The Northern Premier League

26th March 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Market Drayton Town : 4-1 Sponsored by RLFC Ground Group

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

After an exciting 3-1 Tuesday night victory over Bootle, their then closest rivals for a promotion play-off place, Runcorn Linnets welcomed Market Drayton Town to the APEC Taxis Stadium for the first time.

Drayton were already relegated from the NPL's second tier. It remained to be seen whether that would provide them with sufficient urgency to make things tough for the promotion hopefuls, or whether, with the pressure off, they could throw a spanner in the Runcorn works.

Sam Phillips' opening remark in his post-match interview with Linnets boss Calum McIntyre, was to be that if there has ever been a 'game of two halves' it was this one.

What the phrase may have lacked in originality, it made up for with bullseye accuracy.

If there were any groundhopping neutrals (on Non-league Day) among another great crowd of 706, they would ultimately have been very grateful for that fact.

Premature relegation had not prompted Market Drayton to down tools and start thinking about next season, and the promotion-chasing Linnets looked a bit sluggish as they struggled to break down determined and hard working opposition.

Dapo Olarewaju's added-time 'supersub' clincher against Bootle four days earlier had earned him a starting role, wide on the right, with Eden Gumbs coming in for Lloyd-Marsh-Hughes on the other wing.

In a tricky first half, Dapo looked more likely than anyone to open the door to a Runcorn victory.

In the first minute, a 50/50 race with Jamie Meddows towards the Drayton area ended with a collision, for which Dapo took the blame. Next to attempt a breakthrough, cutting in from the right, was Jacques Welsh. Jacques was harder to identify from a distance than of late, having shed a considerable amount of weight at the barber's since the Bootle game.

Stern defending frustrated a home side burdened with the expectation of a comfortable three points.

Brendon Price injured himself with a point-blank block of Ally Brown's attempted cross in the tenth minute.

Two minutes later a clumsy challenge on Iwan Murray by Harry Farnsworth resulted in a free-kick that was effectively a corner.

It was headed clear by Joe Care, who, with goalkeeper Ashley Rawlins, had been instrumental in making Linnets work overtime for a 2-0 win in Shropshire seven weeks earlier.

An Eden Gumbs shot, after he turned Jack Sweeney to enter the penalty area from the left, was blocked.

Alex Downes followed up, Rawlins saving to concede a corner. That was met at the near post by Linnets captain on the day, Sean O'Mahony, but under heavy pressure, it dropped wide.

Kain Dean, in at left-back for the injured James Short, combined with Gumbs up the left to provide a cross that was deflected for a corner. Murray's in-swinger just cleared the top of Welsh's head, suggesting he should have gone easier on the haircut.

Alex Downes shot from the right side of the area, but that too was blocked.

There were few chinks visible in the Market Drayton armour. Was it wishful thinking to suggest that their flat-out defensive efforts, all over their half of the pitch, couldn't possibly last for 90 minutes?

A lengthy spell of head-tennis in the middle third kept the ball off the ground for what seemed an eternity, until Downes fielded a long ball into the Runcorn half, and made a long pass over the defence for Olarewaju.

He had surely timed his run to collect it perfectly, but the assistant on the stand side was convinced that Dapo was offside.

It was the 25th minute, when a Reuban Mackay cross targeted centre-forward Alexandru Margina in the Runcorn area for the first time, but Alex Downes got to it first.

Drayton had been unable to pose much of an attacking threat in the first quarter of the game, but they were making sequences of more than two Runcorn passes at a time a rarity.

Ally Brown blocked Mackay's cross to give Drayton their first corner, after 28 minutes, from the left.

It was scrambled away, and Iwan Murray was tripped in his own half, as he shaped to set up Dapo ahead of him.

Town repelled the free-kick and attacked up the right, where Kain Dean dispossessed Eshan Greer at the second attempt.

A couple of minutes of sustained pressure by the visitors failed to produce a shot on goal, and as Murray launched a response with a run through the centre circle, Farnsworth brought him down, and received the first yellow card of the day.

The free-kick was headed on by Brooke to Gumbs, wide on the left. His cross was headed towards goal by Downes, but straight to 'keeper Rawlins.

Ten minutes from half-time, Olarewaju played a one-two with Gumbs that won a corner. Downes was the target again, and an accidental clash of heads left Alex with a cut that required a bandage and a change into a numberless 'blood shirt'.

Attacking persistence from the home side still failed to produce scoring chances, and a Drayton break won a corner off Brown's block, Mooney punching clear and then dropping on a low follow-up shot from distance.

Welsh set up Brooke for a mazy run on goal past three opponents, but his shot from 20 yards out was blocked by Care's trailing foot.

Referee Joe Cunningham added four minutes to the first half, most of it due to Alex Downes' head injury.

He permitted Drayton winger Reuban Mackay to use up roughly half of it in tying his bootlaces in the Runcorn half, but he still blew the whistle at 3.49pm, prompting a heated discourse from Calum McIntyre as they walked to the tunnel.

The only incident of note in added time had been a corner, won by an Olarewaju shot deflecting off Sweeney. Jordan Jones headed it just over his own bar, when it could easily have gone just under.

When a team has spent 45 minutes on top, but failed to get ahead, patience is usually advised. But Linnets' approach after the break was impatience personified, with Brooke and Olarewaju getting forward fast.

Dapo picked up two head-ons from Ryan inside a minute, but both of his runs on goal were repelled.

On 49 minutes, Murray advanced 30 yards into the Drayton half up the right touch line, until Brendon Price's tackle conceded a Brown throw-in, that found Brooke.

He flicked it on into the area for Olarewaju, whose low shot hit the boot of Joe Care and looped up over Rawlins and into the net.

There was an element of luck in Dapo's goal, but it was more than deserved by the 50 minutes he had spent tormenting the opposition.

The breakthrough enabled Linnets to relax into the role of firm favourites for all three points, and the speed of the game at least doubled.

A Dapo-Price aerial duel gave Linnets a corner on the right, which reached Downes' bandaged head beyond the far post. His well directed header was cleared off the line by Meddows.

A Lynch-Brooke-Olarewaju combination on the left ended with a foul on Brooke. It was taken short to Dean, whose cross was headed into the side netting by O'Mahony.

That was the last involvement of the day from Kain Dean, who was replaced after 56 minutes by Peter Wylie.

His involvement was immediate, a ball wide left to Gumbs crossed to Joe Lynch. He beat Sweeney to find Murray in the middle, his first time shot blocked at close range by Care.

Iwan then passed wide right to Dapo, who was wiped out inside the Drayton half by Price. The Town left-back appeared to have been briefed to neutralise the threat of the Runcorn No7, and he fouled Dapo four more times within 20 minutes, without coaxing the yellow card out of Mr Cunnigham's pocket.

On the hour mark, Price hauled Dapo back by his shirt on the right touchline. Murray's free-kick reached Brooke just inside the penalty area, his powerful volley on target drawing an excellent one-handed save from Rawlins.

Two Market Drayton attacks came in quick succession, O'Mahony blocking Greer's shot from a long through ball, and Downes clearing up an almost identical effort by Panashe Madama.

After 66 minutes Drayton won a rare corner, on the left. It flew long, and was launched back across the area by Farnsworth, for Margina to head wide of both Owen Mooney and the left post.

Lloyd Marsh-Hughes replaced Eden Gumbs after 69 minutes, just before a Runcorn free-kick for a trip on Murray sent Lynch on a run into the area.

His cross eluded three advancing Linnets.

Lloyd wasted no time at all in playing a decisive part. He won the ball wide on the left and passed back to the near corner of the penalty area, from where Ryan Brooke delivered a first time shot into the top right corner of the net, leaving the 'keeper rooted to the spot.

Runcorn had warmed to their task, and fewer than three points now looked unlikely.

Olarewaju, Murray and Lynch broke forward in unison, giving the latter a shot from inside the area,blocked well by Rawlins at close range.

On 73 minutes, Dapo went on a solo run past three defenders. This resembled the move for his clincher against Bootle, but this time he sliced his shot wide of the post.

Brooke was fouled outside the right corner of the area, and he flicked Murray's free-kick on to Lynch, whose pass inside was met by Marsh-Hughes for a shot that went two feet wide of the left post.

Into the last quarter of an hour, Sean O'Mahony tired of his role as stalwart centre-half and became a midfield maestro, weaving through three defenders before slipping a pass to Brooke outside the right edge of the six-yard box.

Ryan hit a first time shot from a tight angle, across the advancing 'keeper and inside the far post, to make it 3-0.

Domination from the promotion hopefuls had been a long time coming, but come it had.

Murray and Olarewaju were next to lay siege to the Market Drayton goal, encouraged by the noise from the Linnets fans behind it.

Dapo's shot from the right was deflected for a corner, which Iwan curled along the crossbar.

It would almost certainly have found its way into the far top corner if Rawlins hadn't got a fingertip on it.

That was the Welsh wonder's final contribution, before he gave way to Louis Hayes for the last nine minutes.

Price fouled Olarewaju yet again, and Jordan Jones hooked away Lynch's free-kick from inside the left post.

A minute later, Greer took over Dapo-fouling duties, and Mr Cunningham showed him far less tolerance, with a yellow card for his first offence.

The free-kick set Peter Wylie away up the left, and he pulled a cross back into the area, from where Ryan Brooke dispatched another first-time shot behind Rawlins and into the net.

It was his third goal in 14 minutes, his 25th of the league season, and his 31st in all competitions. The match ball was his, and the man-of-the-match methode champagnoise was on ice.

There's an old saying in football, that a team is never more vulnerable than when they've gone 4-0 up with six minutes to go. Alright, there isn't.

But there should be.There was insufficient urgency in the Linnets defence when Eshan Greer received a cross from deep, into the middle of the area.

His shot was stopped by Owen Mooney, but he was allowed plenty of time for another stab while the 'keeper was still on the floor, and he scored with ease.

The admirably noisy seven Drayton fans behind the Forest End goal had earned their celebration.

Linnets set about restoring the four-goal margin. Lloyd Marsh-Hughes lost out by inches in a one-on-one race for the ball with Ashley Rawlins, and Ryan Brooke robbed the ball from Joe Care, to attempt a shot from the same spot outside the left post from where he had completed his hat-trick - only for Rawlins to palm the ball wide this time.

The corner was booted clear, and the final whistle blew.

A game of two halves, indeed. Market Drayton had made Linnets work hard for a 20th win from 33 league games, and it was a victory that wasn't entirely on the cards until 20 minutes from full-time.

Results elsewhere meant that Linnets had a minimum advantage of eight points over Clitheroe and Bootle, with five league games to play.

Another eight points from those five games would secure a play-off place that nobody had the right to expect when the season began.

The local derby at Warrington Rylands in seven days' time will have a huge bearing on the promotion prospects of both teams.

In the meantime, Linnets make another short journey, to Ellesmere Port, for a Cheshire Senior Cup semi-final against Vauxhall Motors, on Tuesday, March 29th.

Runcorn Linnets: Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, Kain Dean (Peter Wylie 56), Jacques Welsh, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Dapo Olarewaju, Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray (Louis Hayes 81), Eden Gumbs (Lloyd Marsh-Hughes 69). Subs not used: Scott Reed, Harry Griffiths.

Attendance: 706.

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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