The Northern Premier League

2nd April 2022, Rylands FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-0

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets made the short journey to Gorsey Lane, Warrington, for a game that carried huge implications for the promotion hopes of both sides. Runcorn needed eight points from their final five games to secure a place in the play-offs.

Their hosts, Warrington Rylands topped the Pitching In NPL West table, with four fixtures remaining, and Workington four points behind them with two games in hand. Marine were one point further back, with five to play.

The various possible permutations meant that this might not be the last Rylands-Linnets contest of the season.

Runcorn fans hoped it wouldn't be, as the probable alternative would be a Tuesday night odyssey to Workington.

As it turned out, a meeting between them in the play-offs would also be the decider in their season's private battle, as Rylands were to achieve direct revenge for their 2-0 defeat at APEC Taxis Stadium in November.

Calum McIntyre's lineup options were limited yet again, with Iwan Murray missing through illness, and Dapo Olarewaju eliminated by an ankle injury, sustained in the Cheshire Senior Cup semi-final exit at Vauxhall Motors four days earlier.

James Short returned at left-back, despite having not fully recovered from a calf strain, in a five-man defence. It also featured Alex Downes, the 14 stitches earned in the 4-1 win over Market Drayton, protected by a headband.

The Runcorn fanbase has expanded incredibly in both numbers and vocal volume this season, and they helped better Rylands' previous biggest gate of the season by almost fifty per cent.

The great majority of the 542 present roared the visitors on, in an attacking if edgy start.

After a first minute Rylands free-kick from inside the Runcorn half was bundled away, another followed in the opposite direction. Joe Lynch cut inside to cross, but it was headed away by James Nield.

A Lynch shot from distance in the fourth minute was deflected for a corner, which was cleared, and his influence continued as he delivered another cross to the far post, which Declan Walker got to just ahead of Alex Downes, conceding a corner.

That was met by Sean O'Mahony in the middle of the six-yard box, but too low for a head on goal, and his hurried shot cleared the defenders in front of him, but also the bar (and the steam-punk irrigation trolley that had been parked behind the goal, obscuring the fans' view of the pitch).

When Rylands responded in attack, the Linnets defence forced them wide. A low cross from Kane Drummond, who was to prove the league leaders' most influential player, was met by Paddy Lacey, but he sliced a shot well wide.

A free-kick for Charlie Doyle's late challenge on Peter Wylie, from ten yards inside the Rylands half, was headed out by Richard Smith for a Runcorn throw-in. Joe Lynch crossed, Smith hoofing it clear before Ryan Brooke could connect, and David Webb flicked the clearance on to Scarisbrick, but he was offside.

It quickly became apparent that neither side would be allowed a second on the ball, or a yard of space. If the game continued in that way, the outcome would be more likely to hinge on a mistake than on a flash of brilliance.

Richard Smith was floored for some time by a 50-50 collision with Lewis Doyle,and it added to a disjointed mid-section of the first half, with neither side able to achieve any flow or rhythm to their game.

Linnets attempted progress up the right, two Ally Brown throw-ins within seconds being met by long clearances by John Hunt and James Nield. Five orthodox defenders in yellow and green, augmented by Hayes and Doyle, prevented Rylands from spending much time on the ball when they broke into the away half.

Another delay resulted from Rylands centre forward Webb taking a blow to his back from a collision with Louis Hayes. He persisted for another five minutes before being replaced by Scott Bakkor.

A long, hard season for both sides was making its presence felt. Both physios were called into action repeatedly, despite a low foul count so far. I can't remember ever seeing so many drop-ball restarts.

Charlie Doyle and Kane Drummond worked hard to build meaningful attacks for the home side, but the Linnets defence continued to frustrate, and Runcorn efforts were concentrated on aerial balls from wide into the penalty area. No chances resulted, as the heads of Smith and Egerton invariably got to the ball before those of Brooke or Marsh-Hughes.

Smith brought down Marsh-Hughes as he chased Short's through ball. Rylands 'keeper and captain Graeme McCall punched the free-kick away from the top of Brooke's head, conceding a corner.

It was headed on for Lynch to pick up wide on the right. His cross was met by a clash of heads between Wylie and Egerton, the latter coming off worse. An uncontested drop-ball was picked up by McCall.

A game based on neither side giving a second on the ball for the other, was always going to swing on a momentary lapse of vigilence. It did so after 36 minutes, when Declan Walker was allowed enough space to find Drummond in even more, six yards from goal in the right side of the area. He was allowed too much of the target to aim at, and found it with ease.

The breakthrough was bound to be a pivotal moment in the game, as it allowed a strong team, at the top of their league, the confidence to relax and maintain the upper hand.

Linnets heads didn't drop, though, and Joe Lynch in particular plugged away to find an opening for teammates ahead of him. But Rylands' closing down limited Runcorn attacks to high balls from wide or deep into the area, and every one was repelled by the height and strength of Smith and Egerton in the middle of the home defence.

The next man to require lengthy physio assistance, with no foul being committed, was Charlie Doyle, and he had to give way to Stephen Irwin, a minute before half-time. It is inevitable that the business end of a long football season becomes a trial of the walking wounded.

This was a game of few fouls either way, but the injuries kept coming.

Rylands launched two corners from the right in quick succession, the second cleared by O'Mahony, and volleyed back in by Bakkor, but it curled well wide.

Who knows what the half-time deliberations entailed, but after a pretty even first half, the one-goal advantage for Rylands would surely have a huge impact on the likely final outcome. The league leaders would have felt that only a lack of discipline on their part could cost them points.

For Linnets, they needed to win 2-0 over 45 minutes, and that was a tall order.

Peter Wylie gave way to Kain Dean at half-time, and passed the captain's armband to James Short.

The second half proceeded as the first had, with entertainment in short supply. That isn't a criticism, but a compliment to two sides determined to prevent the other from reproducing pass and move football practised on the training ground.

Rapid closing down and swift challenges by both sides gave the advantage to Rylands, simply because they were a goal to the good.

A trip on Alex Downes gave Linnets a free-kick, from which efforts by Brooke and Marsh-Hughes were repelled three times, by Neild, Egerton and Hunt, finally setting Drummond away on the break from Bakkor's pass, but he was offside.

A long clearance by Downes was destined for Brooke, 25 yards from goal. He was held down by Neild and Egerton, but referee Jordan Crossley saw no offence.

Rylands attacked up the left, a cross headed on goal by Scarisbrick, but Owen Mooney held on to it with ease.

There was internal dissent among the Runcorn defence, as Rylands broke through from the right too easily, but Lacey's cross was wasted, running out for a throw-in on the far side.

After a string of Linnets passes traversed the Rylands half, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes was fouled on the left touchline. Dean's cross into the six-yard box was punched clear by McCall, as was the back of Smith's head, bringing another injury delay. Despite the fact that Linnets were in possession of the ball when the referee stopped play, he dropped the ball to McCall.

With the game an hour old, Rylands were exerting a measure of control. Scarisbrick and Irwin both carved out chances that were repelled, but then Bakkor found the space to pass into the area behind O'Mahony and Downes, and Drummond stroked a low shot across Mooney and into the net.

Rylands had started the afternoon looking a little nervous, especially when out of possession. Taking the lead had naturally had a calming effect, and doubling it allowed them a greater measure of serenity. It seemed extremely unlikely that they would relinquish a comfortable lead, even if Linnets could find some flashes of attacking inspiration.

They did their best to carve a way through. Ryan Brooke had a straight run on goal from 30 yards out, but was felled by Irwin's high boot. Smith's head was the only one near Lynch's resulting free-kick into the area.

Joe Lynch cut inside Hunt from an Ally Brown throw-in on the right, and managed a shot from 18 yards, but he couldn't get power behind it, and McCall picked it up easily at the foot of the near post.

Such Runcorn forays were becoming more scarce, with most possession at the feet of the men in blue, who had no cause for panic at the possibility of losing it.

Drummond got to the ball up the right just before Short, and crossed back through the area, from where Walker dragged a shot wide.

With a quarter of an hour remaining, Eden Gumbs took over from James Short, to add an extra attacking dimension, but it was asking a lot for the sub to engineer a turnaround. With Short's departure, Sean O'Mahony became the third Linnet in the space of half an hour to wear the captain's armband.

Ryan Brooke went on a solo run from the left side of the Rylands half, and made it past three men to reach the corner of the six-yard box. Walker's block ricocheted off Brooke and out for a goal-kick.

Linnets' last throw of the personnel dice replaced Louis Hayes with Jacques Welsh. He was quickly involved in a four-man passing move from right wing to left, ending with a ball across the box from Lewis Doyle, but it flew too long for Marsh-Hughes as he closed in on the far post.

At the other end, a slip by Downes allowed Scarisbrick to cross for a Bakkor shot. O'Mahony did enough to put him off his stride, and it looped over the bar.

With six minutes remaining, Scarisbrick received a yellow card for a trip on Joe Lynch in the centre circle. O'Mahony got to the free-kick first, but could only head back away from goal, and the ball was cleared.

A Ryan Brooke charge through the middle ended when Bakkor barged him off the ball, and a scuffle ensued when several Rylands men were enraged by Brooky's low lunge to get it back. But there was no question his only target was the ball, and after Mr Crossley had restored calm, he brought the ball back for the initial foul against Brooke.

In added time, Linnets had two last bids for what would by then have been a consolation goal.

A great run up the left by Eden Gumbs, assisted by Brooke, set up Lynch for a cross from the left corner, but he was fouled. From the free-kick, Neild edged the aerial duel with Brooke.

Then Lynch got forward again and played in a great ball for Brooke to head on target. He got plenty of power on it, but McCall reacted quickly to get down low and make a good one-handed save.

It was the final incident of the game.

Both teams had set themselves up for a vital game with a determination not to make silly mistakes, and that tends not to be a recipe for a breathtaking spectacle.

It goes without saying that Rylands are a very good team. It would be scandalous if they weren't. But a rank amateur tactician, such as a match reporter, might suggest that at the make-or-break end of the season, perhaps risking a possible hiding by going flat-out for all three points, would increase the chances of getting any.

By no means did they 'park the bus', but the emphasis on defence before attack inevitably stacked the odds against a famous Linnets victory.

Throwing caution to the wind from the beginning of a season would of course be reckless, and make a team entertaining relegation candidates, like Leeds United. But when three wins from five games will guarantee a play-off place, maybe risking a two-way goalfest might be the route to glory. If not, it would at least be the noblest of failures.

Linnets restricted the league's top scoring team (by some distance), to very few clear chances. They needed only two.

Next up for the travelling Runcorn fans will be to make a noise across the cycle track at Newcastle Town, on Saturday 9th April.

The simple objective, the first of three victories.

Runcorn Linnets:Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, James Short (Eden Gumbs 75), Peter Wylie (Kain Dean 45), Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Louis Hayes (Jacques Welsh 80), Lewis Doyle, Ryan Brooke, Joe Lynch, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Reece Daly, Harry Griffiths.

Attendance: 542.

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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