The Northern Premier League

16th April 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Leek Town : 2-0 Sponsored by Grangeside of Runcorn

Report by David 'Bill' Davies Leek Town came to the APEC Stadium on Easter Saturday, to face Linnets for the second, but possibly not the last, time in the 2021-22 season.

The Staffordshire side were already guaranteed a place in the promotion play-offs, having taken over third place from Marine with a 4-0 home win over Mossley seven days earlier.

Linnets secured a hard fought 1-0 victory over Leek back in August, when Town were temporary tenants at Buxton FC's Silverlands, and by completing a league double Runcorn were left needing just two more points from the last two fixtures of the season, to join their opponents in the play-off semi-finals.

To cut to the chase, Linnets produced one of their very best performances of an already impressive season, thoroughly deserving a 2-0 win that was capped, 11 minutes from time, by Iwan Murray.

On their way into the APEC, fans cast their votes for player of the season. It has never been a tougher task. By full-time, the ballot for goal of the season became a far simpler exercise.

If Iwan's 35-yard 'top bin' clincher is going to be challenged, the last two, three or four games of the season must not be missed under any circumstances.

The first twenty minutes or so were predictably tight, between two evenly-matched teams who both aim to play good football at ground level.

Leek were first to threaten, with Will Saxon's advance up to the right corner flag halted by a foul by Sean O'Mahony. A ball into the Linnets area at the second attempt was stopped by a blue-shirted arm.

Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, returning to the team after missing the trip to Newcastle through illness, was seeking some telling service at the other end, and Joe Lynch joined Ryan Brooke and Jacques Welsh in making three quickfire attempts to oblige.

Oliver Harrison and Louis Keenan in particular were in no mood to make it easy for them, and that was to remain the case for 90 minutes.

Early Runcorn crosses into the area did materialise, but only from distance and under pressure, and Town 'keeper Roberts gathered them easily enough.

Daniel Trickett-Smith attempted a shot from distance but it was blocked by Alex Downes, and Ally Brown cleared to safety before Saxon could follow up.

A vantage point from above the stand revealed that, as so often this season, a stiff wind was going to have a bearing on high balls. It carried a threatening James Short cross into the area after eight minutes - Ryan Brooke could meet it only with the top of his head.

Ally Brown was fouled as he picked up the loose ball outside the right corner of the penalty area, and Murray's free-kick was headed away.

Short launched it back on the wind, but Roberts plucked the ball out of the air.

A pattern of sorts emerged, as both teams aimed to make ground up either wing before losing the ball, the opposition replying in kind, and doing likewise. All four full-backs were doing their jobs well.

Brooke chested a Lynch ball into the path of Marsh-Hughes, who strode with it into the penalty area, until Harrison hooked away a clearance. On the break, Saxon looked for a penalty, flying head first from Mooney's dive at his feet, but the referee saw it for the well-timed save it was.

Five minutes of effort with little progress by either side included a number of decisive challenges by Jacques Welsh, as Leek concentrated on trying to advance up the right through Wara and Dyer.

The first quarter of the game was as evenly contested as the teams' first meeting had been on August Bank Holiday Friday, but then the play started to open up a little more.

Leek boasted the first serious shot on goal after 27 minutes, Dyer's dipping effort from outside the area clearing the bar.

Marsh-Hughes won a corner off Keenan, from the right. Linnets' 'conga line' tactic, with four men avoiding defensive wrestling at the edge of the area, almost bore fruit again. Downes broke away beyond the far post and headed back into the centre. Harrison headed away, but Lynch found Murray with a pass to the right, and he relayed the ball to Brooke. He turned to flick a shot inside the right post, but Roberts saved well.

Linnets pressure continued, a great Brooke ball setting up Marsh-Hughes outside the right post, but Harrison managed to prevent a shot, conceding a corner.

Downes headed it from beyond the far post again, the ball rebounding off Marsh-Hughes' back. Three Runcorn attempts to shoot in a crowded area were blocked, a resulting corner being caught in the air by Roberts.

Leek launched their first attack for a few minutes, when Ross Davidson played a swerving ball over the Linnets defence into the area, demanding a diving save from Mooney to steer it wide.

Harrison's head met the corner kick, but could only guide it towards Mooney's gloves.

There was no doubt that the game was opening up, and a goalless draw began to appear unlikely.

Linnets returned to the attack, mostly up the right flank via Brown, Lynch and Murray, but Keenan, Edge and Harrison limited their efforts to set up Brooke or Marsh-Hughes for attempts on goal.

Crosses had to be high, and twice they were a touch too high for Welsh near the left post.

A Lynch cross reached Marsh-Hughes at the near post, but his header narrowly cleared the top right angle.

After two three-man attacking moves at either end were repelled, Linnets were almost in front as half-time beckoned. A peach of a ball by Lewis Doyle from the left touchline reached Lloyd Marsh-Hughes inside the six-yard box, and his dinked shot was tipped on to the crossbar by Roberts.

There was predictably little between the teams at the break, but it was pleasing that there was nothing cagey or nervous about either side's approach. They both wanted to win.

Boxing judges would surely have had Linnets narrowly ahead on points.

The restart was delayed, as referee Daniel Hitchell refused to proceed until drinking vessels and their contents ceased to be thrown on to the pitch, from behind Owen Mooney's goal at the forest end. Two people were ejected from the ground in the next few minutes, and there were to be more to follow in the closing minutes of the game, after ugly scenes ensued at the clubhouse end.

The professionalism of Direct Detailing and Site Services' security staff in handling the outburst was to be highly commended. So was the calm response of the referee, in difficult circumstances that are, thankfully, rarely seen at eighth-tier football matches.

Runcorn Linnets are sufficiently well acquainted with Leek Town FC to know that the nastiness was nothing to do with either club, or their fans. It suffices to observe that there were no EFL Championship games played on Easter Saturday.

Linnets started the second half on a mission, and they were to turn a disciplined, hard-working showing so far, into a performance as good as any in an already over-achieving season.

Lloyd Marsh Hughes won a corner a minute into the half, from a tackle that he insisted had involved handball in the penalty area.

After a swift one-two-three move with Iwan Murray on the left, James Short launched himself into a tackle that left him clutching his right ankle. After he received lengthy attention from physio Luke Davies, the home fans were relieved to see Shorty continue a great day's work.

Eight minutes into the half, the deadlock was broken in somewhat bizarre fashion.

Ryan Brooke's 50-50 challenge with Harrison, 20 yards from goal, saw the ball loop high into the left side of the Leek area. Brooky chased it as Brooky always does, and 'keeper Roberts raced out of his goal to challenge.

The Leek No1 had shown excellent judgement all afternoon, but rather than jump to claim the ball in the air, or to win the inevitable free-kick for a challenge on the 'keeper, he ran straight at Brooke and used both hands to push him to the floor.

Mr Hitchell pointed to the penalty spot before the league's top scorer had hit the ground.

Joe Lynch gratefully accepted the gift, slotting his spot-kick into the bottom left corner.

Leek responded through the middle from the kick-off, Linnets slightly sluggish after taking the lead, but Sean O'Mahony thwarted the immediate riposte with a firm tackle on Trickett-Smith on the 18-yard line.

Linnets began to look more assured in possession, with Brooke taking up residence on the left, Marsh-Hughes on the right, and Lynch and Murray settling on the ball in the middle.

Leek's energies were increasingly concentrated on containing the Runcorn threat in possession, their own attacks limited more to breaking out of defence up either wing.

Into the last half-hour, Davidson advanced up the left touchline. As Alex Downes pursued him and tackled, he pulled up with the tell-tale signs of a hamstring injury. Peter Wylie came off the bench to replace him.

Tactical substitutions followed for Town, Marc Grocott and Tim Grice replacing Edge and Davidson. Both involved themselves in a spell of Leek possession, but a well-drilled Runcorn defence denied them any pathways towards goal.

A soft-looking foul on Joe Lynch gave Linnets a free-kick from 35 yards out. Murray tapped it to Lynch, who launched the ball into the area, a touch too fast for Brooke to connect.

The first yellow card of the day came when Wara dropped Jacques Welsh, as he turned inside from the left touchline. Harrison headed away the free-kick, setting up Dyer for a promising run up the right wing and into the area, until Short stopped him with a perfectly-timed tackle.

A great conbtribution from Welsh ended when he was replaced by Louis Hayes after 71 minutes.

A Leek throw-in on the right set up shots for Grice and Saxon, demanding a solid save by Mooney and a clearance by Wylie.

Hard work by Murray up the right wing won two throw-ins, and from the second, Iwan launched a high cross towards the far post. There was no Runcorn man in attendance, but Roberts had to concentrate to hold on to the ball.

In a game where the players were better behaved than some spectators, the Blues collected two more yellow cards in quick succession, with 15 minutes to play. Reeves earned the first for a late challenge on Louis Hayes, and Saxon for futile dissent.

The rare occurrence of a foul throw was awarded against James Short, for encroaching and failing to hurry up when told to do so. The Linnets left-back made up for it, with a precision tackle on Dyer as he made ground into the Runcorn area.

Joe Lynch carried the ball 30 yards from his own half, and from a great one-two switch with Ryan Brooke, launched a cross through the Leek area. The wind was directly behind it, and it flew too fast for Iwan Murray's run up the right.

Leek players appealed for a free-kick when Doyle impeded Ryder's run, but the referee played advantage as Saxon advanced into the Runcon half.

He was dispossessed by Wylie, who passed forward to Murray, just beyond the dugouts.

Iwan's passing options were limited, so he opted to shoot from fully 35 yards. He was possibly the only person among the nearly 800 present who thought it was a good idea, but he was proved right, as the ball soared majestically into the top left corner, Roberts powerless to get near it.

Celebrations were soured two minutes later, when a number of spectators moved from the bottom end of the ground to attack Linnets fans behind the clubhouse goal. Mr Hitchell stopped the game, and kept away players from both teams who were attempting to intervene.

Security staff did a great job in quickly restoring order, and removing the ringleaders from the stadium.

I reiterate that such incidents are thankfully very rare at our level of football, and are never the work of real fans, but former Linnets chairman Dave Jones observed afterwards that when there is any trouble, he is always caught in the middle of it. We all know he doesn't cause it, but he might want to rethink the wearing of a hi-vis vest!

The clock was on 88 minutes when play resumed, but the unrest caused eight minutes to be added to the end of the game. That might have been enough for a team of Leek's quality to rescue a point, but Linnets were in no mood to lose their shape or discipline at the back.

Brown, Wylie, O'Mahony and Short backed each other up and pounced on every ball into the Runcorn third of the pitch, and possession became the preferred way to close out a deserved victory.

Oliver Harrison, who had a strong claim to be Leek's man of the match, carved out a half-chance inside the area, but his header looped over the bar as Mooney jumped to cover it.

Leek sub Brian Ly, who had replaced Trickett-Smith for the closing minutes, received a yellow card for a ludicrously late challenge on James Short.

Brooke, Lynch and Short worked defiantly up the left to retain attacking possession, and Marsh-Hughes did likewise on the right, frustrating three defenders at length before winning a corner. That was repelled by Keenan.

With a couple of minutes of added time remaining, Iwan Murray collided with Ryder on a run through the middle, and appeared to aggravate his recent shoulder injury. He gave way to a cameo appearance by Stuart Crilly, who had been sidelined since early February.

He managed a couple of one-two exchanges with Joe Lynch, before Mr Hitchell brought an eventful afternoon to a close.

As I had watched the game from the media gantry above the stand, Linnets Live Radio gave me the honour of choosing the man of the match. It was nigh on impossible, after a magnificent team performance, so I like to think that Iwan Murray deliberately provided me with the tie-break, with that frankly ridiculous goal.

So it's up the road to Prescot Cables for the yellow bucket hats and foam fingers, on Easter Monday, and the chance of a little bit of Linnets history being made.

Leek Town had become something of a litmus test for Linnets' season. Runcorn are the only team to have done the double over them in 2021-22, and they did it with two of their 13 clean sheets in the league. Two more of those, and their season rolls on into the play-offs.

Runcorn Linnets: Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, James Short, Jacques Welsh (Louis Hayes 71), Alex Downes (Peter Wylie 63), Sean O'Mahony, Lewis Doyle, Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray (Stuart Crilly 90), Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Eden Gumbs, Carl Spellman.

Attendance: 742.

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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