The Northern Premier League

29th January 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Workington : 1-2 Sponsored by The Fore Golfers

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

After three away games on the bounce, yielding four points, Linnets came home to the APEC for a huge fixture with Workington AFC. The Runcorn mission was to knock the Cumbrians off the top of the league for the second time in a season, having grabbed a stunning 4-2 away win at Borough Park in October.

Three months later, that remained Workington's only home defeat, and a home draw with Bootle their only points dropped anywhere in eleven league games.

A fierce wind blew from the clubhouse end, and promised to prevent anything approaching a classic display of stylish football.

But 963, including a strong away contingent, came to see it: a record Linnets home attendance for a league game.

Lloyd Marsh-Hughes and Ryan Brooke mounted the first attack with the gale behind them, and it was immediately clear that controlling the ball was going to be a challenge.

Workington returned the compliment, through Symington and Carroll up the right-hand side, and even at the more sheltered end of the ground, any ball off the playing surface bounced and swerved unpredictably.

A long clearance by Sean O'Mahony was headed vertically by Sam Smith, then carried on the wind to Brooke, turning in behind him.

He controlled the ball, but couldn't get enough power on a shot to trouble Jim Atkinson in the Workington goal.

Symington reached the right corner flag and crossed, but Alex Downes blocked and cleared.

There was no problem achieving distance with clearances downfield, but accuracy was a trickier business, and catching them after they landed, harder still.

It was ultimately a telling feature of the game that in the second half, Workington were to make more of balls despatched to the forest end than Linnets had during the first.

In the twelfth minute, Marsh-Hughes did head on into the area for Iwan Murray, who went down under Matty Clarke's challenge just a little too easily to persuade referee Jordan Crossley.

Three minutes later in a spell of Reds possession in the Runcorn third, Symington, Hubbold and Jerome worked together to prise open the Runcorn defence, without success.

Symington did try a shot from wide on the right, from Carroll's pass, but it flew beyond the far post without testing Scott Reed, who was making his home debut in the Runcorn goal.

Workington kept up the pressure in possession.

Downes charged down a shot from Jerome's, who shaped up for another from wide left, but the referee spotted an infringement in the middle of the area and awarded a defensive free-kick.

In the twenty-third minute, every man in yellow and green was in the Reds' half for the first time.

The first controversy of the afternoon resulted, when Kain Dean prodded the ball up the left touchline and took off after it, only to be slammed into the perimeter fence by Kyle Harrison.

Pushing and shoving continued while Kain received treatment, having cut his head on the fence, and when Mr Crossley had restored sufficient order to dispense punishment, he flourished only a yellow card.

One had to imagine how deliberate and dangerous a foul had to be to warrant a red one.

Kain survived to make a great contribution to the Linnets' performance, including his first goal for the club.

But he spent the rest of the game with his head strapped, and a 'blood shirt' change midway through the second half.

Iwan Murray's wind-assisted free-kick flew dangerously into the penalty area, but Reuben Jerome charged it down, and out for a throw. Another Murray dead ball, for a foul near the left corner flag, flew too long.

Another was headed out for a corner, and Murray swung that one perfectly on the wind.

Heading for the centre of the goal, Dan Wordsworth managed to hook it over the bar.

Wordsworth took a knock when O'Mahony won the duel for the next corner, but his effort bounced down and into the 'keeper's hands.

Murray, Dean, Welsh and Lynch were all winning possession across the middle third, but balls forward for Brooke and Marsh-Hughes were invariably flying too long on landing, and out for goal-kicks or throw-ins.

A first Reds attack in some minutes, ten before the break, fizzled out when Jerome was hustled off the ball in the left side of the area.

Matty Clarke and Connor Gaul worked hard into the wind on the left to create opeinings, but were locked out by Wylie and Welsh.

Gaul did break free and pass inside to Hubbold. He returned the favour, only for Gaul's shot to be deflected off Wylie for a corner.

That was cleared for another by O'Mahony, and that one was smothered on the ground by Scott Reed.

His clearance was fired back upfield by Wordsworth, and O'Mahony collected inside his own half and unleashed what was probably a deliberate shot from 60 yards. Atkinson had to keep an eye on it all the way to avoid a mishap and hold on to it.

On 45 minutes, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes was a little unlucky to be beaten by inches to a runaway ball into the Workington area, with Atkinson the only barrier to his opening the scoring.

Four minutes were added to the first half, mostly resulting from the aftermath of Harrison's wiping out of Dean.

They were needed, as Atkinson made five attempts to take a free-kick from behind the centre circle, the wind blowing the ball back to him each time he placed it.

Linnets made a few last-ditch attempts to utilise the wind, but any ball played down the pitch with urgency careered away like a bouncing bomb.

The half-time stalemate was about right, with both sides attempting to gain possession and play a passing game, but the wind was the only winner so far.

Linnets boss Calum McIntyre made a tactical switch at the break, ending a useful performance in midfield by Lewis Doyle to introduce the physical presence upfront of Eden Gumbs.

He was making his first appearance after almost four months on the injured list, since the 5-1 FA Trophy win at Tadcaster Albion.

The brief was for Gumbs to use his strength to win and use possession on the left, while Marsh-Hughes moved wider on thre right to do likewise. Nobody would have guessed that Eden had been out of action for so long, not least Harrison, Wordsworth and Smith, who found him impossible to force off the ball.

Most of the Workington defensive effort had to be dedicated to closing down avenues for Eden to find team-mates in dangerous positions. He almost did so with a diagonal pass in front of Marsh-Hughes, but Wordsworth got there in the nick of time.

It was Workington's turn to manage the gale at their backs. A lull had been forecast, but if anything it climbed the Beaufort Scale even more.

From the open gantry atop the stand, and needing both hands to make notes, I was having to attempt the splits to hold my footing.

The first Workington attempt of the half was a long shot by Symington from Atkinson's clearance, which Reed saved well.

Carroll was trying to reduce the threat posed by Iwan Murray, via protracted verbal intimidation, commonly and irritatingly described as 'banter'.

The referee appeared relaxed about it, as he was when Carroll stepped up the pressure with an off-the ball elbow to Iwan's face, which was easily accessed from a height advantage of eight or nine inches.

Perhaps it wasn't a day for football to do the talking.

There were definite signs, though, that Workington were finding it easier to gain telling possession downwind.

At the same time, Linnets increasingly made an impressive fist of repicrocating against the elements, more so than the Reds had before the break.

Gaul launched a threatening shot from the the left touchline which landed on the roof of the net, with Reed tracking it, and a one-two between Carroll and Gaul reached the area, where Reed charged out to tackle, conceding a corner.

That was headed out for another, which was headed vertically by O'Mahony, and caught by Reed. Dean's long ball from deep reached Atkinson, which was no mean feat in the conditions.

The fact was reinforced by the 'keeper's clearance bouncing once, near the Linnets' penalty spot, before clearing the crossbar by a good fifteen feet.

Gumbs, Welsh and Brooke were striving manfully to keep control of the ball in the opposition half, and make something from loose balls they repeatedly won, but it continued to bounce around as if in a bingo machine.

Marsh-Hughes made a great break up the right, past three men, but they shepherded him wide to narrow the angle for his shot, which narrowly cleared the bar.

Dean swapped his No3 shirt, bloodied from the wound he had had stitched at half time, for a numberless one.

Iwan Murray appeared to be fouled just inside his own half, but not to the referee's mind, and the breakaway allowed a Gaul shot that flew wide left. That was to be his last significant contribution, being subbed by Scott Fenwick with 22 minutes remaining.

That swap proved a good luck charm. Or perhaps it was me who administered the kiss of death. I was still making notes to the effect that the Runcorn defence had coped admirably with Workington advances on the ground, allowing them no room for manouevre, when that was precisely what they failed to do. A lapse of concentration proved costly, as it is always likely to do against league leaders on the crest of a wave of form.

An Atkinson clearance reached Symington on the right. He passed inside to Casson, who spotted rare space inside the Runcorn area and fed the ball into it for Hubbold to run on unmolested and score with ease.

Despite suggestions to the contrary on the Workington bench, the visitors had had to work extremely hard to get their noses in front.

Any ridiculous claim that it was an easy afternoon for the Reds was immediately rubbished by a concerted period of Linnets efforts to get back on terms.

Goalscorer Hubbold was back in defensive mode to make a timely intervention, with numbers forward in yellow and green, and then Atkinson was out at speed to clear just before Lloyd Marsh-Hughes could get there to shoot over him.

Eden Gumbs beat Harrison twice, and then Wordsworth, to reach the penalty area. He turned and passed to Iwan Murray, who was tackled to the ground, prompting loud appeals for a penalty. Nothing doing.

Jacques Welsh stepped in promptly to avert a Workington breakaway. Gumbs did well again after picking up a Dean throw-in, passed back to Welsh, who found Murray in the middle. Iwan cut a path diagonally through the Workington area and shot from a narrow angle on the left, into the side netting.

In the four or five minutes since the goal, Linnets had acheived their most threatening spell of the game, and it was clear to a hard-worked Reds befence that the three points were far from secured.

Going into the last 15 minutes, there were two attempts on the Runcorn goal. O'Mahony headed away from the right post, then Symington's wind-assisted shot was destined for thre top right corner until Reed pulled off a great save at full stretch.

Welsh was adjudged to have fouled in breaking out of defence. Carroll tried to keep the 22-yard free-kick low, and succeeded, straight into the defensive wall.

Calum McIntyre threw the dice in pursuit of an equaliser, withdrawing Ryan Brooke in favour of Dapo Olarewaju, for the last 12 minutes. Chris Willcock also made an attacking change for Workington, with Charlie Bowman on for Reuben Jerome.

Dapo's first run up the right wing drew a foul, the free-kick headed out of the six-yard box by Hubbold.

Olarewaju joined Marsh-Hughes, Murray and Gumbs in carving out paths into the visiting penalty area, but the rearguard kept it tight.

A Peter Wylie cross from the right flew long to safety.

Another foul on Dapo, as he broke into the Workington half, prompted a high ball into the area, which evaded both him and Marsh-Hughes by inches.

With the home side working flat out to level the game, especially into the tempest, there was always the risk of being caught on the break. So it proved, as a second lapse in defensive vigilance allowed Scott Fenwick a free run into the Runcorn area to chase the loose ball. Scott Reed came out to meet him, and as Fenwick prodded the ball forward, the two collided.

Mr Crossley had shown no interest in awarding penalties, but what looked like a valid attempt at a 50-50 challenge readily changed his mind this time.

Fenwick himself delivered the spot kick into the bottom left corner, with Reed's fingers a whisker away.

Surely the Linnets challenge to the league leadership was finally extinguished. Workington attacked again down the left flank, but an offside flag intervened.

Any thoughts that the team in fifth place would down tools and start working on next week's trip to Trafford were quickly dispelled, when a mob-handed attack and a thoroughly- deserved Kain Dean goal presented the Workington bench with a decidedly squeaky five minutes of added time.

Joe Lynch was the first of five Linnets to take a stab at goal from the edge of a crowded area.

Marsh-Hughes having a shot blocked, and Murray and Gumbs being blocked at close quarters.

Smith could only propel an attempted clearance as far as Dean, and he hammered a straight shot from the middle of the area into the roof of the net.

Those five supplementary minutes were taken up almost entirely by pressure for the equaliser.

A great run by Downes from inside his own half led to a chip into the area that was chested down by Olarewaju. There was certainly forceful contact as he went down, and inevitable loud appeals from behind the goal.

But Mr Crossley had apparently decided that one penalty was his ration, and it had been exhausted. Atkinson received the second yellow card of the day for spending an eternity over a goal-kick, but he left just enough time for a final great chance for a Linnets leveller.

Gumbs and Dean won possession once more wide on the left, the latter's cross reaching Dapo inside the six yard box. But he couldn't get a firm enough contact to guide it past Atkinson, and it ran to safety for a goal-kick.

Workington had their eleventh win in twelve games, but they can rarely have had to scrap so hard for any of them, especially from two goals up with four minutes to go.

They celebrated wildly, as well they might.

We can only speculate how the last 67 'normal' minutes might have unfolded if Workington had negotiated them with ten men, as they undoubtedly should have done.

The consolation for a rare Runcorn defeat was the knowledge that there is no team in the West Division of the Northern Premier League, however experienced or heavily resourced, against whom the young Linnets squad have to accept the inevitabilily of defeat.

They will continue to punch above their weight at Trafford's Shawe View, on Saturday 5th February.

Runcorn Linnets: Scott Reed, Peter Wylie, Kain Dean, Jacques Welsh, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch, Lewis Doyle (Eden Gumbs 45), Ryan Brooke (Dapo Olarewaju 78), Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Stuart Crilly, Louis Hayes, James Steele.

Attendance: 963.

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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