The Northern Premier League

28th September 2021, Runcorn Linnets FC v City of Liverpool FC : 3-3 Sponsored by Quizlings

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Runcorn returned to action in the Pitching In Northern Premier League West Division after a much needed ten-day break since their Emirates FA Cup triumph over Bamber Bridge.

The visit of City of Liverpool, delayed by three days by their Buildbase FA Trophy shoot-out win over Stockton Town, brought some familiar faces back to APEC Taxis Stadium.

The hosts were facing their NWCFL-winning management team of Michael Ellison and Matt Cross for the first time, and four former Linnets on the team sheet.

It was a game that all concerned would have beenas keen as ever to win, and perhaps that had some bearing on the fact that the spoils were shared.

It certainly had nothing to do with anybody taking it easy.

Six goals shared could have been considerably more, summing up the cliche 'a great game for the neutral'.

There weren't many of those among the 470 present, but there can't have been much better entertainment available anywhere for 8 on a damp Tuesday night.

In the early minutes, it was City of Liverpool who spent more time on the offensive, but Runcorn full-backs Rhain Hellawell and James Short hampered them from the wings, and Louis Hayes, Carl Spellman and Sean O'Mahony prevented any serious threats to Joe Young's goal.

The first home chance took six minutes to materialise, when a somewhat panicky clearance by CoLFC 'keeper Theo Roberts prevented Ryan Brooke from taking advantage of a risky back-pass.

Two minutes later, my personal hatred of 'shielding the ball out of play' was satisfied when Ryan Schofield's attempt to do so failed, Brooke's intervention forcing him to concede a corner kick.

It was blocked by Djavan Pedro, sparking a Charge of the Light Blue Brigade by the visitors.

That was to be a feature of the game, the 'Purps' (perhaps more appropriately dubbed the Skys in their away kit), employing pace as a team to put the hosts under pressure.

Ello's men then sought to take control by slowing things down in possession. But protracted spells of passing across the pitch inside the Runcorn half failed to create openings, thanks to quick closing down by Jacques Welsh, Stuart Crilly and Hayes.

Dapo Olarewaju and Brooke were also playing deeper than they would have liked, as they chased opponents on the ball.

Players on both sides were frequently losing their footing on a pitch which looked immaculate, but which had absorbed a lot of rain in the hours before kick-off.

But the slowed pace in the middle third turned events a little in Runcorn's favour.

When their efforts in midfield won the ball, there was a fraction more time to set Olarewaju and Iwan Murray away on the right wing, and Crilly and Short on the left.

Short pulled a pass inside to Crilly whose looping cross to the far post was destined for Dapo, until the chest of Adam Hughes intervened to concede a corner.

It was cleared, but then a great ball into the area by Murray found Brooke's head, his effort deflected to safety by the close attention of ex-Linnet Zac Aley.

Another corner was headed clear by Hughes, only to be returned to Murray wide right.

His ball across the six-yard box was palmed away solidly by Theo Roberts, but it could easily have found its way to Brooke or Crilly rather than to safety on the far side.

The Purps set off into the Runcorn third for the first time in a while, a speculative ball through the middle in search of Freddie Potter being dealt with comfortably by O'Mahony.

A Hellawell run up the right flank won another Linnets corner, delayed by referee Abid Hussein having to sort out a ridiculous amount of wrestling in the penalty area.

Murray's second attempt from the right corner flag was scooped away by Nathan Burke, instigator of most City of Liverpool attacks from deep, via Ryan Gibson.

On this occasion Gibbo's ball forward in search of Potter ran harmlessly long to 'keeper Young.

Just past the half-hour mark, Short launched a throw-in from the left into the penalty area towards Crilly. He was sandwiched between Schofield and Shorrock, who got to the ball first by punching it skywards from a good six inches above his head.

His protestations did nothing to dissuade Mr Hussein from his instant penalty award.

Welsh assumed spot-kick duties, and put his side 1-0 up with an unstoppable drive to Roberts' right.

The Purps were rattled, and Linnets' tails were up. The hosts retained control, with full-backs Hellawell and Short joining Olarewaju and Crilly in advancing wide, and Murray and Brooke probing through the middle.

A frankly soft free-kick, 30 yards out on the right, enabled Murray to curl a cross through the penalty area to Ryan Brooke.

He was in an acre of space as he directed a header perfectly over Roberts into the top right corner.

I was close enough to see the quizzical expression on the face of the Runcorn No9. It said either "Am I offside?", or "Do I need to change my deodorant?"

But any such confusion didn't compromise the precision of his finish.

The first 38 minutes of action had seen the initiative switch from the visitors to the hosts, and the 2-0 lead would surely see Runcorn take control. Or not.

The game was ultimately to resemble a three-act play.

Act Two began from the restart after Ryan's goal, lasted half an hour, and would be entitled 'City of Liverpool Take Charge'.

It has always been against Freddie Potter's principles to set foot on the Murdishaw pitch without scoring at least once, and the former Linnets hero took less than a minute to cut the deficit in half.

A break up the left found Potter outside the left corner of the penalty area. He passed inside to James Edgar, who returned the ball for the Purps' No9 to find the top right corner, giving Joe Young no chance.

Three goals in a frantic seven minutes were followed by a stabilising lull to half-time, both sides managing a single attack, each swallowed up by defensive cover.

The second half started in a way that suggested City of Liverpool were not content with being a goal behind.

Its first five minutes included four Purps corners, all repelled by the heads of O'Mahony and

Spellman, and two scrambling saves by Joe Young, one on to a post and the other at the feet of Potter.

On 52 minutes, Linnets might have perversely made it 3-1 with their first attack since half-time.

A swift break reached Murray in the penalty arc, and his first-time shot beat Roberts but slammed squarely off the right-hand upright before being cleared by Hughes.

CoLFC regrouped and attacked, Burke once again finding Gibson in too much space, and he became the second ex-Linnet on the scoresheet when he drilled a shot into the bottom left corner.

2-0 had become 2-2 inside 14 minutes of playing time.

A Brooke-Murray exchange through the centre fed an Olarewaju cross that was held by the 'keeper, but that couldn't prevent a 15-minute turnaround, when the Runcorn defence failed to stop Jack Hazlehurst finding Pedro in enough space to bury a header, which put the visitors ahead.

The turnaround had been no smash-and-grab. City of Liverpool had taken control, and they continued to dominate with long periods of possession across the pitch, orchestrated by Schofield, Burke, Hughes and Gibson.

The Linnets might have had a ten-day break, but it was no summer holiday. A punishing start to the season of 12 games in six weeks had inevitably taken its Mersey toll on a young and injury-hit squad, who know only one way to play: flat-out for victory.

There was no lack of effort, but they were looking tired.

With half an hour remaining, the question seemed to be not whether CoLFC would win, but by how many.

The Purps looked quicker on and off the ball, and while Runcorn made progress up their right through Hellawell and Olarewaju, assisted inside by Murray, it was slow and quickly closed down by Aley, Shorrock and Schofield.

But as Eden Gumbs joined the drama on the hour-mark, in place of Stuart Crilly, we didn't know that the script had other plans for Act Three.

Iwan Murray broke away from halfway and almost reached the 18-yard line before Adam Hughes got close enough to fell him from behind, earning one of the game's three yellow cards for his trouble.

A more complete punishment, though, was Iwan curling a stunning free-kick over the defensive wall into the top left corner, with Roberts still rooted to his line.

It was a pearler of a strike, reminiscent of those Louis Corrigan used to execute in yellow and green.

The Purps left-back was the only former Linnet present who didn't make it onto the pitch.

The question then was whether the equaliser would put Runcorn back on the front foot in a match that had appeared to be slipping away from them.

It certainly did, and the last 20 minutes plus four added, were dominated by the home team.

That said, first-half history was almost repeated, as straight from the kick-off Freddie Potter's left boot demanded a smart save by Joe Young just inside the post.

But Linnets had found a new injection of pace. Olarewaju outran the CoLFC defence from halfway, and would have had the goal at his mercy had Roberts not anticipated the danger to sprint from his area and clear with his head.

James Short saw yellow for a foul 35 yards from goal. Burke's free-kick, headed away by Spellman, led to the first in a number of Short-Gumbs combinations up the left that caused no end of trouble for the visiting defence.

A cross by Short put Ryan Brooke in a one-on-one battle with the 'keeper, from which the Linnets centre-forward was bundled over. Penalty appeals were waved away, and if they hadn't been, it would have been a soft one.

Freddie Potter's contribution ended with 18 minutes remaining, replaced by Xenon Bahula.

Neither camp showed the least intention to settle for a point, frantic effort on both sides encouraged at great volume by the management teams.

Runcorn continued to build more attacks after a helpful breather, while Kai Shorrock received lengthy physio attention before being subbed by Ethan Devine.

A loose ball was picked up by Welsh to set up a charge on goal by O'Mahony, who was unlucky to get to the ball a fraction of a second after Roberts.

Dapo was then fouled wide on the right, Murray's curling free-kick being headed a yard over by Spellman.

Hellawell cut inside his man from the right touchline and was fouled with Murray's free-kick this time reaching O'Mahony, his on-target header deflected for a corner.

That was taken short, and cleared. Brooke contested another cross from the right with Roberts, the ball rebounding to Murray on the edge of the penalty area, but his shot was snatched wide of the left post.

Then Dapo was penalised on the right of the area, seemingly for succeeding in keeping the ball when tackled.

Seconds later, an almost identical fate befell Eden Gumbs on the other side, just as his flick to Murray was fired over the bar.

The game entered added time amid a Runcorn onslaught, corners and throw-ins coming thick and fast, but Roberts and his defence held firm, albeit not with ease.

The Purps also advanced on the break, invariably via Ryan Gibson, and Linnets fans knew only too well that he can change a game in a second.

A single error or flash of brilliance could still have delivered all three points either way.

The nearest thing to a decider followed a Runcorn corner, back-headed by man of the match O'Mahony before he turned and made enough contact to prod the ball into Brooke's path.

Yet again, he and Roberts duelled on the ground, Ryan managing a toe-poke before Theo could get a hand on it, but it squirted just wide of the post.

It was over, and any disappointment on either side at having dropped points had to be soothed by satisfaction at serving up a great game of football.

Matches as fiercely contested as this frequently descend into niggly fouls, frayed tempers and vocal dissatisfaction with the referee.

Credit to both sides that this one didn't.

Mr Hussein confused us all evening with his interpretation of what did and didn't constitute a foul.

Perhaps the limited amount of dissent he faced was down to the fact that he prompted head scratching on both sides in fairly equal measure.

Similar equality will now apply to respective preparations for Saturday, with both teams in FA Cup action, and both thankful for not having to travel.

The exciting prospect of the visit of National League North outfit Gateshead to the APEC will prompt crossed fingers for Linnets' powers of recovery, and for rapid progress with their injury list.

Runcorn Linnets:Joe Young, Rhain Hellawell, James Short, Louis Hayes, Carl Spellman, Sean O'Mahony, Oladapo Olarewaju, Jacques Welsh, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Stuart Crilly (Eden Gumbs 58). Subs not used: Craig Lindfield, Ollie Heywood, 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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