The Northern Premier League

11th September 2021, Clitheroe v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-2

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

The early season two-games-per-week onslaught continued with a Pitching In NPL West trip to Clitheroe's Shawbridge, where some impressive structural work had been done to create a new elevated catering set-up, with a media centre gantry above. It was to be hoped that Linnets' video supremo Martin Holding had taken full advantage of the new eyrie to record Ryan Brooke scoring one of the best goals I have ever witnessed at close quarters. Right up there with Freddie Potter's upside-down volley at Mossley all but three years ago. It was a daunting trip for the injury-hit Runcorn side, with the Lancastrians flying high in second place in the league, three points behind Workington, the only team to beat them so far.

Clitheroe were also the league's top scorers, with 18 in six matches. The opening minutes bore out that impression, with three home attacks before the visitors were able to respond. But the Runcorn defence maintained its track record of slamming the door shut, giving goalkeeper Joe Young little to do to prevent the best endeavours of strikers Gonzales and Dent. The first Runcorn response came after five minutes, when a Jacques Welsh pass to Dapo Olarewaju was spread wide to Ally Brown, whose in-swinger cleared the angle of the goal on the far side.

In the seventh minute, after a handful of far better chances, Clitheroe took the lead out of nothing. Ross Dent's low shot found its way unhindered through a crowded penalty area and rolled into the bottom left corner. Two minutes later, Carl Spellman appeared to be pushed to the ground in his own area, but the referee was happy for Dent to continue towards goal. He hesitated with the goal at his mercy, and his delayed shot was blocked by O'Mahony. A strong wind into Linnets' faces was hampering measured balls forward, but Iwan Murray managed to find Olaweraju with one. He beat left-back Lonsdale to shoot from an impossibly tight angle, clattering the stanchion behind the angle of post and bar. The visitors were winning loose balls and moving forward, but meticulous closing down by their opponents was allowing no space for telling passes into danger. More than three consecutive Runcorn passes were happening only in their own half. Hands and arms seemed to be a favoured method of defending for Clitheroe, encouraged by the referee believing it was fair enough. Olarewaju was sent sprawling in the area by a shove from behind, and was scythed down by Lonsdale as he received a Murray pass, but both chasllenges were deemed fair. After 25 minutes, Iwan flicked the ball over the defence to find Dapo again. He raced Billy Priestley for it, goalkeeper Thompson advancing, and a moment's indecision between the two Clitheroe men enabled Dapo to get the first touch. Thompson got a hand to it, but it didn't prevent the ball from reaching the net. I don't think I was the only away fan to feel that Linnets were a little fortunate to be level on the run of play. Runcorn were encouraged, and they strived to take more possession. Clitheroe were not the first team to sense that the only way to stop Iwan Murray was by fouling him, and when he collected the ball in his own half and beat three opponents over 30 yards, Richard Baker earned the first card of the game for a waist-high tackle. The free-kick was wasted. After 33 minutes Murray set up Olarewaju again for a run into the right side of the penalty area.

A two-handed shove in the back provided Iwan with the chance to give Runcorn an unlikely lead from the penalty spot.

He strove to keep the ball low into the wind, and hit it a little too straight as Thompson dived the right way. The ball squirmed under his body, but he caught it well before it could reach the line. The reprieve inspired Clitheroe to go back on the offensive. A corner on the left cleared everyone in the area and was pulled back for Lonsdale to unleash what might be best described as a defender's shot.

Joe Young, in the Runcorn goal, was troubled only by the task of taking a goal-kick. Ross Dent felled Louis Hayes off the ball behind the referee's back. While Hayes received physio, Dent received a lengthy lecture. But with no card, we could only guess at its content. He hadn't seen the incident. With the half winding down, Ryan Brooke was set free into the Clitheroe half. He considered lobbing the advancing Thompson, but perhaps swayed by the wind in his face, opted to flick over centre-backs Burke and Priestley for Dapo, who couldn't get to it before the 'keeper. Added time before the break was dominated by Clitheroe. Gonzales on the left and Edwards on the right tested full-backs Brown and Short, and Dent attempted a bicycle kick that skewed wide.

Joe Young held on to the ball from a scramble six yards from goal, and it was half-time. Clitheroe would spend the break feeling they should have been ahead. But the Runcorn back line had limited their opportunities with the same consistency that had yielded just one competitive defeat so far. At half-time, a groin strain ended Ally Brown's contribution, and it was to be hoped he wouldn't join the casualty list for long. It was at least timely that club captain Peter Wylie was on hand to replace him, returning from his own injury sustained in pre-season. The first attack after the break was constructed by Olarewaju and Brooke, who required attention after Priestley headed clear by climbing over the back of his neck.

The referee saw no foul, nor any need to stop play quickly for physio Luke Davies to get involved.Both sides attempted some cagey manoeuvres on the deck, and Olarewaju and Murray caused concern for the Clitheroe defence on the right. Louis Hayes joined in and found Brooke on the edge of the penalty area, with his back to goal and a gang of defenders around him. He switched left, right, back and forward with the ball, five men unable to dispossess him and not daring to launch a tackle. Given that their 'keeper had already saved once from the spot, conceding a penalty might have been their best option.

Brooke manipulated the forest of blue and white closer to goal, and having picked his way through the maze, he spied just enough of a gap to blast a shot through, and above Thompson into the roof of the net. If it doesn't win the goal of the season award, you will not want to miss the effort that beats it.

It was reminiscent of Ricky Villa's 1981 Cup Final replay goal, except that the Manchester City defence gave the Argentine far more room than Clitheroe did Ryan. Runcorn tails were understandably up, in a game that promised them little early on, and the more confident they appeared in possession, the more rattled Clitheroe became.

Fouls were coming thick and fast, but as he had all afternoon, the man with the whistle was far from consistent in his judgement of what did and didn't warrant a free-kick. He was receiving plenty of helpful guidance from players, a trend with which he did eventually lose patience. That was a commodity that became tested when a delay of more than five minutes resulted from unrest among the vocal Clitheroe support on the halfway line.

It was unclear exactly what prompted the assistant on that side to report his concerns to the referee, but he in turn spoke to Clitheroe manager David Lynch, who crossed the pitch to reason with the fans.

Four club stewards spent the rest of the game among that section of the 550 attending. Play resumed with Stuart Crilly replacing Eden Gumbs for Linnets, as Clitheroe began a more concentrated period of attacking in search of at least level terms. O'Mahony headed away a corner from the left, then a cross from the other flank found the head of Sefton Gonzales, his effort bouncing off the top of the crossbar. Another corner was punched clear by Young. A wind-assisted clearance was flicked on by Crilly towards Dapo, but Priestley made contact with the back of his head, and was somewhat fortunate to divert the ball to safety. Fouls were now the preferred Clitheroe method of halting Runcorn progress, and one that wiped out Murray's advance into opposition territory earned Richard Baker a yellow card. From the free-kick, Olarewaju looked intent on emulating Brooke's mazy solo goal but, having beaten three defenders on his way into the penalty area, he elected to pull it back for Murray, whose shot was blocked at close range.

A cross from the right was destined for Crilly, homing in on the far post, but Stopforth got enough on a deflection to frustrate him, with the bonus of a goal-kick as it ricocheted off the Linnets No12. There were no signs of rustiness on Peter Wylie's return to combat. Connelly and Dent could get no joy at all up the left as Wylie tackles prevailed time and again, and when a cross from deep threatened to set up Gonzales in the six-yard box, the Linnets stalwart was there again to head powerfully away. With 15 minutes remaining, the lack of a breakthrough led to the replacement of Connelly and Dent with Conor Gaul and Alex Turner, and Iwan Murray was given a visibly reluctant breather and some respite time from the bruises when subbed by Joe Lynch. Both sides took it in turns to attack, Clitheroe with perhaps the lion's share, but the visitors' defending remained forcefully determined, without a trace of panic.

At the other end, Dapo Olarewaju continued a tireless afternoon's work, with the support of Lynch's fresh legs through the centre of the pitch. Ryan Brooke was playing a little deeper and winning challenge after challenge on the ground and in the air. A rare defensive mix-up set Joel Mills free into the Runcorn penalty area, but he shot unnecessarily early across goal, wide of Joe Young but also adrift of the left post. Runcorn saw out the last few 'normal' minutes with most personnel back marking and tackling in tandem with their defensive comrades. Wiley and Olarewaju doubled up to defend on the right, and Crilly was back with Short to repel boarders on the left.

Everybody else was in and around the penalty area, keeping gaps to a minimum and sharing heading duties with O'Mahony and Spellman. James Short turned Priestley at the corner of the area and broke away to set up Joe Lynch, but the Clitheroe No6 took one for the team by cynically felling the Runcorn left-back from behind.

Priestley wouldn't have still had the luxury of the tactic if the referee hadn't been so lenient with his efforts to do his job for him all afternoon. There were eight minutes of added time, thanks to the earlier crowd disturbances, and strangely for a team 2-1 down, the home side wasted around half of it on incessant arguing with the referee.

Stopforth took lengthy vocal exception to free-kicks being awarded, for another industrial tackle on Short and for Brooke being wrestled to the ground.

The referee perhaps felt that the time being wasted was punishment enough, as his cards stayed in his pocket.

They both came out for Richard Baker, however, when he objected to the award of an obvious corner kick after Lynch's cross was deflected. Perhaps it was his choice of terminology that made the difference.

The fouls and dissent allowed Runcorn to control added time, rather than having to protect their lead from a Clitheroe siege.

A last chance for Clitheroe was terminated by a brave Ryan Brooke header among flying boots 18 yards out, and Linnets had the final offensive say when Lynch and Olarewaju sprinted free from halfway, with a defender each in front of them.

Joe passed ahead of Dapo, whose firm strike beat Thompson but also slipped wide of the right post.

It was an exhausting afternoon, even if you weren't playing, and its ebb and flow was strange.

Early signs had been that Clitheroe would occupy the driving seat, but remaining on level terms as they turned with the wind at their backs, Linnets seized control in a way that yet again demonstrated an incredible never-say-die team spirit. It has now produced five victories from six league outings.

There will be the chance to extend it to six from seven at bottom-of-the-table Bootle on Tuesday, before returning to Emirates FA Cup action at home to Bamber Bridge on Saturday 18th.

A change will have to be as good as a rest yet again.

Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Ally Brown (Peter Wylie 45), James Short, Louis Hayes, Carl Spellman, Sean O'Mahony, Eden Gumbs (Stuart Crilly 62), Jacques Welsh, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray (Joe Lynch 74), Dapo Olarewaju. Subs not used: Ollie Haywood, Laurence Smith. Attendance: 550.

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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