14th December 2021, Marine v Runcorn Linnets FC : 3-1
The rearranged short trip to Crosby, to attempt to halt Marine's 100% home record, was expected to provide reliable clues to Linnets expectations for the season.
In practice, it yielded more questions than answers. A superb first half Runcorn performance left the league leaders wondering how on earth they were still on level terms at the break.
Then, in a seven-minute spell in the middle of the second half, Marine scored three times unhindered, and Linnets' evening collapsed like a house of cards.
Linnets came out of the traps fast, and in seconds Lloyd Marsh-Hughes was away to meet a Joe Lynch through ball beyond the left post, but it outran him.
Marine picked up possession and tried to take control going forward, but faced stiff opposition from the Runcorn defence.
The first ten minutes followed a pattern of Marine pressing, with Cummings, Newell and Kengni probing for openings, but finding none, and Linnets attacking on the break.
James Steele was a repetitive threat on the left. He came close in the sixth minute, shooting past the advancing Bayleigh Passant, but the former Linnets 'keeper had closed the angle enough, and it went wide.
Two minutes later, a Steele-Lynch 1-2-3 ended with Steele apparently fouled by Kyle Hayde, but the referee thought not.
Expected domination of possession by the league leaders failed to materialise, as Linnets saw more and more of the ball.
Steele turned Hayde inside-out again on 13 minutes, and crossed for Ryan Brooke. It was cleared by Danny Shaw, who also blocked Joe Lynch's 22-yard follow-up shot.
The first corner of the game was Runcorn's, in the 15th minute. Murray's kick from the right found Alex Downes unmarked for a diving header at the far post. It flew straight at Passant, but he needed quick reflexes to stop it.
Marine's first corner was from the left two minutes later, as Peter Wylie blocked a cross. The kick curled behind the goal.
The pattern changed quickly, and Linnets would spend the rest of the half forging chances that faced a double challenge: robust and often panicky tackles, with ten home players behind the ball, and a string of typically-impressive saves by Passant.
He grew increasingly and vocally frustrated with his teammates, at how much work he was having to do.
Runcorn pressure continued, Passant getting a fist to a cross from the right just before Brooke could head it, and Steele's follow-up shot being blocked by Higham's head for a corner. That was intercepted short of the near post.
Steele won a loose ball 30 yards from goal and was fouled with Iwan Murray's free-kick leading to a Downes header, which hit a post. Brooke was on hand to follow up, but the ball incredibly found its way the wrong side of the upright.
A rare response from Marine ended with Owen Watkinson going to ground and demanding a penalty, but Mr McQuillan agreed with fans on both sides that Downes' tackle had been as clean as the whistle that didn't follow.
Steele, with the support of Lynch, continued to terrorise Marine on the left. His cross was flicked away by a defensive head, then Rhain Hellawell's ball back into the area was blocked by Shaw.
I was not the only visitor behind the open-end goal wanting to see more Linnets work on the flanks, which had also been unusually under-exploited in Saturday's disappointing draw with Glossop North End.
Most of the barrage of attacks were based on airborne balls through the middle, but prospects were limited against a defence with a marked height advantage.
Iwan Murray's involvement was thus limited mostly to taking corners and free-kicks, and the frequency of the latter was restricted by the referee's tolerance for a great many industrial Marine tackles.
It was six minutes before the break when Lynch was scythed down by Alex Doyle, with a foul markedly worse than the one that earned him a yellow card two minutes later. That could easily have been Doyle's third caution.
His fervour had followed a major let-off from a duel between Steele and Passant, the Runcorn man clear of his marker yet again to curl a shot around the 'keeper. It cleared the far post by an inch, when it had looked sure to creep inside it.
Marine got to the break level, having spent half an hour looking more like a side desperate for a point on the final day of the season to avoid relegation than title favourites. Many Marine fans voiced similar views.
After the game, Marine boss Neil Young acknowledged that his side could have been at least two down at half time.
Any change of approach for the visitors would surely exploit their forté: attacking fast and wide.
Their greatest threat had come from James Steele doing just that. But high balls from the middle might have borne fruit if Brooke, Downes, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes and Sean O'Mahony hadn't all been pinned to the ground by their arms and shirts in the area, without raising any disapproval from Mr McQuillan.
Marine took so long to emerge for the second half that the waiting Linnets embarked on a lengthy pre-match warm up routine in the centre circle.
It was unclear whether this was a psychological gambit on Marine's part, or whether the table toppers were just in no hurry to return for more of the same. It was bizarre that they weren't at least a couple of goals behind.
Solomon-Davies substituted Watkinson, whose primary contribution to the first half had been going down in the Runcorn area demanding penalties.
The first chances of the half fell to Marine, who had clearly been briefed by Neil Young on a Plan B for the second period.
Kengni found Newell at the left post, but his close range shot cleared the bar.
At the other end, a Steele header also looped over, after O'Mahony had overhead kicked a clearance from a free-kick back into the penalty area.
Only eight minutes into the half, Marine subbed again, with Barrigan on for Doyle.
A period of stalemate followed in the middle third of the pitch, with the ball perpetually in the air. I counted a sequence of 16 headers, interrupted by only three contacts from a boot.
I wasn't alone in thinking that any Runcorn success would come from the ball moving up either wing, on the floor.
Prospects for that eventuality improved with the appearance of speedy wing man Dapo Olarewaju, replacing Lloyd-Marsh-Hughes, after 61 minutes.
Sadly for the Linnets sub, any such contribution would be an uphill battle, as less than ten minutes later, Marine were 3-0 ahead.
It's best described as quickly as it happened.
In the 63rd minute, a Brannigan free-kick from an innocuous wide position 40 yards out, flew over and through a static Linnets defence, the ball unmolested on its way inside the far post.
Accidents happen. They happen more frequently from carelessness. Three minutes later, a frankly speculative cross by Higham from deep on the right was knocked across the six-yard box by Cummings, and tapped in with ease by Newell at the far post. No man
in orange was near any of them.
Four minutes later, Linnets fans were still lamenting the cost of untaken first-half chances, when Barrigan had a Groundhog Day moment. An almost identical free-kick to the one that opened the scoring reached Cummings unmarked at the right-hand post. He will never score an easier goal.
The Linnets defence had inexplicably downed tools for seven minutes, and that has to be a recipe for disaster, even against teams far inferior to Crosby's finest.
Runcorn defending resumed, but Marine's tails were up, and Cummins and Wignall (on for Newell) both had solid chances that missed the target.
One thing off-field Linnets can rely on is that their team never gives up, and the visitors endeavoured to reduce the deficit.
The first wide Runcorn attack of the half came 12 minutes from time. Two Rhain Hellawell throw-ins from the left resulted in a Steele cross that required a two-fisted punch by Passant to prevent a Brooke header.
Dermot Mee cleared up a Marine breakaway after Lewis Doyle (on for Louis Hayes), had slipped on the halfway line. Mee returned the ball upfield.
A Dapo cross from the right reached Steele on the other flank. He pulled back for Lynch to shoot, but Passant fielded it with ease.
It was clear that it was never going to be Linnets' night, when two strange decisions for the price of one blighted their efforts to salvage some respect.
Another Hellawell long throw found Steele in the left side of the penalty area. He pulled the ball back from the goal line, and O'Mahony was face-planted into the ground by a two-handed shove in the back by David Lynch.
Mr McQuillan not only failed to interpret that as a foul, but also endorsed his assistant's flag for offside.
Steele had received the ball from a throw-in, and every Runcorn player was behind his backward pass.
My report has been filed far later than usual, because I have spent two days re-reading the offside law. I'm still none the wiser.
A good Hellawell run inside from the left earned a corner on the right. Brooke's header was deflected wide for another corner.
That was cleared, but picked up by Murray, whose long shot was repelled to the edge of the area. Ryan Brooke met it with a volley that Passant's reflexes couldn't match. It was 3-1, and it was over.
An eighth Marine win from eight home games would surprise few who didn't witness this one.
The fact that it resulted entirely from a seven-minute period in which Linnets failed to defend, having dominated the first half without reward, was far less predictable.
On to the last game before Christmas. Take your seats for El Classitoll, on Saturday 18th December. Let's raise the roof in Widnes.
Runcorn Linnets: Dermot Mee, Peter Wylie, James Steele, Louis Hayes (Lewis Doyle 71), Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Rhain Hellawell, Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes (Dapo Olarewaju 61). Subs not used: Stuart Crilly, Ally Brown, Joe Young.
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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