The Northern Premier League

30th August 2021, Runcorn Linnets FC v 1874 Northwich : 1-0 Sponsored by Webbs Builders Merchants

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

After a demanding 90 minutes in the Peak District, earning a superb 1-0 win over Leek Town three days earlier, it would have been understandable if the Linnets players had been half a yard off the pace for the welcome return to Murdishaw of old friends 1874 Northwich after an absence of more than three years.

The '74 had played only two days earlier, and were on the crest of a wave after a 4-1 dismantling of Kendal Town in their fourth game in the Pitching In Northern Premier League West Division, since elevation from the NWCFL.

As always, our local rivals brought a substantial following to share in a fantastic Bank Holiday attendance of 729.

Less familiar was the replacement of The Greens' long-standing claret and blue away kit with a strange number featuring two distinct shades of orange, with grey shorts.

The vivid tangerine socks were an invaluable aid in telling the two teams apart.

Any fears that fatigue might slow down the Runcorn challenge proved ill-founded, as both teams delivered no-holds-barred commitment throughout an entertaining game.

Laurence Smith returned to the Linnets midfield in place of Joe Lynch, and he again showed his liking for a local derby, and for scoring great goals close to the break.

His blockbusting opening goal with the last kick of the first half against Widnes was emulated here with a stylish finish three minutes after the break, and it was to prove decisive.

A tightly but fairly contested encounter might have taken a different course, if 1874 had accepted a gift of an opportunity after seven minutes.

Theirs had been the first attack of the game, a safety-first corner taken short and dealt with by Ally Brown, before an Olarewaju cross at the other end was deflected across the pitch for Short to find the head of Brooke, whose firm contact flew wide of the post.

Then a defensive mix-up left Joe Young's goal at the mercy of Jack Irlam. Northwich fans were already celebrating an early lead when the ball somehow found its way the wrong side of the left upright.

It was a lucky escape that the home side didn't take for granted; no more easy openings coming from the ball spending more of the first ten minutes in the Runcorn half, as stoic closing and tackling resembled that of Friday's Leek Town game, albeit at a slightly less frantic pace.

The second ten-minute spell saw more forays into the 1874 half. A Ryan Brooke run from halfway saw the ball slipped right for Iwan Murray, but Mark Jones' boot got to it first.

Murray's run through the centre fed Crilly on the left, a powerful shot deflected over the bar by Morrow.

'Big Tony' Aghayere punched the corner clear from inside the far post, then another Murray flag-kick from the right appeared to be curling inside the near post until Matthew Russell headed it away.

A free-kick from the right came back for Crilly to volley from 30 yards, high and wide, and then the Runcorn No7 ran into the area from the left, his low drive blocked by the boot of Aghayere.

Crilly advanced again after stealing the ball from Marrow, crossing for Murray, whose shot was blocked at close range.

Ten minutes of home control were blunted by dogged away defending, punctuated by a threatening Runcorn throw-in and a Northwich goal-kick, both of which should have gone the other way.

A flurry of Linnets corners were awarded, as Northwich boots deflected attacking efforts from inside the penalty area. Iwan Murray was aiming them goalwards from both sides, finding the roof of the net, the far post and the timely fists of Aghayere.

Ryan Brooke fended off Koral and Jones to turn and shoot from inside 18 yards, but Koral's boot took enough of the sting out of it for Big Tony to gather it calmly.

The likelihood of a Runcorn lead mounted, Brooke exploiting Marrow's miscontrol to cross ten yards out. Crilly and Olarewaju were spoiled for choice over who should shoot, the indecision allowing Russell enough time to get in the way and send the ball spinning into Aghayere's gloves.

Five minutes from the break, it was Tony to the rescue again - his legs blocking a Dapo strike from the left corner of the six-yard box.

The corner, which again should have been a goal-kick, was firmly headed wide of the post by Ryan Brooke.

Closing on half-time, 1874 saw more of the ball and took it into the Runcorn end, but Brown, Downes and O'Mahony all pounced quickly to prevent any serious challenges to another clean sheet for Joe Young.

The second half started with the home side looking intent on taking a belated lead. An early Dapo break into the area drew a crucial block for a corner, from which Sean O'Mahony headed cleanly but wide.

A hospital pass to an isolated Mark Jones wide left allowed Ryan Brooke to tackle into touch.

Laurence Smith won the ball from the throw, feinted inside past three men to reach the 18-yard line, and drove an unstoppable shot into the bottom left corner of the net.

Two substitutions were lined up by 1874 in response, Matt Woolley and Ormrod for Irlam and Jones, but before they could be made the Northwich starting eleven mounted two attacks.

Ally Brown blocked Lee Knight's cross before a second attempt prompted shouts for a defensive handball in the area, referee Jacob Graham disagreeing.

Then a loose ball from Downes' clearance allowed Sam Hare a shot that had 'keeper Young diving at full stretch, but it skidded wide.

The substitutions helped to maintain five minutes of the most concerted Northwich pressure so far, but the home defence stood firm.

Then Jacques Welsh set Iwan Murray on a mazy run through the middle to slip the ball left to Dapo Olarewaju. He beat two men and shot hard and low, Aghayere again saving the day with a stop involving all four limbs.

Northwich were back on the offensive with a promising six-man move, initiated by both subs. It was eventually quelled by Brown and Downes.

After yet another Runcorn corner was repelled, by Ryan Jackson's near-post header, Linnets made a first change with Louis Hayes replacing scorer Laurence Smith.

A 50-50 challenge in the centre circle gave Northwich a soft free-kick leading to a Scott McGowan shot that only trickled through to Joe Young. Testament to Downes and O'Mahony's performances was prolific 1874 marksman Scott had a quiet afternoon.

The 70th minute saw Iwan Murray continuing a possible record number of corners. This one, from the right headed over by Alex Downes.

Northwich responded down the left flank, but they were frustrated by Brown and Welsh in turn.

A second home substitution involved Dapo Olarewaju being replaced by Eden Gumbs, Crilly moving over from left flank to right.

Murray was beaten to the ball inside the 1874 half but won it back, turned and passed inside to Brooke, who shot hard and low across the goal but out for a goal-kick.

The ball went end to end with a Northwich free-kick from the centre circle being headed away from danger by Louis Hayes, then Gumbs won a corner from a swift break up the left.

Crilly came in from the right touchline to set up Murray for a booming shot from 18 yards that dipped just over the bar. Then Gumbs set Short away up the left to cross hard across the six-yard box, just a little too hard in fact for anyone to meet it.

There were no signs of the men in two-tone orange giving up the ghost, and Gumbs and Murray were increasingly engaged in defensive duties to subdue the efforts of Michael Koral and Ryan Jackson on the right for the visitors.

It was telling that Gumbs spent much of his 18 minutes on the pitch in his own half, showing that he could serve as a useful emergency left-back should the need ever arise.

It freed up captain Short to join O'Mahony and Downes in the penalty area, repelling Northwich efforts to salvage a result.

Into added time, a high speed one-two from the halfway line between Crilly and Murray put the ball in front of the Runcorn No7 19 yards out, from where he was sent sprawling by left-back Russell.

Crilly hit the free-kick hard and low, failing to trouble Aghayere, who launched the ball the length of the field for a last-ditch attempt that was headed out by O'Mahony.

The final whistle from Mr Graham, who had admirably allowed a keenly- contested game to flow, heralded a second hard-earned Linnets win in four days.

Those who value statistics over watching football might be tempted to think of Calum McIntyre's team, after a pair of 1-0 victories, as an outfit who grind out results.

Actual football fans who turn up and watch would see games reflecting the vision of my hero Brian Clough, who believed that it's all about the ball.

Only the team that has it can score. Silky skills are wonderful, but you can't display them until you have the ball.

So if you haven't got it, get it.Nobody on either side looked the least bit tired from first whistle to last.

Flushed faces and drooping shoulders afterwards told a different story. Another fine game of football that was a credit to both sides.

Three days earlier against Leek Town, the man of the match debate made our brains hurt.

I cut to the chase on this one, deciding that one or two slips from Tony Aghayere in the Northwich goal would have made Linnets comfortable victors. He didn't make any.

Laurence Smith gave him no chance for the only goal of the game.

Back to the FA Cup on Saturday, a stern test indeed with the visit of Liversedge FC: NPL East table-toppers with five wins from five.

Runcorn Linnets:Joe Young, Ally Brown, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Stuart Crilly, Laurence Smith (Louis Hayes 67), Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Oladapo Olarewaju (Eden Gumbs 72). Subs not used: Carl Spellman, Jordan Monthe, Joe Lynch.


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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