The Northern Premier League

29th March 2022, Vauxhall v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-0 [Pens:3-1]

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets took a break from their charge for the promotion play-offs with a visit to Ellesmere Port, home of North West Counties Premier Division side, Vauxhall Motors.

The prize was a place in the Cheshire Senior Cup final.

The perceived advantage of a one-tier difference between the teams was compromised by a new wave of injuries in the Linnets camp. James Short was sidelined with a calf strain, and Alex Downes' brow sported 14 stitches after a clash of heads in the 4-1 win over Market Drayton.

His place went to Carl Spellman, who had been on dual registration at Lower Breck, having last appeared in a Linnets shirt in the 7-1 Senior Cup victory over Cheadle Town in November.

A shoulder injury made Iwan Murray a doubt, but he started. In addition, 30-goal striker Ryan Brooke was suspended, after picking up two yellow cards in the quarter-final win at Staybridge Celtic.

A bitter reaction to a very disappointing night might observe that the outcome would surely have been different, if referee James Wright hadn't been incredibly tolerant of two-footed late tackles.

An objective view, however, would also be that there was more than enough talent on the pitch for Linnets to have given Vauxhall Motors a much harder job than they had to maintain a clean sheet.

One should never turn straight to the final page of a thriller to discover the outcome. But this was no thriller.

Taking the first penalty in a shoot-out, and requiring the opposition to take only three to win it, is a problem.

Linnets' rivals at the top end of the NPL West Division are likely to assume that they had eyes only for the last five games of the season, and the play-offs.

A swift attacking start from Runcorn saw a Peter Wylie throw-in to Lloyd Marsh-Hughes in the area, laid back for a Joe Lynch shot that was helped over the bar by a defensive deflection.

And a long Iwan Murray ball ahead of Dapo Olarewaju forced Motors 'keeper Ciaran O'Loughlin to race out of his area in the nick of time to hammer the ball out of the ground.

This early activity suggested that there wouldn't be a repeat of the distinctly sluggish first half against Market Drayton three days earlier, which had been rectified by a four-goal onslaught after the break.

But it proved to be a false dawn.

In the ninth minute, a one-two between Olarewaju and Lynch on the right produced a great through ball for Louis Hayes to run on to, and he placed a shot across O'Loughlin that glanced off the far post and out for a goal-kick.

It was to be the closest Linnets came to scoring all night.

Dapo quickly became the prime target for the kind of ruthless challenges routinely meted out to Iwan Murray.

In the 12th minute, he won and kept the ball near the left corner flag, only to be launched into a somersault by Ethan Goldbourne, who received the first of the night's eight yellow cards.

A couple of minutes later, Dapo went down with a howl of anguish on the opposite side of the pitch, appearing to have landed badly on an ankle.

Following attention from physio Luke Davies, he soldiered on, but after just enough time for a Vauxhall Motors attack that ended with a wild shot from distance by Ben Holmes, Dapo was down again, and he was replaced by Eden Gumbs.

Kit man Josh Christian was soon sprinting towards the dressing room carrying a bag of ice, and Linnets fans were crossing their fingers, hoping that Dapo wouldn't be a serious addition to the injured list before the promotion run-in.

Through the middle of the first half, a series of corners were achieved from a period of Runcorn pressure that failed to find a way through the home defence.

The tactic of forming a four-man conga line through the centre of the penalty arc had some success in limiting defensive man-to-man wrestling, but as they scattered into the area to meet Iwan Murray's crosses from either flag, few Linnets heads got to the ball before those of big centre-backs James and Mitchell.

Both of them were also instrumental in smashing clearances deep into the Runcorn half, or out of the ground.

The Motormen had a game plan, to get to the ball first and propel it as far from their goal as possible, without too much concern for where it would land.

It was working, and it continued to work, with the addition of a growing number of hefty tackles, many two-footed, and the help of a referee in a liberal mood.

Runcorn possession was short lived, and passing sequences rapidly curtailed.

In the 29th minute, Motors had what was to prove the best chance of the night.

Michael Burkey's cross from the left was headed towards the top corner by Craig Cairns, and it looked a goal all the way until Owen Mooney pulled off a great save.

In hindsight, it might have served Linnets better if he hadn't. Injured pride on the part of the higher- ranked side might have prompted a more concerted response to the highly-effective spoiling approach of their opponents.

For the Motormen, the near thing bolstered their confidence, and for around ten minutes they had more than half of the threatening possession on offer.

The stalemate continued chiefly because Linnets were controlling and passing the ball more effectively at the back than they were in attack.

Ten minutes before half-time, yet another Runcorn corner did produce an attempt on goal, but O'Loughlin made a great reflex save to prevent O'Mahony's header finding its way into the net.

Two more Motors attacks followed, Mooney punching away shots by Garner-Knapper and Cairns.

On the break, Murray remained upright from James'shoulder charge, but it was enough to put him off balance, and his shot looped over the bar.

From the final corner of the half, Haydn Cooper got to the ball before anyone in the Linnets conga line. Hayes volleyed his clearance on goal, but it flew inches wide of the right post.

At half time, the Runcorn fans hoped their side would break the stagnation in the way they had against Market Drayton, but it was not to be.

Vauxhall Motors'smothering tactics were to prove even more effective after the break, encouraged by the fact that increasingly aggressive challenges were deemed acceptable by Mr Wright. It's hard to criticise a plan that works.

Fouls came thick and fast when Runcorn advanced up either flank, and why wouldn't they, when the resulting free-kicks were repelled again and again by effective central defending, or flew long in fruitless attempts to elude James and Mitchell?

Marsh-Hughes and Gumbs tried repeatedly to slip past their markers, but booming challenges, with little concern for the destination of the ball, continued to prove effective.

I can't remember ever seeing so many new balls launched from the home dugout in a single match.

As the flying tackles gained frequency and ferocity, the referee began to see the need to flourish the yellow card, and James, Mitchell and Riley all received one between the 62nd and 70th minutes, with Louis Hayes also giving his name to Mr Wright.

Riley might have seen a red for his part in a mass brawl in the middle third of the pitch, and that was probably the reason for his replacement by Joseph Heath, three minutes after his booking.

Louis Hayes departed after 69 minutes, replaced by Lewis Doyle.

After some kind of calm had been restored, Linnets managed their most sustained passing sequence of the game, with seven players moving the ball from wing to wing twice over, but without gaining more than 20 yards into the Vauxhall half.

It ended with a foul on Jacques Welsh. The free-kick was launched into the six-yard box, where O'Loughlin punched the ball vertically, with four Linnets looking to head on goal.

An offside flag was endorsed by the referee, which was a conundrum, given that Motors defenders were hugging both posts.

From the clearance, the hosts built a golden opportunity. Drummond's diagonal ball through the penalty area reached Cooper at the right-hand post.

He hooked it wide, when scoring appeared easier.

Twelve minutes remained when Jacques Welsh saw yellow for bringing down Garner-Knapper, 30 yards from goal. O'Mahony headed the free-kick out for a corner, and Mooney was fouled as he

jumped to catch the resulting cross.

Eight minutes were left when the most prolongued spell of Runcorn possession battled to advance through the middle third, against tackle after tackle.

Joe Lynch borke away to pass three opponents into the penalty area, but Marcus James pressured him off his stride enough for his shot to miss the left post by a yard.

The wave of yellow cards continued when Garner-Knapper collected another for reacting to Lewis Doyle's tackle.

The feeling among Runcorn fans was that a moment of inspiration was required, to find a way into a cup final that hadn't so far been deserved.

Joe Lynch worked hard on the right-hand side to find a route to Lloyd Marsh-Hughes in the middle, or to Eden Gumbs on the left. Lloyd glanced a header across goal that O'Loughlin palmed away.

Iwan Murray weaved through the centre to reach the area, but had to make do with a corner when he was shoulder charged off the ball by Gouldbourne.

The conga strategy was abandoned in favour of a more random charge in to meet Murray's corner kick, and Marsh-Hughes, Spellman and O'Mahony were all bear-hugged as they tried to reach the ball, without attracting any disapproval from the officials.

The last two minutes saw three more all-in attempts to grab a late Linnets winner, but the Motors defence remained resolute, and a final smash-and-grab assault by the home side was halted by O'Mahony tripping Ben Holmes.

It earned O'Mahony the last of the game's eight yellow cards.

The free-kick from 25 yards out was scooped up by Mooney at the foot of the right post.

As the final whistle heralded a penalty shoot-out, there can't have been too many observers who were disappointed that extra-time no longer features in drawn Senior Cup games.

As thrillers go, few would have been itching to sit through a sequel.

The best that can be said for the shoot-out was that the agony was not prolongued.

Linnets went first, and left Motors needing to take only three to put them into the final against Stockport County.

Jacques Welsh's spot-kick cleared the bar, and Lloyd Marsh-Hughes' and Peter Wylie's were both saved by McLoughlin.

In between those two, he also got a hand to Sean O'Mahony's penalty, but couldn't keep it out of the top right corner.

The Motors 'keeper completed his role as local hero by beating Owen Mooney with the last of his side's three conversions.

It was a shame that his efforts and those of his team-mates' efforts were devalued by a Vauxhall supporter behind the goal sounding an air horn during each Runcorn player's run-up.

It wasn't necessary, and if the final should go to penalties, it is to be hoped that there will be no recriminations if it happens again.

It was a night to forget for Linnets, which will help in allowing undivided attention on the last five league games of the season.

The first of them involves the short trip to Warrington Rylands.

Completing a season double over the current Pitching In Northern Premier League West leaders would leave a target of five more points,from a maximum possible of twelve, to make the play-offs.

Runcorn Linnets: Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, Peter Wylie, Louis Hayes (Lewis Doyle 69), Carl Spellman, Sean O'Mahony, Dapo Olarewaju (Eden Gumbs 18), Joe Lynch, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, Iwan Murray, Jacques Welsh. Subs not used:


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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