10th October 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Clitheroe : 1-1
After this third stalemate in a row since the 2-1 away win at Mossley, Linnets might start to be seen as draw specialists, with all of the negative approach to the game that the term implies.
But only by someone who hadn't seen the games.
Linnets Live Radio didn't ask me for a prediction today, but if they had it might have been 'three red cards from three different referees, and a Linnets winner deflected off the rear end of a unicorn'. In other words, not as bizarre as the 3-3 draw at Brighouse on Monday.
Clitheroe were expected to be tougher opponents, being the league's pacesetters with ten points from four games.
So it transpired, with a demanding afternoon for a Linnets side featuring three debutants, while Brighouse were losing 5-2 at home to City of Liverpool, managed for the first time by a chap by the name of Ellison.
Josh Molloy was a late signing in goal, on dual reg from Lower Breck, with Paddy Wharton unavailable at short notice. Tom McCready came into midfield, the Colwyn Bay skipper snapped up by Calum McIntyre with Welsh football suspended in the face of Covid-19, and Sean O'Mahony making a timely first appearance following injury to Scott Lycett on Monday.
The former Cork City centre-back had taken a while to become available due to the wait for international clearance. It took him just over an hour to become a Millbank hero.
Clitheroe, in a fetching new sky blue and white kit, wasted no time in showing why they were top of the pile, closing and tackling fast and advancing with passes to feet out to both flanks.
Wing back Markell Foulds and Linnets left-back James Short started an ongoing duel that persisted until the Clitheroe man was substituted by Terry Cummings at half time.
The visitors were having most of the possession and forays into opposition territory, having elected to play down the gentle slope with a strong wind at their backs, which made clearances from Molloy in the Runcorn goal a tricky proposition.
And there were plenty of them, as he was called upon to make a number of early saves, or pick up the ball after timely interventions by Wylie and O'Mahony in the home penalty area.
Ten minutes in, a clearance hit the referee, and after stopping the game as the law now requires, unlike his predecessor seven days earlier Mr Ryder didn't permit the attacking team to carry on regardless and score.
Clitheroe's big centre forward Craig Hobson had a number of half-chances with head and boot that were blocked, saved or went wide, and a fierce shot by Kielen Adams drew a great save from Molloy to concede a corner.
Hobson saw yellow for a challenge on Wylie as he headed wide after a four-man move from right wing to left, and an in-swinging corner on the wind by Danny Wilkins was clearedoff the line.
It was by no means a siege, though, and there were a number of well-defended opportunities for Linnets. Kurt Sherlock carried on where he had left off in a great personal performance in West
Yorkshire by being involved in most of them.
Clitheroe were winning more 50/50s and loose balls, but Jacques Welsh secured his share from deep to feed Sherlock, Brooke and Wharton, and Linnets looked undeniably more dangerous on the attack with the return from injury of Craig Lindfield.
Clitheroe 'keeper Chris Thompson got to a Wharton flick-on at the same time as Kurt, the Linnets No11 flying over him.
Brooke was penalised for handball after falling on it when he was tripped on halfway, and received a yellow card for a foul on the advancing Ross Dent, the free-kick feeding a Hobson header that had Molloy diving at full stretch.
A promising Lindfield-Wharton triangle was cleared to put Wilkins through on goal, but he was well offside.
Sherlock did well under pressure to keep the ball in on the right and feed Wharton to cross for Lindfield inside the penalty area, but his shot cleared the bar.
Then Kurt, on the other flank, was sandwiched by Smalley and Stopforth after slipping the ball between them into the area, but the referee deemed the double challenge fair.
Linnets' best spell of possession around the half-hour gained a series of throw-ins on the left, and Brooke chipped neatly over the defence to Wharton, but the offside flag was already in the air.
Then a three-man Clitheroe attack had the defence looking a little frantic until O'Mahony headed clear.
Ten minutes before the break, Wharton was upended on the right after Sherlock had found him following a throw-in, and an excellent Lindfield free-kick through the six-yard box required two defensive headers to divert it for a corner on the either side.
Appeals for a penalty came from Sherlock being tripped just inside the area, but in truth the contact was slight.
A minute later he was through on the 'keeper after a great ball from Welsh, but snatched his shot across goal and out.
The closing minutes of the half saw more attacks from the visitors. Cole Lonsdale was set free on the left but curled his shot well wide.
After a series of challenges and throws down the Clitheroe right, Short was cautioned for a hefty tackle on Foulds. Then a missed interception as the ball came into the area allowed Foulds a shot, but he pulled it wide of the post.
The last chance of the half was Runcorn's best. Lindfield won the ball 30 yards out and took it wide right, a peach of a cross finding Sherlock in the six-yard box, but Kurt's header looped just over the bar.
It had been a fast and physical first half, but huge credit was due to both sides in the fact that it was never dirty, and both wanted to win by playing football. If all available chances had been converted though, Clitheroe would surely have been ahead at the break.
It was going to be interesting to see how the dynamics would change with the home team playing downwind, but fate decreed that in the second half, the wind would be a shadow of its former self.
Clitheroe 'keeper Thommo was to have a much easier time launching the ball towards the clubhouse than Josh Molloy previously.
Linnets had the first solid opportunity after the interval, Sherlock doing well to chase the ball and cross for Lindfield, Welsh and Short to cause problems, but Shorty couldn't quite get there in time to pull it back across from the left.
On the break, the Linnets defence was caught cold. A ball into the area bounced twice, unchallenged, for Hobson to pick it up in space and lift it over Molloy to take the lead after 50 minutes.
Shortly afterwards, Peter Wylie came off worst after a scramble in the Linnets area left him, Hobson and briefly Molloy on the floor.
Wylie played on after lengthy treatment, but it was only two minutes later that he joined the central defensive casualty list, replaced by Louis Hayes.
The signing of O'Mahony looked even more timely, and it wouldn't be long before it looked like a McIntyre masterstroke.
The hosts were on the back foot, Clitheroe looking half a yard quicker and a pound or two heftier in gaining possession and winning the 50/50s.
Adams was away on the right, his cross deflected for a solidly-defended corner, and another drew a tame shot blocked and cleared by Short.
He was then involved in Runcorn's best move of the game, a sequence of eight passes ending with his cross from the left clearing the area to be met by a flawless shot towards the left corner of the net by Ryan Brooke from 18 yards.
I was right behind it, and was celebrating the goal until Chris Thompson, who Linnets fans already knew to be a formidable shot-stopper, got there to parry it past the post.
In retrospect, there would be a Linnets man who was delighted with Thommo's save.
Without it, Sean O'Mahony wouldn't have had the opportunity to mark his debut with a supreme goal.
From the corner there were three Linnets heads six yards out looking to meet Short's cross, but Wharton and Sherlock missed out as O'Mahony focused perfectly and buried it powerfully inside the left post.
Welcome aboard, Sean.
Clitheroe's Twitter commentary, which was extremely fair and complimentary about a hard-fought game, called it a 'soft goal'. Call me biased, but Clitheroe could have put all 16 men on their team sheet in that box and they wouldn't have stopped Linnets' new centre-half from putting it away.
Clitheroe could have regained the lead from the restart, a goalmouth scramble hooked away by Hayes.
Back at the other end, Sherlock broke into the area and was pushed in the back by Billy Priestley. No foul, and as Kurt lay prone, the Clitheroe No6 lifted the yellow and green 11 shirt and said "mate, you're fine", the lack of an open wound apparently proving there had been no foul play.
You don't get to hear that stuff in Premier League games. They don't know what they're missing.
Runcorn's Ally Brown was replaced by Josh Brizell, and Connor Gaul came on for Ross Dent as Clitheroe regained the initiative once more.
Perhaps fortunately for the hosts, their guests were tackling robustly while attacking, a series of free-kicks awarded for fouls on defending Linnets.
With 20 minutes to go it could have gone either way. Wharton and Lindfield provided Short with a chance to cross into the box, but Thompson gathered at the near post.
At the other end, a foul on Hobson brought a free-kick outside the area, which contacted a Runcorn head in the defensive wall.
The game was being conducted mostly in the Runcorn half, and the home fans were hoping for joy on the break.
When it happened, Lindfield's return was making a significant difference, creating more danger when clearances reached Ben Wharton, his lay-offs finding teammates more often.
Fierce tackles ensued from both sides, but Mr Ryder seemed more inclined to judge them as fouls by Runcorn players.
Tiredness might have contributed to more and more 50/50 challenges resulting in players from either side lying on the floor suffering.
Consecutive sterling performances by Kurt Sherlock drew to a close when he was replaced by Iwan Murray with eight normal minutes remaining, the young Linnets playmaker introduced to spark a match-winning magic moment.
Chances for Murray to make the difference were few, with Clitheroe on the offensive. From a free-kick into the area, three separate stabs at goal were blocked by Molloy and Short, then cleared off the line by O'Mahony.
Feeney replaced the hard-working Hobson to grab a winner with fresh legs. There were chances at both ends in the last five minutes, and five added which lasted eight.
Adams went past Brizell and Hayes before blazing over. McCready and Murray went on unsupported runs that were eventually snuffed out.
Murray's cross was blocked for a throw, another attempt reaching the area but headed clear.
Into added time, the referee at last saw Wharton being held down 40 yards out.
McCready found Lindfield on the left, his powerful shot gathered gratefully by Thompson.
Back to the other end, and Clitheroe had the ball in the net, but only after it had been kicked out of Molloy's hands.
A final Runcorn chance seemed to be on when Murray was bowled over 22 yards out. Even if Mr Ryder felt Iwan hadn't been fouled, it was impossible to see how he reached the conclusion that there was an infringement the other way.
Clitheroe's clearing free-kick was the last action.
And plenty of action there had been. Neither side could be accused of taking it easy, and Linnets would be pleased at having seven days to regroup before the FA Trophy trip to Sheffield FC.
Clitheroe wouldn't be so lucky, with Ramsbottom to entertain on Tuesday.
A tough game was played in an excellent spirit, and if match stats supported the Lancastrians' feeling they should have edged it, both teams thoroughly deserved to preserve their unbeaten records.
Runcorn Linnets: Josh Molloy, Ally Brown (Josh Brizell 67), James Short, Jacques Welsh, Peter Wylie (Louis Hayes 55), Sean O'Mahoney, Craig Lindfield, Tom McCready, Ben Wharton, Ryan Brooke, Kurt Sherlock (Iwan Murray 82). Subs not used: Stuart Crilly, Tom Ruffer.
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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