18th December 2021, Widnes v Runcorn Linnets FC : 3-5
The Halton 'El Classitoll' derby has recently become a pre-Christmas tradition, but this one differed in many respects from the one that took place in Runcorn twelve months earlier.
That game saw the return of competitive football after seven weeks of Covid lockdown, a return that would last for only two festive fixtures before the season ground to a halt for good.
Only 284 people witnessed it, and those who stayed away were the lucky ones. It was a game destined to end 0-0, until a late Widnes free-kick curled in on the wind to take the points.
This time 522, the vocal majority of them Linnets fans, swerved the Christmas shopping to attend the DCBL Stadium. It was a Widnes club record.
They were richly rewarded, with an action-packed belter of game in which Linnets completed a double over their local rivals with a winning share of eight goals.
Widnes have a history of taking a physically robust approach to this fixture, and they set their stall out early with a crunching tackle on Iwan Murray wide on the right.
Widnes were eventually to learn that, on this occasion, conceding free-kicks for Iwan to take may not have been their most advisable tactic.
This first one was headed away before it could reach the dangerously-placed James Steele, until recently a Widnes player.
Dapo Olarewaju threatened through the middle after Ryan Brooke had shrugged off a full nelson on the halfway line and passed, but he was dispossessed outside the Widnes area.
In the eighth minute, Ryan Jennings sustained the day's first injury. He pulled up in pain while chasing a long ball that ran through to Joe Young. The Linnets 'keeper had returned from injury for the first time since his man- of-the-match performance in the win over Rylands, a month previously.
Linnets were enjoying the bulk of early possession, and put it to use by getting forward quickly.
Lewis Doyle passed wide to Rhain Hellawell on the right. He played it up the wing to Dapo, whose cross was deflected for a corner. That reached Sean O'Mahony, but pressure from Jordan Barrow forced his header wide.
A Widnes free-kick on the left touchline was repelled by Alex Downes, setting up Joe Lynch to pass into the penalty area to Brooke. His shot cannoned off a post, with 'keeper Owen Wheeler rooted to the spot.
After 13 minutes, a Murray 'Cruyff turn', just inside the goal line from the right, turned Stephen Rigby inside out, but his cross was headed out for a corner.
That was cleared, but then a booming shot from Murray was parried by Wheeler, who held on well to Steele's follow-up shot.
It looked like a matter of time before Runcorn would break the deadlock, but the many fans who had seen them bombard league leaders Marine for half an hour without scoring four days earlier, might have feared lightning striking twice.
The first Widnes attack from ground level came after 17 minutes, but Williams, McMillan and Jennings couldn't find a way through the barricade formed by Downes, O'Mahony and Hellawell. It ended with a free-kick for a very late follow-through tackle on O'Mahony.
A scrappy spell in the middle third preceded a solo forward run for the hosts by John McGrath. Downes tackled him and chased the loose ball, only to be tripped as McGrath tried to win a corner.
The early Runcorn pressure had subsided a little, and after 24 minutes it looked as though Linnets might suffer again after failing to convert a number of good chances.
Mike Burke's high ball into the area for McMillan was headed out for a corner. The ball remained in the area after five men on either side had taken a swing at it, and when it ran out to the 18-yard line, former Linnets centre-half Burke drilled it low through the crowd, and found the net.
Groans from Linnets fans were short lived, a rapid return to noisy encouragement being met by concerted efforts to get back on terms.
It took four minutes for Linnets to do so, and a sizeable chunk of that time was taken up by an 18-man episode of handbags in the centre circle. Both assistants came on to tell the referee what they had seen, suggesting severe punishment might ensue for someone. In the event, the outcome was a stern lecture for Jack Hatton and Joe Lynch.
Proper hostilities resumed with a Murray free-kick high into the Widnes area. It popped up into the air from a defensive head, and Dapo was on hand to head in from close range.
Linnets regrouped to take the game to the hosts as they had at 0-0, with Widnes efforts concentrated on long balls forward towards McMillan, Jennings or McGrath.
The latter appealed vainly for a penalty as Downes took the ball from him, and Linnets attacked again. Dapo was tackled to produce a corner, which was cleared.
Identical tackles by either side followed near the halfway line. Hajdari's for Widnes was deemed fair, Doyle's for Linnets a foul. The free-kick found Burke, whose effort was held by Joe Young.
Steele jumped into Hatton after the ball had gone, and a melée in the Runcorn area from another long free-kick was blasted clear by Downes.
Hellawell and Olarewaju swapped passes up the right, Rhain breaking into the area, but he was outnumbered and the ball was shepherded out.
Activity on the ground gave way to a spell of tit-for-tat headers in the middle third, but the next adventure across the artificial turf proved critical.
Iwan Murray got to within a yard of the Widnes area before he was chopped down. The referee delivered the next in an escalating series of lectures, but the absence of yellow cards wasn't encouraging anyone to take much notice.
The range was probably too short for Iwan to work his Beckhamesque magic. Or not. Wheeler was still rooted to his line when the ball flew into the top-left corner.
Widnes still weren't keen to learn that fouls on Murray were not a recipe for ultimate success, and Hajdari acquired the belated first yellow card of the day for a bodycheck on the Runcorn 10, with a foot up.
The free-kick found James Steele in the area, but he was offside. Ryan Brooke went down injured, but recovered after attention.
In the last minute of the half, Widnes managed two attacks up the left flank.
Barrow was tripped when chasing a lost cause, the free-kick drawing shouts for handball as O'Mahony and Downes combined to clear. Then Downes halted McMillan's advance up the wing with a clean intervention into the stand.
Linnets were well worth their 2-1 half-time lead, but it was one of those games where you sensed anything could happen. That was in direct contrast with the clash twelve months earlier, when we sensed very little would.
Runcorn started the second half on the front foot, but mainly with longer balls over the defence. The DCBL surface is vastly superior to its predecessor, but where the ball used to die on landing, it now skips off the pitch, and balls forward outpaced Brooke, Olarewaju and Steele, to reach Wheeler with ease.
Widnes fouls in the middle third were coming thicker and faster, and McMillan's upending of Steele brought the latest of many free-kicks that were greeted with furious protests. The referee remained tolerant towards dissent.
They had no need to object when a shove in the back that ended Ryan Brooke's sprint up the right went unpunished.
Runcorn pressure continued. A Hellawell ball from the right was parried by Wheeler, who then caught it before Brooke or O'Mahony could pounce.
Dapo's cross from the right was repelled to 30 yards out, from where a Joe Lynch boomer cleared the bar.
McGrath got away up the left after Rigby collected the loose ball from a Dapo/Rhain mix-up, but Hellawell recovered well to win it back.
Both sides rang the changes in quick succession with Brown and Dean replacing Hellawell and Williams, respectively.
A half-chance for Widnes came from Rigby's long throw, Young tidying up after some pinball in the area.
Iwan Murray reprised his first-half Cruyff turn manoeuvre, this time from the left, and curled a goalbound shot over Wheeler, only for McCulloch to head off the line.
Just past the hour mark, Widnes achieved a rare forward assault on the ground, and with echoes of Burke's opener, Jennings shot low from just outside the area, through a crowd, to beat the unsighted Young.
Widnes had scored twice, from two half-chances. Once more the Runcorn faithful had to fear that domination might not bring three points.
But the hosts' second goal, as had their first, prompted serious intent from Dapo Olarewaju. Brooke had to beat Rigby three times wide on the right, before passing to Dapo.
He was clearly nudged over as he entered the area, but his fall was perhaps a touch too willing. The referee declined to award a penalty, and McCulloch screamed in Dapo's face that he had cheated. Linnets fans with a memory were bound to recall a saying about stones and glass houses.
The tables were turned when McMillan swallow-dived in the Linnets area to claim a penalty, but was ruled to have fouled Peter Wylie.
A long Widnes free-kick into the area resulted in a collision with O'Mahony that left Hatton on the ground for lengthy attention.
He left the field for his blood stained shirt to be replaced, and was still on the touchline waiting to return when Linnets regained the lead.
Dapo delivered the ball into a crowded area, where Brooke couldn't manage a clean contact, but it rebounded to O'Mahony, who fired home from eight yards.
As Linnets celebrated the lead in front of delirious away support, Barrow was yellow carded for his contribution to loud protests at the referee not allowing Hatton back on to the pitch.
Runcorn decided attack was the best way to prevent Widnes getting back on terms.
Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, who had replaced James Steele before the goal, was forced off the ball, a corner conceded. It was caught in the air by Wheeler.
Brooke jumped to head on Young's clearance, but he was flattened by Burke. No card resulted.
Downes headed the free-kick back across the area, but failed to find a teammate.
With 12 minutes remaining, Burke by-passed an overdue yellow to receive a straight red. Marsh-Hughes headed a clearance forwards, and was kicked in the face.
It was debatable whether Burke knew Lloyd's head was in range, and unclear whether the card was for the danger of the challenge, or because he was the 'last man', albeit 40 yards from goal.
Either way, Widnes would have to scrap for a point for 15 minutes with ten men.
Linnets would struggle to see out the win through calm possession, as Widnes chased every ball like demons. Nothing unusual there in 'El Classitoll'.
Ally Brown's throw on the right reached Ryan Brooke, who nutmegged Rigby to find Dapo. He beat two men to cut in from the corner flag before being fouled.
Murray's free-kick was more or less a corner. It was headed back by Downes and then Marsh-Hughes to the penalty arc, where Brooke was fouled.
Iwan had no more use for the top left corner, so he dispatched this one top right. Wheeler got a hand to it, but had no chance of keeping it out.
4-2 was surely game over against ten men, but Widnes were not ready to down tools.
Olarewaju was dropped yet again by Hatton insude his own half, and was given a breather for the last five minutes, subbed by Stuart Crilly.
Long balls prevailed again, most squirting off the pitch to safety, but hope reigned for the home side when Rigby's corner hit the foot of the near post, and was nudged out for another.
Into added time, a low shot through a crowded penalty area again proved the best bet for Widnes.
Kyle Sambor, who had replaced Jennings 15 minutes earlier, became the third Widnes man to find the net by those means. Linnets had bossed the fixture, but at 4-3, it wasn't over.
With three added minutes remaining, Runcorn pessimists feared the worst, but Marsh-Hughes and Murray had other ideas.
They felt that attack was the best form of defence, and were proved correct.
Marsh-Hughes battled McCulloch for Young's clearance into the Widnes half, and won. He ran on to reach the loose ball just before the advancing Wheeler, and tapped a pass to his right into the path of the unmarked Iwan Murray.
Iwan (and Joe Lynch) had taken barracking from Widnes fans all afternoon over their modest stature. As Iwan stroked home his hat-trick, one had to hope they would have felt happier about it if he was 6'2".
The full-time whistle saw a rapturous exchange of applause between the Linnets players and staff, and their fans.
It was a Christmas present of a game for those who go to football to be entertained.
It would be nine sleeps until the promise of more, when Prescot Cables come to the APEC Taxis Stadium on Bank Holiday Monday, December 27th, with high hopes, after a 7-0 victory over Market Drayton.
Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Rhain Hellawell (Ally Brown 54), Peter Wylie, Lewis Doyle, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Dapo Olarewaju (Stuart Crilly 85), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, James Steele (Lloyd Marsh-Hughes 65). Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Eden Gumbs.
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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