The Northern Premier League

19th March 2022, Kidsgrove Athletic FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets travelled to Staffordshire for the first of two games in four days that could prove decisive in their quest for a promotion play-off spot.

Could proceedings in Kidsgrove be as strange as when the two Pitching In Northern Premier League West Divisin teams last met, at Runcorn in September?

On that occasion, Kidsgrove had dominated for 20 minutes, before Linnets scored three times in six minutes on their way to a 4-0 win.

The noise from both sets of fans made the gate of 344 sound more like four figures, and Linnets responded to vocal away support with an attacking start.

Iwan Murray had the first shot of the game, but from an optimistic distance, and it ran harmlessly wide.

In the fifth minute, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes won the day's first corner, when it took two men to stop him crossing from the right.

Murray's kick was pulled back too deep, running behind all of his attendant teammates.

Kidsgrove's first corner followed three minutes later, Max McCarthy heading vertically beyond the far post.

Jacques Welsh was fouled as he broke away from the area.

It was an end to end start, but there was no shape to the game in the first quarter of an hour, with pinball in the middle third producing only lofted balls that were dealt with efficiently by either defence.

A Marsh-Hughes solo run into the Grove penalty area was halted by a bodycheck, but no offence was detected. By now we should have got used to the fact that the enforcement of the obstruction law became extinct around the same time as smallpox and powdered egg.

Lloyd was not deterred, and his next foray deep into Kidsgrove territory won a corner on the right.

Alex Downes picked up Sean O'Mahony's glancing header before Kyle Blake's tackle resulted in another from the left.

What followed was either a moment of divine inspiration, or the perfect execution of a set piece devised in training. Iwan Murray's corner kick was driven low towards Alex Downes, who was well placed to shoot from ten yards in front of the near post.

But instead, he stepped over the ball and allowed it to run to the penalty arc, from where Ryan Brooke unleashed a booming volley into the centre of the Kidsgrove net.

Nobody in blue, or goalkeeping grey, had time to move a muscle. Brooky's 20th league goal of the season was a serious contender for being his best.

Kidsgrove looked affronted to be behind, and they went on the offensive, but they were able to make few inroads in the Runcorn third of the pitch, against a defence which hadn't conceded a goal in more than seven hours of football so far.

After 22 minutes, Linnets interrupted Grove pressure with Brooke's flick over the defence to Marsh-Hughes, but his low cross for Murray was intercepted by Bromfield.

The hosts went back on the attack, with Callum Leigh breaking free from Ally Brown up the left.

Scott Reed had kept his place in the Linnets goal after a man-of-the-match showing in the 0-0 draw with Clitheroe, while Owen Mooney returned from a bout of Covid to a place on the bench.

Scott raced wide out of his area to challenge Leigh, and received a yellow card for his trouble.

Almost the whole Grove side crowded around the referee demanding Reed's dismissal, but his challenge was never dangerous, and it certainly didn't prevent an obvious scoring chance from that position.

They were all the more disgruntled to see a well-taken free-kick punched clear by the Runcorn 'keeper.

The incident proved to be a turning point, as the hosts appeared to believe that the referee was in a highly-tolerant mood. The objective of their tackles seemed to change: winning the ball appeared far less important than ensuring that the opponent went no further.

Max McCarthy halted James Short's run up the left touchline with a late lunge that promoted the first of a number of outbreaks of pushing and shoving, but no further cards emerged, for now.

In the 26th minute Marsh-Hughes chased a Brooke through ball, in a one-on-one with Grove 'keeper Ryan Brown. They got there simultaneously, outside the penalty area, and the ball rebounded to Brooke, 40 yards from goal.

With the keeper so far out, he attempted a first time shot on goal, but it drifted the wrong side of the right-hand post.

Kidsgrove went back on the attack, and after a throw-in from the left, Reed again came off his line to win a 50/50 challenge.

His opponents clearly believed the Linnets' keeper was present on borrowed time, after his yellow card, and they again beseiged the referee to demand his dismissal.

Oliver Jepson's 60-yard journey in particular was a waste of energy, as the referee had not identified a foul.

They say you should be careful what you wish for, and within two minutes Jepson did persuade the man in black to produce a yellow card.

Had Jepson Brought down Marsh-Hughes a yard earlier, the Kidsgrove No5 would have seen red instead.

The 'double jeopardy' principle kept him on the pitch, as the foul had taken place inside the area, and penalty-plus-yellow becomes the maximum sentence allowed.

Joe Lynch stepped up to double the Linnets lead from the penalty spot, but he hit it a little too straight, and Ryan Brown was able not only to stop it, but to hold on to the ball.

It was a good save, but far from Joe's best spot-kick.

The first half-hour had produced far more incident than had Runcorn's entire 90-minute stalemate with Clitheroe a week earlier.

Nobody present would have placed a bet that the day's scoring had finished. But both defences fared better than either attack in the 15 minutes to half-time.

Another battle between Marsh-Hughes and Jepson produced a Linnets corner, with Alex Downes' header diverted away by Declan O'Riordan before Lewis Doyle fouled Kingsley Adu-Gyamfi as he advanced upfield.

Scott Reed and Sean O'Mahony both went to defend a cross from the Kidsgrove right, Sean's header flying uncomfortably close past the right post.

The resulting corner produced a cross through the six-yard box that Downes, then Welsh, scrambled away.

The last action of the half involved little football, but plenty of handbags, and two more yellow cards.

As Iwan Murray broke into the Grove half, wide on the right, Adu-Gyamfi provided a severe test for the stretchability and seam-strength of the orange Runcorn away shirt.

The ensuing scuffle between the two earned them a yellow card each, and several other players on either side were fortunate not to join them, after a great deal of tag-team wrestling and shoving to the ground.

As it wasn't clear who had been cautioned, I checked with my scores app and KAFC Twitter. Both revealed that Dapo Olarewaju had received a yellow card, which was quite an achievement, given that he wouldn't join the game for another half an hour!

The eventual Runcorn free-kick led to an excellent Murray one-two with Marsh-Hughes, the former shooting hard and low and demanding a good save by Brown.

At half-time, Owen Mooney replaced Scott Reed in the Linnets goal. It was unclear whether manager Calum McIntyre had decided that, given the rarity of having a 'keeper on the bench, they should play a half each, or whether it was a safety-first measure, with the referee being repeatedly besieged by demands to send Reed off.

The events of the second half were to demonstrate that he was in no mood to give his red card an airing, even though it took only two minutes after the restart for the yellow one to appear again.

Ryan Brooke chested a clearance into the path of Iwan Murray, who beat Bromfield and Blake and cut inside, just outside the area. Bromfield caught up and felled him from behind to earn the card.

Murray's free-kick lacked sufficient pace to trouble Brown. The first two Kidsgrove assaults of the half on Runcorn territory did nothing to threaten the recent impregnability of the Linnets defence. McCarthy picked up a loose ball and attempted a shot on the run that conceded a throw-in, no less.

Then a similar effort by Kyle Diskin did attract a goal-kick, but it was still a good ten yards wide of the target.

Most attacking moves on the ground were now at the feet of Runcorn men.A Joe Lynch shot across the area bounced off Marsh-Hughes' heel, but he was flagged offside anyway, and Welsh was tripped as he progressed up the left touchline.

Within a minute, Lynch was away again, on a great slaloming run from halfway line to penalty arc. His dipping shot cleared the top-right angle of post and bar.

There were still only 53 minutes on the clock when another cynical late tackle earned O'Riordan a yellow card.

Murray's free-kick was flicked on deftly by Marsh-Hughes, for Brooke to chest down and volley, just wide of the right post.

Brooke had another chance moments later, after he and Murray combined from the centre circle to zig-zag through the Kidsgrove half.

Brooke ran on to Murray's pass to the edge of the penalty area, but it caught him between strides, and his shot curved high.

Kidsgrove attacks were less frequent now, and relied on longer balls forward. O'Mahony and Downes combined to repel a long free-kick, and Welsh picked up another, only to be fouled as he brought the ball out of defence.

A Lynch cross from the right set up another duel between Marsh-Hughes and Jepson, a corner the outcome. Both Linnets centre-backs ran in to meet it, but Brown caught well at the far post.

Sean O'Mahony had a slightly lucky escape at the other end, when he tried to outwit McCarthy with freestyle skills outside his own area, and lost the ball.

Sean made amends with a swift tackle, before clearing the danger in a simpler style.

On the hour, Kidsgrove withdrew Callum Leigh, in favour of Callum Lovatt.

Linnets tried to use both wings to create avenues to extend their lead, with Ally Brown and James Short targeting Lynch and Murray up the touchlines, and Ryan Brooke playing provider from the middle.

But crosses were blocked, and Jepson continued to police the threat of Lloyd Marsh-Hughes at close quarters.

Kidsgrove efforts came on the break. Callum Lovatt thought he had spotted a teammate in a prime attacking position ahead of him, and threaded a quick through ball into space.

But there was nobody there.

It appeared he had mistaken a blue advertisement hoarding to the left of the goal for a Grove shirt.

Brooke tripped Diskin as he headed for the right corner; the free-kick was headed clear by Short.

Kyle Blake was replaced by Danny Cocks after 72 minutes, but before he departed he had one of Kidsgrove's best chances of the game.

He did well to spot a rare gap through to the right post from more than 30 yards out, and his shot was heading for the bottom corner until Owen Mooney made a fine diving save.

Alex Morris joined Cocks from the bench, McCarthy the other man to give way.

With 15 minutes remaining, Calum McIntyre made his first outfield change, Dapo Olarewaju taking over from Joe Lynch.

James Short had remained in an overall deeper role than was usual, as had Ally Brown in the other full-back berth, and that was testament to Kidsgrove's determination to maintain pressure going forward.

The passing Karen Chaney observed that despite Kidsgrove efforts to get back on terms, Linnets remained 'defiant'.

And it was captain Short who had Runcorn's next attempt at goal. A powerful shot from 30 yards was parried by Ryan Brown, then caught at the second attempt.

Brown launched the ball back upfield, and a concerted spell of Kidsgrove possession went back and forth between the centre of the pitch and the right wing, Short, Downes, O'Mahony and Welsh denying them a way through.

It was Iwan Murray who cleared.

A long ball back to the edge of the Runcorn area was met by the leap of Sean O'Mahony, who was ruled to have fouled the man beneath him, despite the fact that the man concerned had made no attempt to challenge for the ball.

The free-kick was from a dangerous place, and from the other end of the ground, it looked certain that Diskin had scored from it, with less than ten minutes to play.

His shot beat Mooney's dive, and hit the inside of the left post, but it somehow found its way right across the goal unhindered, before being steered to safety by Short.

Those last few minutes of normal time saw attacking intent from both sides. Linnets lost possession on the break, allowing a run on goal by Kieran Brown, but Mooney was off his line swiftly to smother the ball and avert the danger.

Dapo Olarewaju picked up yet another chested flick-on from Ryan Brooke to make a jinking solo run past two men, but as he changed direction into the area he ran straight into a third.

A tireless 90 minutes by Lloyd Marsh-Hughes ended with him limping off, later to be seen with an ice pack on his lower leg.

Eden Gumbs would have six added minutes to make an impact in Lloyd's place.

Linnets fans felt that was an uncomfortably long time to make sure of three points that should have been put out of reach much earlier in the afternoon.

Eden was involved quickly, making a determined run up the left towards the corner of the penalty area.

Kieran Brown threw his considerable weight into an attempt to knock him over, and failed. But the referee decided that Brown being on the floor and Gumbs remaining on his feet, and in possession, meant that the Kidsgrove man must have been fouled.

Quite how remains a complete mystery.

With two of the additional minutes remaining, a Kidsgrove free-kick taken centrally from 25 yards was on target, but pushed over the bar by Mooney.

The corner was cleared by O'Mahony and headed on by Brooke, for Murray to work an attack with Olarewaju and Gumbs.

Ryan Brown held on to Murray's cross, and cleared.

A final solo run by Gumbs, forced wide by Danny Cocks, was the last action of the afternoon, and Linnets had secured an unlikely 1-0 win. Unlikely, not because it wasn't a thoroughly well- earned three points, but because it was unbelievable that the last 80 minutes played hadn't yielded another goal.

They were three vital points in Runcorn's quest for a play-off place, not least as their closest challengers, Bootle, had also secured a 1-0 win.

Bootle's visit to the APEC on Tuesday, postponed from a month earlier, would be arguably Linnets' biggest game since the NWCFL-winning season of 2017-18.

A Runcorn win would leave their rivals for fifth place eight points behind them, with one game in hand, but only seven fixtures remaining.

Runcorn Linnets: Scott Reed (Owen Mooney 45), Ally Brown, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch (Dapo Olarewaju 75), Lewis Doyle, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes (Eden Gumbs 90). Subs not used: Louis Hayes, Peter Wylie.

Attendance: 344.

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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