The Northern Premier League

5th February 2022, Trafford v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-0

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets fixtures with Trafford have produced some close encounters since Runcorn's promotion to the Northern Premier League in 2018.

The last, at the APEC Taxis Stadium during Bonfire Weekend, was an uncharacteristically physical affair, in which it took 75 minutes of concerted Runcorn pressure for Lloyd-Marsh Hughes to grab a deserved late equaliser for the 1-1 outcome.

Runcorn line-up changes since the narrow 2-1 home defeat to league leaders Workington were driven by yet more injuries. Iwan Murray will be absent for a number of weeks due to a training injury, and the same fate befell goalkeeper Scott Reed.

That made new signing Matty Alexander, drafted in from Bolton Wanderers, the fifth man between the sticks for Runcorn in nine league games.

Eden Gumbs's return from long-term injury continued with a first start, following his half-time sub appearance against Workington.

That had been his first chance to collaborate with attacking left-back Kain Dean, and there were more early signs at Shawe Vjew that they might build a productive partnership.

Several overlapping passing moves between the two threatened to open up the Trafford defence, but Sean Higgins and Joe Denman kept the doors slammed shut, while Adam Rooney kept a close eye on Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, to hamper his efforts as central target man.

At the other end, Kane Badby was an attacking threat from midfield, getting forward quickly and seeking space to set up Barlow, Worrall and Burke for shots on goal. They were working centrally, and little such space materialised, as Downes and O'Mahony policed the penalty area with ferocity.

There were to be few chances created in a first half that saw two very equal sides cancel each other out.

As has often been the case in games between these two sides, they both endeavoured to win possession and then use it to gain ground through short passing moves.

Both struggled to string together many of those, thwarted by swift and close defensive attention by either side, that limited the majority of proceedings to the middle third of the pitch.

Dapo Olarewaju managed the first Runcorn attempt on goal, from a one-two with Joe Lynch, but his shot flew wide of the post.

On the break from the free-kick, Barlow tried a shot from distance, which flew wildly high and wide.

In the tenth minute, Trafford took the game's first meaningful free-kick, for a foul at the right corner of the penalty area.

A moment earlier, a foul on Marsh-Hughes as he tried to clear had appeared more cut and dried, but it wasn't called.

The free-kick was curled on to the roof of the net, with Matty Alexander looking untroubled.

A slightly more central effort followed a couple of minutes later, when referee Mr Hussein was persuaded by Badby's arms-aloft plummet to ground, from what looked like a perfectly clean ball-winner by Kain Dean.

It swerved wide.We had been used in recent weeks to seeing long passes fly yet longer on fierce winds. This time it was skidding away off a surface that had been rained on continuously for 48 hours or more. The pitch was cutting up quickly too.

Linnets won a series of corners up the right, through the efforts of Olarewaju and Marsh-Hughes to cut in along the goal line.

Perhaps due to the absence of regular taker Iwan Murray, they were being taken short, for Lynch or Dean to cross.

The tactic was making it easier for the Trafford defence to close in, and Sloan and Morgan both cut out and cleared crosses before they could reach the penalty area.

Morgan was away on a run after such a clearance, but O'Mahony tackled and gained possession 18 yards out.

Joe Lynch passed left for Kain Dean to move on and deliver a great cross for Dapo to run on to, but Trafford 'keeper Matt Cooper was off his line fast to get there a fraction ahead of the Linnets No10.

Dapo would be the main threat to the home goal from close quarters all afternoon, and his ability to get away from defenders was highlighted by the fact that, time and time again, it was Cooper alone who got between Dapo and the scoresheet.

Rooney did contribute by getting in a perfectly-timedtackle off Dapo's boot, in response to another Lynch ball into the area.

Midway through the first half Matty Barlow earned the game's first yellow card, after launching three fouls across the halfway line, each challenge heavier than the last.

Towards the half-hour point, Trafford were seeing a little more of the ball in a game still mostlystalemated in the middle third.

The men in decreasingly pristine all-white were winning more of the

50-50s, and picking up more loose balls. But the Runcorn defence continued to prevent much Trafford possession leading to any threat within 30 yards of goal.

Linnets possession was confined to deeper territory, and the travelling fans grew a little concerned about the number of passes being made across the pitch, within shooting distance for the opposition.

Eden Gumbs was growing into the game as he stayed wider left, utilising that growing understanding with Kain Dean to tee up crosses for Marsh-Hughes. Few chances resulted, though, as the heads of Denman and Rooney cut out the danger a number of times.

Denman also headed away from the near post, when Dean changed the corner kick tactics with an in-swinger from the right.

Another returned to short pass mode, the cross heading for Eden Gumbs inside the far post, but it was cut out by the head of Rooney.

Linnets were enjoying their best spell of possession as half-time loomed, mostly up the right through Wylie, Hayes, Lynch and Olarewaju, and much of it instigated by Jacques Welsh winning tackles and loose balls in the centre circle.

But progress from it was stately, like watching a rugby pack gaining ground by using their weight in the scrum.

The last chance of the half saw Barlow and Badby combine through the middle, after Higgins had headed away a Dean corner.

O'Mahony and Downes did well to prevent Badby managing a shot. If a game high on endeavour but short on excitement was going to change after the break, it seemed likely that errors of concentration would make the difference.

Neither side had looked inclined to open up the space for an attacking free-for-all.

Two minutes after the restart Dapo Olarewaju was fouled on the run, 35 yards from goal. The free-kick into the area looked dangerous, and Cooper had to punch with both fists to avert the threat.

Dean, Gumbs and Marsh-Hughes caused consternation for the home defence inside the area from the left, but they were denied any easy avenues to goal.

Sloan spent an apparent eternity obstructing (sorry, shielding), to usher the ball out for a goal-kick, but it failed to trickle as far as the line. I love it when that particular plan doesn't come together.

A corner was conceded, and that was punched away again by Cooper. The noisy travelling fans behind the covered goal encouraged the men in orange to attack it.

A great 40-yard run by Gumbs took him past four opponents, but with no route to the net, he pulled it back for Joe Lynch to shoot. He couldn't get much power behind the ball as it bobbled, and Cooper saved easily.

When a sustained spell of pressure doesn't produce a goal, there is always a concern that the aggressor is left open to counter attack.

There were numbers back for Linnets when Trafford attacked for the first time in the eight minutes since half-time.

But from a throw-in, Barlow was allowed more space to operate than any forward had been given previously.

Burke found the room for a powerful shot which was saved well by Alexander, but he could only parry it into the path of Morgan, who sank the rebound with no defender anywhere

near him.

The stalemate had been broken by error rather than by brilliance, as is so often the case in such a closely-fought affair.

It wouldn't be for the last time.

Linnets responded on the offensive, Welsh from halfway finding Olarewaju in the area. He advanced again into the six-yard box, and again Cooper was out fast to block Dapo's low shot with a boot.

It was either a great save or a lucky one, but then you make your own luck by being in the right place at the right time.

Cooper was there again to catch a high ball resulting from a throw, which he had conceded with a sliced clearance on winning a head-on chase with Marsh-Hughes.

Ryan Brooke was introduced in place of Louis Hayes, to give the Trafford defence something new to worry about.

Linnets' top scorer was involved immediately, chasing a Welsh through ball into the area, but the ball skipped off his boot and out for a goal-kick.

He wouldn't have another chance to turn the game in Runcorn's favour until it became a doubly hard job.

Two minutes after Brooky came on, and just six after the opening goal, the deficit was 2-0.

As with the opener, there were three Trafford men in space in the Runcorn area, all vying for a go at goal.

It was Kane Badby, who accepted the gift - thereby rewarding himself for his standout efforts to carve out chances in the first half.

There was at least the prospect of a more open battle for the final half-hour, as there was no reason for Linnets to keep it cagey.

Back on the attack at the covered end, Joe Lynch shaped to shoot from the penalty arc. Rooney launched a booming head-on tackle which won the ball, but which left the centre-back in an agonised heap. Briefly, at least.

Mr Hussein deemed it an illegal challenge worthy of a yellow card for Lynch, whose crime appeared to be one of simply being there.

Meanwhile, Stuart Crilly came on for Eden Gumbs, whose minutes were being managed to secure his return to fitness. The swap was to have ironic consequences for Stuart, who left with a few minutes remaining, feared to be the latest in the continuous line of sidelined Linnets this season.

Crilly picked up Gumbs's role of coming in on the attack from the left, carving out chances for himself and providing crosses for the continued threat of Olarewaju beyond the far post.

His first two attempts to find Marsh-Hughes or Brooke in the middle were headed away by Denman and Rooney.

Two Runcorn corners from the left within as many minutes failed to find a way through the throng of white inside the six-yard area.

And a free-kick from deep on the right, after a hefty challenge on Peter Wylie, was punched away once more by Cooper.

A Crilly cross did set up a powerful Marsh-Hughes header, but it slammed into the stand roof fascia, two feet above the bar.

With 15 minutes remaining, a short siege on the Trafford goal found Brooke, Marsh-Hughes, Lynch and Crilly all scrapping to make space for a shot through the crowded area, while Olarewaju waited for a loose ball to emerge anywhere right of the goal.

One shot was blocked by Cooper's dive, and a clutch of defenders outside the six-yard box scrambled away another, to a loud chorus of shouts for handball. Mr Hussein hadn't seen one.

Another Runcorn corner came in from the left, and Sean O'Mahony failed to get his head to it due to being sent sprawling by a push from behind. Mr Hussein was in a minority, at that end of the ground at least, who didn't see any infringement.

Trafford sub Ben Finlay fouled Stuart Crilly twice before a free-kick was awarded, and as Higgins brought the ball out of his own area after it had been blocked by Rooney, Kain Dean brought him down, and was cautioned for his trouble.

Into the last ten minutes, Linnets efforts to get back into the game continued, but so did those of eleven Trafford men, ten of them now dressed in soggy grey rather than their original lily-white.

Alex Downes joined the attack and got his head to a curling Wylie cross, but he was sandwiched between two defenders jumping with him beyond the far post, and that was where the ball landed.

Brooke, Crilly and Marsh-Hughes all tried again to find a route to goal, still with no joy. James Steele added his weight to the cause for four final minutes, as Crilly joined the queue for the treatment room.

There were understandably fewer Trafford attacks now, as they had a two-goal cushion to preserve. And they preserved it with determination.

But there was a breakaway for Djavan Pedro, on for Matty Barlow, which was interrupted by O'Mahony. The resulting throw-in led to a corner, which Downes headed away.

A great James Steele cross from the left set up Dapo, who had slipped Jack Sloan yet again, beyond the far post.

Surely this time he would find the net. But Cooper's one-man crusade to frustrate himwasn't finished, and he made a great save from a yard away, down to his right.

A final flurry of attempts to half the deficit from 18 yards out were all blocked, and even a consolation goal was denied the visitors. Sheer effort just wasn't enough.

The team that deserved to win the game did so, but the difference between them ultimately boiled down to six minutes when defensive vigilance deserted the men from Runcorn.

That was reminiscent of a Tuesday night in December, when seven sleepy second-half minutes handed three goals, and three points, to Marine.

Irony of ironies, Crosby's finest will visit the APEC Taxis Stadium on Tuesday 8th February.

Calum McIntyre has experienced back-to-back defeats for the first time in 34 league games as Linnets manager.

He will not be keen to see the run extended to three, but against one of the division's aristocrats, and with no time to regroup in training, it will be a challenging night for the injury-plagued yellow and green.

Noisy numbers from 'the town where I was born' might play an important role in a notable bounce back.

Runcorn Linnets: Matty Alexander, Peter Wylie, Kain Dean, Jacques Welsh, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch, Louis Hayes (Ryan Brooke 57), Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, Dapo Olarewaju, Eden Gumbs (Stuart Crilly 62, James Steele 86). Sub not used: Lewis Doyle.

Attendance: 381.

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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