The Northern Premier League

21st August 2021, AVRO FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-1

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Calum McIntyre's response to a first defeat of the season - at Glossop North End in midweek NPL action - was to make three starting changes for the Emirates FA Cup preliminary round trip to Oldham.

MJ Monaghan and Oladapo Olaweraju replaced Laurence Smith and Eden Gumbs while Sean O'Mahony, unavailable on Tuesday, returned in the centre of defence.

Jacques Welsh moved to right-back, and Ally Brown to the bench.

It will be interesting to see what changes might be rung for the replay in Runcorn in two days' time, as what looked like a comfortable passage into the next round after half an hour turned into a frankly fortunate second bite of the cherry.

First impressions of my inaugural visit to Avro's Vestacare Stadium were mixed. It's a very tidy ground, with a catering operation reminiscent of the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. It provided, narrowly, the second best burger I have ever eaten in a football ground. Conwy holds on to the crown by a thread.

That was a consolation, however, as I had already discovered the 4G pitch. I understand the economic and community benefits of them, and it was by no means the worst one I have witnessed, but the dead bounce and pedestrian run of the grainy surface took a good 25 per cent off the speed of Linnets' quick passing game, and the close footwork of Iwan Murray and Joe Lynch in particular.

The visitors took early possession and advanced on both flanks quickly, through Olaweraju on the right and Monaghan on the left. But swift and close marking by the Avro defence resulted in Ryan Brooke cutting a lonely figure in the centre of the Runcorn attack.

The game was ten minutes old before Avro achieved any possession in the Runcorn half, Jake Cottrell progressing towards the opposition third before Alex Downes' timely intervention, while Danny Byrnes made a couple of sideways moves through the Linnets half without finding a teammate in a threatening position.

After twelve minutes, Linnets were gifted the lead. Iwan Murray was pulled back advancing from the centre circle, but still managed to find Dapo wide on the right. His cross was intended for Ryan Brooke to run on to, but centre-back Lewis Lacy got there first and glanced his interception behind 'keeper Jordan Latham and into the net. The feat looked considerably trickier than conceding a corner.

The fortunate breakthrough promised to encourage the visitors to take control of the game, but the pattern of ultimately fruitless possession down both wings continued. Murray and Dapo exchanged on the right, and Lynch and Monaghan on the left, but Brooke remained a frustrated figure in the middle.

The Avro back four and retreating midfield cut off his supply, forcing Brooke to play deep.

Deja vu came early, with Iwan Murray on the receiving end of half a dozen fouls in the first 25 minutes.

The middle of the first half saw Avro making more inroads into Linnets territory. A free-kick conceded by James Short against Byrnes led to a bout of pinball in the Runcorn penalty area, Liam Ellis scooping a shot wide from a seated position.

Then, from the softest of free-kicks just beyond 18 yards, Kane Wallwork fired wide of the left post.

A first Runcorn attack for a while led to Olaweraju going down inside the area, but the referee was unmoved by Runcorn claims for a 'nailed on' penalty. Lest I ever be accused of wearing yellow and green blinkers, I agreed with him. The home side, who have achieved back-to-back promotions to the North West Counties Premier Division, were warming to their task, and went back on the offensive.

Liam Ellis' hopeful long shot cleared the bar by a distance, and a prolonged game of head tennis inside the Runcorn half was eventually brought back to earth by Louis Hayes.

Lynch, Murray and Olaweraju joined in a passing sequence from centre to left to right, Murray beating three opponents before inevitably being wiped out by Lewis Lacy.

His yellow card in the last five minutes of the game was nothing if not belated.

Dapo had another go at breaking down the Avro defence, keeping the ball through three changes of direction while having his shirt pulled throughout by left-back Bailey Sloane, but the referee saw no infringement.

The last attacking burst of the half belonged to the hosts. Massed bodies in the Runcorn penalty area frustrated several hopeful stabs towards goal, until one underhit effort was easily gathered by 'keeper Joe Young.

At half-time, Linnets fans felt that Calum McIntyre would be disappointed with his side's failure to take control of the game. It did look as though another goal would be enough. But apart from a long free-kick from Young, taken out by the head of Avro centre-half Sam Rathbone, Linnets had not made an impression on the Avro half during the last ten minutes of the half.

Attempts to turn the tide during the break were restricted to helpful advice, with no changes in personnel.

The second half began as the first had ended.

Runcorn possession was shortlived, and increasingly interrupted by fouls, especially when Iwan Murray had the ball, and there was a growing impression that Avro seemed more determined than their guests to make Monday's cup draw.

They were encouraged in their ardour when levelling the score on 50 minutes.

A throw-in on the right allowed a looping header, caught beneath the crossbar by Young. From his clearance the ball was launched back into the Runcorn area, and when Young parried a shot that he might have held, Liam Ellis had little trouble finding the back of the Runcorn net.

There were rumblings about offside, and it was hard to be definitive given that the assistant referee in that half was rarely up with play.

The equaliser inspired its scorers more than their visitors from the league above, and the ball spent very little time in the Avro half up to the hour mark.

An Avro corner from the left resulted in a penalty-area scramble, and after pulling Monaghan to the floor, Wallwork thought he might secure a penalty by falling over himself. He didn't.

Changes began on the hour, Eden Gumbs being introduced in place of MJ Monaghan.

He was joined in a more enterprising spell by James Short up the left, and a first move of more than two passes came from the left, Iwan Murray into the area to pull back for Jacques Welsh, but Lacy got there first to clear.

As Runcorn tried to make greater attacking inroads, their hosts were not about to relinquish their grip on level terms, defending in numbers and closing down quickly.

They also added an escalating number of fouls to their armoury, earning yellow cards for Sloane, Lacy and Wallwork.

Dapo Olaweraju was being upended with the frequency usually meted out to Iwan Murray, although Murray too was introduced to the gritty artificial surface with annoying regularity.

One resulting free-kick was destined for the head of Sean O'Mahony 15 yards from goal, but Latham got to it just ahead of him. Jacques Welsh received a yellow card of his own for 'foot up' as the 'keeper cleared.

A spell of Runcorn pressure continued, much of it instigated by Short and Gumbs interacting wide left, and Murray from the right -when he was allowed to stay on his feet.

Lacy brought him down again for a free-kick on 66 minutes. This was slipped to Iwan, whose cross allowed Lynch a powerful shot from behind the penalty spot. The effort was blocked at close range by Rathbone.

Then a Gumbs cross reached the far post, where Latham's gloves got to it just before the head of Brooke.

After a prolonged delay following a bang on the head for Alex Downes just outside his own area, Olaweraju made way for Stuart Crilly, 17 minutes remaining for Crilly to help propel Linnets into the draw without a replay.

Michael Afuye replaced Byrnes for Avro, and he made his presence felt both in building home attacks and in some robust tactics to prevent Runcorn replies.

On 77 minutes, another Gumbs cross was punched away by Latham before Crilly could make contact.

Just after this, Sloane and Lacy collected belated yellow cards within a minute for fouls on Crilly and Murray.

Kai Haigh, on for Jack Morrow, fired a powerful shot goalward from 18 yards, but O'Mahony intervened to head out for a corner.

Afuye might then have done better from 12 yards but his shot flew high. Short was brought down by Afuye inside the left touch line with two minutes to go, the free-kick again cleared by the Avro defence, and a follow-up Crilly shot was headed out by Wallwork.

The final chance of the game came from a corner after Crilly's shot had been palmed around the post by Latham. The flagkick found O'Mahony's head, but under concerted pressure he couldn't direct it towards goal.

The referee had clearly had enough for one afternoon, adding on not even the two minutes that were dictated by four substitutions.

So no home league encounter with Newcastle Town this midweek. This will probably have to fill another vacant Tuesday night, as Avro now make a first visit to the Apec Taxis Stadium for the replay.

It is to be hoped that the quicker surface enables the Linnets to exert their pedigree far more, and that Avro might believe they have already seen everything the yellow and green have to offer. They most definitely haven't.

Runcorn Linnets:Joe Young, Jacques Welsh, James Short, Louis Hayes, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, MJ Monaghan (Eden Gumbs 59), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Oladapo Olarewaju (Stuart Crilly 73). Subs not used: Sam Harding, Ally Brown, Carl Spellman, Jordan Monthe.


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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