14th September 2021, Bootle v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-1
The Runcorn Linnets juggernaut followed the signs to Aintree to resume an old rivalry with Bootle
FC, newly promoted to the Pitching In NPL West after the latest rebuilding of the league pyramid.
In the seven seasons leading up to Linnets' North West Counties title win in 2018, Bootle were ever-present in the top eight, and annual battles between the two sides often had a crucial bearing on the efforts of both to gain promotion.
The form book suggested that their first meeting in the NPL should be a profitable one for the visitors,
their record of five wins and a defeat so far being precisely reversed for their hosts.
But anyone who punts their house on form, especially early in the season, is asking for trouble. And sure enough, on this occasion they would have been joining the housing list.
The Bootle players had a new manager to impress, in the shape of former Prescot Cables boss Brian
Richardson, most recently assistant at FC United of Manchester.
They set about that task briskly, and might have been ahead after barely a minute when Runcorn 'keeper Joe Young failed to hold on to the first shot of the evening, the loose ball being cleared by Peter Wylie.
Joe was more assured when he punched away the first corner of the night.
After Will Bell had intercepted a first Linnets advance into the Bootle half by Iwan Murray, Paul Foy was away up the right wing until he was tackled by James Short.
A scrappy first ten minutes had shown far more promise for the home team, and they were placed in the driving seat when Carl Spellman conceded a penalty that drew few arguments from the men from across the toll bridge.
Joe Young guessed the wrong way, but would have stood no chance anyway as Ben Hodkinson's perfectly- driven spot-kick found the top right corner.
Falling behind sparked Runcorn into a first spell of attacking intent, and Will Bell's response to it was to target Ryan Brooke with a series of niggly fouls both on and off the ball.
One of them resulted in a free-kick tapped short to Iwan Murray, whose cross was intercepted for a throw-in.
It was an unfamiliar dead-ball tactic that was to be repeated numerous times during the first half, both
from those fouls that were deemed worthy of a free-kick, and from a couple of rare Linnets corners.
Every two-man tap produced crosses or shots that were blocked by the first defender, usually prompting a Bootle attack on the break.
One such counter in the 17th minute presented Hodkinson with a solid
scoring chance, but a poor header failed to test Joe Young.
During his time as Widnes' right-back, former Linnet Jay Roberts was no stranger to the yellow card for his efforts against his Runcorn ex-colleagues, and he continued the trend in the blue of Bootle for scything down Stuart Crilly.
Murray and Lynch took the quick one-two this time, blocked at close quarters by Jay McCarten.
During the first quarter of the game the visitors were having no luck in carving out opportunities against industrious Bootle defending.
The travelling fans were hoping that the hosts might not be able to
sustain such a hectic approach to closing down Linnets possession, with both teams having faced a
demanding first month of the season.
Attempts on goal might have to come from distance, and Crilly passed into the middle for Laurence Smith to try a low shot from more than 30 yards out, but it rolled harmlessly wide.
A promising Joe Lynch ball wide to Stuart Crilly was nicked away by Roberts, then a virtual replica
was collected by Crilly and passed inside to Jacques Welsh, whose shot was deflected for a corner.
It was another short one-two, Murray's attempted cross blocked at close range once more.
On 28 minutes, Bootle No.10 Kieran Halligan limped off to be replaced by Jordan Wynne.
On the break from a corner, Jack McGowan was allowed more space in the Runcorn penalty area than anybody in yellow and green had been afforded at the Dodge Kop end so far, and his shot across the six-yard box went in off the inside of a post.
It was an uncharacteristically disjointed first half-hour from Runcorn Linnets, successfully disrupted
by Bootle's defence.
They appeared to be taking it in turns to make sure they took the man, with or without the ball. This was borne out by the fact that every occupant of a Bootle shirt numbered 1 to 5
eventually chalked up a yellow card.
But if Mr Sykes was allowing each of them a few strikes before taking action, nobody could argue that it was he who had gifted the league's bottom team a 2-0 lead.
After McCarten collected his caution for barging over Iwan Murray just outside the area, a first one-strike free-kick from the Linnets No10 dipped just over the bar, close enough to clatter the stanchion behind the right post.
A sign that it was the better dead-ball option.
After Young had gathered a mis-hit McGowan attempt at ground level, his clearance was forwarded to Crilly wide on the left.
Murray tumbled in a melee outside the area, and the ball ran loose for Lynch to shoot over the bar from 25 yards.
Runcorn passes were not finding their targets as regularly as usual,
and half chances at best were coming from loose balls picked up a long way from goal.
Laurence Smith tried one from fully 40 yards that dipped and bounced awkwardly for Ryan Jones, but the
Bootle 'keeper held on to it easily enough.
Five minutes from the break, Iwan Murray was fouled as he shaped to cross from the goal line on the
right. The free-kick was another quick one-two.
The resulting corner was at least crossed towards Sean O'Mahony running in towards the far post, and there was an audible crack as his head and that of McCarten came together in search of the ball.
The Bootle No5 came off worse,
but he was able to continue after some attention.In the last minute of the half.
Will Bell's efforts to get his name into Mr Sykes' notebook succeeded
when he cut Stuart Crilly in half outside the penalty area.
The greater punishment was that it resulted in his side's lead being halved.
It was only the second occasion that a Runcorn free-kick had been fired into the box first time, and with three yellow and green shirts pursuing it, the ball appeared to fly straight in to put Iwan Murray on the scoresheet.
All eyes turned to the assistant, but his flag correctly stayed down thanks to
Michael Carberry playing the Linnets attackers onside. Ryan Brooke was credited with the goal, and while I didn't think he had made contact, it was fair enough. His winner at Clitheroe three days earlier was easily worth two marks.
Two more Linnets advances, involving Brooke and a Murray-Smith exchange, were smothered. The half-time whistle left them with a hill to climb rather than a mountain, but manager Calum McIntyre would surely feel the need for a Plan B.
He made two personnel changes, Crilly and Spellman giving way to Dapo Olarewaju and the return
from injury of Rhain Hellawell.
There was a visible change of approach, with Runcorn passing laterally far more to utilise speed up
both wings in rapid succession, rather than playing higher balls forward to wide target men.
It stretched the Bootle defensive effort more, forcing them to chase across space instead of challenging head-on.
More Linnets opportunities materialised, but they were still closed down fast.
A diagonal run by Smith ended with a shot over the bar, with Brooke shouting for a pass to his right
instead, and when Olarewaju was set away up the right wing, he cut inside to shoot hard and low inside the near post, where Jones got down quickly to save.
The best Runcorn move of the game involved Short, Hellawell, Murray and Lynch from left flank to right, from where Olarewaju advanced and shot, his effort deflected for a corner.
The high ball across the area was intercepted and held by Jones, with O'Mahony running in to meet it at the far post.
In between these efforts, a Bootle corner on the left was headed over under aerial pressure, and a
mistimed Welsh pass in the centre circle allowed a break that led to a shot wide of the right post.
Back at the darker end of the ground, Hellawell cut inside from the left and hooked a shot wide of the near post. One of the abiding memories of the Berry Street Garage Stadium was a desperately uneven pitch that turned progressively to mud as autumn turned to winter.
It has been transformed by the
installation of a new hybrid grass pitch, but the floodlights still make the task of putting names to distant shapes a challenge.
It took an hour for the referee to lose patience with Ryan Jones' habit of taking an eternity to decide
whether to take goal-kicks from the left or right side of the six-yard box. A yellow card took the place
of a fourth lecture on the subject of timewasting.
Short and Hellawell passed in triangles near the left corner, Rhain finding the room to pass inside to
Laurence Smith, but Bell got to it first.
Murray got past three men to reach the area from the penalty arc before shooting wide of the right post, and when he was tripped just outside the area, his free-kick glanced off the first head in the defensive wall and out for a corner.
Runcorn chances were coming far more frequently than in the first half, but they were still subject to severely restricted space by dogged defending.
A busy spell for Murray continued with a sprint to the goal line inside the left edge of the area, where he was sent sprawling with a two-handed push in the back.
Mr Sykes was directly behind the incident, but it was hard to see how it could look like anything other than a foul.
He did deem a challenge on Olarewaju sufficiently illegal for Carberry to add another yellow card to the Bootle collection. It was a feature of a disjointed game going into the last quarter of an hour, and that suited the hosts.
After another foul 30 yards out, O'Mahony got his head to the ball slightly later than that of McCarten. The Runcorn No6 turned and managed a shot, but he was flagged offside.
Eden Gumbs replaced Laurence Smith for the last ten minutes, adding a physical presence to Runcorn efforts to level the game, but he was still charged to the ground in the latest home attempt to 'shield' the ball
out of play. Still neither obstruction nor a foul.
All-out attack always carries the risk of being hit on the break, and McGowan might have done better when he was free to shoot from less than 18 yards, but a little too straight, and into the arms of Joe Young.
It hadn't been a masterful performance in possession by the Linnets, but they still didn't know how to 'say die', and more attacks came in the closing minutes.
Gumbs found space for a shot from 22 yards, but blasted it high, and after he and Brooke had done well to
keep the ball from the attentions of five defenders, Eden shot again, but wide.
A corner from the right reached Joe Lynch via O'Mahony's head, and as he ran in from a tight angle it
wasn't clear whether it was a cross or a shot that ran out beyond the far post.
On the way, it evaded the toe of Brooke's boot by inches as he slid into the six-yard box.
It was the last incident of the game, and Bootle had their second win of the season, while Linnets recorded a second defeat.
There could be no faulting the effort or commitment in another hard day's night for Linnets, but it had to be concluded that in the shadow of Aintree, in the first half especially, they weren't quite at the races.
It's annoying for a reporter when the kit man comes up with a better pun than his.
There will be little respite for the yellow and green, with four days to prepare for the visit of Pitching In NPL Premier Division side Bamber Bridge in the FA Cup second qualifying round.
The prize, should Linnets prevail, would be not only a lucrative continued cup run, but also a long-awaited and well-earned ten-day break. Barring a dreaded replay, that is.
Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Peter Wylie, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Carl Spellman (Dapo
Olarewaju 45), Sean O'Mahony, Stuart Crilly (Rhain Hellawell 45), Laurence Smith (Eden Gumbs
80), Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Joe Lynch. Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Harry Lewis.
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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