The Northern Premier League

18th September 2021, Runcorn Linnets FC v Bamber Bridge : 3-1 Sponsored by Coca Cola Formula

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

It was hoped by nearly all of the 618 crowd at APEC Taxis Stadium that an almost unheard of second consecutive home draw would be a stepping stone to an exciting and profitable FA Cup run for Linnets.

I say nearly all, because it was a little surprising that very few Bamber Bridge fans appeared to have made the 45-minute trip down the motorway from Lancashire.

Their side had started the Pitching In NPL Premier Division season well, placing them fifth in the table, and it was felt that the yellow and green would have to be more on song than they were in losing 1-2 at Bootle four days earlier.

In the event they were not just on song, but in full voice, as they marched on into Monday's draw with a thoroughly deserved 3-1 victory.

The action was prefaced by a poignant one minute's silence to honour the passing at 90 years old of long-standing Runcorn supporter and volunteer Joan Bettley.

The home side showed intent from the kick-off, a neat James Short jink inside from the left touchline producing a sharp cross that was destined for the head of Ryan Brooke, but the gloves of Mateusz Hewelt got there fractionally first.

Early exchanges suggested that Bamber Bridge like to play football on the ground, as do their hosts.

That is certainly their reputation. It did mean that neither side would allow their opponents any time on the ball, though, and carving out openings was not going to be easy for anyone.

In the seventh minute, Dapo Olarewaju went down from off-the-ball contact with Luke Higham, the Runcorn man requiring physio attention, giving rise to fears that it might not be the clean game we were hoping for.

They were thankfully unfounded, as the incident was left all the more mysterious by being an aberration in a cup tie played in an admirably positive spirit.

Ryan Brooke was to feel a little aggrieved with referee Alan Bennett not giving him more protection, but more on that story later.

Two minutes after his injury, Dapo was fit enough to make one of many testing sprints up the right away from Higham, turning inside but pulling his shot wide of the near post. It was the 12th minute before 'Brig' seriously threatened at the other end, Ryan White traversing the 18-yard line across central defenders O'Mahony and Spellman before shooting narrowly wide of the left upright.

Runs on goal were limited for both sides, with passes restricted to triangles across the pitch and backwards by close defensive attention.

After 16 minutes, a hopeful high back header by White was held confidently by Linnets 'keeper Joe Young. The Brig No11 remained involved in their attacking efforts. His free-kick from deep into the area was cleared by Spellman, leading to an Olarewaju through-ball played in front of Louis Hayes, whowas flagged offside.

Like Ryan White, Dapo was involved in most of his team's advances into the opposition third, and, in the 21st minute, he won a three-challenge battle with Higham before getting in a cross for Brooke's run into the area, which was terminated by Macauley Wilson apparently pulling him back.

Ryan was not happy with Mr Bennett's conclusion that no offence had been committed. As much as we love Mr 100%, it has to be admitted that he tends to bring to mind the old Reeves & Mortimer catchphrase 'You wouldn't let it lie!'

As he left the pitch at half-time, the Linnets No.9 was still explaining to both (smiling) assistant referees that he had been hauled off his feet 25 minutes earlier.

Ryan was cheered up, along with all of the other Runcorn faithful on and off the pitch, three minutes after the non-penalty.

Iwan Murray won and took a corner on the left, which he curled into the crowd in the six-yard box.

Sean O'Mahony got his head to it first, rapidly followed by that of Carl Spellman, who netted from close range. With a quarter of the game played, Linnets deserved their lead.

The Premier Division side set out to respond immediately, a swift turn and shot from the edge of the penalty area by Danny Forbes demanding a great tip over the bar by Joe Young.

A minute later, Ryan Brooke won an aerial duel with 'keeper Hewelt, the ball dropping for an Olarewaju shot to be blocked on the line.

Brooke poked the ball home, but Mr Bennett had already blown for a foul on the goalkeeper.

On the half-hour, Rhain Hellawell beat two defenders to cut inside from the left along the goal line, the penalty area at his mercy.

The referee acceded to defensive appeals that he had taken the ball out of play.

He most definitely hadn't, but Rhain let it lie.

A couple of minutes later, Ryan Brooke found his way to the goal line just beyond the right post, and with nothing to aim at he flicked it back into the six-yard box.

Defender Chris Churchman made a firm contact that was fortunate to hit the crossbar rather than the back of the net.

Linnets were in the ascendancy, and three more chances came in quick succession.

Brooke lost a 50-50 challenge inside the Brig half, but won it back again to flick a pass into Olarewaju, his shot blocked at close quarters.

Then a Murray corner from the right was met by a diving header by Brooke, too low for him to direct it on target.

A minute later, James Short cut inside from the left wing to reach the penalty area, but he was adjudged to have fouled right-back Callum Spooner, with minimal contact.

Against the run of play, Bamber Bridge levelled the tie three minutes before half-time.

Sheldon Green's cross was cleared by O'Mahony, but Higham returned the ball into the area, where White's shot was deflected into the bottom right corner.

It seemed that Linnets would be hard done by to go into the break without a lead, and they didn't.

Straight from the restart, Dapo Olarewaju broke away into the right side of the opposition penalty area and snapped in a cross for the charging Hellawell.

Macaulay Wilson got to it first, but could only divert the ball into his own net.

The closing moments of the half allowed no further chances either way.

Runcorn started the second half on the offensive, winning a corner on the right that Spellman's head propelled into the middle of the area.

It came off O'Mahony's thigh, when either a foot or knee would surely have diverted it beyond Hewelt's grasp.

Brig won a corner of their own straight afterwards, cleared at the third attempt by Peter Wylie.

The second half had started in a far more frantic, end-to-end manner. A quick Runcorn free-kick from the halfway line set up Jacques Welsh on a sprint against two defenders, his powerful shot from outside the corner of the six-yard box parried by the 'keeper.

At the other end, Forbes claimed that his 20-yard shot had been stopped by a hand, but Mr Bennett disagreed. Then Hellawell outsprinted Wilson to bear down on Hewelt's goal, but the Brig No1 narrowed the angle well to block his shot.

On 57 minutes, Bamber Bridge manager Jamie Milligan rang the changes, Mark Yeates and Robert Apter replacing the hardworking Forbes and White.

Five minutes later, a great contribution by Dapo Olarewaju ended with his substitution by Eden Gumbs.

In between, two promising attacks by the visitors ran aground when Louis Hayes did well to dispossess Matthew Dudley just inside the 18-yard line, and a 35-yard free-kick evaded everybody and ran wide.

On 64 minutes, Ryan Brooke broke free on the right, and with everyone expecting a pass into the middle for Iwan Murray, he tried to trick the 'keeper with a shot from a tight angle, but it flew the wrong side of the near post.

Brooke was instrumental in two more attacks within a minute. He passed wide to Welsh, whose cross was glanced away by Wilson, and then Brooke attempted a curling shot over Wilson and Macauley that didn't bend quite enough to find the target.

The run of play suggested that the next goal would be more likely to extend Linnets' lead than to level the tie.

Two advances by Brig were repelled smartly by O'Mahony and Spellman, then Hellawell broke free to pass into the middle for Gumbs, but Higham got to the ball just ahead of him.

With 20 minutes remaining, Ryan Brooke's charge into the opposing half was stopped by an arm, leaving the Linnets centre-forward face down on the pitch for a minute or more. Play was resumed with a drop-ball, and Brooke became the only name recorded in Mr Bennett's notebook when he expressed his disappointment at the absence of a free-kick.

It remains unclear whether Ryan was still demanding a penalty from an hour earlier.

Tackles were more prominent than passes by both teams for the next five minutes, until Mark Yeates managed a first attempt on the Runcorn goal for some time, but it flew well high.

Into the last quarter of an hour, a James Short ball from the halfway line reached the penalty area, where indecision between Wilson and Hewelt over who should go for it enabled Brooke to get a toe on the ball.

It squirted between the two Brig men into the path of Eden Gumbs, who needed no further invitation to slam it into the net before the 'keeper could recover.

Making the next round of the cup was now a steep uphill struggle for the visitors, but credit to them for never giving up. A two-goal lead obviously made the closing minutes a more comfortable affair for the home side, although they continued to compete for every ball as though the score was still 0-0.

Brig understandably began to look the more tired of the two teams.

They attacked, but lacked half a yard of pace, resulting in comfortable Runcorn interceptions and a volley of offside flags.

With five minutes remaining, Iwan Murray left to an ovation, replaced by Joe Lynch. Those minutes and another five added might have been nervy ones for Runcorn if not for a perfectly timed James Short tackle preventing a golden opportunity in front of goal.

Louis Hayes was away on the break up the left, with Brooke and Gumbs arriving through the middle, but Louis' cross was a bit too close to Hewelt as he came out to intervene.

Bamber subs Apter and Sinclair persisted in reaching the Linnets penalty area, but trojan defending to a man frustrated them.

Moving into added time, Dylan Boyle got in on the act but he fouled Sean O'Mahony as he was tackled.

Both sides began to look a yard slower from their exertions on a September afternoon with July weather, a prolonged bout of head-tennis inside the Brig half resembling a slow motion replay.

The next round was in sight for Runcorn, though, and they chased every ball flat out, determined to keep it or to deny their opponents an inch of space when they had it.

The last half chance of the day came when Eden Gumbs won a 50-50 challenge and fed a Joe Lynch run, but the Linnets sub was offside.

The final whistle came moments later, and Runcorn were in the hat for the third qualifying round draw.

Brig's social media commentary graciously acknowledged that while they had not been at their best on the day, every Runcorn man was superb.

Indeed they were, and they now had a thoroughly-deserved ten-day break before the much anticipated visit of some familiar faces in the purple of City of Liverpool on 28th September.

Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Peter Wylie, James Short, Louis Hayes, Carl Spellman, Sean O'Mahony, Rhain Hellawell, Jacques Welsh, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray (Joe Lynch 83), Oladapo Olarewaju (Eden Gumbs 62). Subs not used: Harvey Lewis, Ollie Heywood, Jordan Monthe.

Attendance: 618.

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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