The Northern Premier League

12th March 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Clitheroe : 0-0 Sponsored by Quizlings

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Having earned a Cheshire Senior Cup semi-final berth with Tuesday's 1-0 win at Stalybridge Celtic, Linnets returned to crucial Pitching In Northern Premier League West Division action for three games in ten days - the first and last of them being at home to their closest rivals for fifth spot, the fourth and final promotion play-off place.

Clitheroe started the day eight points behind their hosts, both with nine games remaining. Bootle, who will visit the APEC Taxis Stadium on Tuesday 22nd, were one point closer, and with a game in hand.

Both visiting sides would view an away win as vital in sustaining their promotion hopes.

Clitheroe took the early initiative, and the lion's share of the ball in the opening ten minutes, but Runcorn defending and closing in midfield were resolute.

The first of not many half-chances in the game saw a Jamie Edwards cross from the left find the head of Max Cane in the area, but it looped high and was caught with ease by Linnets 'keeper Scott Reed.

After six minutes, the first of even fewer shots on target was dispatched from 20 yards by Richard Baker, drawing a great full-stretch save from Reed.

It was Scott's second appearance since returning to the side in place of Covid-stricken Owen Mooney.

He was to follow up an excellent clean-sheet performance in the win at Stalybridge, with Saturday's man-of-the-match award from Linnets Live Radio.

The match was eight minutes old before the home side managed an attempt on goal. Louis Hayes won the ball in the centre of the Clitheroe half and fed Ally Brown up the right.

His cross was picked up by Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, who passed back out of the area for Joe Lynch to shoot, but well over the bar.

Neither side was finding much space to move forward with the ball, and longer efforts were being repelled in the air by both pairs of centre-backs.

Clitheroe centre-forward Sefton Gonzales is a renowned goalscorer, and a hard man to muscle off the ball, but Alex Downes and Sean O'Mahony took it in turns to give him a frustrating afternoon.

At the other end, Lee Pugh and player-manager Billy Priestley severely restricted the ball-winning endeavours of Ryan Brooke and Lloyd Marsh-Hughes.

The Runcorn strike partners were both inches away from sliding in to meet an Ally Brown cross on 13 minutes, but it arrived about half a second too soon.

Linnets were achieving a little more possession now, but chances remained scarce.

Fierce winds had been a feature of games at the APEC all season, and this game was no exception, but instead of the usual icy blasts downfield towards the forest end, the wind blew diagonally upfield, towards the Queen of Hearts pub.

It was disorientating.

Ryan Brooke's shot, after winning a loose ball 30 yards from goal, would usually have been wind-assisted, but on this occasion it drifted wide to the right, against the elements.

That wind also hampered a Clitheroe attack, a cross into the six-yard box eluding the head of Gonzales and the gloves of Reed, before bouncing wide.

A measure of the difficulty for both sides in mounting attacks was that the first corner came after 25 minutes, for the visitors. The unusual wind direction carried it from the left, all the way beyond the far touchline.

A minute later, Gonzales turned and shot from inside the area, but the ball bounced wide left.

Joe Lynch was wrestled off the ball 35 yards from the other goal. His one-two with Iwan Murray from the free kick delivered a ball into the six-yard box, but Clitheroe 'keeper Chris Thompson gathered it comfortably.

Louis Hayes played a one-two with Iwan Murray, then another with Ally Brown, who fired a dangerous cross from the right that bounced off the far end of the crossbar.

On 32 minutes, it was Clitheroe's turn again to shoot off target, Lee Pugh skying one over from 25 yards, after Brown had cleared from the area.

An end-to-end phase continued, with Joe Lynch upended on a solo run into the penalty area. Referee Stu Morland was not persuaded by loud appeals for a penalty from on and off the pitch.

A James Short cross from the left was held at the far post, and Iwan Murray's sprint up the right ended with an uncharacteristic slice out of bounds.

The closing moments of the first half saw a single advance into promising territory for either side, but defensive heads ensured that neither would bear fruit.

The half-time stalemate was a fair reflection of a tightly-contested game. Any neutrals present would have been hoping for more fireworks after the break, but two well-drilled and committed defensive units looked determined that safety wouldn't be sacrificed in the interests of a second half goalfest.

Clitheroe started the second half as they had the first, on the offensive, but with no greater success.

An early corner was headed clear by Sean O'Mahony, and Alex Downes came out on top in three aerial duels with Gonzales, as 'keeper Thompson targeted him with long clearances.

Joe Lynch won a corner on the left, which was tapped short for James Short to cross, but the wind swept it away again.

After a Ben McKenna run in from the right, across the 18 yard-line, had been halted by Downes, Linnets conducted a promising attacking spell at the clubhouse end.

Short won the ball twice over on the left and crossed for Brooke.

With his back to goal, he chested it back for Marsh-Hughes outside the area, but Lloyd couldn't get a firm enough contact on it to bother Thompson.

Iwan Murray was tripped as he turned to shake off Baker and Wilkins. His free-kick from 30 yards dipped just over the top left angle.

Ex-Linnet Alex Turner had spent an hour working in tandem with Jamie Edwards to break his former team-mates' resistance wide on the left, but Ally Brown had held firm, with the notable support of Downes and Doyle.

Alex was then the first man to be substituted, Joel Byrom stepping up to have a go at breaking the deadlock.

Both sides kept plugging away, but defenders and goalkeepers continued to have more joy than forwards.

Gonzales' pass wide to McKenna gave the right-back a half chance, but he sliced his shot wide under pressure from Short. And following a Runcorn free-kick from ten yards inside the Clitheroe half, a Brown cross found Brooke in the area, but he couldn't muster the power to threaten the net.

With 20 minutes remaining, Joe Lynch forged the best Runcorn attack of the game. He collected a one-two pass from Short and perfectly anticipated a Marsh-Hughes run into space in the area.

Lloyd wrong-footed Baker to get to the ball first, but his left footed first-time shot swerved wide on the wind.

That chance was followed by the first Clitheroe shot on target since half-time. Max Cane got some power behind it from distance, but it flew straight into the arms of the unflappable Scott Reed.

Marsh-Hughes was set up for another run on the area by O'Mahony's booming header from the halfway line. He was sandwiched to the floor by Pugh and Priestley, and the immediate debate among the fans was whether he had been fouled inside or outside the area.

My vote was for marginally outside, but Mr Morland rendered the argument void by judging that no offence had been committed.

Downes and O'Mahony between them continued to ensure that Sefton Gonzales' deadly reputation wouldn't be further enhanced. The Clitheroe No9 continued to pick up long balls forward, but he was not given an inch to progress into the danger zone, and was reduced to laying it off for colleagues in sky blue and white.

One such effort provided Wilkins with an opportunity from 18 yards out. He shot hard and low, but Reed pulled off a great save inside the foot of the left post.

Inside the final quarter of an hour, a crunching contest between Iwan Murray and Billy Priestley on the halfway line left both needing attention.

Priestley came off worse, and eventually limped off to be replaced by Jack Burrows. It wasn't immediately obvious who, if anyone, had been at fault, but play did restart with a Linnets free-kick.

Shots on target by either side remained rare, due to a combination of two unyielding defences and the strengthening wind.A 35-yard free-kick for a trip on Downes was repelled, allowing Doyle to attempt a shot that flew high.

Ally Brown's run up the right won a corner, from which Iwan Murray looked to have targeted Downes' run in towards the far post perfectly. Into the wind. However, it found its way onto the roof of the net.

It was to be Iwan's last contribution to the game, as Dapo Olarewaju was given six minutes plus added time to try to turn one point into three.

In his first minute on the pitch, Dapo slipped Bailey Sloane to cross low from the right. It deflected off Marsh-Hughes' heel, and consequently ran behind Brooke's advance into the six-yard box.

With an ounce more luck, either one of them might have bundled it in.

It had always looked like one of those days when the ball just doesn't want to go into either net, and the last five minutes of action, three of them added on, did nothing to confound that impression.

Gabriel Humphries' appearance in place of Jamie Edwards, with two minutes left on the clock, seemed a strange decision. There is only one reason for making substitutions so late, and at this stage of the season, a single point was surely of less use to Clitheroe than it was to Runcorn.

Stoppage time yielded one more faint chance for each side.

Joe Lynch spied a rare gap in the Clitheroe defence from 25 yards out, and his firm shot was beyond the grasp of the diving Thompson. But was also just wide of the post.

A Clitheroe free-kick from ten yards inside the Runcorn half had to wait, as a bout of wrestling in the crowd on the edge of the penalty area resulted in the only yellow card of the game. It was Joe Lynch, who blotted Mr Morland's notebook, just before he closed it for the day.

The eventual set piece allowed a break into the area by McKenna, sparking some controlled panic at the possibility of a twelfth hour Runcorn mistake. Alex Downes restored calm with a firm boot into touch.

It hadn't been the most exciting game played at the APEC this season, and it was amazingly Linnets' first goalless draw in 40 competitive games.

But it was one of the cleanest. That fact was to the credit of two teams who really wanted three points, but strove to get them fairly.

Justice was done, as neither side deserved to go home empty handed.

A point for Linnets kept them five clear of Bootle, having played one more game, as the Bucks had scored twice late on to win at Newcastle Town.

Clitheroe remained eight points behind the last play-off place. With eight games remaining, that will probably be too many.

Linnets boss Calum McIntyre said he was 'satisfied rather than pleased' with the result, with two points dropped at home, but he added that it was an incredible achievement for his young squad to have the goal of a play-off place still in their own hands after 30 games.

Fixtures at Kidsgrove Athletic and at home to Bootle, in the following ten days, will have a decisive influence on whether the Linnets will take the league season into 'overtime'.

Runcorn Linnets:Scott Reed, Ally Brown, James Short, Lewis Doyle, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch, Louis Hayes, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray (Dapo Olarewaju 84), Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Jacques Welsh, Eden Gumbs, Peter Wylie, Kain Dean.

Attendance:683.



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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