14th March 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Marske United : 1-2 Sponsored by Lost Generation 1914-18
Linnets faced Marske United to begin a five- game sequence against top-eight sides, with an inevitable array of new faces lining up in yellow and green.
New recruits Ben Kerr and Jack Lenehan, both from FC United of Manchester, were drafted in following severe injuries to Ally Brown and captain Kyle Hamid on Tuesday, while Scott Reed debuted in goal.
Perhaps the most surprising name on the team sheet was that of Kris Holt, who had also sustained a nasty-looking injury against Clitheroe, six minutes into his first start on his welcome return to the club.
Fortunately he had sustained only heavy bruising to a knee, and Mooney magic had him back on the pitch within four days.
It would be helpful that only five of the sixteen in a Runcorn shirt on Saturday would remember the 6-1 reverse on Teesside in early November that could easily have been worse still.
In the opening exchanges both teams got forward quickly without breaching the opposing defence, and when Ryan Gibson's cross from the right was blocked after five minutes, Zac Aley took the game's first corner kick.
A firm Scott Lycett header sparked a bout of head-tennis, and when Marske's fifth attempt to head clear fell to the Linnets centre-back five yards outside the penalty area, he unleashed a shot which goalkeeper Jack Norton did well to get a glove on but had no chance of preventing from flying into the top-right corner.
It was one of the goals of the season - a fact borne out by Norton proving far harder to beat during the remaining 84 minutes.
In the clubs' last meeting Curtis Round had scored the first two goals, and in tandem with Connor Smith, he was looking keen to get the visitors level as soon as possible.
In the tenth minute, a swift Peter Wylie block prevented Round's third attempt in as many minutes finding the target.
A first Runcorn attack for a while saw Aley's free-kick from deep headed on by Ben Wharton to Craig Lindfield, but his shot didn't have the power to trouble Norton.
Back at the other end, Kris Holt bravely got his head in the way of a rocket from Arran Wearmouth, following Craig Gott's free-kick.
Round had the chance to follow up from close range, but Reed's great recovering save proved unnecessary when an offside flag was raised.
Marske were achieving the lion's share of possession through the middle of the first half, but Runcorn defensive cover was close and hardworking, limiting serious opportunities, and Linnets also threatened on the break.
Ben Wharton played a ball deftly into the area through the legs of Liam O'Sullivan, but it ran slightly too hot for Gibson to reach it before the 'keeper.
Then Kurt Sherlock ran on from the centre circle after Priestly Keighly had lost control, and passed through to Wharton, whose low shot was held well by Norton.
Pressure resumed on Scott Reed's goal, with Wearmouth heading dangerously across the area with
three teammates there, but none able to get to it, and a six-touch move by Smith, Round, Butterworth and Gott looked ominous until it was interrupted by a great tackle from Lycett, Sherlock clearing long.
Just before the half-hour mark, a slightly risky-looking Wharton nudge on Wearmouth inside the Runcorn area found referee Adam Brown in a thankfully tolerant mood. It would be a refreshing change for Ben, whose every involvement against Clitheroe had attracted the displeasure of the chief official.
Then a speculative but dangerous shot from wide left by Jack Blackford appeared to be tipped over by Reed, but the resulting goal-kick suggested he had just had it covered.
Wearmouth appeared offside a moment later, but there was no flag, and his shot also narrowly cleared the bar.
Within the next two minutes, a Keighly corner from the left was cleared at the second attempt by Lycett, and on the right Curtis Round was given too much space to advance through the area, but Aley tracked back to tackle well.
An air of inevitablity loomed, and when a clearance fell short to Butterworth, his shot deflected off Lindfield's attempted block and sent Reed the wrong way to level at 1-1.
Encouragement for the home side lay in the fact that while Marske had been dominating possession and mounting many more attacks, they were being resisted far more effectively than they had been on their own ground in November.
Before half-time, Runcorn came back with their most concerted spell of opportunities so far. Gibson overlapped Lindfield on the left, and might have been best placed for a return pass, but Craig cut inside to shoot a couple of yards wide.
Then a Lindfield-Lenehan switch on the right brought a cross, which reached Wharton near the far post.
His header was parried at close range by Norton, but an offside flag was raised in any case.
Wearmouth's trip on Gibson made a Lindfield free-kick the last action of the half, setting up a powerful Aley shot which was expertly blocked by Butterworth.
Instructions at half-time might well have been for 'more of the same' from both sides, but with a more ruthless approach to finishing.
More possession would be an imperative for Linnets if they were to justify a successful outcome.
Marske resumed on the offensive, pressing the defence, with Linnets attacking on the break chiefly through Kurt Sherlock.
He was a hive of industry and intent until he was replaced for the last 20 minutes by Liam Caddick, having had limited game time in recent months.
Five minutes into the half, Kurt was away down the right wing leaving a marker in his wake, but thirty yards later the offside flag was raised.
A minute later, Butterworth headed over from a corner without being forced to do so. He then had another header on target from Smith's cross, but Reed held at the second attempt.
Butterworth was busy,and when Peter Wylie pulled him back on halfway he received the game's first yellow card. Wylie himself headed out the long free-kick, Lycett blocking the return shot.
Ben Wharton had a chance on the break just outside the 18-yard line, making the right decision for a first-time shot under pressure, but an awkward bounce prevented what might have been a half-volley as spectacular as Lycett's opener.
On the hour, Kris Holt slipped and lost the ball in his own half, a shot from a tight angle then being blocked by Reed, but the offside flag was up anyway.
Ben Kerr was subbed by Louis Hayes amid a spell of Linnets gaining possession but passes being pounced on by the Marske midfield.
On 66 minutes, a game of pinball in the Runcorn box ended when Lycett cleared once more. On the break, a Sherlock pass from the right found Gibson in the area. He prodded it through the 'keeper's legs, but Norton was able to turn sharply and drop on to the ball.
The Marske attacks continued, Wylie blocking a Round shot, and a Blackford-O'Sullivan one-two was deflected for a corner.
It fell short into the hands of Reed, as did a free-kick from deep straight afterwards.
With 15 minutes remaining, Wharton was penalised when the ball bounced on to his arm just inside the Marske area. It was the kind of 'handball' you would rarely see given against a defender in the same place.
While the home side had defended resolutely, there was again a feeling of inevitability about the visitors profiting from the pressure, and 12 minutes remained when they took the lead.
With Gott and Round finding space for a shot on goal, Reed parried it, but O'Sullivan was on hand to tap in from a yard out.
Linnets fought back, and Gibson was on the charge when the Marske scorer felled him from behind without hope or intention of getting to the ball.
He received a yellow card for the kind of deliberate foul that has often warranted a red. Three minutes later, the red card did appear. Wylie bundled Wearmouth to the ground to prevent another attack. A second yellow meant yet another stalwart performer will be missing next time out, and the captain's armband would be passed on again.
The resulting free-kick was from a dangerous position, but it was slapped harmlessly into the defensive wall at knee height.
Louis Corrigan was introduced for Ben Wharton for the last five minutes, and he made the last Runcorn chance of the game, a neat flick over two defenders bouncing a yard too far for Kris Holt to latch on to it.
Four minutes were added, in which we expected to see clock-winding substitions by Marske to protect the lead. But credit was due to the visitors for continuing to play, and finishing with the same eleven players who had started.
So Linnets tally of home league defeats had stretched from one to three in the space of four days. But there was plenty to admire in a team hastily assembled by Michael Ellison, who has barely been able to field the same personnel twice in a row all season, and against a side who had not spent all season in the play-off bracket by accident.
There is only three days to regroup and count the latest bruises before the visit of third-placed Marine on Tuesday.
The Runcorn faithful would love to see a performance to match that of the first ever competitive game between the two back in September, when a 1-0 FA Trophy win was a meagr reflection of how Linnets had commanded the tie.
Runcorn Linnets: Scott Reed, Zac Aley, Scott Lycett, Peter Wylie, Ben Kerr (Louis Hayes 63), Kris Holt, Jack Lenehan, Craig Lindfield, Ben Wharton (Louis Corrigan 85), Ryan Gibson, Kurt Sherlock (Liam Caddick 73). Subs (not used): Tony Donaldson, Craig Ellison.
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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