The Northern Premier League

14th August 2021, Runcorn Linnets FC v Widnes : 2-0 Sponsored by John and Brenda Jenkin in memory of Kath & Phil Tyler

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

The endless winter of 2020, like something from Game of Thrones, finally came to an end with Runcorn Linnets' first home league game since Christmas week, in a uniquely long- awaited fixture loaded with irony.

For the first competitive game of the season to be against nearest neighbours from the other side of the toll bridge might have made it momentous enough, but it was also a repeat of the last league game played at the now renamed Apec Taxis Stadium.

An amazing 704 football-hungry souls turned up to see it, a bumper crowd boosted by a contingent from Chester FC, whose game with Curzon Ashton had fallen prey to Covid-19.

If it's possible for momentum to be maintained after an enforced close season of eight months, Widnes were hoping it would be, having won on 19th December with a wind-assisted free-kick in the 87th minute.

Moreover, that was the visitors' fourth successive victory in Murdishaw.

As glad as they might be to watch football again, neutrals present had been hoping today's events would be far more enthralling than that turgid grind of a game.

Local derbies are notorious for being tight, niggly affairs, with an emphasis on defence limiting total football or many gilt-edged chances, and none more so than this one.

So it transpired, and for much of the first half neither Linnets' new goalkeeper Joe Young, on loan from Wolves, nor Widnes' custodian Owen Wheeler, were put under much pressure.

That remained largely the case until Linnets' midfield league debutant Laurence Smith turned the game, unleashing a 22-yard barnstormer with almost the last kick of the first half.

Even a Widnes penalty just past the half-hour didn't test Young, as former Linnet Ryan Gibson sent it soaring towards Aldi.

In the early exchanges, Eden Gumbs tested the right side of the Widnes defence, and Iwan Murray and Ally Brown attempted to prise open the other flank, but tight closing down and well-timed tackles by Ben Hampson, Jay Roberts and Kyle Harrison frustrated them, while the heads of Hampson and Matty Makinson thwarted Ryan Brooke's attempts at aerial assault.

At the other end, Downes, Welsh and O'Mahony soaked up more centrally-mounted forays by the visitors. Jordan Barrow and James Steele tried to find centre-forward Ben Wharton in dangerous positions, but the home rearguard proved more than equal.

Barrow had a dig himself from distance, but it flew high and wide.

In the middle third, Joe Lynch and Laurence Smith worked hard to gain possession and feed the wings, but close attention from Hajdari and the advancing centre backs prevented anyone from covering more than a few yards with the ball.

In possession, Widnes had slightly more joy - stringing together a few consecutive passes, but forward progress remained difficult.

Downes, in particular, was an industrious gatekeeper, and O'Mahony a robust guardian of the home 18-yard line.

Full-backs Brown and Short were winning balls wide, but were also thwarted in getting as far forward with it as they would have liked.

Openings for either side were scarce. Longer range shots were the only clear option, and not many of them.

Joe Lynch cleared the bar by not much on 15 minutes, and shortly afterwards a swerving effort towards the far post was parried by Wheeler, conceding a corner which was headed clear by Hampson.

A neat one-two between Lynch and Murray set the former free on 18 yards, but he was offside.

22 minutes had elapsed when Steele found a rare patch of space in the Runcorn penalty area, but his attempt to chip Young landed safely in the 'keeper's arms.

If there was a visible difference between the teams in the first half hour, it was that Widnes edged possession. But the ball had spent more time in their third than in their hosts', and Linnets possession did threaten to open the door a little more.

That changed after 33 minutes, when Steele advanced into the penalty area, amid cries of offside, and Sean O'Mahony was unimpressed to receive the first of the game's five yellow cards for pulling him back.

The Runcorn faithful hoped that Joe Young might mark his NPL debut with a penalty save, but he didn't need to, as former Runcorn favourite Gibson leaned back and fired high.

If it had been converted it would have swung the afternoon in Widnes' favour, with home fans groaning 'not again!', but the missed opportunity appeared to turn proceedings the other way.

The last few minutes of the first half saw a concerted burst of Runcorn pressure.

A powerful Ryan Brooke header from a Murray-Lynch exchange went wide under pressure from Hampson and Makinson, and three minutes before the break Gumbs broke into the area and had a shot parried by Wheeler.

Brooke laid off the rebound for Ally Brown to fire into an empty net.

Brown was definitely onside, so it seemed the assistant's flag was for Brooke retreating from an offside position.

Widnes had a chance of their own a minute later, when a free-kick from the right was headed out by Downes for a throw-in. Barrow's long throw found Makinson in the area, but he was adjudged to have handled.

The half was over, almost. Gumbs broke away on the left and passed infield to Laurence Smith, who made Runcorn's first goal of the season a contender for a trophy at the end of it.

His shot sailed way wide of Wheeler's reach and into the top right corner.

As Linnets manager Calum McIntyre headed for the tunnel, he said "What a goal!" I think there was another word in there, but I'm choosing to forget what it was.

Big Ron Atkinson used to say that the stroke of half-time was a great time to score a goal, as though there's a bad time.

But Smith's strike was powerful evidence that Ron was right.

The second half took on a markedly different hue from the first. Runcorn bossed it.

They had much more of the ball, Smith and Lynch taking possession in the middle of the pitch and finding Brown out right and Gumbs wide left, providing more opportunities for Murray and Brooke to mount assaults on the Widnes penalty area.

The visiting defence continued to close down their opponents and limit space, but the men in yellow and green were dictating the game far more.

Widnes tackles became increasingly fierce, 0and often too late for the liking of referee Mr Nicholson.

Smith might have doubled his and his team's tally two minutes into the half, shooting a yard wide after a one-two with Murray, and he became an ever sharper thorn in Widnes' side.

If they succeeded in blocking his path, Lynch was there to pick up the baton, and lay on wide passes for Brown, Murray or Gumbs to advance in the away third.

On the right, Widnes had to defend and overlap in numbers to control both Brown and Murray. Increasingly, they had to resort to fouling them, and Barrow, Steele and Wharton collected yellow cards for their efforts.

On the hour mark Widnes manager Kevin Towey rang the changes, introducing Watters and Aditeloye for Gibson and Barrow, having replaced Hajdari with Kennington after half-time.

Ryan Watters might have made a bigger difference if he had joined the fray earlier.

He stood out as Widnes' most creative force, repeatedly gaining possession and mounting attacks through the middle. But Downes and O'Mahony continued to frustrate the away side when the play neared the Runcorn area.

Aditeloye also posed a threat on the right flank, but Short proved equal to it.

Young, in the Runcorn goal, remained well protected.

The best Widnes chance of the second half came when Lynch was dispossessed in the middle third and Steele was set free on the left. But he had no support, and Short closed on him and bounced a tackle off the Widnes No10 for a goal-kick.

The efforts of sub Watters might have produced more for the visitors if they hadn't been reduced to ten men just three minutes after the double substitution, Kennington being dismissed for a late lunge on Eden Gumbs.

Extra pace was added to Runcorn's eleven-man threat straight after, with Gumbs replaced by Dapo Olarewaju.

Widnes frustration mounted, Ben Wharton being booked for a hefty challenge on former Linnets teammate Jacques Welsh.

When an Ally Brown cross was held by Owen Wheeler, he cleared for a rare two-man attack inside the Linnets penalty area. Young got to the ball first while being sandwiched by Wharton and Steele.

Then Olarewaju was penalised for a shoulder charge on Jack Banister 20 yards out.

Watters' free-kick cleared the angle of post and bar on the left.

While Runcorn had controlled the second half, the outcome could have changed in a moment, as it had done three minutes from the end of the clubs' last meeting in December, when a nailed-on goalless draw turned into another Widnes win when the home defence waited for a free-kick to fly wide and the wind sent it swerving in off the post.

This meeting was put to bed with 14 minutes remaining, in off the opposite post of the same goal.

Iwan Murray won the ball out on the right no fewer than three times before slipping it inside to Ryan Brooke.

From just outside the 18-yard box, Brooke curled a low shot around a three-man defence and past the outstretched Wheeler.

There was to be no bus-parking to protect the 2-0 lead. Murray and Olaweraju both broke into the area with home fans anticipating a third goal, only for Harrison and Roberts to complete great tackles.

A late penalty shout when Murray was brought down in the area was waved away. Steele, Banister and Aditeloye also constructed a promising late attack for Widnes, but Banister's shot floated harmlessly wide.

Four minutes of added time eventually lasted seven, as Mr Nicholson coped with a rising tide of Widnes dissent, including manager Towey being dismissed from the away dugout.

The game had swung half way through, from a 'classic derby' war of attrition to a victory of confident control, won in midfield by towering displays from Smith and Lynch, which freed up their teammates to put the neighbours under mounting pressure.

On another day, Joe Lynch's tirelessly skilful performance would have edged him man of the match from Smith, but the Runcorn No8 scored a goal. That goal.

Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Ally Brown, James Short, Jacques Welsh (Louis Hayes 78), Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch, Laurence Smith, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Eden Gumbs (Oladapo Olaweraju 66). Subs not used: MJ Monaghan, Stuart Crilly, Carl Spellman.

Attendance: 704.

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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