The Northern Premier League

12th October 2021, Runcorn Linnets FC v Newcastle Town : 2-0 Sponsored by '200 Club' Winners

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets returned to league duties after two weekends of cup exploits, with the visit of Newcastle Town in the Pitching In NPL West Division.

The Staffordshire side came to Runcorn in search of a first NPL victory over their hosts.

Their last two meetings, in the 2018-19 season, had produced a 1-1 draw in Runcorn and a 2-1 Linnets victory at the Lyme Valley Stadium.

Better away form than home so far this season would have boosted Town's hopes of inflicting a first home league defeat on Calum McIntyre's men.

It wasn't to be, however, as a Ryan Brooke double within eight first-half minutes took the points.

There were strong echoes of Saturday's FA Trophy win at Tadcaster Albion, in that ruthless Linnets finishing before the break made a very evenly-contested second period far more comfortable than it would otherwise have been. The hosts looked more likely to take control from the start.

After two minutes, a Dapo Olarewaju run up the right was halted by a foul. Iwan Murray's free-kick was met by the chest rather than the head of Jacques Welsh beyond the far post, and the danger was cleared. Another cross from the right was flicked on by the head of Evan Gumbs, but it flew wide, and a Ryan Brooke pull-back from inside the penalty area set up a powerful Iwan Murray shot, but keeper Owen Mooney held it well. Newcastle survived five threatening minutes by mounting a period of possession in the Runcorn half, winning three throw-ins in quick succession, but they failed to generate a chance.

The Linnets back four, augmented by Welsh and Lynch from midfield, dealt with Town's attacking efforts swiftly and with confidence, and that was a pattern that would persist throughout the game. The home side went back on the attack. Murray turned in from the left and passed in front of Olarewaju's run, but Fishman got there fractionally before Dapo.

From the clearance, Sean O'Mahony tried a 35-yard piledriver, a yard over the bar. A five-man Town passing move across the Runcorn half was ultimately smothered by Spellman then Gumbs, and Linnets settled into a lengthy spell of passing across the back four, patiently awaiting a forward opening. That patience was rewarded with two Dapo breaks up the right.

His pull-back from the goal line was intercepted, but Murray won the ball again and passed back wide to the Runcorn No7.

The cross found Ryan Brooke in the six-yard box with his back to goal, but the centre-forward turned his shoulders and directed a header past Mooney to give Linnets a 14th-minute lead. Only two minutes later, Olarewaju resumed service wide right, collecting a long clearance from Joe Young and passing back to Welsh, whose cross glanced off Murray's head and out for a goal-kick.

After two minutes more, it was Dapo yet again, his cross finding Stuart Crilly on the far side.

Crilly's pass into the six-yard box found Murray, whose left boot poked the ball the wrong side of the near post.

If it had reached his right, it would surely have been 2-0 inside twenty minutes. Only 22 had elapsed, though, when Brooke doubled his and Linnets' tally. Dapo was much faster than Mooney in a head-on race to a through ball from halfway, and he slipped it across the six-yard area for the No9 to slide in and convert from close range. Eight minutes of concerted Runcorn pressure would prove to be the deciding factor in an otherwise very close game, fuelled by the speed on the ball of Olarewaju and Murray, and Ryan Brooke's irrepressible scoring habit. Newcastle had an early chance to half the deficit, when Joseph Berks broke free from a missed Jacques Welsh tackle, but overlapping cover by Spellman and O'Mahony halted his progress.

It was to be a frustrating night for Town in attack. They did plenty of it, but probably the most complete defensive performance of the season so far meant that while Joe Young frequently fielded crosses and long-range balls into the area, he had scarcely a shot to save. Half an hour had elapsed before the visitors forced their first corner kick, which was headed clear for a throw-in on the far side.

That came on the break, after a James Short cross, destined for a diving header by Brooke, was intercepted in the nick of time by the head of Town skipper James Askey. The Newcastle defence also succeeded more often than not in thwarting Runcorn attacks, although more from the timely intervention of individuals, rather than from the concerted, layered cover provided at the other end. The last ten minutes of the half saw fewer Runcorn threats on goal. Murray was winning the ball in the Newcastle third and involving Lynch and Crilly, but passes and crosses were blocked, and service to Dapo on the right was wisely interrupted.

Half a dozen Runcorn corners ensued in the closing minutes of the half, all intercepted, and the last caught high by Mooney. A solitary Town effort before half-time saw Declan Arber's shot fly wide of the right post. The first couple of minutes after the break showed real intent on the part of Newcastle to get back into the game, but yet again, well-drilled layers of defensive yellow and green frustrated them. On the break, Joe Lynch started to cause repeated problems for the visiting midfield. Twice within a minutem he made diagonal runs through the middle before passing wide to Olarewaju, who was successfully dispossessed both times by Fishman.

Crosses from Murray, Short and Crilly from both flanks were successfully headed away by Askey and Dennis, and the half took on the shape of a tight stalemate. That would always suit the hosts more, given their two-goal lead. Spells of passing possession by both sides struggled to prise open either defence.

Joe Lynch remained a thorn in Newcastle sides advancing from halfway, with Murray in attendance to pick up any and every loose ball in the middle of the pitch.

It was to the immense credit of the visitors that Iwan was fouled less than in any game we have seen him play.

I can't remember the last time any side ended a game against Runcorn without a yellow card against them.

We'll have words with Evan Gumbs and Peter Wylie for failing to emulate that feat. The latter joined the fray in place of Carl Spellman after 55 minutes. It came as no surprise that he continued to eliminate Newcastle's attacking efforts up the left and through the penalty area.

He immediately halted a swift attack by Tommy Van Der Laan, brother of teammate Jack - both of them sons of Town manager, and former Derby County pro, Robin Van Der Laan. With 25 minutes remaining, Calum McIntyre gave Runcorn goal machine Brooke a rest, introducing new loan signing from Chester FC, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. I feel an abbreviation coming on. A prolific goalscorer, Marsh-Hughes made his presence felt immediately. A strong physical presence with a light touch on the ball, he backed up and turned defenders outside the penalty area, looking for openings to shoot, and laying balls off to Lynch and Murray behind him. Mooney had to punch away a great Murray cross, after a swift one-two with Lynch.

Then a solo run by Marsh-Hughes from halfway, fed by a precise clearance from Joe Young, saw him sidestep two defenders before firing into the side netting on the left. The first Newcastle attack for a while saw a cross from the left headed out by O'Mahony, another from the right failing to find a man in blue on its way through the 18-yard box. The second half characterised an enterprising 0-0 draw between two teams cancelling each other out. Just as in the FA Trophy tie three days earlier, that presented no frustration for Runcorn Linnets thanks to the killer instinct displayed during the first period. A fortunate bounce inside the Runcorn half set Marsh-Hughes away again. Dennis managed to get goal-side of the Linnets sub just outside the penalty area, causing him to pause and sidestep before shooting straight at 'keeper Mooney.

A pass to the advancing Murray might have proved more profitable. With 13 minutes remaining, it was Murray's turn to break from the halfway line. He feinted past two defenders before passing wide right to Olarewaju.

Dapo's sprint to the goal line was surely blocked by Fishman for a corner, but the verdict was a goal-kick. A long diagonal ball from Town right-back Ryan Baxter was controlled skilfully by Ethan Vale, wrong-footing Peter Wylie.

The Linnets No16 collected his yellow card for tripping Baxter as he sprinted for the area.

The free-kick flew wide across the front of goal. A great shift by Dapo Olarewaju ended with the introduction of Rhain Hellawell for the last 10 minutes.

The first five of those were occupied by repeated Newcastle efforts to break down the Runcorn defence, but they continued to leave Young with little to do other than grab high balls intothe area.

Rarely had we seen a team allowed so few shots on goal from so many attacking endeavours.

Into the last five minutes, a Stuart Crilly advance up the left was ended by a fourth attempted tackle, then Hellawell's first chance to do similar on the right was halted by a third challenge, well timed by Vale. The game ended with Linnets on the attack, and a rapid sequence of corners.

One came from Baxter's block after a neat exchange between Short, Lynch and Crilly.

O'Mahony rose above the defence to head inches over the bar. The last came from Murray picking up Hellawell's pass into the middle, his shot deflected for a corner on the left that he hit hard into the six-yard box. Askey headed vertically into the dark, Marsh-Hughes then knocking it back for O'Mahony to shoot over the crowd in front of him, but also over the bar. That was that, and Linnets had 19 points from nine games, with a single draw the only blemish on their five-match home record. Without underestimating the goalscoring contribution of man on fire Ryan Brooke, the most impressive element of the Linnets performance on the night was the clean sheet.

The recent trend of goals being conceded either side of half-time seemed to have been successfully addressed, and the home contingent among another great midweek crowd of 535 (despite England being on TV) never had to fear that a two-goal lead might be relinquished. Despite fine attacking displays by Olarewaju, Brooke, Crilly, Lynch and Marsh-Hughes, man of the match was a collective affair.

The Runcorn defence was oustanding from first whistle to last. Newcastle must have felt like there were 20 of them. Zharir Mustafa, the man with the whistle, also earned a salute. I haven't mentioned him until now. That's the mark of a good referee.

Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Carl Spellman (Peter Wylie 55), James Short, Jacques Welsh, Evan Gumbs, Sean O'Mahony, Oladapo Olarewaju (Rhain Hellawell 80), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke (Thomas Lloyd Marsh-Hughes 64), Iwan Murray, Stuart Crilly. Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Craig Lindfield. Attendance: 535.

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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