more than one Runcorn pass in a row was rare.
Craig Ellison was also required to pull off another three or four tidy saves before half-time.
Danger at the other end was scarce in the last half-hour before the half-time whistle. Craig Lindfield did manage a couple of promising balls out to Ryan Gibson, but the No10 was hard pressed to catch them.
Just before the break, Wharton did well to shrug off two defenders near the right corner flag, eventually dispossessed by a foul.
Essentially a corner, Lindfield again found Peter Wylie beyond the far post, but under pressure he couldn't direct his header on target.
Wharton then received a yellow card for an innocuous-looking nudge, but in truth it was more likely payback for the centre-forward having given Mr Young a piece of his mind when penalised for another non-event a little earlier.
At half-time, Linnets boss Ello would have been less occupied with tactical or motivational issues than with attempting to count the able-bodied. His concerns would worsen, as captain Kyle Hamid played only eight minutes of the second half before being the third man to be carried from the pitch.
The first promising chance of the half came from a Zac Aley cross which cleared Wharton's head and was met by Liam Caddick, but there was no third party ready to meet his header across the box.
On 50 minutes, Caddick picked up a loose ball just outside the area, and was tackled as he controlled it, when a first-time shot might have paid bigger dividends.
Just afterwards, he too saw yellow, for a challenge on Craig Carney as he broke away from the Clitheroe third.
Just after Dolan had put a free header wide from a cross from the right, a fearsome tackle added Hamid to Gemma Mooney's rapidly-expanding workload.
Again Mr Young saw no cause to introduce anybody in burgundy to the colour yellow.
Kyle left the arena heavily strapped just below the knee. It didn't look as though we would be seeing him again any time soon.
He was replaced by the recently re-signed Tony 'Kaka' Donaldson.
Clitheroe made the first unenforced change of the night, with Oscar O'Neil on for captain Charlie Russell.
After Craig had Ellison tipped a cross-cum-shot over for a corner, which he caught and held, a good cross at the other end by Gibson forced Thompson to punch before it reached the head of Ben Wharton.
Caddick was poised to follow up, but Wharton was flagged offside, despite two defenders and the 'keeper being a good yard infront of him.
Attacks by Clitheroe were being pushed wide by Wylie and Aley, resulting in a mounting number of corners. Ominous.
Wharton had cause to believe the man in black had finally forgiven him, as he awarded a free-kick for a foul on the No9, 35 yards out, in the 66th minute.
The kick from deep found Hinnigan in the penalty area, and he got a firm head on it, only to see it fly over the angle of post and bar.
Two minutes later, Gibson won the ball well under pressure 20 yards out and found Caddick. He got in a firm shot, but had leaned back, and over it went.
More Clitheroe pressure was pushed out to the flanks, and more attempts on goal went high or wide, and then the last Runcorn chance until the dying moments came when Gibson slipped the ball right to Hayes in the area.
His cross/shot was a stride too late, into the side netting.
There were 13 minutes remaining when a Clitheroe corner from the right flew right through the penalty area to cries of "defend it!" from the home fans.
It was cleared, the next attempt deflected for another from the left. Fill in the blanks… Three men in burgundy shirts with indecipherable numbers were spoiled for choice.
We now know it was new boy Kieran Feeney (No9, it transpires), who stuck it away unchallenged.
With nine minutes remaining, there was a rare corner at the other end when Wharton's cross from the right was blocked. In the middle of the six-yard line, Stanley's head got there before Lindfield's.
Several more corners followed for Clitheroe, which they inexplicably took short in order to play keep-ball. We understand the tactic, and are no strangers to it ourselves, when a goal up with a few minutes to play. But by now the visitors should have realised that the most fruitful approach was to get bodies in the box and whack it across.
Gibson would have two more chances to grab a point. Lindfield slipped a pass right to Hayes, whose cross found Ryan six yards out, but his header looped over the bar. A taller player on the same spot might have been a better idea.
Well into stoppage time and after Clitheroe had made the strategic masterstroke of swapping Jordan Scott for Dolan for the final 60 seconds, the perma-running No10 made the space for a fierce shot which dipped, but not quite enough to get under the crossbar.
No last-gasp saver tonight. It was only the second home league defeat of the season, and the first for six months since Droylsden won by the only goal after Linnets had dominated the game.
The most pertinent comment on this one is that it was deserved, regardless of the dispiriting additions to the injured list.
The travelling fans naturally headed north happy, but it was a poor game, which would have knitted the brow of any neutral observer who was aware that both sides were in the league's top 9.
That was the only similarity with the 4-4 draw at Shawbridge, after which I suggested to our hosts that it was a good job only one team gets relegated this season.
Linnets' next four matches are all against teams in the top five. I'm going to check out the bookies' odds on us winning the lot. It's a funny old game, Saint.
Runcorn Linnets: Craig Ellison, Zac Aley, Jack Hinnigan, Peter Wylie, Ally Brown (Scott Lycett 25), Kris Holt (Louis Hayes 8), Craig Lindfield, Kyle Hamid (Tony Donaldson 55), Ben Wharton, Ryan Gibson, Liam Caddick. Subs not used: Louis Corrigan, 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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