The Northern Premier League

22nd January 2022, Ramsbottom United v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-3

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets came to Ramsbottom United's Riverside Stadium for the first time since a 1-1 draw in the pre-covid days of November 2019.

The last meeting between the teams saw a rousing 4-0 Linnets home victory in Runcorn back in October, and they went into today's game determined to bounce back from only a third league defeat since then, having succumbed to an impressive City of Liverpool display seven days earlier.

It was to be a dominant Linnets performance, far more so than in that 4-0 win at the APEC, so the final scoreline of 3-1 in their favour might look like a reasonable reflection of the game.

But in the event, the three points remained implausibly in dispute until four minutes from the end.

In their last game, Linnets had failed to take control of the fixture, and a forceful start this time suggested they were not prepared to see that repeated.

Early pressure took three minutes to produce a solid chance, when Ryan Brooke won a prolonged battle with Michael Fitzgerald, who then fouled him. The free-kick was played short, and cleared.

Up the Ramsbottom right, John Murphy wrongfooted Kain Dean and delivered a cross. It was cleared by Alex Downes, but Rother, Kennedy and Grimshaw combined to keep up the pressure. Downes cleared again.

Lloyd Marsh-Hughes won a corner on the right, after picking up a great through ball from James Steele, and when the kick was headed on, Downes was poised to volley from close range until Owen Collinge got a vital touch on the way.

In the eighth minute, Steele and Marsh-Hughes combined well again on the right, and Stuart Crilly's pass into the middle of the Rams area was missed by Kennedy.

George Wyatt couldn't prevent Ryan Brooke from turning and sweeping a right-footed shot beyond 'keeper Tom Stewart into the bottom corner, and Linnets were ahead.

The goal gave the visitors the confidence to seize control of possession, to come back for more.

A pattern emerged in which Runcorn built passing attacks from both flanks, while openings did appear for the hosts, but largely on the break when they cleared their lines.

Steele and Marsh-Hughes continued to cause trouble on the right, while Lynch and Dean worked in tandem up the left. Brooke advanced through the middle looking for another delivery from either side, but Wyatt, Grimshaw and especially Fitzgerald worked hard to block and clear the danger.

Rams' first real attempt on goal came after 12 minutes, when Rother's shot was saved low by Jak Stewart. O'Mahony cleared the resulting corner.

An end-to-end spell saw a great ball from Wylie up the right to Marsh-Hughes being knocked back for Steele to sprint towards goal, but he was flagged offside.

Then Kennedy's 40-yard free-kick found Murphy's head, only for Jak Stewart to save with ease.

Kennedy delivered again towards the right post, where O'Mahony headed behind.

Stewart punched away the in-swinging corner, but only as far as Murphy, who headed home from ten yards.

Linnets appeared affronted to be back on level terms, and resumed the attack.

Crilly won an aerial 50-50 to set up Brooke, who looped a shot over Stewart, but just wide of the post.

Two minutes later, and five after the equaliser, Crilly played another ball over the top for Joe Lynch to run in on goal.

Fitzgerald went with him, and stopped Lynch with an elbow to the face.

The referee clearly saw the offence, as he immediately pointed to the spot, but oddly thought it warranted a yellow rather than a red card.

Joe's penalty was powerful, but Stewart made a great save down to his right.

Steele joined Lynch in chasing the rebound, and from my vantage point, the ball was inches over the line when the 'keeper caught it and scooped it back out.

The referee was never likely to take the Linnets fans' word that a goal had been scored, and without technology he couldn't possibly see for himself, so it remained 1-1.

Runcorn attacks kept coming, and Tom Stewart continued to put together a superb performance in the Rams goal. From a fine Dean cross, Brooke beat Fitzgerald in the air to force a great reflex save from Stewart. Crilly sliced a follow-up shot wide of the right post.

A Marsh-Hughes cross from the right was deflected out by Collinge, and Brooke was caught by Wyatt's boot as he just got to it first, the shot flying past the right post.

A corner from the right gave Brooke his next attempt. It was blocked by Stewart, who managed to scramble it away before Sean O'Mahony could get in a shot from a prone position inside the six-yard box.

After Domaine Rouse had received a yellow card for a late tackle on Jacques Welsh in the centre circle, Marsh-Hughes picked up the Linnets attacking baton.

He beat three men before Fitzgerald intervened, with Peter Wylie looking for a pass out to the right, and then curled a 20-yard shot wide, from Welsh's through ball.

Wyatt did well to block Brooke's effort after the Runcorn No.9 had feinted past him and turned to shoot.

With five minutes to go to the break, it seemed unrealistic that the scores were still level, and without the heroics of Tom Stewart, they certainly wouldn't have been.

And yet Ramsbottom created two chances, their first for some time, before the interval.

A dangerous ball into the Runcorn area was dealt with by a Downes diving header, and there was a real let-off for the Linnets when Aron Flemming ran clear on goal from a loose ball in the middle.

He shot on target, but the less busy of the two goalkeeping Stewarts pushed it over the bar.

In between those chances, James Steele forged another at the railway end - a great cross from the left glancing off a defensive head before it could reach the on-rushing Ryan Brooke.

It had been an action-packed half, and one that had provided more scoring opportunities for Linnets than they had had in taking a 4-0 lead into the break against Kendal two weeks previously.

They were keen for more at the restart, the kick-off taken long into the Rams area, where Marsh-Hughes couldn't quite catch it.

Then Welsh beat three men from the centre circle and passed right for Wylie. His cross was blocked by the raised arm of Flemming, and the free-kick into the area deflected off Fitzgerald's shoulder, with Brooke's head inches away.

It appeared that Ramsbottom chances would continue to come on the break from Linnets possession, and one such allowed a low shot from 18 yards by Rouse. Jak Stewart got down well to save.

Linnets continued to control proceedings by closing down quickly and hard whenever they didn't have the ball.

Jamie Rother took a yellow card for a cynical chop on Kain Dean, whose one-two with Joe Lynch had threatened a Linnets attack in numbers.

Dean fired in a great cross for Downes to head across goal. The ball rebounded squarely off the far post, and just evaded the unmarked advance of Ryan Brooke.

Downes was instrumental in two more attacks in as many minutes, with long passes from his own half for Brooke.

The first he headed on to Marsh-Hughes, Kennedy booming a clearance into the stand off his toe; the second was flicked inside to Joe Lynch, Fitzgerald doing well to hook his effort away.

The Rams No.4 was second only to his 'keeper in consistently thwarting Runcorn efforts to regain the lead. That fact irritated Linnets fans who believed he should have received his marching orders after 23 minutes.

A golden opportunity arose just before the hour mark, when Brooke ran on to a Marsh-Hughes cross from the left. With only the 'keeper to beat, he shot just a bit too straight to be able to beat Stewart, at least on today's form.

Joe Lynch was next to charge into the Rams area, but Rouse went with him and won out in what the referee interpreted as a shoulder charge.

There was a query as to whether he knew his shoulder from his elbow.

Linnets manager Calum McIntyre made a move to turn his side's dominance into three points with a double substitution.

Steele and Crilly took a seat, to give half an hour to Dapo Olarewaju and Iwan Murray, the latter having missed the previous game through illness.

The Welsh playmaker was an instant threat, breaking away from halfway with Brooke and Marsh-Hughes looking for service in the middle. Somebody was flagged offside.

Stewart sprinted from his area in a head-on race for a loose ball. He and Marsh-Hughes swung a boot simultaneously, but fortune favoured the 'keeper, and the ball squirted clear.

In Olarewaju's first raid on Rams territory, he outstripped Collinge and cut into the area. Nobody in yellow and green had arrived in time to receive a cross, so Dapo curled a shot beyond Stewart, but also narrowly beyond the far post.

With a quarter of the game remaining, and the score still implausibly level, Ramsbottom achieved their second meaningful presence in the Runcorn area.

A 35-yard free-kick was headed away from inside the right post, Collinge picking up possession and being brought down as he sought a way through.

Linnets fans were wondering how their team could conceivably be 2-1 down in a game they had dominated for more than an hour. But wonders ceased, when Rouse slammed the spot-kick wide of the left post, with Jak Stewart committed in the opposite direction.

The Runcorn response to the reprieve was to get back on the attack. An offside flag interrupted a Brooke-Olarewaju overlap. Dapo's speed up the left was ringing alarm bells for the Rams, and a catalogue of Linnets throw-ins resulted from Collinge's safety first approach in launching immediate ground-level tackles rather than risk duelling with the wing man on the move.

Collinge did attempt a telling contribution at the other end, breaking free of a crowd in the middle third, but shooting well high and wide.

Into the last 20 minutes, and the home side made their own double-swap, Edward Cooper and Colin May replacing Flemming and Hartley.

A Dapo cross was blocked for a corner from the left. Downes and O'Mahony had joined the attack to get on the end of Murray's kick, and from just inside the far post, the former's header hit the bar and bounced down on the line and out, England '66 style.

Ramsbottom fortune persisted, as the ball bobbled away a safe distance from any Runcorn boots.

The Linnets attacks kept coming, Olarewaju and Dean both crossing from the left without finding Runcorn heads, and a Jacques Welsh shot from distance sailing high.

A Ramsbottom free-kick from inside their own half was intercepted by Downes, to concede a corner. Itwas headed on wide.

Inside the last ten minutes, Rouse risked a second yellow card for a late lunge to prevent Iwan Murray's sprint away from the halfway line, with runners ahead of him. But the referee was still in no mood to reduce the number of personnel in blue.

From the free-kick, Downes'shot from outside the area was deflected for a corner on the right. That was charged down from less than five yards away, but play continued.

Marsh-Hughes won the ball near the same corner flag, and beat three men when cutting inside to the corner of the penalty area.

He couldn't, however, muster enough power on a shot to trouble Stewart.

Jacques Welsh gave way to Lewis Doyle for the last six minutes.

Dapo was surely fouled at the left corner of the area, but Rams were awarded a throw-in instead.

Justice was done, however, when the Linnets winger won back the ball from Cooper and made it to the goal line before crossing low into the six-yard area.

There was nothing Stewart could do this time, as Joe Lynch arrived with perfect timing to finish first time and send the Linnets fans behind the goal, and his teammates, into raptures.

The lead had been a long time coming, and the Runcorn strategy to maintain it for the last four minutes was to stay on the offensive.

Dapo tripped and lost out in a protracted duel with Collinge inside the Rams area, and was penalised for holding him back.

Ramsbottom made a curious substitution with only a minute of normal time on the clock, Barlow replacing Wyatt.

The centre-half must have been injured, as there was clearly no remaining incentive for wasting time.

The last Ramsbottom chance to salvage an unlikely point came from a corner on the right, but it was headed firmly away by O'Mahony.

There were loud appeals for a foul on Marsh-Hughes as he moved up the right, but the referee waved play on.

If he was playing advantage, as Linnets still had possession, Iwan Murray provided the perfect justification for the decision.

He picked up the loose ball, took three paces inside his marker, and shot from just outside the area.

Nobody expected him to beat Stewart from there, and that probably included the 'keeper himself.

He was deceived by the power Iwan can muster with little or no backswing, and dived too late to prevent the ball curling inside the near post.

Four minutes had transformed Linnets' afternoon from the most frustrating of prosprctive draws to an apparently comfortable 3-1 win.

Another four, added for stoppages, provided no more drama, and the three points were Runcorn's.

Calum McIntyre described it as his side's most dominant performance of the season, pointing up the fact that statistics rarely tell the truth.

They had generated substantially more chances than they had in beating Kendal Town 7-0 a fortnight earlier.

Ramsbottom's Twitter commentary concluded that it was a 'tough one to take after being on top for large parts of the second half'. There must have been another game going on nearby.

The goalkeepers shared a surname, but not the workload. Tom had many times more work to do than Jak, and if the Rams had seen out the last five minutes for the draw, he would undoubtedly have been man of the match. Perhaps he was anyway.

It was impossible to single out a man in yellow and green for the honour. The winner was teamwork.

Linnets will venture back into Lancashire three days later, for the rearranged away fixture at Colne FC, postponed from 4th December.

Runcorn Linnets: Jak Stewart, Peter Wylie, Kain Dean, Jacques Welsh (Lewis Doyle 84), Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, James Steele (Iwan Murray 61), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Stuart Crilly (Dapo Olarewaju 61), Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Eden Gumbs.

Attendance: 387.

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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