15th January 2022, City of Liverpool FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-0
Linnets versus City of Liverpool is a fixture with a short but loaded history. Since former Runcorn manager Michael Ellison took over at CoLFC, a procession of players have swapped yellow and green for purple.
Due to injuries and absences, a mere three ex-Linnets lined up as starters for this one in Pitching In Northern Premier League West: defenders Zac Aley and Jack Hinnigan plus latest addition MJ Monaghan, making his debut in attack.
A 3-3 draw in Runcorn in September had been an entertaining game with a fair result. The outcome of this one, the first since the Purps moved to Vauxhall Motors' stadium in Ellesmere Port, provided a similar level of justice. It wasn't one-sided, but there really only ever looked like one justified winner.
Due to Covid and the weather, CoLFC hadn't played since mid-December, while Linnets had enjoyed a fine run of form and results.
But the home side looked rested rather than rusty, while the visitors never really threatened to get on top.
The opening five minutes were taken up with defence-first long balls both ways, although Linnets managed the first attempt on goal.
Dapo Olarewaju pulled back inside the right touchline for Peter Wylie to cross. Ryan Brooke aimed to add to his four-goal haul against Kendal seven days earlier, but he headed wide.
City of Liverpool began to build possession on the ground, with right-back Jack Walls becoming a threat that would ultimately make him man of the match.
Jack Hazlehurst had the Purps' first attempt on goal, firing wide after a long free-kick into the area had been headed away.
It wasn't long before Linnets fans were bemoaning the absence of Iwan Murray from the Runcorn engine room. Not well enough to train through the week, Iwan was something of a token presence on the bench.
His skills in winning the ball in the opposition half and sparking attacks were quickly highlighted by their absence. Irony was added by the fact that Hazlehurst, resembling Linnets' tricky Welshman in stature, was doing a very similar job for the home team. He would do so for 80 minutes until he was subbed by Lewis McKinney, the fourth ex-Linnet to make it on to the field during the afternoon.
Linnets were getting forward, notably through Dapo up the right, but Purps defending was leaving little or no room for anyone in the middle to profit from his crosses, or from deeper through balls from Wylie.
Hinnigan deflected a Dapo cross for a corner, from which Joe Lynch found Alex Downes at the far post. His downward header was booted clear.
Kain Dean centred from the left for Ryan Brooke to chase into the area, but he just failed to nick it away from advancing 'keeper Oliver Martin.
Dapo broke into area with two defenders on him, and his penalty appeal was waved away after he went to ground perhaps too soon.
On 13 minutes, Wylie won a tackle with Hazlehurst, but the Purps No10 regained the loose ball, and aimed a diagonal ball through the Runcorn area that Monaghan couldn't quite reach.
Another Hazlehurst ball found the head of Josh Quarless, and a follow-up shot rebounded off Sean O'Mahony's back for a corner.
Linnets fans were pleased to see Lloyd Marsh-Hughes still in yellow and green, his loan from Chester having been extended, and he was patrolling the home third with menace when his side were in possession. But tight and determined defending was placing severe limits on those occasions.
Hinnigan responded to Lloyd's threat with a late challenge that earned a yellow card. The 30-yard free-kick was headed away by the towering figure of Quarless.
Dean, O'Mahony and Olarewaju all got the ball into the CoLFC area in quick succession, but, again, the defensive response was rapid and effective.
A scrappy episode ensued at the other end, with Hazlehurst and Monaghan among attempts to threaten Jak Stewart's goal, and Downes and O'Mahony combining to clear.
Purps were allowed a protracted spell of uninterrupted possession, following a Martin clearance, until Ryan Schofield launched a long ball up the left to Zac Aley.
Runcorn Old Boy misery loomed for Linnets, as his cross found its way, via the head of Quarless, to Monaghan in far too much space.
From ten yards out he shot across the diving Stewart and into the bottom left corner. It had taken 22 minutes of his debut for MJ to open his City of Liverpool account.
It was also the first goal Jak Stewart had conceded as Linnets 'keeper, a quarter of the way through his third game.
Purple possession increased, with the confidence boost provided by the goal. Linnets were chasing the game, but were still given no time or space on the ball when they had it.
Fifty-fifty challenges and loose balls mostly resulted in home advantage.
Louis Hayes was yellow carded for a foul on the halfway line, and then Joe Lynch's free-kick from the left, after he had been fouled collecting a Dean pass, flew straight to Martin.
Free-kicks kept coming at both ends. A Wylie tackle outside the corner of his own area looked fair, but was penalised. From a dangerous 25 yards, it cannoned off the Linnets wall, and a follow-up shot sailed over the bar.
Seven minutes before the break, Linnets had their first corner of the game. Lynch's in-swinger from the left was punched away by Martin.
That set a pattern for later in the game, when stubborn defence was to concede a catalogue of Runcorn corner kicks, most of which were flighted too close to goal. They were thus punched away with confidence by Martin, before Brooke, O'Mahony or Downes could deploy their heads.
The last five minutes of the half saw the first sustained spell of Runcorn attacking pressure.
A foul on Brooke right on the edge of the area left insufficient distance for Lynch to get the ball up and down below the bar.
Dapo reached the area with a diagonal run in from halfway, but the ball skipped a yard away and was cleared by Schofield.
Lynch's mazy run from in front of the dugouts beat four men, as far as the penalty arc, until a successful CoLFC intervention before he could set up Marsh-Hughes to shoot.
A long the through ball just cleared the head of Ryan Brooke, but also those of Hinnigan and Rule in close attendance.
At half-time, you had to feel City of Liverpool were well worth their lead. They weren't dominating, or mounting many more attacks, but they were placing severe limits on Linnets' ability to make meaningful attempts on target.
James Steele replaced Louis Hayes for the second half, in the hope of prising open the purple rearguard more often.
But it was the home side who went on the offensive from the restart. Three of them jockeyed for a shot around a crowded area, following a free-kick from the right. Hazlehurst's effort cleared the angle of post and bar.
Two minutes later, he was a threat again. He collected a one-two into the area and cut inside along the goal line, Alex Downes bringing him down for a nailed on penalty.
Stewart dived the right way, but couldn't prevent Hazlehurst from finding the bottom corner.
The last 40 minutes of the game would have to take on a very different complexion, if Linnets were going to overturn the 2-0 deficit.
There was no lack of application, and James Steele did provide an additional threat, as would Stuart Crilly for the final quarter of an hour.
But the defensive application of the Purps, right through the team, continued to bely a side that hadn't played for a month.
It wasn't a case of 'parking the bus', as they got forward at least as often as their visitors did, but they marked, closed down, challenged quickly, and denied their opponents any room for manoeuvre.
Dapo repeatedly cut in from the right, and Steele and Dean from the left, but cross after cross was cut out to concede corners. Those corners in turn were blocked, headed or punched away.
Loose balls in the area that did result were scooped up by Martin before Brooke or Marsh-Hughes could get away from their markers to reach them.
My notes recorded nine Runcorn corners, plus five saved or cleared crosses, in less than 20 minutes. None produced a serious scoring opportunity.
Runcorn were now having more possession, but CoLFC were preventing much serious threat resulting from it.
They had the opportunity to put the game to bed with a 25-yard free-kick, following a long game of head tennis in and out of the Linnets area.
It was wasted, flying way high and wide.
MJ Monaghan's debut ended 20 minutes from time, as he and skipper Glenn Rule gave way to James Murphy and Harry Scarborough.
Soon afterwards Stuart Crilly replaced Dapo to take up the threat from Linnets' right flank.
A productive afternoon for Jack Walls, both in defence and attacking up the right, was almost topped off with a goal.
He overlapped with Murphy, took a pass from Hazlehurst, and shot left-footed through the area, afforded far more space than anyone had enjoyed at the other end all afternoon.
The effort rebounded off the left post and out of the area, from where McKinney's shot cleared the bar.
Walls was back in defence straight afterwards, cutting out a Doyle-Dean combination wide on the left.
Jack Hazlehurst received lengthy attention after coming off worse in a 50-50 challenge with Joe Lynch, and then departed in favour of McKinney, who had spent time with Linnets on loan from Oldham Athletic under Ello's management.
Linnets kept battling to get the ball into dangerous areas. Crilly headed down Steele's cross, but it trickled into Martin's gloves, and Steele and Brooke fought for the ball just inside the area, but they were surrounded by purple yet again.
Marsh-Hughes' head flicked on a Dean cross, but there were only Purps behind him.
There was little attacking threat from City of Liverpool in the closing minutes, but they had no need to take risks.
James Steele had probably the best Runcorn chance of the game with two minutes to go. His shot from the edge of the area was on target when it deflected off Walls' outstretched leg. It was still goalbound when Martin managed to drop and smother it.
Time was almost up when Ryan Brooke achieved open space in the area for the first time in the game. Dean's cross was headed on by Marsh-Hughes, and Brooke headed cleanly, but just wide.
It was one of those days when it just wasn't meant to be, topped off by a yellow card for Kain Dean for a late tackle on the touchline.
Runcorn boss Calum McIntyre observed that it wasn't a bad performance, and it wasn't. The dearth of chances resulting from all the effort and application, said far less about Linnets than it did about City of Liverpool.
They were thoroughly deserving of their first ever victory over Linnets, at the seventh attempt. And they looked like a side that should be much higher than 10th in the league table.
The cliché 'you can't win them all' seemed appropriate, but Linnets fans had been encouraged lately to believe that you can.
They might be well advised to take a leaf out of the 19-year-old Boris Becker's book, when he was knocked out of the Wimbledon singles in the first round by unknown Peter Doohan, after winning the title at his first two attempts.
"Nobody died," he said. "I lost a tennis match. I'll win the next one"
The next one is away at Ramsbottom United, Saturday 22nd January.
Runcorn Linnets: Jak Stewart, Peter Wylie, Kain Dean, Lewis Doyle, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch, Louis Hayes (James Steele 45), Ryan Brooke, Dapo Olarewaju (Stuart Crilly 75), Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Iwan Murray, Jacques Welsh, Ally Brown.
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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