The Northern Premier League

23rd October 2021, Workington v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-4

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets set out to discover how well their rich vein of form would travel, on the longest away day of the league season at Workington.

It would also be a genuine measure of their Pitching In Northern Premier League prospects, with their hosts topping the table and, like their visitors, yet to lose a home game.

Roadworks all the way and a farcical sat nav diversion meant that I entered Borough Park 22 minutes after kick-off, just in time to hear the Workington fans celebrate taking a 2-1 lead.

I was grateful to Jack and Josh for their Linnets Live radio commentary filling in the first 20 minutes for me, and if their narrative was accurate, it sounded like a masterclass in how not to defend set pieces.

Linnets were ahead inside three minutes, with the Reds unprepared for an Iwan Murray free-kick that enabled Ryan Brooke to further enhance his bid to top the West Division goalscoring table.

But onlytwo minutes later, Runcorn 'keeper Joe Young was unhappy with his defence when Dan Wordsworth scored too easily at the near post from a corner.

When I finally made it into the ground 17 minutes later, I was reliably informed that Brad Carroll had been allowed similar ease in putting the league leaders ahead, another poorly-defended corner this time converted at the far post.

The Linnets Live boys had observed that those early minutes had been generally scrappy and disjointed, with neither side putting together much in the way of fluid football.

Both of these teams can clearly play, and my belated first-hand observations witnessed a confident- looking Workington side having more of the ball.

They were stringing together passes to move forward as a team, keen to capitalise on having turned things around in the first quarter of the game.

It appeared that success for Linnets was most likely to come on the break. It was an interesting perspective to start watching a team from the moment they had gone behind, less than 20 minutes after they had taken a surprise lead.

One might expect a loss of shape and composure, especially against such an obviously strong side on their home patch, but the Runcorn response looked solid.

Joe Lynch, Brooke and Lloyd Marsh-Hughes all augmented the Linnets defence in allowing the Reds little space and time to advance into the away half, and Iwan Murray and Stuart Crilly left the home team under no illusionsthat they would have to be ready to respond in kind, and quickly, whenever they lost possession.

Both of them were a real threat on the break, and as so often before this season, the opposition quickly realised that the only reliable way to prevent Iwan causing them problems was to foul him.

In the 25th minute, a Crilly cross from the left was missed by inches by Brooke, when contact would surely have levelled the scores.

In the other direction, Connor Gaul and Brad Carroll were instrumental in most Workington attacks, one leading to a cross that flew just too high for Reuben Jerome to connect, Marsh-Hughes tracking back again to clear.

Two strong defences made progress on the ground hard work, but a more aerial approach was harder still, as a swirling wind took unpredictable hold of any ball launched high.

It almost worked to Jerome's advantage when Evan Gumbs was wrong footed by a swerving ball over the top, but Sean O'Mahony tidied up before the Reds No.9 could reach it.

With ten minutes of the half remaining, the wind worked in Runcorn's favour when it kept Sam Smith's attempted clearance in play. Crilly picked up the ball on the right touchline and made it swiftly to the goal line, but his shot from a tight angle found the side netting.

Workington held possession again, patiently working for an opening, but then Murray pounced on a loose ball on the halfway line and played a peach of a through ball ahead of Marsh-Hughes' charge into the penalty area.

He shrugged off the challenge of Wordsworth and slotted the ball past advancing 'keeper Jim Atkinson into the bottom left corner. It was his first goal in a Runcorn shirt, in his second start.

Workington quickly set about restoring their lead in the five minutes before half-time, a great tackle by Sean O'Mahony preventing an immediate response, and then he cleared off the line from Conor Tinnion's header.

Murray progressed up the left before a timely Wordsworth intervention set up a Carroll-Tinnion attack, Peter Wylie bringing that one to a halt.

In an end-to-end conclusion to a busy half, Reds' centre-half Smith was the last defender to frustrate attacking enterprise, blocking a Welsh cross after Brooke had supplied him on the right.

The second half started as the first had, with Workington having the lion's share of possession, andtaking their time to negotiate their way through a defence that they had learned wouldn't make it easy for them.

The hosts were vocal in their appeals for a penalty when Carroll went down, apparently tripped, but the referee was possibly influenced to say no by the man in red's desperate efforts to make it over the 18-yard line before seeking contact.

Runcorn attacking efforts continued to come mostly on the break, after defensive patience had borne fruit, but Linnets possession gradually increased in duration.

Crilly and Lynch in particular gained ground with the ball while Murray, Brooke and Marsh-Hughes sought space in which to cause trouble.

There was a marked difference in Workington's demeanour when they were in or out of possession.

With the ball, they showed the kind of controlled confidence you would expect of a highly-fancied, top- of-the-table side.

Without it, they appeared somewhat rattled by the increasing threat from the men in yellow and green.

With more Runcorn players involved in each passing move, Workington relied on interceptions rather than challenges for the ball, and when they did get close enough to tackle, more and more fouls resulted.

There was little surprise that this was particularly the case when Iwan Murray was on the ball.

Three half chances in quick succession for Linnets saw a Crilly cross not quite reach Brooke in the area, a 30-yard free-kick blocked by Smith's diving header, and (after a triangle of passes in the middle of the Workington half), a Murray shot from similar distance skid past the left post, when the 'keeper had it covered.

Linnets made the game's first substitution after 59 minutes, Louis Hayes replacing Joe Lynch, and the sub was in defensive duty quickly.

A Workington corner from the right was headed down at the far post, but Evan Gumbs was well placed to clear.

A minute later, Connor Gaul tried to use the wind to his advantage, attempting to lob the 'keeper from more than 30 yards.

It swerved on the way, but Joe Young palmed it down safely then pounced on it.

Ryan Brooke was the next recipient of a yellow card for a heavy challenge on Wordsworth, those roles being reversed a minute later at the other end of the pitch.

The resulting free-kick was effectively a corner, from which Sean O'Mahony out-jumped the crowd in the area but headed over the bar.

With 25 minutes remaining both sides made a change, Workington's Scott Allison on for Reuben Jerome, and scorer Marsh-Hughes replaced by Rhain Hellawell.

Most of the game's chances were now coming from free-kicks, as the foul (and card) count mounted.

A Murray dead ball from deep found the head of Evan Gumbs just inside the penalty area, but his looping header climbed on the wind and cleared the bar.

A similar Workington effort from wide on the right into a crowded area was well punched away, under pressure, by Young.

Hellawell caused concerns for the opposition from his introduction.

His pace tested their tiredness up the left, when cutting inside to take on the central defence with Murray poised to collect any resulting loose balls.

In the 75th minute, the name Hellawell joined the list in the referee's notebook, under baffling circumstances. He turned to chase a through ball 25 yards out and crashed head first into Tinnion, the clash of heads leaving the Workington man prone for some time.

It looked for all the world like a pure accident, but if Rhain did it on purpose, it was decidedly dangerous for both parties. So surely it called for either a red card or nothing?

Tinnion himself received the next yellow for a cynical trip to prevent Murray from shooting from outside the area.

The cards were coming thick and fast, and it seemed a red one would be likely before the end.

Another problem for a tiring Workington rearguard came with the introduction of Dapo Olarewaju's pace for the last 13 minutes, Stuart Crilly giving way to him.

As usual when Dapo comes off the bench, he threatened immediately.

Evan Gumbs intercepted an Atkinson clearance on the halfway line and found Dapo in the penalty area.

Kieran Charlton blocked his shot and conceded a corner, which curled beyond Gumbs at the far post.

Two minutes later, Hellawell faced down three defenders to reach the 18-yard box and pass right for Olarewaju, who sidestepped his marker to hammer a low shot past Atkinson into the centre of the net.

The league leaders had ten minutes to preserve that ranking, but Linnets were roared on by the select but noisy band of travelling fans behind the Workington goal, inspiring them to maintain control all the way to the final whistle.

There would be no 'bus parking' to preserve the lead.

Rhain Hellawell's new favourite sport was keeping the ball inside the left corner flag.

Three times over, it took three defenders many precious seconds to relieve him of the ball. When they did, Brooke, Short and Hayes were on hand to win it back.

Workington did have a chance to bite back when Jacques Welsh slipped in the centre circle, allowing Tinnion to advance towards Young's goal, but only as far as a perfectly-timed Wylie tackle.

A similar defensive slip the other way allowed a through ball to Hellawell, who proved that from the Workington point of view, the corner quadrant was the best place for him.

He shook off two defenders to reach the six-yard box, where Atkinson blocked his point-blank shot but was unable to scramble back and prevent the Runcorn sub's second stab from crossing the line.

A Workington comeback from 4-2 down might have required two corners with similarly sluggish defending to that which had allowed them a 22nd- minute lead, but that was unlikely.

Their only remaining chance came from a free-kick from wide right of the penalty area, Evan Gumbs adding to the yellow card tally for whacking the ball out of the ground to delay its execution.

It was taken towards the far post, from where O'Mahony headed clear, and the three points were on their traffic-cone- littered way back to Cheshire.

The closing stages of games were becoming a highly-profitable hunting ground for the Linnets.

A superb victory secured in the last ten minutes of this one had the travelling fans raising a complimentary glass to the victors, courtesy of Calum McIntyre and his assistant Colin Woodthorpe.

It was a generous gesture that highlighted the togetherness of all in yellow and green, on and off the pitch.

That was highlighted once again by the remarkable number of players, who travelled despite not being in the matchday squad.

I don't know how prone to superstition the Workington camp might be, but a gate of 666 a week before Hallowe'en might have left them wondering.

Suffice to say, the club's officials, staff and fans were extremely gracious hosts in the face of an obviously disappointing defeat.

On Tuesday night, Linnets have the chance to knock the league leaders off their perch for the second time in four days, with the visit of the new incumbents Mossley to APEC Taxis Stadium.

Another win might put Runcorn on top of the NPL West pile for the first time.

Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Jacques Welsh, James Short, Peter Wylie, Evan Gumbs, Sean O'Mahony, Stuart Crilly (Dapo Olarewaju 77), Joe Lynch (Louis Hayes 59), Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes (Rhain Hellawell 65). Subs not used: Craig Lindfield, Ally Brown.

Attendance: 666.

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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