The Northern Premier League

18th April 2022, Prescot Cables v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Easter Monday brought one of the most important local derbies in the history of Runcorn Linnets.

After an impressive 2-0 home victory over Leek Town two days previously, another win at Prescot Cables would guarantee a place in the play-offs for promotion to the Pitching In NPL Premier Division.

Defeat for the hosts could see them consigned to 18th place, and with a complicated 'shuffle' to determine the play-offs between Steps 8 and 9, it remained unclear whether Cables might be dragged into them.

Cables applied themselves with a determination to remove any such concerns. They were aided in that ambition by having had a nine-day break since their 4-2 defeat of Trafford, while Linnets had to dig deep into their energy reserves, after a magnificent team effort to prevail against Leek Town just 48 hours earlier.

It was unclear how many of the 1,310 present (the second biggest crowd of the day, tipped by just 16 more at Workington) had made the 20-minute trip from Runcorn, but the Linnets fans certainly sounded like they were in the majority.

In the first minute, a Sean O'Mahony free-kick from the halfway line was heading for Ryan Brooke in the area, but he couldn't gain the height to meet it as he was sandwiched between McNally and Kearney. Joe Lynch crossed the loose ball, but only into the hands of 'keeper Mitchell Allen.

Brooke, Murray, Hayes and Lynch strung passes across the pitch from left to right, but the resulting cross was headed away first by Hollett, and then by Kearney.

On the break, Kyle Sambor was presented with a shooting opportunity, but he put snow on it.

In the fifth minute, former Linnet Harry Cannon-Noren provided a cross from the right, for Sambor's header to surely open the scoring. But Owen Mooney pulled off the save of the season to keep it out.

It was to prove by far the best of not many clear chances for either side, and had it gone in, the whole complexion of the game might have been very different.

Early plays both ways were largely aerial, encouraged by a very bumpy surface, and that provided frustrations for the Linnets attack. Cables centre-backs Hollett and Kearney, and left-back McNally, were the three biggest men on the pitch, and they achieved a high success rate in getting to high balls first and propelling them airborne towards the Runcorn half.

When Linnets crosses couldn't be cleared, they were dispatched for safety-first corners or throw-ins, and the cycle continued accordingly.

When Prescot made progress up the wings, through Cannon-Noren, Goodwin and Nugent, the attentions of full-backs Brown and Short forced them into hurried crosses, that flew long, were cleared by O'Mahony, Wylie and Hayes, or were caught in the air by Mooney.

In the 13th minute, James Short saw the opportunity for a shot rather than a cross, from inside the left touchline, and Allen had to concentrate to hold on to it, just under the far end of the bar.

Left back Short applied the close ball skills of a forward to tie Nugent in knots near the left corner flag, and passed back for Brooke to cross, but his ball through the area cleared the far post.

Within a couple of minutes, Sambor for Cables and Doyle for Linnets were both warned for heavy challenges, and an array of free-kicks both ways kept the game disjointed and scrappy.

After a pause for some involvement by the Prescot physio, another fairly end-to-end phase resumed, but the ball continued to dwell mostly in the air, until throw-ins or goal-kicks resulted.

On 27 minutes, Joe Lynch did take possession on the ground, but as he crossed the half-way line, George Nugent coaxed the referee's yellow card out of his pocket with some extravagant arm pulling, before kicking the Runcorn No7 for good measure.

Iwan Murray evaded four men outside the penalty area and flicked a pass back to Ryan Brooke, whose shot flew a yard wide of the right post.

After Ally Brown terminated a Prescot break up the left, Linnets were back on the attack. Marsh-Hughes was fouled by McNally inside the right touchline, and Murray's free-kick cleared the defence to find Peter Wylie, whose firm header just cleared the bar.

A Prescot corner from the right, after O'Mahony had blocked Goodwin's attempted cross, found Buckley, but his shot was mishit, and Wylie cleared.

Brown again kept Sambor out of the penalty area on the Cables left, and his shot from an awkward angle flew long and high.

Linnets' most promising attack so far was the last of the half. Hayes won the ball in front of the dugouts and set Marsh-Hughes away on a great run up the right wing.

McNally tried to shield the ball out for a goal-kick, and the handily- placed assistant believed he had succeeded. The referee disagreed, and awarded a corner.

Murray's kick towards the near post was glanced across the six-yard box by the head of Ryan Brooke. It beat the 'keeper, but crept agonisingly the wrong side of the far upright.

It was a half that never threatened to emulate the fascination of Linnets' home win over Leek two days before. It seemed unlikely that the cracking second half of that game would be reenacted here - thanks to the tension of the occasion, and the unpredictable bounce of the pitch.

From the re-start, deadball set pieces continued to be the order of the day.

Marsh-Hughes, who was the most persistent thorn in Prescot sides all afternoon, won another corner off McNally. The recent conga-line tactic, to add a note of unpredictability and to resist man-for-man wrestling, succeeded in placing Wylie in a yard of space when the ball cleared Brooke's jump.

Peter controlled the ball and hooked it wide, as Hollett charged at him, when a first-time volley might have served him better. I was reminded, somewhat harshly, I thought, by a companion who will remain nameless, that the Linnets captain is a centre-half.

When either side tried to gain and use possession on the deck in the middle third, the foul count started to rise, and more than two passes at a time remained a rarity.

Marsh-Hughes turned Kearney 25 yards from goal, and was pulled down. Devine headed the free-kick out for a corner, which was headed away by Hollett.

It seemed another yellow card couldn't be too long in coming, when Kearney pulled back Brooke as he broke in from the left.

Brooky's head was first to the ball in the area this time, knocking it down for Marsh-Hughes, but McNally got a toe in before he could shoot.

The first 15 minutes of the half gave Linnets their longest spells of possession so far, but routes to goal remained scarce.

Two more corners and another free-kick were repelled, and as Prescot advanced into the Linnets half, James Short was penalised for a ball-winning tackle that had been loudly applauded for its apparent precision.

Devine bodychecked Iwan Murray just inside the Prescot half, and from the free-kick Short curled a great cross into the area. O'Mahony headed powerfully, but well wide.

From Short's throw-in, Marsh-Hughes evaded four opponents across the 18-yard line and got in a shot, but he leaned back, and it flew high.

Prescot's share of the ball had diminished since half-time, and that might be why manager Kevin Lynch chose the 63rd minute to make a double substitution, Sam O'Halleron and Taylor Brickell replacing Buckley and Nugent.

For reasons that weren't immediately apparent, Sambor took exception to something Lewis Doyle had done, and a mass brawl broke out on the halfway line. The referee saw something that warranted Sambor and Doyle receiving yellow cards, but the absence of a red suggested he hadn't seen Sambor's headbutt.

When football resumed, Brooke found Murray with a low ball into the area. Iwan jinked left and right twice each, and found room for a shot, but 'keeper Allen was positioned perfectly in its path.

The best Prescot chance of the half came with 20 minutes to go. On the break from another booming defensive header by Kearney, they won a corner on the left. It was headed out low by Ally Brown for another, from which Jack Goodwin headed narrowly over the bar.

As Jacques Welsh joined the fray in place of Louis Hayes, on 72 minutes, a buzz went up among the Runcorn fans, as numerous mobile phones revealed that Clitheroe had broken the deadlock at Colne.

If Linnets' only rivals for the last play-off place could maintain that lead, the issue would remain unresolved to the last day of the season, unless McIntyre's men could find a winner here.

Two attempts to do so came quickly.

Brooke flicked on to Marsh-Hughes, just wide of the area. He stepped left and crossed, but only Allen was there to meet it. Then Welsh played the ball up the right for Brown to cross, and Marsh-Hughes got there first, but headed wide of the right post.

Relief reigned behind the goal, at the news that up in the Lancashire hills, Clitheroe's lead had lasted just three minutes. Colne had levelled from the penalty spot.

The comfort factor remained fragile, however, as Prescot went on the offensive. Gregory played a good ball up to sub Brickell, who got in a firm shot on target that Mooney did well to guide past the post.

They kept up the pressure from the corner, but a cross from the right over the crowded area sailed long and out.

A tense five minutes followed, leaving five more to play, with no near things at either end.

Then Ryan Brooke headed a clearance on to James Short on the left wing. He curled a peach of a cross towards the far post, where Lloyd Marsh-Hughes steered a header past Allen and across the six-yard box. It took a single bounce which lasted an eternity for the fans behind the goal, before nestling inside the left post.

The Linnets on tour went wild. Nobody on the pitch had deserved a goal more than Lloydy, and it gave his side an insurance policy. The dying minutes at Colne would be irrelevant if they could keep their composure and see out the win.

There was time for two more substitutions, Prescot swapping Devine for Anthony Williams, and Stuart Crilly stepping in for Joe Lynch.

Iwan Murray took it upon himself to keep the ball for as long as possible as the clock ticked down, and precious seconds were spent on more free-kicks, as fouls on the tricky Welshman were Cables' preferred response. Williams picked up their final yellow card for one of them.

McNally was the last man to foul Murray, and it was the last act of the drama, as the final whistle prompted Runcorn celebrations worthy of winning the league title itself.

Linnets' last game of the season, at home to Colne on Saturday, April 23rd guarantees an end of season party, but there will still be a great deal at stake.

Marine and Leek Town, 2pts and 1pt ahead of Runcorn respectively, play each other on the final day, so a Runcorn win will take them to fourth place, and an away play-off semi-final against the winner.

Should the other two draw in Crosby, a Linnets win would lift them to a third place finish, and the prize of a home tie against Marine.

Fortunately, goal difference can't complicate the picture any further. The 2021-22 season is a gift that won't stop giving.

Runcorn Linnets: Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, James Short, Louis Hayes (Jacques Welsh 72), Peter Wylie, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch (Stuart Crilly 86), Lewis Doyle, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Kain Dean, Eden Gumbs, 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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