9th April 2022, Newcastle Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-2
Linnets' hopes of securing a promotion play-off spot had come down to their last four games, the first of these bringing a trip to Newcastle Town's cycling-track ringed Lyme Valley Stadium.
At the end of a disappointing season for Castle, there was still plenty of incentive to put a dent in Runcorn ambitions.
They too had four games left, with which to escape the potentially precarious 18th place. Third from bottom would bring about a play-off against a Step 5 runner-up for Newcastle or, at kick-off, any one of the six teams above them.
Stuart Crilly was on the Linnets bench, as he approached fitness after a long lay-off, and his availablity was much needed, as Lloyd Marsh-Hughes was the latest addition to the absentee list. Skipper Peter Wylie was a sub, despite likewise being unwell, and his deputy James Short, and Jacques Welsh, were both on the pitch although also battling illness.
The spectator experience at the Lyme Valley is a little reminiscent of Winsford's Barton Stadium, with the pitch a long way away, but the steep banking of the cycling track does provide a much better, elevated view.
It is a friendly, welcoming club to visit.
The stakes for both sides meant that neither wanted events to run away from them early, and a tight start suggested there might not be a wealth of chances created, or rather allowed.
In the second minute, Castle achieved the first aerial assault on a penalty area, and there were sharp intakes of breath among the travelling fans when Sean O'Mahony and his 'keeper, former Newcastle man Owen Mooney, leapt for the same high ball. Fortunately, it bounced to safety rather than into danger.
The first Runcorn attack produced an Iwan Murray shot, from Louis Hayes' through-ball, which was stopped by the arm of Connor Russo. The referee rightly saw no problem with it, as even if Connor had the reflexes of Spider Man, he would have known nothing about it.
In the opening minutes, a number of players on both sides strangely lost their footing. There was a tricky swirling wind, and it was warm in the sun while freezing cold in the shade, but the pitch didn't look slippery.
Newcastle took the first two corners of the game, the first coming after a throw-in was awarded the wrong way. They were taken towards either near post, and Ally Brown headed both of them away.
Ten minutes into the game, some Runcorn possession started to build, but it was brief and disjointed, thanks to industrious Newcastle closing down, and to studs and the ball skidding off the grass.
The first Linnets corner came after Joe Lynch played a ball wide to Ally Brown, whose cross was inches too far ahead of Ryan Brooke, and was steered beyond the far post by Castle skipper James Askey.
Linnets possession continued in close one-twos and triangles, with no space opening up through the men in blue. Lewis Doyle, Louis Hayes, Joe Lynch and Jacques Welsh all got involved, with full-backs James Short and Ally Brown advancing up either wing in support.
A Short-Hayes switch on the left enabled the former to cross for Ryan Brooke to head on goal, but he couldn't muster the power to worry Castle 'keeper Joe Slinn.
Another Newcastle corner from the right was cleared from the near post yet again by Ally Brown, and on the break, Lynch, Doyle and Welsh moved the ball from left flank to right. Ryan Brooke could only head Brown's cross backwards from the penalty arc, and to no avail.
Then another Brown cross from the right flew too long for Iwan Murray to meet it.
High balls were proving unruly when they reached the wind above the lofty perimeter fence, and if Linnets were going to make capital on their possession, they would need to keep the ball on the ground.
After 26 minutes, a common concern reappeared, about some officials' appreciation of the offside law.
James Askey got his head to James Short's ball into the area, to prevent it from reaching Ryan Brooke, but Brooky was flagged offside anyway, despite being at least a yard onside when the ball had been played.
Sinn in the Castle goal was next to prevent a dangerous ball from reaching the league's top scorer, when he intercepted Murray's short, low cross. If he hadn't, Brooky's 26th league goal of the season would have been a tap-in.
Before the match, Newcastle's manager, the former Port Vale, Derby County and Barnsley professional Robin van der Laan, had named Joe Lynch as Linnets' danger man. He was increasingly living up to his billing, holding up the ball inside the Castle half, and involving Welsh, Doyle, Hayes, Short and Brown in attempts to find avenues into the home third of the pitch.
Patience was the key for Runcorn, as Brooke and Murray (playing further forward than usual) awaited telling service within sight of goal.
Alex Downes joined the attack ten minutes before the interval, chesting down a precise through ball from Lynch, but both he and Brooke were offside.
Lynch was fouled in the centre of the Castle half as he collected a Doyle pass. The free-kick was headed out by Askey, and Hayes' follow-up shot was blocked by a defensive boot.
Further attempts from outside the penalty area, by Brooke and Lynch, were blocked from close quarters, before Downes passed up the right, for Brown to cross to Brooke. His glancing header was diverted for a Murray corner, which was heading for the top of the far post, where Sinn held on to it.
Runcorn had dominated the second quarter of the game, without managing to break down a well-organsided defence, and the last action of the first half saw two Newcastle raids on the Linnets goal.
Lewis Doyle was injured as he cleaned up from the first Castle attack for a while, which had started with Askey's long ball up to Eden Bailey, and Will Lloyd's hopeful long shot was smothered at ground level by Mooney.
Lewis Doyle was to be named man of the match by Linnets Live Radio, and he was certainly instrumental in linking solid Runcorn defensive work to their efforts to break down stubborn resistance at the other end. But the progress of the second half reinforced my view that I have never seen Ally Brown perform better in a Linnets shirt.
He was quick into the tackle, alongside O'Mahony, Downes and Short, whenever Castle threatened, and was also a driving force in increasing Runcorn attacking pressure.
Connor Russo, Ethan Vale and Jack van der Laan (he and teammate Tommy, the sons of manager Robin), were all run ragged by Ally's bursts up the right touchline, and his passing exchanges with Murray and Lynch. I quickly lost count of the number of Brown throw-ins inside Newcastle's third of the pitch, all won from that trio's quick passing moves up the right wing.
In the 48th minute, Murray knocked back a Brown throw-in for the right-back to launch a shot for with which Sinn juggled before managing to get a grip at the top right corner.
Two more throw-ins within seconds enabled Murray to cross for Brooke, the 'keeper prevailing in their aerial duel.
Brown passed long from his own half for Lynch to control and cut inside, seeking the space to shoot. Instead, he passed across the front of the area for a Hayes shot, which was blocked.
Linnets were showing real intent to take control of the game, and the half was ten minutes old when yet another Brown throw-in, five yards fron the corner flag, was knocked back by Lynch for Welsh to curl a cross through the penalty area. The Castle back four policed the charge of Brooke, Doyle and O'Mahony, but they couldn't prevent the latter from directing a powerful header beyond Sinn and inside the far post.
Linnets had been made to work hard for the lead, but it had been coming.
Two minutes later, a 30-yard free-kick, from Lloyd's foul on Brooke, produced a very similar cross through the area. Jacques Welsh's header cleared the bar by no more than a foot.
Linnets' passing sequences lengthened, with the confidence gained by taking the lead.
Murray ran on goal from the left, thanks to a slip by Luke Dennis, and he passed into the area ahead of Brooke. He got a toe on it, but Sinn came out fast enough to clear.
Twenty-five minutes remained when Brooke controlled, turned and shot from another Brown throw-in, and Sinn did well to get down and save at the foot of the right post.
Two minutes later, Brooke picked up Downes' clearance and sprinted into the Castle half, only to be tripped by Russo, who received a yellow card for his trouble.
The 40-yard free-kick had five Linnets heads pursuing it into the area, but Sinn came out and caught it well. Brooke's run up the right won a throw, five yards from the corner flag, and that produced a great low cross by Murray which was a shade too pacy for Brooke in the six-yard box.
The traffic was increasingly one-way, but the Runcorn attack was still severely limited for time and space on the ball.
Newcastle applied a spell of pressure, with Russo's break up the left wing halted by the ubiquitous Brown, and Tommy van der Laan found space in the middle of the Linnets half, with options, but he sliced an attempted long pass into touch.
Eden Gumbs entered the fray for the last 12 minutes, replacing a surely exhausted Joe Lynch, and he made his presence felt immediately.
He weaved through three opponents from the left flank before Tommy van der Laan nicked the ball away from him, and after Brown had won the ball in his own half and passed long up the left touchline, Eden outran his marker, but couldn't quite keep the ball in play.
There were less than ten minutes remaining when Iwan Murray was set up for a shot that was almost a contender for goal of the season. He received a Brown clearance on the halfway line, turned his man and passed to Gumbs out on the left. Eden returned the favour, and Iwan let rip from 25 yards. The shot beat Sinn's full length dive, but flew the wrong side of the right post by inches.
From the goal-kick, Downes volleyed the ball back up the right wing. Brooke controlled it near the corner flag and launched a great cross into the six-yard box.
There was some confusion surrounding the resulting Linnets goal.
It was initially credited by both clubs' Twitter feeds via Football Web Pages, and by the official game stats, to Evan Gumbs. It definitely wasn't him, as despite having represented Linnets on loan earlier in the season, he was busy playing for Warrington Town against Stafford Rangers.
It was an own goal by Newcastle substitute Lewis Jarman, but if he hadn't headed the ball inside the near post from point-blank range, then Evan Gumbs' brother Eden, shoulder to shoulder with him, certainly would have done.
Lewis had no option but to get his head on it before the Linnets sub, but he will doubtless be happy for Eden to eventually take the credit.
From the restart, Newcastle had their best chance of the afternoon. Ryan Baxter was in space for a shot from the edge of a crowded area, but he pulled it wide of the left post.
Runcorn came back for a chance to put the game to bed. Welsh played a long ball forward for Brooke to flick a header on to Murray, who caused some panic inside the area. He slipped a pass to Gumbs (definitely Eden), who did likewise. His shot looped up off Askey's boot, towards the left post, where Brooke's jump forced Sinn to fumble the ball wide.
As ever, when a goalkeeper is challenged in the air, a free-kick was awarded to the defending team.
The home side never gave up, and their determination was soon vindicated.
Two long balls into the Runcorn area were repelled by O'Mahony and Downes, but in the 90th minute, the first bit of scrappy defending from the play-off hopefuls cut their lead in half.
The massed personnel in the Linnets area were chasing the ball rather than their opponents, and Ryan Baxter found the space to slide the ball into the bottom left corner.
Newcastle scented blood, and spent most of the three added minutes in the Runcorn half. But the Linnets defence regrouped to complete a disciplined performance that allowed no further chances, and three of the eight points required for play-off qualification had been secured.
Late season games, with high stakes and tired limbs involved, are frequently unattractive and bad-tempered affairs. This one might not have been a festival of goalmouth incident, but it was a good game, contested fiercely throughout, but played in an excellent spirit.
Castle had very few chances, but thoroughly deserved to be in a position to throw everything at added time to salvage a precious point.
An attendance of 327 was one of the lowest for any Linnets game this season, but the 200-plus travelling fans sounded like a thousand from start to finish, and it was appreciated as always by players, management and staff.
More will be needed, and doubtless provided, for the visit to the APEC Stadium of fellow play-off candidates Leek Town, on Easter Saturday, 16th April.
Runcorn Linnets: Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, James Short, Louis Hayes, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Lewis Doyle, Jacques Welsh, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Joe Lynch (Eden Gumbs 78). Subs not used: Stuart Crilly, Peter Wylie, Carl Spellman.
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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