19th September 2020, Pontefract Collieries FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-1
The belated opening game in The Pitching In Northern Premier League North West Division season was loaded with ironic contrasts with our last visit to Beechnut Lane, almost a year ago.
On that occasion, our third trek across the Pennines in twelve days was not hampered by horrendous traffic problems, unlike the first two.
That game kicked off two minutes early, so by 3pm Pontefract Collieries had already scored what proved to be the only goal of the game.
This time a major accident on the M62 more than doubled the journey time, and due to several players being stuck in the traffic, kick-off was delayed until 3.30pm.
By 3.36, the score was Pontefract Collieries 0 Runcorn Linnets 1.
Craig Lindfield had put Linnets ahead with what was reputedly an unmissable goal. I wouldn't know. I missed it.
We arrived ten minutes after kick-off, plus another five minutes for the walk from the distant car park, so my account of the early exchanges will be sketchy at best.
I had also missed Sam Phillips' description of Lindfield's goal on Linnets Live Radio, thanks to Josh Christian's attempts to set off my passsenger-side airbag with his maniacal celebrations.
Fortunately he was asleep on the way home when Crystal Palace went 2-0 up at Old Trafford.
In the sixth minute, Ryan Brooke won the ball out on the right and played a diagonal ball through the home back four for Craig to fire home first time, giving ex-Linnets 'keeper Mike Emery no chance.
Thanks for the Motty-like summary at full-time, Sam.
The first attempt at goal I did see, on the 15-minute mark, was a cross by Ponte No9 Scott Smith for Albert Ibrahimi to head wide.
Both sides were seizing their share of possession, a visible contrast as Runcorn tried a passing game on the deck to advance, the home side making quick long passes out to both wings to create openings.
The hosts were to look more assured in possession in the second half.
The Runcorn approach did appear more feasible than it would have done a year ago, with a massive improvement in the Beechnut Lane pitch.
The dandelion farm had been replaced with a good-looking carpet of grass. But it was still very hard and uneven, causing awkward and unpredictable bounces that caused repeated problems for visiting target man Ben Wharton as he set out to turn his marker and run on goal, or lay off passes.
The other thorn in the side of a sterling afternoon's work by Ben was Ponte No5 Tom Clare - my man of the match. The big centre-half was quick and tireless, and the stand-out performer in a side with even more new faces than Calum McIntyre's new-look Runcorn squad. Almost the whole Ponte team that was lying third in the 2019-20 table when the season was terminated have since defected to Worksop.
Clare did set up the late equaliser with a volleyball pass, but it's the officials' job to spot that, not his to admit it.
We knew possibly better than the home fans that they have a good goalkeeper, Mike Emery having impressed in a brief spell at the Millbank last season before his departure to Rylands FC.
Several times he thwarted attempts on goal (Runcorn having considerably more of these) that could have put the game beyond reach for the men in blue long before their controversial late equaliser.
Advances on goal came at both ends, Runcorn's mostly blocked at close quarters or forced out for goal-kicks or throw-ins, which one of the assistant referees was prone to award to the hosts.
Pontefract efforts came more often in the form of long-range efforts that flew wide and/or high.
But both teams wanted to score.
Full-backs Brizell and Short instigated a number of moves up both flanks involving Hayes, Lindfield, Welsh, Brooke and Wharton, and Ally Brown, usually the right back but this time in a more attacking midfield role.
But the space to make much of them was limited with aplomb by the Pontefract back-line of Bailey, Gordon, Tingle, Clare and Walmsley.
Similarly, more airborne assaults by the home side into the Runcorn third were covered and cleared by Lycett, returning captain Wylie, Brizell and Short.
Scott Lycett continued to show an affinity with his No9. What initially appeared to be mere clearances were often neatly placed long passes up to Ben Wharton, which would have borne more fruit if Ben hadn't been wearing Tom Clare like an undersized overcoat.
After the half-hour a rare fumble by Paddy Wharton in the Linnets goal might have spelled danger, but it fell to his back-tracking namesake to clear, rather than the attendant Ponte forwards Keane and Smith.
Shortly afterwards, Linnets skipper Wylie earned a yellow card for his robust halting of Ibrahimi's progress on the left. The victim's free-kick from out wide sought to catch Paddy off his line, but it cleared the bar.
The latter stages of the first half were scrappy, testament to swift and physical defending by both sides, and both attacking units being ready to accept free-kicks that subsequently came to not much.
A minute before the break, in a crowded Pontefract penalty area, Lindfield and Wharton snap shots caused consternation, but not panic, for the home defence.
Runcorn 'keeper Paddy Wharton was yellow carded for time wasting as his opposite number waited to take a free-kick with two balls on the pitch.
Paddy launched the extra ball not to the dugouts, but long to Emery, apparently unaware that it wasn't the only one. The referee saw gamesmanship, but it wasn't as though Linnets were desperately eyeing half-time like a lifeboat.
The last action of the half was a promising Pontefract assault with four men in the opposition area, but it was belatedly called back for an offside in the build-up.
I guessed that Calum McIntyre's half-time team talk had called for swifter assaults on the home third, as they came quickly after the break. A Louis Hayes flick over the defence drew an unfortunate fresh air shot by Ben Wharton, a whisker away from his intended rocket volley on goal.
Seconds later, a Brooke shot from wide left evaded Emery but bounced squarely off the far post rather than glancing into the net. The former Linnets 'keeper might not have admitted it to us, but I'd bet he was as surprised as anybody when it rebounded straight into his arms.
Five minutes into the second half a Louis Hayes ball into the box did feed a successful Wharton volley, but with Emery rooted to the spot, it whistled past the left post.
Two minutes later, Ally Brown broke into the area from the right, but a perfectly-timed tackle by Clare thwarted him.
As the second half developed the hosts were having more possession, and keeping and moving the ball around far more than they had in the first. More opportunities began to result, but stout defending protected Paddy Wharton from excessive pressure.
On 55 minutes, a Pontefract man lying on the floor was enough reason for Mr Tomlinson to award a free-kick for something he didn't see, but it was headed wide from close range under pressure.
A wave of substitutions came around the hour mark, that of Nathan Modeste for Sam Cable ultimately proving critical.
Linnets' Ryan Brooke made way for Tom Ruffer, with Matty Nebard replacing home right-back Fabien Bailey.
Ruffer's first contribution was to force a throw-in near the corner flag after which Jacques Welsh was pushed to the ground in possession, apparently fairly.
Two bursts of Pontefract intent came close together, a decent long shot by Ibrahimi clearing the top left angle of post and bar, and Paddy Wharton being forced to punch clear under two-man aerial pressure.
The ball came back in, and a close-range header by Gordon had the home fans at the other end celebrating briefly. But the roof of the net had been ruffled from the outside.
Linnets players were becoming increasingly disgruntled at the officials' apparent default setting of giving every close call in their opponents' favour.
Josh Brizell was perhaps fortunate not to see yellow for his frank exchange of views with the assistant who had flagged a throw-in to Pontefract when the last three players to touch the ball had all been in blue.
A moment after that, a neat one-two between Wharton and Brown put Ally into the area wide right.
He was expected to cross for the advancing Ruffer, but Mike Emery did well to make a two-handed save from a surprise tight-angled shot.
At the other end, a rash trip by Peter Wylie 20 yards out conceded a Ibrahimi free-kick which cleared the goal by at least three times its height.
Inside the last ten minutes, Pontefract sub Nebard collected an inevitable yellow card for a protracted half-nelson on Ben Wharton as he broke into the home third.
It triggered a chain of events which decided the outcome of the game.
Brizell's powerful free-kick beat Emery all ends up, but cracked off the centre of the crossbar to rebound well clear.
On the break, the Linnets defence couldn't cover the counter-attack quickly enough, and struggling to control a bouncing ball at the edge of the area, Tom Clare palmed the ball forward into the path of substitute Nathan Modeste to finish with ease.
PCFC's photo montage of the game features numerous studies of the finish and celebrations, but none at all of the pass. Ah, well.
Calum McIntyre and his players were furious, and the latter used their ire to fuel a barage of attacks in the dying minutes, to the extent that Stuart Crilly was involved in several of them after coming on for Ryan Brooke right on 90 minutes.
But the attacking effort bore no gilt-edged chances, thanks to the defensive attentions of Gordon, Tingle and Walmsley, led by example by Clare.
A Wharton volley was blocked at close range, and a Brown cross (or shot?) reached the 'keeper rather than Ben's head.
Ruffer and Crilly combined to set up the No9 in the area, but Nebard intercepted, and Wharton won one of his many duels with Clare but no openings were found by three blocked shots.
Amid the flurry of green and yellow attacking effort, a final blue chance saw Scott Smith's diving header glance a yard wide.
A breathless finish failed to break the ultimate deadlock, and despite inevitable away chagrin at the nature of the 'assist' for Modeste's equaliser, a draw was probably a fair reflection of a hard-fought first league game.
Runcorn undoubtedly had more attempts on goal and close shaves to extend their early lead - the woodwork a repeated frustration - but as the game wore on Pontefract possession looked increasingly confident and prolonged, and their new defensive unit is going to cause problems for most if not all of the division.
The other consolation was the conventional 90-minute duration of the journey home.
Next stop for Linnets is the inevitable annual away trip to the North East in the FA Cup, this time to West Auckland - and to make things worse on a Tuesday.
Runcorn Linnets: Paddy Wharton, Josh Brizell, James Short, Louis Hayes (Joe Nolan 83), Peter Wylie, Scott Lycett, Ally Brown, Jacques Welsh, Ben Wharton, Ryan Brooke (Tom Ruffer 61), Craig Lindfield (Stuart Crilly 90). Subs not used: Iwan Murray, Alex Turner.
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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